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Why Toys Are Important for Child Development

Play and toys support child development. Playing  is what children do. Toys are their tools. When adults shop for tools, quality counts. We want safe ones that work well and enable us to do our best. We look for thoughtfully designed, well-made, sturdy, built-to-last products that we’ll enjoy using over and over again. All this, and more, holds true for toys.

Here’s what I have learned. Play is essential. Quality developmental toys support skill- building and, thereby, enhance play. Consequently children flourish. So what does that mean?

Safety Matters

Safety matters. Sound construction is a must. But that’s not the whole picture. The developmental age of the child matters too. Safety is a collaborative effort. Even the safest toys require adult supervision.

Manufacturers are required to label products that pose a chocking hazard. The most common reads  WARNING: CHOKING HAZARD – Small parts. Not for children under 3 years old. That’s one of six. The others apply to a toy that is or contains a small ball or a marble or, likely the most serious hazard, contains magnets.

Yet another warns that children under 8 years of age can choke or suffocate on un-inflated or broken balloons. That Children with balloons require adult supervision. Safety warnings alert us to hazards. Beyond that we must take into account where our children are developmentally. We do well to remember that some need more time to grow out of the habit of putting everything in the mouth. No blame, no shame. Every child develops at his or her own pace. 

Thoughtful Design and Careful Construction

Thoughtful design and careful construction are hallmarks of the best tools for  play. First and foremost these attributes reflect an understanding of child development and an appreciation of how children acquire skills while playing.

When a toy is well-made, it is not only safe, but also satisfying. It works as intended. That’s important. Just as we want our tools to perform well, children want their toys to meet their expectations. Otherwise play becomes frustrating, and the toy is cast aside.

Building Beakers

ten graduated cups for nesting and stacking

Let’s look at two toys that exemplify top-notch design and construction. These are Building Beakers and Lock a Block. Made by Ambi, both are classic early childhood toys that engage infants and toddlers in skill-building play. Moreover both are toys that support child development.

The manufacturer recommends Building Beakers beginning at 10 months old. A true developmental toy, these cups offer new ways to play as the child develops new skills. At first, I suggest offering only the smallest and the largest cups. That invites putting one inside the other, turning the larger cup upside down and watching the smaller one fall out. That’s filling and spilling, an activity the toddler will repeat over and over again.

What’s happening here? The child is experimenting. Observing when-I-do-this-that-happens. Confirming the cause and effect through repetition. Developing fine motor skills: grasp and release  while filling and wrist rotation as the child spills. When we offer words to describe such attributes as color and size of the cups, we’re encouraging language development.

Features  Make A Difference

Rolled Rims

Rolled rims are an important feature of Ambi Building Beakers. On the one hand, they make separating nested cups easier. On the other, stacking becomes more successful. When a toddler is learning to stack, eye-hand coordination, grasp and release, and dexterity are only beginning to develop. Obviously stacking is challenging. Quite often the adjacent block slides off as the child attempts to place another on top of it. The rim helps hold the beakers together and makes the stack more stable.

Raised Patterns

Each cup also features a unique raised pattern on its base. These invite both visual and tactile exploration. Pressing the cups into sand, play dough or clay creates patterns and encourages creative expression. Furthermore recognizing patterns is a pre-reading skill.


Sand and water provide further opportunities for play. In the sand, the cups become molds. Two pinholes in the bottom of each beaker add another dimension to water play. The graduated sizes allow young children to explore how the cups are alike and different. All the beakers are round, but each is a different size. Small or large or big or little, short or tall. These are important math concepts learned through play. 

Lock a Block

shape sorter toy with lock and key

Lock a Block – an inclusive toy, if ever there was one – is my favorite shape sorting toy. Because all children like saying, “I did it.”  Note the high contrast between the bright white top and the color matched raised rims outlining each opening. That makes “hitting the target” easier. Dropping a shape into its slot not only requires shape discrimination. It also takes eye-hand coordination and the ability to grasp and release the shape. Developing fine motor skills takes practice. Success motivates.  Lock a Block is a must for the blind and visually impaired. As well as for those with fine motor challenges.

