Choosing Great Toys for Your Little Ones
by Marie Toole, MS, OTR/L
on the School Tools From Your Pediatric Occupational Therapist Blog
The holidays are fast approaching and you might be trying frantically to find developmentally appropriate toys and games for the little ones on your list. Or maybe a friend or coworker is having a baby and you want to purchase the “right” toy for a present. Toy stores can be overwhelming with their size and stock and you may have found yourself having difficulty selecting from among the toys and technology when you got there. Parents often ask me to recommend toys or games that will help their children improve their hand skills, eye-hand coordination skills, or cognitive skills. They question how to choose with so much technology and so many games, toys, and activities out there. They wonder how I as a parent and therapist choose, as well as help the grandparents decide on appropriate toys and games. The questions are many. But, let’s take a look at some answers, shall we?
Toys in our household did double duty. I was always looking for that unique and different toy that had some therapeutic value to it. At first, they were toys for my three children to use. But when they outgrew them, the toys went into my therapy bag for me to use on my visits in Early Intervention. I am not saying that we did not buy the newest, hottest toys on the market. We did. But guess what? Those toys got broken or were discarded quickly, the pieces were lost, or the toys were simply forgotten. There are some toys, however, that retain their value. Those toys I still have and use in my therapy practice today because of their many fine qualities. When it comes to toy and game suggestions, I am not going to tell you what to buy; but, instead, I would like to guide you in the process and give you some things to think about when purchasing them.
Here are a few questions you should ask yourself when considering that new toy or game:
- Does it have small parts that babies and toddlers might swallow? Is it toxic? Remember, babies and toddlers often put things in their mouths or use them for teething so be cautious. Can it be washed or disinfected easily? Toys harbor germs in nooks and crannies. They need to stand the test of time and be durable and easily washed.
- Is it messy? Am I willing to live with the results of that messy play? Young children love to get wet, dirty, and messy. Do you have enough space to let them fully explore and enjoy these added sensory elements in their play? Children learn best when they are playing and are able to freely explore to make noise, create a mess, and figure out the many different ways to use an item. Give them time and the space to do so and you will have happy children.
- Can your child manage this toy independently or with a bit of guidance? There are age ranges on most toy packages. Use them as a guideline and imagine your child playing with that toy. Are your child’s little hands ready for it? Can he or she pick it up and manipulate it independently? If you buy a toy or game that is not developmentally appropriate, you are asking for frustration not enjoyment. It might be the hot toy on the market; but if your child is not ready for it, it may become quickly discarded.
- Does it help improve hand or motor skills? Little children’s bodies are growing in myriad ways and we want to assist that growth by encouraging the improvement of both small-motor and large-motor skills. Children move to learn. They are active and busy and like lots of change. Games and activities that encourage balance, that discriminate between left and right, and that get kids moving and cooperating with others are always great choices.
Games, toys, and activities that encourage the use of two hands to manipulate them begin to help make the transition to more refined grasp and later on to pencil control in school. Using two hands to make a toy work helps children realize that they have a hand that does the work and a hand that stabilizes. When we ask children to use pencils and crayons in school, we hope that they have good hand strength to allow proper pencil grasp and endurance for writing and coloring tasks. We have two sides of our hands, one that stabilizes (pinky, ring, and tall man) and one that does the work (index finger and thumb). We don’t want to put crayons or pencils in little hands too early but chunky chalk or finger paints certainly can lay the foundation for good hand skills. Squeezing and rolling playdoh helps to improve hand strength and coordination.
Does the toy assist with visual perceptual skills? Do they have a component for matching like items? Do the children need to know colors? Figuring out puzzles, creating designs with pegs, or making other visual patterns help to stimulate cognitive pathways and assist with spatial skills. Deciding if the blue peg goes in the hole on the left or the right to match the picture can be the precursor to math and spatial skills in the kindergarten or first grade classroom.
Does the toy encourage socialization? Is it a group game? Children learn so much when they play games with others. They learn to wait their turn and be patient and come to understand what it is to win and lose. All life’s lessons that are best learned are done in a fun and safe environment. Once they get to school, being a member of the class will have challenges of its own. But those children who have pro-social behaviors and have learned to navigate winning or losing at CandyLand tend to fare better.
Lots of great questions and things to think about when choosing appropriate toys. One suggestion I will give you is to move away from the big-box stores. Supporting small businesses is always a good idea but this time it is purposeful. Local craft fairs often have wooden toys that are well made and durable. Look in your local, independent, small toy stores. They often have toys and games that are unique and different. These are often well-crafted toys that will last and are creative and colorful and inspiring. I often found toys from European countries that are so well made that I still have them today. I use them in my therapy regularly and notice the children I work with thoroughly enjoy them to this day.
There are certain toys that I like to call “Grandmother Toys.” These are ones I have kept in the basement and will pull out when I have grandchildren of my own someday. They stand the test of time and will be different and unique in an ever-changing world. I have kept a few childhood favorites from each of my children’s younger years. They are toys that each of my children loved for different reasons. Think “classic” toys…think about the toys you loved as a child and why they stick with you. You made memories with those toys and they are special to you. The memories your little ones will make using the toy or game you buy will be priceless. Choose wisely and your gift will be a winner!
I rarely suggest electronic toys, games, or apps. I much prefer hands-on learning. Let me leave you with a few suggestions for games or toys that foster that:
- Play doh or theraputty (hand strengthening)
- Large pegs and pegboards (eye hand coordination)
- Matching games (memory, visual perception)
- Finger paints/watercolors/bingo dabbers used on an easel (encourages proper hand positioning)
- Blocks (creative play)
- Twister (body movement, left/right)
- Sidewalk chalk/bubbles/balloons (outdoor play)
- Lite Brite (eye hand coordination, visual perceptual)
- Card games (Crazy 8’s, Skip Bo, Old Maid) (turn taking, social skills)
- Simon (visual and auditory memory)
- Jump ropes/chinese jump ropes/Skip It (balance and coordination)
- Pick up Sticks/Connect Four/Toss Across (eye hand coordination)
Marie L. Toole, MS, OTR/ L, is a pediatric occupational therapist with 28 years experience in NICU, Early Intervention, and private practice with the last 20 years spent working in public schools. She is NBCOT and SIPT certified as well as a member of AOTA and NHOTA. She lives in southern New Hampshire and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MarieTooleOTNH, on Pinterest marietooleNHOT, and on School Tools for Pediatric Occupational Therapists where she tweets, pins, and posts about OT, education, autism, and sensory integration, as well as other school related topics.Disclaimer: The information shared on the Go-To-For-OT Blog or affiliated Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest sites, and shared on social or public media or as links on other sites is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice or evaluation and care from your physician/medical team or any other qualified health care providers. Therefore, the authors and administrator of these posts take no responsibility for any liability, loss, or risk taken by individuals as a result of applying the ideas or resources. Grandmother’s Toys photos are the property of the author and their use should have her approval. All other photos are the property of the contributors of Pixabay and their use should include the link provided to the photographer’s source.