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Toddler Talk: Toy Selection

As a play therapist, I love watching children enter the playroom. Their eyes get big, they smile tentatively and they stare with that inquisitive look, like, “Is this all for me?” The greatest moment, I think, is when I confirm their unasked question with my statement: “You can choose to play with all of the toys in most of the ways you would like.” This typically evokes a yell of excitement, or at the least an open mouth of wonder, as they move toward whatever toys seem the most intriguing.

I witness this every time, because kids love to play! Toys provide children ways to express thoughts, feelings and wishes without words. What I've learned, though, is that not all toys are created equally for play. There are specific types of toys that are helpful to encourage children’s play, and others that are not. What I explain to my clients is that toys are selected, not collected.

So, what types of toys are effective for helping kids play? What toys hinder true play? Here are four simple guidelines:

1. For genuine play time, all toys should be free of technology and electronics. The more prescribed the play is, such as with a video game where there is an objective to win, the less children employ creativity or exploration in their play.

MORE: Old-School Toys

2. Toys should represent as many areas of the child’s life as possible. In other words, offer toys that allow for pretend play about school, family, friends and dreams. Toys like these include houses with figurines, paper and markers, stuffed animals to serve as people or pets, and dress-up clothes for boys and girls.

3. Toys should be grouped into categories that make sense. For example, art supplies should all be together, as should real-life play toys such as a doctor kit with a plastic plates and cups. Toys, even though they can serve different functions and create different play outcomes for children, evoke specific types of play. It is confusing for kids if a toy knife is placed next to a doll.

4. Board games with explicit instructions should be used sparingly. While it is important to teach children to follow set rules and to play the “right” way, true playtime allows the child to direct and lead. If board games are included with play timetoys, allow the child to create the rules or decide how to play. This builds critical thinking and decision making skills.

I believe that toys allow us entrance into a child’s world, where play is magical and imaginative and gives us insight into their understanding of themselves and others. I never get tired of the discovery and development that I witness during play. By selecting toys and being purposeful about playtime activities, we gain access to the very hearts of kids!

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