Furthermore, three dimensional shapes drop more easily into place than shaped dowel pieces that require precise fitting. Again motivating the repetition that leads to skill-building. This shape sorter toy includes two each of three shapes, a plus that encourages one to one matching games. Furthermore naming the colors and shapes encourages cognitive and language development.

In First, Then Out

Retrieve shapes through a door on the front of the box. Permanently attached key fits smoothly in the lock and turns easily. As the key turns, the lock clicks. Following the sequence of steps required to get the shapes out involves problem solving, memory, and concentration. Eye-hand coordination, grasp and release, and wrist rotation  increase with each repetition.

Thoughtful design makes toys adaptable and versatile. More inclusive and engaging. Children naturally enjoy playing with toys that  work well. A delighted “I did it!” not only announces success but also shares the joy of achieving a goal. As they play, children build competence and confidence. Through play, children acquire the skills they need to reach their fullest potential. Toys support child development by enhancing play.

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Developing Math Awareness and So Much More

Children writing equation solution on chalkboard

April is Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month. That got me to thinking about ways children learn mathematical concepts during play and through daily activities, observations, and conversations. Consider the infant gazing intently at the face of the person cuddling her. The human face is intriguing, each unique yet sharing similar features in a particular order. Thus begins an awareness of patterns, of similarities and differences, both precursors to language and mathematics.

Children are naturally curious. As adults we encourage their learning when we supply words that describe their daily experiences and set the stage for cognitive and language development. Washing up is a perfect time to point out and name features—ears, nose, fingers, toes. Think of nursery rhymes that reenforce this information. Remember Mother Goose? Now’s the time for playing with toes and saying,

This little piggy went to market, 

This little piggy stayed home, 

This little piggy ate roast beef, 

This little piggy had none. 

This little piggy went…Wee, wee, wee, all the way home!

 Of course, that naturally leads to a comment on how many feet and how many toes the child has. This rhyme becomes an introduction to the concept of one to one correspondence, key to understanding the meaning of numbers. One foot, five toes, two feet, 10 toes. For numbers to have meaning, initially the numbers need to correspond to concrete objects. Abstract thinking comes later.
Dressing invites talking about clothes and the process of putting on and taking off. The process involves sorting out what goes on first, then next. That’s sequential order, an important executive skill involved in everything from independent dressing to reading and math. Chatting about the sequence helps toddlers understand its rationale. Of course, there’s some leeway in how we get dressed, but why do we put socks on our feet before sticking our feet in our shoes? You know, but someone just learning might not.
This is also a good time to talk about color, a distinguishing feature of any garment. Knowing the names of colors makes communicating easier. So, if the weather requires a jacket and the child has two, one red, another blue, offer a choice. Identifying the jackets by color, ask her whether she wants to wear the red or the blue one. She may not identify the one she wants by color, but she’ll begin to associate the colors with the words that describe them. Through such experiences children learn the value of language.

Children learn from interacting with people and objects in their environment. Quality toys invite exploration and open-ended play that build skills. Moving forward, we’ll explore how, beginning with math awareness.

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How Do We Decide What’s Best for Our Child?

children playing with bubbles

We all strive to do what’s best for our children. Question is, what does ‘best” mean? Does one size fit all?  Should we consider each child and choose options that best fit what we know about that individual and how she learns? Or go with the flow?

Once we decide what’s best, how do we evaluate the “rightness” of our decision over time? After all, nurturing children isn’t a “set it and forget it “ proposition. It’s one that requires vigilance and willingness to re-evaluate. What we thought the best choice could turn out not to be or to be for less time than we thought.

Beyond that is a plethora of information and opinions. Consider currently prevailing pressure for more academic learning at ever earlier ages.  What’s to be gained? What’s being lost? What are the consequences, both short-term and long? These are issues we need to confront as we weigh what’s best for our children.

Someone who has, both as parent and professional, is Angela Hansom. As a pediatric occupational therapist she focuses on activities of daily living. For a child that includes play. But what happens when children as early as preschool find themselves trading play for a more structured, academic approach to learning?

