When Aubrey Freedman’s son Mason was born, it wasn’t long before friends and family members started gifting them toys that made sounds or lit up at the press of a button. “It just didn’t sit well with us,” says Freedman. “It looked like he was zoning out. He was becoming so enamoured with all the excitement of the flashing lights, and I decided there was no need to rush that exposure. The slower and simpler I could keep his childhood, the better.”
Freedman and her husband resolved to put a stop to it. They let their families know they didn’t want battery-powered toys, got rid of the noisy, flashing toys they already had, and as time went on, returned or re-gifted the powered toys they still got anyway. To this day, Mason, now seven, and his younger brother, four-year-old Abel, don’t have any electronic toys, save for one light-up lightsaber each.
Instead, Mason and Abel play with wooden blocks, trains, cars, toy swords, capes and classic board games like chess and Connect Four. They also enjoy colouring, and when they are not playing with each other, Freedman does science experiments with them. “They have both become very imaginative and creative. They come up with their own games.”
It’s hard to avoid the onslaught of electronic toys, though. Walk down the toy aisles of most department stores, and you’re likely to find a lineup of playthings that sing, move, light up or synch with a tablet. “I’ve seen potties with iPad docks on them,” says Freedman.
The toys in my own home seem to confirm the trend. My three kids have teapots that sing, books with sound effects, remote control cars, toy phones and laptops, robots, motorized race-car tracks and electronic musical instruments. As parents, we’ve never encouraged battery-operated toys, but we obviously haven’t actively discouraged them either.
Toys with these bells and whistles can certainly entertain your kids, but some experts say playing with an electronic toy is more often a passive activity. “The definition of play, really, is that it’s a hands-on experience. That’s why the old-fashioned toys have more play value than a lot of what you see on the shelves these days,” says Kimberly Bezaire, an early childhood education professor at George Brown College in Toronto and an advocate for free play in the home and the classroom. I see her point. Although some of the electronic toys in our house—the teapot, for example—can spur hours of pretend play, others, like toy tablets, just seem to suck the kids in and zone them out.
It’s not just electronics that are getting in the way of good old-fashioned play, though. “Children are far too scheduled,” says Johanna Simmons, a play therapist and former teacher in Vancouver. “They have very little time for free play,” she says, referring to activity that’s unstructured, voluntary and doesn’t have a purpose other than being fun. She also notes that kids are more anxious than ever. “Free play allows for a release of anxiety, but that’s not happening,” she says.
Free play is so important, in fact, that the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report in August 2018 urging paediatricians to actually prescribe play to their patients. “Play with parents and peers is fundamentally important for developing a suite of 21st-century skills, including social, emotional, language and cognitive skills,” said lead author and paediatrician Michael Yogman in a press release when the report was published. “The benefits of play cannot really be overstated in terms of mitigating stress, improving academic skills and helping to build the safe, stable and nurturing relationships that buffer against toxic stress and build social-emotional resilience.” Clearly, with so much at stake, it’s time to get back to the basics.
Interacting with simple, classic toys can provide infinite opportunities for learning and development. Picture a baby or toddler playing with a set of wooden blocks: They might build a tower and then discover cause and effect when they hit the tower and it falls. “Traditional toys tend to give the children immediate feedback,” says Bezaire. “And they can adjust to that feedback,” like building a bigger base for their tower next time. But blocks can also encourage imagination: Two stacked blocks might become a cup to drink out of, and a kid with a new sibling might orchestrate a scene with a baby being put to bed or fed a bottle. That’s why things like sticks, cardboard or blankets are some of the most valuable “toys” around, says Bezaire.
Tactile toys like playdough, building bricks and magnetic shapes help young kids develop fine motor skills, and they lend themselves to imaginary play. With figurines and small toy animals, kids can create scenes and pretend. Playing with dolls promotes nurturing and empathy. And when kids engage in pretend or imaginary play with a kitchen playset, a doctor’s kit, costumes or a cash register, they learn to collaborate, adjust their ideas to work with others and problem-solve. Assuming a character—like pretending to be a mother or teacher—also develops empathy toward that type of person. When kids are given the autonomy to play on their own, they will often be more motivated and challenge themselves, too, says Bezaire. If you’re still not convinced of the value of play, consider this: In animal studies, rats that were deprived of play had impaired problem-solving skills and similar social deficiencies to rats that had damage to their prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for planning, judgment, reasoning, emotional regulation and social behaviour.
