With the glut of toys on the market, how can you choose the best toys for your child? Look for these 7 key features.
This post contains excerpts from the book The Power of Parent-Child Play, © Laurie Winslow Sargent, Tyndale House Publishers.
In my mind, the best toys or games are safe, plus have several or all of the following features related to play value:
- Can be played with in a variety of ways and stimulate some imagination
- Teach more than one skill
- Appeal to several age groups
- Encourage positive behavior and learning
- Are fun (for the child—and hopefully for the parent, too)
- Get frequent, long-term use and stimulate interest in independent play
- Offer a window into what the child is thinking or feeling
Toys that don’t meet many of these qualifications can be a waste of money and do little but create clutter in your home.
I’m big on what toys teach, partly due to my previous experience working as a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) in public schools, including one Birth-to-Three program. But I’m also a huge fan of helping kids learn through toys because I did just that with my own three kids. (My middle daughter is now a teacher in early childhood education.)
I used to write toy reviews for the former Christian Parenting Today magazine. Toy manufacturers (including Fisher-Price® and PlaySkool) sent me boxes of play materials to evaluate. That made me think more deeply about what was worth occupying space in my own kids’ rooms and what I could justifiably recommend to my 250,000 readers.
Once when the UPS man delivered a huge box of toys for me to review, the neighbor kids were gathered in my yard. Reviewing the toys became a group project. One thumbs-down preschool toy was designed so poorly it made us all laugh. A catapult was supposed to launch plastic treats (with numbers on them) into a creature’s plastic mouth. Theoretically, it was designed to teach child recognition of the numbers one through five. Realistically, correctly loading and launching the catapult required the motor skills of a child who could count to fifty. Of course my creative crowd found other things to launch with the toy until the catapult fell off.
A much better toy, one that all three of my children loved, was a set of Measure Up Cups, which can be used to “dump, fill, nest, stack and stamp. These volumetrically correct, sequentially numbered cups introduce important preschool concepts related to volume, size, time, color and measurement.”
The toy is described as appropriate for children from 12 months through primary school, but an infant can also play with the larger cups. That means the toy can be played with by the same child for four to five years–and my kids did.
The manufacturer’s site describes 16 different ways you can play with the Measure Up Cups. I’ve modified their list a bit to focus on games you can play with your baby, toddler or preschooler.
Games to Play with Measure Up Cups
- Stack into a tower to knock down. (Toddlers love to do this, and don’t realize they’re learning cause and effect.)
- Build a castle (the scalloped edges make great castle turrets). This can lead to some fun pretend play with preschoolers. This is a new feature my kids’ cups didn’t have. Neat!
- Scoop, fill and pour water, sand, rice or small safe objects. At the same time your child learns mathematical concepts, since the contents of cup #1 plus cup #2 equals the contents of cup #3.
- Nest the cups to learn about size and relationships. This also helps your toddler’s motor skills.
- Practice number recognition with your toddler; the cups are numbered both on the outside and inside on the bottom. For fun, a child can put a corresponding number of small, safe objects in each cup.
- Learn English, French and Spanish words for numbers as those words are stamped on the sides of the cups. This is also new, awesome feature to extend the fun even through early elementary school.
- Practice color identification as your child sorts and stacks the cups.
- Hide objects under the cups, then reveal them. This can teach a baby object permanence, but also can be fun for illusion tricks with preschoolers.
- Touch and feel numbers with your eyes closed, inside the cup on the bottom.
- Identify animals on the bottoms of the cups with your baby.
- Stamp the animal designs into dough or wet sand with your preschooler. Point out to your child that the designs grow progressively larger as the cups increase in size.
- Trace around the cups and then match the cups to the right sized circles.
- Practice telling time with your preschooler: the designs on the outside of the cups correspond to clock face positions–another new feature.
As a recap, to choose the best toys for your children, look for ones that can be played with in many ways, stimulate creativity and imagination, teach more than one skill to more than one age group, and make learning fun. The best toys will be used often and your child will enjoy playing with them by himself but also with you. Great toys can actually make parenting more exciting, when through parent-child play you see your child thinking, learning new skills and reaching new milestones.