Using Toys as Tools
“Can I just have one toy? Please?” “Pretty please?”
“Do you have a special surprise for me?”
Parents worry when their children ask for toys, seemingly all the time. They worrying their kids will become demanding and spoiled and selfish and entitled as adults. This parent lament explodes around the holidays, with all of the excitement and anticipation of the wrapped presents calling to kids. Kids laser beam onto the presents that are for them under the tree. Parents have described it as all their kids can think about.
But if we reframe toys from the current notion that they are just for birthdays and holidays, to a notion that kids need tools as they develop, toys take on a new role. They become tools for growth and development.
Toddlers for example, will attempt the adult sized tools of mops and brooms, but are too small to use them effectively. If we replace the adult sized tools with child-sized brooms and mops and vacuum cleaners, toddlers really can help around the house. Parents know chores build character and skills. Toddlers feel very important to be the one mopping up the ice all over the floor after incessantly pushing the ice button. This toddler is beaming at the chance to clean up his/her mess! “I did it!” they say excitedly! They feel soooo powerful! You can’t buy self-esteem like this in any store.
Yet if we waited until the toddler’s birthday or a holiday 3-6 months away to purchase these toys, the developmental need to help and imitate adults thru chores such as these will have passed. Trying to get teens to help around the house with mops and brooms for the first time is doomed to failure!
So if we use this new framework of toys as tools, to support a child’s new awareness of their power in the world, then toys can be given as needed. If we follow a typical developmental framework of children’s growth, here is a sequence of toys that will support a child’s development.
The Right Toy Tool at the Right Time
- YOU! Yes, you will help your baby develop social skills, emotional coping skills, language skills, attachment skills, and motor skills. You are the key to the world, the master decoder of what’s happening around them, the explainer of what’s happening to them and the role model and guide of how they can manage. Investing in you is their survival.
- Their bodies are the tool. Learning to roll over/sit up/crawl/pull up to stand and finally walk is worth all the babyproofing you can do. Soft mats with different textures, mirrors so they can watch that other baby in the mirror, mobiles to heighten their visual development, music to enhance their auditory development, and lots of time with people, big and little, to snuggle with and talk to.
- The floor. Yes, the floor. This is where babies can do all the important gross motor work they need to do. Carpet. Blankets, and mats with various textures are gold for babies. Things that are on the floor with a baby -Dogs are gold. Big sibs are gold.
- Please—NO walkers/baby swings/baby iPads/TV. These devices may seem to create calm, but they can disrupt normal development. Significantly.
- Soft blocks- toddlers need and like to throw. Let’s give them balls/soft blocks to throw into laundry baskets. All day, if they need to! Throwing is a developmental need at this age.
- Mops/brooms/real sweepers -like those used in restaurants -that actually work. Montessori Carpet Sweeper
- Books- lots and lots of books. And a book nook in their room, and maybe also in the living room, with a small chair and shelf to organize the books and a small lamp they can operate themselves.
- Dress up clothes-shoes, hats, purses, ties, etc, from your closet. Commercial costumes can only play one role. Dress up clothes will play thousands, over time.
- Dolls, for boys and girls. And doll stuff, like strollers/high chairs/bottles
- Play sinks/stove/refrigerator and play food
- Shopping carts, to carry all the plastic food
- Lawn mowers
- Easels and paint. I know it’s messy, so put it outside on the deck so you can hose it off. Picasso in the making…
- Musical instruments
- Music CDs, Story CDs, and a CD player. These CDs will not be heirloom toys. They will be worn out. But toddlers love to put in the CD, slam the lid, push play (color the button green for go) and do it over & over & over again. And also dance and listen to stories. I know phones can do this too, but are you really going to leave your phone in the hands of a toddler without supervising closely? The beauty of these CD players is independence. You can put these in your child’s room, and they can use them whenever they wish. When napping ends and resting takes its place, these CD are gold for kids entertaining themselves with stories and music as they rest, alone in their room. Scholastic has great story CDs you can find on Amazon for less than $5.00. GOLD!
- Toddler Playmobile-these last forever! Toddler Playmobile
- Soft blocks- plastic for outdoors, foam & fabric for indoors
- Lots and Lots of boxes they can push/pull, put stuffed animals in, crawl into, turn upside down…imagination at work.
- Outside getaways – Tents/tunnels
Preschoolers: All of the above, plus….
- Real Hardwood blocks. Thee will last for generations. Invest in the real thing for real imagination.
- Imagination Stations: aka, junk. Let them create with toilet paper rolls / paper towel rolls/ boxes/ etc. Think twice before you throw away anything. Kids can turn paper scraps into art projects, hole punching heaven, etc. Junk is imagination in action.
- Moving parts for outside, aka-junk. Playgrounds today offer kids old tires/logs/old sheets/cardboard tubes, etc. to play with outdoors. These get turned into forts/sailing vessels/hospitals, etc. Imagination gold.
- Microphones and a stage. Watch the magic happen.
- Garden tools. Can add mini gnomes and fairies to mini gardens. Gardening with herbs is amazing with preschoolers. Lemon balm, rosemary, dill…kids can do their own aromatherapy to calm down.
- Outside getaways – forts/play houses/tents/ Teddy Bear picnics…
Young School-Agers: All of the above and:
- Books! Lots of real books!
- Cash registers
- Clay / Model magic
- Clay wheels or kilns
- Knitting tools, for boys and girls
- Cross-stitch, for boys and girls
- Art easels/art supplies
- Paint by number
- Tree houses
- Tree swings
- Dress Up clothes-they can put together their own ghosts / characters
Tweenagers – all the above and….
- Cooking tasks- collecting favorite recipes into their own cookbook. My nine year old granddaughter Jackie is delighted to make smoothies for breakfast for anyone, cook muffins, make her lunch, etc.)
- Craft kits- candle making, sewing kits, pottery kits, knitting, photo albums (ideal for parents that have not quite found time to put those thousands of photos into an actual album. My daughter did this as a 9 year old and her captions were much funnier than mine would have been!)
- Chemistry sets/STEM kits /Kiwi Crates
- Chores to earn extra money. Car washing, dog washing.
- Community Ventures: lemonade stands, popcorn stands, neighborhood dog washes, neighborhood clean up efforts….how will they make a difference in a world that needs them?
Middle-Schoolers & Teens- All the above and…
- Cash gifts. They know what they want, and there is power in spending to get what you want. Let them learn about the value of a dollar through Money Management:
- Managing their own clothing allowance
- Managing their own entertainment budgets
- Volunteer opportunities can be the best gift we give to young adults. Service = power in the real world. Service ideas in the real world:
- Habitat for Humanity opportunities
- Hospital volunteering
- Race for the Cure
- Humane society, etc.
- Young adults still need to belong in a family, so activities like Monopoly games and bike riding and cooking breakfast as a family, will still stay very important.