Toys, Toys, ToysMar 29
In today’s western society, we fill our lives with stuff. We have our electronics that keep us “connected” to the world around us, we have our furniture, our homes, our cars, our TVs and computers, gadgets and gizmos, food, credit cards, cash, bank accounts, various nic-nacs and decorations and much, much more. Children, also have huge collections of stuff for themselves; stuff that we call toys.
TV and other media outlets are filled with advertisements for hundreds and thousands of different types of toys, games, puzzles, and activities for children. It seems that every year, more and more high-tech toys come out. Toys that claim they teach children things like reading, writing, arithmetic, or anything else you can imagine. It’s become challenging, if not impossible, to figure out what toys are best for a child’s development at any given time. Children ask parents for new toys all the time and knowing when to say “yes” and when to say “no” is far from any easy task.
The media, advertisements, and these high-tech toys have so infiltrated our lives, and children’s lives, that it’s not uncommon for me, as a teacher, to hear a child as young as 2 or 3 ask something like “what does it do?” when presented with a toy like a figurine or toy car that doesn’t make noise, light up, or move on it’s own. Children have come to expect that toys will “do” something. Imagination in play is slowly going out the window as more and more children have more and more toys that do the creative thinking for them. There’s actually a great children’s book out there that a co-worker of mine told me about recently that touches on this exact topic. The book is called “It’s a Book” and can be purchased on Amazon here. (Be forewarned, the book ends with a monkey calling a donkey “jackass” so, some people may not find this appropriate for children of all ages – however, at the very least I think it’s funny and imformative for adults).
When working with children, I utilize the Reggio Emilia philosophy which, in part, attempts to counteract this leaning away from imagination and creativity in a modern world. Toys in my classroom tend to be basic and simple. Most of them are made out of wood or other natural materials. Some things you’ll find in my 2 and 3 year old classroom are simple wooden blocks in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, magnetic blocks, people and animal figurines, kitchen supplies, dress up clothes, wooden train tracks, wooden trains, wooden cars, a dollhouse that was decorated and painted by the children, and lots and lots of art supplies for all different types of projects. Other than the toys and art supplies in my room, you’ll often find scraps of wood, old bottles, jars, boxes, wine corks, carpet, tile, flooring and counter samples, and many more recycled and reclaimed materials, all of which children use for anything from art projects, to building, to imaginative play.
In the home, I’d lean towards the old adage that less is more. I’m sure you’ve heard stories (or experienced something similar yourself) about children who get elaborate gifts that come in huge boxes and completely ingore the new toy in favor of playing in the box. Children thrive on imagination. They learn through exploration of natural materials, through exploration of the world around them, and through imaginative and dramatic play. They pretend to be something else or someone else in order to explore that concept and learn what it means. Complex electronic toys hinder their ability to think and create for themselves and lesson their own explorations.
In fact, I’d suggest taking this all one step further towards simple. Use real household items or found materials instead of toys. Children don’t need play kitchen sets when you have real pots, pans, dishes, and cookware in your kitchen. They don’t need costumes to dress up in when they have access to your closet or a collection of old clothes and shoes from a thrift store. They don’t need fancy electronic toys when they have boxes or other recyclables. They don’t need “finger paint” when they have access to adult paints like tempera or even acrylic (under more careful supervision – acrylic will stain just about anything it gets on) and they don’t need children’s paint brushes when they have access to the real thing. They can use real instruments, real gardening tools, and real wood-working tools. This isn’t to say that toys are bad and that children shouldn’t be allowed to have toys at all. It’s just to emphasize that less is more and simple is better. Children will learn more about their world and how things work by using real tools and other household items than they will by playing with toys that have pre-determined things that they “do” and fake plastic versions of tools that adults use on a daily basis. Give your kids the real thing, and they’ll learn about the real world.