The fun starts here!
How many times have we heard it before? A loving, well meaning parent buys the latest whiz bang toy for their young child’s birthday – designed to improve gross motor skills, develop their cognitive ability and increase their artistic ability. And then, once the present is opened, the child finds more interest in the packaging than the actual toy. ‘Why do we bother?’ is often the post gift opening lament of the aggrieved parent.
So, in this day and age of cutting edge computer toys and games, what are children playing with and, more importantly, what should they be playing with? Have blocks become passé and replaced with the Xbox? Or is there still room for the old favourites?
Take heart all of you toy traditionalists, the types of toys we played with are still popular, according to Lorraine Haynes owner of Brisbane’s K and K Creative Toys, an institution in Brisbane for the past four decades.
‘Some of the most popular toys are the traditional ones,’ Ms Haynes said. ‘K and K first started selling wooden building blocks in different shapes and sizes 40 years ago and we still sell them over and over. We have customers who remember playing with them and want them for their children,’ she said.
‘The most popular toys have been dolls houses, knight’s castles and pirate ships. These toys encourage imagination and role play which is vital in everyday life.’
Educational Experience National Sales and Marketing Manager Ainslie Turner says toys with a ‘problem solving’ component are still in demand in the 18 month to seven year age bracket. ‘There is a vast array of popular toys and equipment that fall into this age bracket, from push/pull, stacking and sorting toys through to gross motor and fine motor items,’ Ms Turner said.
Although some of the old favourites are still well liked, Ms Haynes says societal changes have affected parents’ toy choice. ‘With a lot of families having two parents working there is a trend to buy a toy to amuse the children without the parent needing to be hands on. On the upside however, family board games are becoming more popular again and these tend to encourage family time.’
The technological age has also influenced consumer choice and demand. Ms Turner says that mainstream toys have become far more technologically advanced or at least inclusive of technology features. This has tended to introduce such features to much younger children.
The danger here is buying toys that are too closed – meaning that once the child has discovered the toy’s limitations they lose interest; there’s nothing there to stimulate their imagination. Alternatively, for those families wishing to have ‘techno down time’, there are many opting for toys that require brain power, as opposed to techno power.
‘Obviously when parents limit the use of TV and video games, children need stimulating activities to do,’ Ms Haynes said. ‘We tend to sell a lot of construction and creative toys that encourage children to use their own imagination,’ she said.
The technical side of toys isn’t the only aspect to change in the toy market. Merchandising of movie-inspired play has introduced a whole range of commercialised toys. Is the vast array of these toys necessarily a bad thing? ‘K and K don’t sell licensed toys as we try to stay focused on traditional and creative toys, but a lot of children have many hours of enjoyment from a toy from a movie that they connected with.’
As a major supplier to early childhood organisations and family day care carers, Ms Turner said licensed toys are not a popular range for that market. ‘We continue to be asked for items that don’t need batteries or are licensed characters, as the emphasis remains on basic play elements.’
And what about girl/boy play stereotypes: have toys become more or less gender specific? ‘Toys are definitely becoming less gender specific,’ Ms Haynes said. ‘There will always be items that are pretty much ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ only, but many construction, art and craft, and creative toys are played with by all children,’ she said.
Whether it’s dolls or trucks your child is interested in, regardless of whether they are boys or girls, the main thing is there is plenty of opportunity for their play to be extended. There should be many opportunities for problem solving and using their imagination, according to Lynne Moore, Curriculum Project Officer for Queensland’s Crèche and Kindergarten (C&K).
‘Playing with dolls, for example, can be extended to include other objects such as blocks and items such as rocks, twigs, branches and other natural pieces. It is important to see the potential and to look at ways to consider the play both inside and outside.’
The parents’ role should be one of a supportive nature, someone who encourages and suggests ideas for extension, rather than hijacking the play. ‘Children are the best creators of their own play,’ Ms Moore said. ‘They need adults who support their play through bringing suggestions, and assisting children to discover new and interesting ways of doing things. It is important for the parent to engage in the child’s play but to let the child use their own imagination. There will always be toys where parent supervision is essential.’
So, what’s the best advice for parents in the toy purchase journey? ‘Try to select toys that will stimulate the child and encourage them to use their imagination,’ Ms Haynes says.
Points about play
It is through play that children do much of their learning – so what does play do?
- Running, kicking and throwing balls helps children develop balance and coordination.
- Singing and rhyming games help with language development.
- Puzzles and problem solving games help children’s intellectual development.
- Turn-taking and sharing in play help develop important relationship skills and self-control.