As a guest blogger for Valerie Strauss’ The Answer Sheet in The Washington Post, Hansom shares her experiences. “The decline of play in preschoolers-and the rise in sensory issues” outlines what she sees as the consequences of society’s push towards structured enrichment activities and academic achievement as early as preschool over early childhood as a time for child directed, open-ended play.

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What Would Friedrich Froebel Think?

imgresFriedrich Froebel invented kindergarten and wrote: Play is the is the highest level of child development… it gives…joy, freedom, contentment, inner and outer rest, peace with the world…

What would he think about replacing blocks and recess with worksheets and testing?
What would he think about the death of play in too many modern kindergartens and preschools?

What do you think?


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Literal Thinkers and Language

Children are literal thinkers. I recall once asking my then two year old son if he’d like to “give me a hand” opening a garage door. When he reached out his hand to me, I was reminded that colloquial expressions are beyond the grasp of young children.

Reading A Chocolate Moose for Dinner and The King that Rained, both written and illustrated by Fred Gwynne, enhances our understanding of the literal way children think. With humor, he plays with words that confound all learners of English and send our imaginations on flights of fancy or fear, depending on what’s being said.

If we live in Alaska, a moose might amble past our house while we’re eating dinner, but he’d not be chocolate. What do you mean by calling chocolate pudding mousse anyway? Children know rain. It falls from the sky. They can walk in rain and splash in puddles, but reign? That sounds like rain but is altogether different. Even for adults imagining one word being used for another brings fanciful and humorous situations to mind.

On the other hand, hearing that Grandmother has “a frog in her throat” could cause a kid to worry. How did that happen? What’s Grandmother to do? How’s the frog going to get out? Could it happen to me? Horror of horrors. Think how easily a hospitalized child might misunderstand a term and imagine something altogether different from what the speaker said. Think IV and ivy. The child hears the nurse say she’s going to start an IV, and not knowing what that means, the child thinks ivy, the plant growing in the parkway outside her home.

Many words are confusing. Take bear and bare. A favorite teddy bear might well have been loved and cuddled so often that he’s become thread bare. Then, too, words used as both nouns and verbs in the same sentence can be amusing or bewildering. Take, for instance, the child who could not bear to part with his bare bear.

What other pairings of words come to mind that might confound and confuse a literal thinker and amuse those of us who enjoy word play? We’d be delighted to hear your favorites.

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More Thoughts On Teaching Financial Responsibility

Our reliance on representations of money rather than “cold, hard cash” and “green backs” makes understanding money more difficult. When a child has coins and currency, she has something tangible, a concrete way of experiencing money. She can count and explore how different coins combine to equal specific values. A quarter is worth 25 pennies, five nickels or two dimes and one nickel. Other combinations are also possible, and whatever coins she puts together to equal a quarter, the value remains constant. Twenty-five cents is 25 cents.

Exploring different coins and combinations that equal one dollar further enhances her understanding of money and mathematics. Handling physical coins and currency allows a child to explore the impact of her decisions. Say the child has five dollars and is ruminating on what she wants to do with the money. Saving is one choice, spending another, choosing to save some and spend some is yet another.

Counting out what the child will be spending to purchase what she wants leads to making more thoughtful choices. Weighing immediate gratification against a later one helps children hone their understanding of the connections between spending and saving, now and later. Learning to distinguish wants from needs and how to save and spend wisely are key to learning financial responsibility. For children – and adults who relate to the old lament “how can I be overdrawn? I still have checks” – the concrete trumps the abstract. Ultimately, the concrete becomes abstract for most of us, and we embrace the conveniences of contemporary banking. The key to that transition is knowing – truly knowing – that behind every financial decision we make are “real” coins and currency.

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More On Teaching Financial Responsibility

My parents separated chores and allowance. Everyone was expected to work, and each of us had assigned tasks for which we were responsible. Completing those was mandatory, and work came before play.

We also received allowances. To teach us to manage our income, we had expenses to pay. Whatever was left, we could choose to spend or save.

Our parents opened savings accounts when we were born for depositing gifts of money we received until we were old enough to make our own decisions about what to do with monetary gifts. Saving was their preferred, but not only choice.

