I spend a lot of time with children. I have play tested all of toys on the market and I have my favorites. Often times I find parents want to buy the biggest, coolest looking thing for their child, only to find it gathering dust the next week. These are my alternate suggestions to toys that are bought with good intentions.
1. Lego blocks set vs. Lego kit
Legos are awesome. Lego kits are awesome. I wish I had a Star Wars Death Star. But I’m an adult who has patience and can sit still for more than 5 minutes.
I’m not saying that Lego kits aren’t amazing. It’s unbelievable what’s available. Also, there is value in child being able to follow directions and recreate something. The books have no words and the pictures are clear. They dumb it down as much as possible. And that’s my point. It’s simple direction following. It doesn’t inspire or develop imagination.
Free play with Legos means a child can create his own inventions, instead of recreating someone else’s. There is experimenting with form and function with a real tactile experience. The replayability is truly endless. When they are young it might be just a garage or house. As they get older they experiment with more complex forms like cars and rockets.
2. Plastic fruit vs. Plastic kitchen
Kitchen playsets are adorable. The are mini versions of our adult dream kitchens. They are toys for us adults to buy to dream of what we want. They are fun for children, but they don’t see them with the same eyes as we do. They like to open the drawers and hide stuff inside. They use the table tops, but often times it’s for any and all of their toys. It stops being a kitchen and becomes a small surface to gather junk.
I prefer the cheap plastic food sets like fruit. For younger ages, they are great for learning letters (a is for apple). They can make their own kitchen with they toys they already have or even just the couch. You can make a market out of blocks and use play money to teach about buying and selling. Children’s imaginations are made to fill in the gaps. They don’t need literal representations of things to play. A pen can be an airplane, and a bed can be a fort. But a plastic kitchen, will always be a plastic kitchen.
3. Soft blocks vs. alphablocks
There is a rush to get children reading and writing, as if their success in adulthood is dependent on a child learning to read at age 2. Parents buy wooden blocks (or practically anything) with letters on them in hopes that this subtle exposure will give their child a head start in learning. IT DOES NOT. There is no shortcut to teaching your child to read and write.
So instead, buy what children really want. For the first few years, what they want is to destroy. The only reason for building a tower is so you can knock it down. Why fight it? It’s a fun game that honestly, I kind of enjoy too. I like the soft blocks because they are house / baby / mom – proof. They are practically weightless. You can throw them right at your child’s face and they will just giggle. They won’t break lamps or leave scratches. They squish and are easy for little hands to grab. They are great for stacking to make big towers that topple down. And they’ve got pictures of stuff on them so you can use them to teach when your child is actually paying attention.
4. Balls vs. Baby play sets
Baby sets that have bright colors and things that click and crunch and ding are awesome. Look at all the stuff my baby can do. So you spend a lot of money, come home, and leave the baby in front of it and walk away. Your baby doesn’t touch it. She just watches you and cries for you to come back. When you sit and play with her, the toys come alive. She squeals and glees at all the different sounds you make. You feel happy and walk away. Baby cries for you to come back.
The moral of the story is: you are a baby’s best toy. Toys are just ways you play with baby.
The best baby playset in the world still cannot do all the things a ball can do. You can roll a ball, bounce a ball, throw a ball. There are small balls that bounce off of ceilings and walls, bunches of little balls to roll around in, big rubber balls that you can slap with your hand, footballs that roll on the floor. Textured balls are great for rolling under your feet. You can catch a ball with your hands or you can catch it with your feet. You can kick it. You can hit it. And you can do it all with Mom and Dad.
5. Play Doh vs. Art kits
The big art sets are eye catching. So many colors, and in every medium. 100+ pieces! Every tool you’d ever need to be the most talent artist ever. All in a convenient travel case to carry with you on your world adventures.
The reality is you get a cheap, poorly made case. The crayons, pencils, and paint are worse quality than anything you could buy separately. Chances are you already have crayons, pencils and paint of better quality and variety. When you open the case everything either falls out or is permanently encased in a cheap plastic mould. All aspirations of being the next great artist are dashed when you realize you can’t buy talent.
If you want to inspire a child artistically, I recommend Play-Doh, the Legos of squishy material. I don’t mean a Play-Doh like substance like plasticine that is hard for small fingers to manipulate or organic green-Earth all natural material play substance that smells like compost. I mean Play-Doh, the non-toxic toy that comes in every color imaginable and has its own perfume.
Kids can smash it, roll it out, mix it, make spaghetti and snowmen. They can share with mom and trade cutting tools. They can make a mess and clean it up. They can accidentally leave it out to dry and learn the lesson of taking care of their toys. Then you can buy some more.
6. Pots, pans, and spoons vs. Music sets
There are some neat music sets for children that include tambourines, recorders, castanets, and xylophones. I plan on owning all of them. But I’m not going to start with them. Before I teach about musical instruments, I like to show there are sounds all around us. There is so much to be learned by banging a wooden spoon on everything in the house. Or beating two metal spoons together. Or blowing on bottles.
Your world is already full of interesting and new things that your child doesn’t know about. Pots and pans, empty jars and cans. Glass, metal and wood all sound different. Don’t rob them of the experience of discovery by making a beeline straight for the musical instruments.
For everything else
The best toys are the ones that engage you and your child. They inspire and enrich the imagination. If a toy is highly detailed or movie licensed, there’s not much room for your child’s imagination to grow. Toys that are multipurpose have the highest replay value. Be wary of sets – it’s how manufacturers hide shoddy products. Remember, you are buying for your child, not for you. Most of the time.