A Toy Is Not Just For Christmas

Children playing

In my previous blog I mentioned that playing with your children is a form of parental investment. As Christmas approaches parents, grandparents, family members and friends are beginning to think about another form of investment – buying toys for the little ones.

Here are some ideas on what to think about when buying toys…

Time to play

It is always useful to think about how the toys will be played with. Will you be helping to construct a tower, do a science experiment, build a train track or take part in some imaginary play? Also will you, as parents or family members, enjoy playing with these particular toys?

Remember, if you show an interest in a toy your child will begin to pay attention. ‘Shared attention’ is an important part of an infant’s and child’s learning experience. Between 9 to 12 months an infant starts to follow an adult’s direction of gaze and then by 15 months infants are beginning to direct attention themselves by pointing.  Research has shown that if the child and adult are sharing the same focus of attention that this encourages social awareness and cooperation. Importantly, ‘shared attention’ also facilitates a child’s language development.

Different types of play

There are a number of different categories of play and they are all important for a child’s development:

Physical activity play

Physical activity play begins early in life with the rhythmical movements of babies. Then during the pre-school years there is lots of exercise play – running around, jumping and climbing. Even when children start school they still engage in lots of exercise play. Every time that I pick my granddaughter up from school she climbs up to walk behind the railings as we go up the steps. It is not a dangerous activity but rather a sort of ritualised form of play. Do parents notice that their children do similar things? I asked my 4 year old granddaughter why she climbs up and she said ‘because it’s fun!’

Play with objects

By handling objects a child learns what they can do with them. In early play we see babies passing toys from one hand to the other; then they will often mouth the toy. They are learning about the world and how it feels, tastes, sounds and smells. By 2 to 3 years children are engaging in constructive play with objects – building towers, stacking cups and doing jigsaw puzzles. Toys are also used for pretend object play where, for example, a stacking cup becomes a dish with pretend food in it.

 

Child stacking blocks

Pretend play

Pretend object play is often a solitary activity but it has its roots in social interaction. Research has shown that infants and children become more creative in their solitary play if pretend object play is encouraged by parents and older siblings. Social pretend play requires ‘shared attention’ where both the parent and child have agreed on the play sequence. A teddy bear’s tea party is an excellent example of pretend play. What parent hasn’t drunk from a pretend cup? Social pretend play helps children to cooperate and to understand more about other people

Language play

Playing with words can happen at any time when we are interacting with young children. Word play can be stimulated by games or even nursery rhymes. Children love having fun with words.

Children playing on a park

Why do we play?

All types of play are learning experiences for babies and children. The questions to ask about different types of toys are: Could the toy absorb your child’s attention? Would the toy stimulate your child’s imagination? Is it a toy that has potential for the adult or older sibling to get involved in play? Choose toys because you would enjoy playing with your child with that particular toy. Why do we play? Well, despite all the research on play, my granddaughter’s explanation seems to make the most sense – ‘because it’s fun’!

Have a wonderful, playful Christmas with your little ones.

Dr Julie Coultas

DR. JULIE COULTAS IS AN EVOLUTIONARY SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGIST WITH A PARTICULAR INTEREST IN CHILDHOOD SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT AND PLAY. SHE IS AN HONORARY RESEARCH FELLOW IN THE DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SUSSEX. SHE HAS BEEN THE DEVELOPMENTAL EXPERT FOR AN INTERNATIONAL TOY COMPANY FOR OVER 10 YEARS. JULIE HAS ADVISED PARENTS AND PARENTS-TO-BE ON THE DEVELOPMENTAL ASPECTS OF PLAY. SHE HAS ALSO WORKED ON UK GOVERNMENT EDUCATION PROJECTS AND SWEDISH RESEARCH COUNCIL CULTURAL EVOLUTION PROJECTS. HER RESEARCH AND TEACHING FOCUS ON: SOCIAL INFLUENCE, SOCIAL LEARNING, SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT, AND THE EMOTIONS AND DEVELOPMENT.

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