Kids have it easy. Their ‘job’, lucky devils, is simply to play. But it’s not all brainless folly you know; play is how they learn about problem-solving, about giving and taking and the complex nature of our environment. It’s exploration and discovery and how they relate to others.
‘Play is the magic at the heart of childhood,’ says Petra Arzberger, educator and owner of Kidz Inc toy store. ‘In these early years children learn all the fundamental basics that we will need throughout our lives.’
These days, we parents fret tremendously over the educational value of everything, but we shouldn’t forget the benefits of sheer, unadulterated fun. ‘It’s important that there’s no pressure on children to perform,’ says Arzberger, ‘that they are allowed to develop at their own pace. We all love to spend time with things that are fun and we enjoy doing. It encourages confidence and creativity.’ Some families are overrun with playthings, their cupboards bursting with all manner of bleeping, blinking and bouncing games. Others feel guilty because their brood’s toy box looks relatively bare. Don’t worry, Arzberger says. The emphasis is on quality – in an educational rather than cost sense – rather than quantity.
‘Focus on the toys your child already has and make sure you choose carefully which toys you buy. I believe it is better to have five good-quality toys with tremendous play value than a cupboard full of toys that a child may play with for five minutes and then discard,’ she says.
Yep, we’ve all been there: unveiling the latest gadgets and gizmos only for the birthday boy or girl to dump them in favour of the box and wrapping paper. Or you finally succumb and buy them the battery-guzzling gadget they’ve harped on about for months, which lies gathering dust as they batter away with a spoon and saucepan.
‘It’s easy for a child to become swamped with too many toys and choices, but their imagination may still be under-stimulated,’ says Arzberger. Young kids may appear to have the attention span of a gnat, but instead of splashing out on something new every time they appear to lose interest, rotate toys, putting Christmas or birthday presents away for later. At playtime, don’t be too eager to jump in and ‘help’ when in fact, junior just needs time to get immersed in his play; but feel free to join in and keep the activity going, as this helps to develop concentration.
Improvise with everyday items that you have at home. Cardboard boxes can be magically transformed into a cooker, a den, a castle or a dog house, and a bed sheet over a table makes a great tent. ‘Do more art and craftwork, cooking, baking and reading at home,’ says Arzberger. Instead of buying Plasticine, make your own play dough (don’t worry, it’s easy, just get a recipe online) and involve your child in preparing it, or just let them copy you making dinner. ‘Children love role playing. They love to explore with texture, sound and smell, so what could be more fun than imitating mummy in the kitchen?’ points out Arzberger.
So, which toys are good for development? Educators favour multifunctional, or open-ended, toys which allow the child to be creative and give him the freedom to explore, such as wooden building blocks. ‘A toy should have different functions or be versatile so it can be used in different ways, allowing them to try many variations, combinations, different themes with different outcomes,’ says Arzberger.
So, if we’re limited to 10 toys in our toy box, what should they be?
1. A construction toy – wooden building blocks, Lego, Mobilo and the like.
Why? Kids can really show their creativity, and the possibilities are endless.
2. A board game
Why? Gets kids playing together with friends or family instead of lonely, unsociable games on the computer or watching television.
3. A book
Why? Instill a love of reading from an early age. Apart from building vocabulary and being essential to learning, it boosts confidence and reading together can be special family time.
4. A puzzle
Why? It gets the grey matter working, encouraging them to think creatively, plus there’s a tremendous buzz when they work it out.
5. A toy for role play, such as a doll, or props and clothes for dressing up.
Why? It stimulates their imagination, helps them to be sociable and it’s funny!
6. Something for outdoors, such as a bike, scooter or large ball
Why? Kids need fresh air and exercise for all the obvious health reasons. Run them ragged and they’ll sleep better too.
7. A soft toy
Why? We all need cuddles from time to time. A special toy encourages kindness, gentleness and responsibility.
8. Art and craft items like crayons and non-toxic glue
Why? Get the creative juices flowing and unleash all that artistic inspiration.
9. Threading beads
Why? Develops fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, plus nothing beats the sense of achievement when they create something from scratch.
10. A sand/water toy like bucket and spade
Why? Endless opportunities for fun and experiments in the garden, on the beach or even in the kitchen sink.