Are toys necessary? All societies have toys, and who doesn’t enjoy seeing a child’s eyes light up when handed a new toy? But are some toys better than others? Do toy manufacturers and advertisers really know what promotes child development? I suggest that those of us who raise children are best equipped for the task, using some common-sense guidelines.
Although today’s major source of toys is the manufacturers, anyone who spends time in economically deprived areas will notice that those who have little are inventive with what they have.
Pieter Brueghel captures this inventiveness beautifully in his “Children’s Games, which is rich in detail about Medieval children at play. The painting shows physically energetic and imaginatively engaged children, some using bodies, others playing together or with toys. Three boys are mounted on a fence, pretending to race horses. Some play leapfrog or tug-of-war. Girls play knucklebones (an old form of jacks). Some dress up and stage a wedding. Boys spin tops, and a girl plays musical instruments. Some merely blow bubbles. Toys, if present at all, have only a minor role in what is mostly imaginative play.
It is both desirable and possible to replicate that level of imaginative potential even in a world replete with highly sophisticated toys. Consider the child passively watching a motorized toy that does cute or exciting things. Does it engage the imagination? Not much. Compare that with a child building forms in the sand, or sifting sand in mom’s flour sifter, or making a fort out of a cardboard box. Listen to a child make music with mom’s pots and pans.
First consider how the child interacts with the toy. Does it merely entertain (i.e., produce external stimulation) or does it engage the imagination and senses (i.e., engender inner resources)? Does the child acquire skills when playing with the toy? For example, dollhouses, jacks, and tops all develop fine motor-skills. Does a toy cause the child to interact with other children? Jacks, marbles, jump-ropes come to mind here.
I have seen a group of children develop a game using a large castoff cardboard box. I have watched a 3-year-old gleefully clapping the leaves of a plant between his hands. Children are tremendously inventive if we adults do not constantly deprive them of the chance by showering them with too many things that do too much for them.
Kim John Payne writes perceptively about toys (Simplicity Parenting). He says, “Advertisers would have us believe that our kids have no inner life at all, except that which [their] toys … can provide.” He adds, “The attribution of creativity has shifted … from children [into] commercialized play, making it no longer a child’s natural world but … one that’s dependent on adults and [what] they provide.”
Next, consider quantity. Many American children have mountains of toys, such that they cease to value any of them. Payne says, “A smaller, more manageable quantity of toys invites deeper play and engagement. An avalanche of toys invites emotional disconnect and a sense of overwhelm.” How often have you seen today’s new toy cast into the pile tomorrow?
Parents might want to review the quantity and quality of their children’s toys. Left to society’s mechanisms, children will be told what to want and what to imagine. Payne suggests that it is better they “learn to follow their own interests, to trust their own emerging voices.” This approach also takes the pressure off parents to provide a setting based on a formula they had no hand in creating. Is that not desirable?