Let’s talk toys. The recent epidemic of toy recalls has generated a lot of conversation at our dinner table, at my mommy&me playgroups, and (I’m sure) in millions of other homes. The question that comes up for me is, “What am I going to do about it?”
For starters, I’ve never been a big fan of a lot of the types of toys that are being recalled. Susan Linn, a psychologist who has studied media & marketing’s influence on children, says in her book CONSUMING KIDS: THE HOSTILE TAKEOVER OF CHILDHOOD:
“Play requires physical and/or mental activity. The impetus for play comes from
within children. It is their way of learning about the world. It is inherently
satisfying in and of itself and requires no goal. Once a goal is more important
than the activity, that activity is no longer play. In competitive sports, for
instance, once winning becomes more important than the process of playing, the
games or matches cease to be play. The ability to play and be playful is a sign
Once we acknowledge the importance of play, it makes sense that
toys—the things children play with[sic]—are also of critical importance. There’s
some unintentional irony in the face that so many toys today are labeled
‘educational’. The best toys are inherently educational in that they serve as
tools for helping children actively explore, understand, and/or gain mastery
over the world. Even if they have multiple parts, they are simple enough to be
put to many different uses, and to become different things in a child’s
The recent proliferation of computer chips that enable toys to
move or make sounds on their own renders children passive observers rather than
active participants in play. Because children are attracted to glitz and because
these are the toys being marketed to them, they may desperately want stuffed
animals or dolls or action figures that walk and talk independently, or toys
that whiz, bang, whistle, and hoot at the press of a button. However, because
they discourage active, imaginative play, toys that do only one thing soon
become boring; children use them a few times and then are ready for a new toy
that does something else.”
I’ve written about this before. When we flood our kids’ playrooms with toys that do all the playing, all the exploring, all the thinking for them, we are taking away the most precious task of childhood. We’re not doing our kids any favors when we buy the plastic crap that sings and dances and shimmies and laughs. That’s not what kids are wired to need, anyway – they need real, live, caring adults to sing with them, dance with them, do some silly shimmies, and laugh and cry with them. But now I’m getting off track. When it comes to toys, kids have legitimate needs, too.
For kids in Jonas’ age group, the needs for play are in a few basic categories:
Sensory and exploratory play is how toddlers learn about the world. Kids experiment with textures, smells, sights, and tastes all day long. Toys like sand & water tables, play-dough, art supplies, & bath toys fall into this category.
Dramatic and pretend play are just beginning to emerge in young toddlers. Children start out by imitating the things and people they see every day. They play at families, household tasks, driving in the car, and more. For this type of play, kids need things like vehicles, blocks, pretend food and dishes and appliances, dress-up clothes, dolls and baby gear, cleaning supplies, and all sorts of odds and ends that can be imagined into props.
Social and interactive play happens in all sorts of ways, and often without toys. When toddlers play peekaboo, chase, and tickle, they are learning about social exchanges. Still, there are toys that help facilitate this kind of play. Outdoor toys like hula hoops, riding toys, and parachutes are great. So are indoor things like balls and books. Anything that gets kids playing with (and talking to, if applicable) other children or grownups fits in here.
Kids are ready and willing to plunge into play. All they need is the toys and materials that will support, and not hinder, their natural inclination. Which brings me back to my opening question. We’re planning to avoid made-in-China toys this year. There are dozens of great companies that are making toys in the US – and dozens more that are importing toys from other, more responsible nations. When it comes down to it, I’d rather spend my money on one, quality made, safe-for-my-son, creativity-fostering, appropriate-play-nurturing toy… than on a half-dozen quickly made, unsafe-or-at-least-suspicious, shiny plastic toys. I hope you’ll think about doing the same for your kids.
I’m working on some follow-ups to this post – some links to companies that offer quality products; more information from a few of the books I’ve been reading about children’s development, toys and playtime, and a few other hot parenting topics; and our Christmas lists. (;-D) Comments are open for debate, questions, and comments…. so fire away!