The most important play for young children is play with parents – make sure you make some time for play every day. Joining in their play helps build positive relationships between you and your children.
- Ask your children what they would like you to do as part of the play.
- Let your child lead the play. Don’t take over.
- Don’t compete with young children. This can discourage them from wanting to play.
- Appreciate and encourage their efforts, no matter what the outcome.
- Be patient if your child wants to repeat the same play over and over. New skills require lots of practice! Stay enthusiastic.
- Playing activities should be at the right level for your child. Too easy and your child may get bored. Too hard and your child may get frustrated.
- Look for opportunities to engage in play at any time. For example, join your child in making up rhymes or songs about normal daily activities like making the bed.
- Set the rules of ‘turns’ if more than one child is playing.
Resource: Kidscount website.
Toys for 2 year olds
Picture books with very simple stories and rhymes, blocks, dolls, teddy bears, simple puzzles, ride-on toys, toy cars, trucks, planes, sand and beach toys such as big dump trucks, buckets and spades, large crayons and butcher's paper, suitable videotapes, household toys such as small brooms to copy parents, paddle pools (always under supervision), finger and hand puppets.
Toys for 3 year olds
Simple picture books with stories or rhymes, paints and butcher's paper, play dough, large crayons and butcher's paper, building sets with large pieces, dolls, cars and trucks, dress-ups, videotapes, nursery song audio tapes), finger or hand puppets, paddle pools (always under supervision), cubby house, toy animals, puzzles, tricycles with helmet, paddle pool.
Toys for 4 year olds
Picture story books (especially with rhymes and play on words), finger or hand puppets, paints and crayons, dolls, building sets, clay, doll's house and furniture, toy animals, building sets such as lego, matchbox cars, puzzles, balls, dress-ups, simple computer games, appropriate videos.
Toys for 5 year olds
Picture story books, small animals and dolls, doll's house, "making" toys, puzzles, suitable video tapes, simple computer games, bicycle with trainer wheels and helmet, simple board games, tents and cubby houses, building sets such as lego.
Toys for 6 year olds
Bicycle with trainer wheels and helmet, board games, beginning reader books, simple computer games, ‘making’ toys, miniature dolls and animals, dolls' houses, toy make-up, building sets such as Lego, skipping ropes, audio CDs of books.
Toys for 7 year olds
Simple table games or card games, building sets such as Lego, construction kits, simple computer games, jigsaw puzzles, radio, cassette player, swimming pool toys if appropriate, bats and balls, books, musical toys, toy soldiers, craft equipment, magic tricks.
Source: Child and Youth Health
Toys parents love to hate
Okay, we know we should buy toys that are worthy, respected and educational but parents are like any one else; they can be suckered by advertising brilliance, kid pester power or panic buying – usually on a birthday or Christmas eve.
Australian Family parents are right at home in this esteemed group. In the interest of sharing the pain and the shame, here, in no particular order are the lessons learnt from the toy purchase madnesses of the past.
- Multiple small parts, especially bits that jab feet in the middle of the night.
- Cheap thin collapsing plastic - on doll houses and match box car ramps. They take ages to put up and minutes to collapse.
- Expensive accessories
- Play doh – okay this toy is usually recognised as being on the side of the angels but think again. It has a nasty habit of morphing its way into and under any table crevasses, there to set itself in perpetuity along with three-year-old weetbix smears.
- Noisy toys – public enemy number one the talking type with those whiney American accents.
- ANYTHING that needs batteries.
- Expensive life-like baby dolls that only end up in the nearest puddle of water and get bashed and thrown around. Child psychologists could have a field day – buy a cheap one instead!
- Fast food toys – the only possible solution is the sneaky throw out.
- Packaging – what is it with the plastic garrotte ties around every possible protuberance, plus extra sticky tape restraints, just in case the likes of Barbie or Buzz Light Year try to escape.
- While we’re on the subject of packaging, any toy hermetically sealed in those heavy duty plastic cocoons – requiring a chain saw for extraction of the toy.
- Felt shapes – ha! They’re meant to be educationally sound but they’re too restrictive, they won’t move, they’re just boring!
- Toy radio or CD player – say no more they break and all kids know its not the real thing.
And the final word from a pregnant mother of soon-to-be-four, ‘They’re all a waste of money. The things that entertain and keep my girls occupied for hours are pencils paper, scissors and empty cereal boxes. And if any visitors come for a play, they make a beeline for the dress-up box, where live the fashion failures of a time when I was younger and thinner!’
And that costs nothing at all!
By Libby Burke
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, May 2006. Updated July 2009.