As we approach the holidays, buying gifts for young children often becomes part of the fun of the season. This article offers information about how and why children play, and what equipment facilitates the creative play process for children at different ages.

Through play, children integrate their experiences in the world around them into a framework they can comprehend.  As the brain grows, thinking moves from concrete (identifying objects and needs) to abstract (understanding feelings, symbols, and concepts).  Play stimulates the brain’s ability to think creatively, to problem-solve, and to respond to difficult situations with resilience.  The abilities to think “outside the box” and function beyond reflexive behavior all stem from play, beginning in childhood play with objects, and later, as the brain matures, play with concepts and ideas. Electronic toys that light up and make sounds may be useful as “canned entertainment” sometimes, but they are not toys that promote growth as they do not give clear messages about the “real,” natural world which babies and small children are trying to understand, or leave room for the growing child’s imagination

Toys for Babies

Choosing toys for babies requires that we look at all the baby’s developing systems together and match the toy to the baby’s development as closely as we can.  When choosing a rattle, it will need to be light enough that the little one won’t accidentally get hurt waving it around with immature muscle control.  A clear cause and effect between shaking the rattle and hearing a sound is the best feature of a good rattle, but feeling good in the mouth is not a bad feature either. Toys that make an impact on the world around them—circles that spin or cylinders that go down a hole—are satisfying in the same way. Most toys will be chewed on, but can serve dual purposes, as with a soft ball to bite and roll. A stiff cloth napkin with some knots tied in it makes an interesting toy to bite, wave, and release, and also inspires peek-a-boo activities. Silicon kitchen items like tiny prep bowls that can be chewed, roll on their bottoms or stick to the floor when pushed upside down are great baby toys. Times of quiet exploration (e.g., mouthing all sides of a plastic cup) are as rich, stimulating, and thought-provoking as time spent playing with “official” toys.

Siblings may like to make baby gifts like a basket of small plastic bottles containing rice or other small objects to roll and shake, with the lids glued on, or plastic tubs full of colorful holiday cards to look at, dump, and put back in.  Babies really love used wrapping paper and boxes, so it may be the next day before the things inside are of any interest at all!


Toys for Ones

Toys for Ones center around the child’s recently mastered mobility.  A nice pull toy is one shaped like a dog or something that one might actually walk with (think too about the weight of pull toys, as light ones tend to become airborne).  Chew toys shaped like food are a good idea too.  Remember to watch for hidden messages toys may carry, such as pounding toys with faces painted on top of the pegs—do we want to teach children to hammer on heads, or just plain pegs?

“Fill and Dump” are favorite activities for Ones, though toys with a shape-sorting top on them are more appropriate for older toddlers.  Simple tops with just one hole for objects to be pushed through, and a lid that comes off easily for the dumping half of the activity, are very satisfying (the classic version of this is a wide-mouthed plastic bottle with wooden clothes pegs to drop in).

Toys for Twos

The “Fill and Dump” activities of young toddlers segue into “Mixing and Sorting” activities for Twos.  Containers of objects that can be sorted out are appealing, so simple sorting boxes (no more than four shapes) are good toys.  Wooden puzzles, with one piece per hole, become interesting to Twos; older Twos begin to use puzzles with 6-8 pieces that intersect.  Older Twos also begin to use toys like Duplos in more complex ways.

Dramatic Play emerges in Twos, based on their life experiences.  A baby-like doll, bed, and blankets make a good prop for Twos who love to take the parenting role; a pretend diaper for the doll (with Velcro closures) lets the child imitate his daily caregiving.  Don’t bother with many clothes—they’ll just keep you busy.  A few dishes, a doll stroller…the options are endless, so be aware of the fine line between good fun and too much stuff to manage!  Think about what activities you do around your child, and it’s a good bet your child would like to imitate them—if you do home repairs, a toy toolset is a good prop; if you quilt, a set of lacing boards may be just the thing.  Some children love toy cleaning equipment!

Toys for Threes

The concrete thinking of Threes does not easily generate imaginative ideas, so they construct their play from ideas suggested by toys.  A popular autumn toy in the Nursery School is a “pumpkin patch” in the sensory table—some little pumpkins, some little people, a tractor, wheelbarrows, and farm animals in a bed of red, yellow, and brown rice.  This “set” suggests play that grows out of and integrates with what the children are doing in their daily lives, going to get pumpkins.  We can help Threes play by creating “sets” that suggest an idea—putting toy people, an airplane, some luggage, and a car in a box suggest play about traveling (“going to the grandparents’ house” is a great theme for a set if the family flies for a holiday visit).  These sets are fun to put together, as you can think about what your child likes to do and link those life experiences with the play set.  Sometimes a book about the topic can give additional ideas to the play. (It’s best to be subtle about linking the book with the play, as your goal is to help children develop their own ideas for play rather than “script” the play for them).  Some ideas for sets are camping, taking the dog to the vet, swimming lessons, or cooking; successful sets suggest play based on the child’s experiences.


Toys for Fours

Fours begin to shift from concrete thought to the beginnings of abstract and symbolic thought, the foundations for reading.  Along with imagination comes a new uncertainty and worry about the world that used to be so clear in the concrete mind.  Monsters, make-believe friends, nightmares, and death all become part of the four-year-old’s world—this marvelous imagination can actually scare them, as it brings uncertainty with its new ideas, so extra care is called for in the images we provide.  The social imperative of the four-year-old also means that play is driven by the relationships of the children—Fours really need friends.  Play to develop abstract thinking in the four-year-old takes on a different flavor from the “sets” of the Twos and Threes.  Choosing toys for Fours requires finding a balance of something fun, interesting, and stimulating that will stay within bounds of what you want to clean up, emotionally as well as physically.  Socially, Fours are exploring power, control, and emotional manipulation.  Cognitively, they are usually interested in building and figuring out how to put things together and take them apart.  Physically, they are on the go and can do just about everything, and their language skills are developed beyond what they actually understand.

At this age, open-ended toys like blocks and dollhouse toys, which can be played with in lots of different ways, are great for developing creativity.  Their use and the child’s interest in them expands as the child‘s thinking grows. Fours are no longer bound by the literalness of concrete thought and can build whatever they want with blocks, from beautiful sculpture to the BART station.  Art supplies feed the sensory process and also lead to creation of design and symbols—a circle with lots of lines coming from it really can look like a spider, and like early man, children make that connection in symbolic thought.  Children learn the letter that starts their name, and the link between a drawn symbol and a sound increases the concept.  In their play, blocks function as symbols—cylinders in the dress-up area are hair curlers and curling irons, the strings for the bead stringing are spaghetti noodles in the restaurant.

These creative children really are happiest and do best with real things that they can invest with their own imagination.  They need safety and security to experiment and think outside the box using toys they understand. Pieces of cloth to tie around themselves, or a variety of clothes from the second-hand store, are better than manufactured dress-up clothes that force a child to be just Snow White or Spiderman.  Stories with few pictures stimulate a child’s imaginations to conjure up her own ideas about what is going on and to promote focused listening.  (Videos, with such vivid pictures, rob a child of the chance to imagine the characters and action being described.)  Challenging puzzles that require the child to look at the overall picture as well as the shape of each piece lead to thinking on two levels, which is another important part of reading readiness.

Throughout the holiday season, remember that the most important gift you give your child is you. Your time and interest, and your family’s time together, will be the most meaningful part of the holidays, so be sure not to spread yourself too thin!