Playing with another person also develops language skills— something Tanisha Kairsingh, a mom of two who works as a speech-language pathologist, feels passionate about. “I see kids who have significant delays in their language who have been watching TV all day or are in front of an iPad for hours,” she says. “There’s a ton of research around screen time and the correlation to language development.” That’s why her three-year-old son plays with action figures, trains, cars, playdough and a pretend kitchen. “I want my children to be able to hold their own on the playground and in any social environment,” says Kairsingh. “If my son is sitting and pressing a button over and over again or staring at a screen, he’s not acquiring any skills beyond sitting or being quiet. Parents in my clinic will tell me their kids learn so much from TV. But if your kid goes to kindergartenand can’t tell the teacher that another kid has hit them, then what good is that?” The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends parents limit screen time to less than one hour per day for kids two to five, and suggests no screens at all for children younger than two.
It’s important for kids to be exposed to all kinds of toys, not just ones that may be traditionally considered favoured by one sex over the other. “I am concerned at how many parents of a girl are surprised when I ask, ‘Does she have a set of building blocks?’” says Bezaire. On the flip side, boys should be given the opportunity to play with more than just cars and trains. “You hear this old idea that girls are chattier and more advanced in their language,” says Kairsingh. “But I think that’s related to what we encourage girls to play with at a young age, like dolls and toys that lend themselves to pretend play. If we just give our boys a bunch of cars and let them run wild in the park, [they] won’t develop those skills as well.”
That said, if you do see gender stereotypes coming out in your kids’ pretend play, don’t be alarmed. “There are still gender differences in what they see,” says Bezaire, and play is a way for kids to process what they see in the world. In fact, making connections to their world is exactly what you want to observe when your child is playing. “Even very small children will connect play objects to their own meaningful life experiences. It’s a form of higher-order thinking,” says Bezaire. But for adults, this could also be used as an opportunity to disrupt those stereotypes, she says.
Cognitive and social skills aside, the biggest benefit of free play may be to the emotional well-being of your child. “Yes, children learn discrete skills during playtime. But the biggest benefit of family playtime is that parent getting to know their child, and vice versa, in a relaxed environment,” says Bezaire. What’s more, play releases stress, which helps with self-regulation and mental health. “With suicide rates for children being so high these days, stress management and mental health are so important,” she says. “Play isn’t frivolous.”
Simmons uses toys like a playhouse, a sand tray, building bricks, puppets, a kitchen set and dolls to see what kids are thinking about in play therapy. The toys also help them process what they’re going through and find ways to communicate and problem-solve. “Children come to see me for anxiety, which could be from a marital breakup or something happening at school. Or they may be fearful of a multitude of things. Play therapy allows them to use the toys as a way to demonstrate what they are feeling.” For example, a child with a new sibling might pick up a doll and throw it across the room. “This has nothing to do with her actually wanting to hurt the baby,” says Simmons. But the child might be feeling resentful, and the therapist can help her understand those feelings. Research shows how play can relieve stress and improve emotional well-being. In one study, when preschool children who were nervous about starting school played with toys or classmates for 15 minutes, they had a two-fold decrease in anxiety, compared to students who listened to a teacher reading a story.
I’ve witnessed first-hand how back-to-basics play affects familes. This past summer, my husband and I limited the time our three children, ages six, seven and 10, spent using electronics. Time at the cottage was deemed video-game- and Netflix-free. Screen time at home was limited. With their imaginations set free, my kids became sharks and turtles; they travelled to Mexico and across Canada. Their stuffies developed identities and had families of their own. They made forts under the table. They read. They played endless rounds of the card game war and learned how to play solitaire. It was glorious. But it was also a privilege: I work from home, and we have the financial means for me to slow down my work over the summer. But for many kids, days are spent at school, daycare and summer camp—and all too often the focus is not on play.
“Things seem to need to have a purpose these days, so play is not a useful activity,” says Simmons. “It doesn’t have a measurable outcome.” Summer camps and after-school programs are typically focused around skills like art, sports, music, cooking or robotics. And while preschool and kindergarten curricula tend to be play-based, a lot of that drops off by grade one, says Bezaire.
Gone are the days of leaving home after breakfast to roam and play all day. But there’s still a role for play in our lives, and it’s more important than ever. So this evening, let your kids play. Or better yet, play with them. Turn off the iPads and grab a ball, get right down on the floor and build a tower, or create a jungle scene with plastic animals. “It’s a great investment in the future,” says Bezaire. “But I wouldn’t want to suggest that’s the main outcome. It’s all about living in the moment.”