Once we reached high school, we were given checking accounts and made responsible for specific expenses. Our parents funded the accounts annually to cover those expenses and provide discretionary funds. We were expected to live within our budgets, and to do that we had to understand the difference between needs and wants. Cost of living adjustments occurred yearly, as circumstances dictated.

When time came for college, the practice continued, and I enjoyed knowing that I had money to take care of my needs. By contrast, many classmates had no experience in “handling money.” Whenever they needed or wanted something, they had to ask their parents for money. They missed out on opportunities to weigh options, make choices, and experience the consequences of decisions made – all invaluable lessons for emerging adults. Others, of course, seemed to have unlimited funds and, therefore, never learned about balancing budgets or planning ahead.

Learning to manage personal finances from childhood is crucial to a successful transition into adulthood. Whatever our financial situation, the more knowledge and experience we gain as we’re growing up, the better.

However we choose to do so, we must make time to teach and model healthy attitudes towards work, play, and money. Children are not born knowing how to earn, spend, and save. Instant gratification is the norm for children. Every want is a need until they learn to distinguish the difference. Let’s commit ourselves to acquiring the tools and teaching our children how to be fiscally responsible. They – and we – will be glad we did.

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On Teaching Financial Responsibility

How did you learn what you know about personal finance? Do you remember your parents teaching you how to manage money? Did they tell you, as I recall mine telling me, that “money doesn’t grow on trees”? We knew that. None of us had ever seen a money tree after all. Still, more than likely we did not understand where money came from.

Somehow we learned that people work, earn wages, and spend that money to meet their needs and support their families. Growing up with a deep understanding of the difference between needs and wants is fundamental to learning money management. When we truly understand that difference, figuring out how to live within a budget and how to save money make sense. Staying on budget and saving take diligence, and the unexpected challenges our resolve. That’s why the sooner we begin learning, the better.

Many parents teach the importance of “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,” by assigning chores and paying allowances based on the completion of those duties. In this scenario, assigning monetary value to each task makes the relationship between work accomplished and money earned clearer and reduces misunderstanding of the consequences of failing to do what’s expected.

Others believe that children, as members of the family, need to share in household chores. Assigning tasks in age appropriate ways allows children to learn life skills and teaches responsibility, teamwork, and cooperation. “Many hands make light – or at least lighter – work,” and we all need to contribute to the process.

Staying upbeat and making a game of the chores takes the sting out of doing what everyone would likely rather not have to do. We’ve all heard the expression “whistle while you work.” Try that. Hum. Sing. Skip from task to task.

Some families set a timer and everyone focuses on accomplishing tasks as quickly as possible. When time’s up, everyone stops working and moves on to something else  – perhaps a solitary pleasure or a family activity. One person may curl up with a book. Another may prefer a walk around the block. Actually the entire family could gather round and listen as someone reads aloud, then everyone could head outdoors and explore the neighborhood. Working and playing together are natural partners.

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Best Toys for Infants: No Purchase Necessary

Having explored the importance of quality play, the types of toys that support healthy play and those that do not, let’s look now at specific toys for infants (0-12month olds). Today we will look at what’s immediately available, no purchase required. Next we will explore types of toys to consider purchasing.

Remember: children develop at different rates. These are general ideas for supporting child development through play.

Especially for young babies, you are their best toy! Make facial expressions, sing, dance, and gently move their body parts to a rhythm – these are the kinds of rich interactions that help them develop relationships and learn about the world around them.

Containers such as nesting measuring cups, shoe boxes, or empty milk jugs are wonderful for stacking, filling and dumping.

Big household objects like a laundry basket or large box make quick homemade fun for a baby to explore climbing into, pushing and pulling.

Interacting with your baby about what you hear, see and smell as you walk around your home or your neighborhood enriches your child’s experiences and vocabulary.

We’ve all heard accounts of baby’s favorite present being the box and tissue paper. What household objects proved favorite toys with children in your life? Share your memories.

Adapted from TRUCE Guide on Infant & Toddler Play, Toys & Media, with permission from the Child Life Council.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play