My View: Toys your child actually needs this Christmas
The most educational toys usually aren't high-tech or expensive, early childhood educator Laurel Bongiorno writes.
December 21st, 2012
05:00 AM ET

My View: Toys your child actually needs this Christmas

Courtesy Kathleen Landwerhle/Champlain CollegeBy Laurel Bongiorno, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Laurel Bongiorno is director of the master’s degree program in early childhood education at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. She is working on a book on the value of play in early childhood development.

(CNN) - Parents want to buy the best toys for their children - the educational toys that will make them grow faster, read earlier and solve math problems faster.

Toy manufacturers often market high-priced toys that play by themselves (no child needed!), are connected to movies and television shows (no imagination needed!) or have just one purpose in mind. Once played with, they go in the closet.

On this last weekend before the Christmas gift-giving commences, parents should go back to basics when toy shopping for their young children from birth to age 8. Children are complex people who need holistic opportunities for development, learning, health and happiness.

Blocks, dramatic play clothes, art supplies, messy play opportunities, books and games are the stuff they need for the holidays. And, parents don’t have to break the bank to afford them. The local dollar stores and thrift stores have many of these materials.

Consider a 4-year-old building a highway with the blocks. She sorts, sequences, maps, plans, predicts, estimates, counts and compares. The 7-year-old might create bridges and ramps, using basic physics concepts. Blocks are open-ended materials that the children don’t tire of and retire to the closet when they are done. Parents can add to block-building fun by supplying play props such as cars, dinosaurs, animals and many other options. Math isn’t the only benefit derived from blocks; children use their small motor skills, build their vocabulary, play cooperatively with others and gain self-control and patience.

Dramatic play obviously builds imagination and develops social skills, but it also promotes physical development as children button, tie and snap clothing and costumes. It also reinforces math skills when children count money, set menu prices and make change in the pretend store. It promotes reading and writing as children develop their own props including signs for a car wash, menus for a restaurant and books for their house. Buy scarves, shoes, hats and make pretend props such as cash registers out of cardboard boxes.

Art supplies provide fun, creative and open-ended play opportunities that allow children to feel successful at any age. Rather than buying kits with lots of directions and samples of the end product, buy paint, markers, paper, paintbrushes, toothbrushes, feathers, yarn, glue, bits of paper and gather interesting materials from around the house to add in such as potato mashers and other interesting objects for painting and printing. Encourage children to explore the materials and make whatever they want. It’s about the experience, not the end product. Kids learn to solve problems, use creativity, identify and mix colors, sort, sequence, count, match, build self-esteem, extend their attention spans and develop motor control.

Art can also provide relief from stress and anxiety, a needed opportunity for many children who keep a tight time schedule each day.
“Messy play,” or what educators call “sensory play,” involves, for example, toys for play in water and sand. You can make playdough, ooblick (cornstarch and water) and other doughs.

Let the children play with finger paint, shaving cream, snow and do their own science mixing activities with materials such as baking soda and vinegar, leading them on the road to science inquiry and discovery, a major educational opportunity with these types of materials. In addition to science, children can help measure the ingredients to make these materials, using their math skills.

They develop their motor skills and play productively with others, too.

Don’t forget to provide books and games. And be involved in this one. Children learn through relationships, so give the time for bonding and developing solid, positive relationships with your children. Read together. Read fun books with a good story line and interesting characters. Read picture books, and add in chapter books when they are ready.

Reading together provides opportunities for social and emotional development, language and literacy development and expands vocabulary and knowledge. One fun outcome is watching your child develop a sense of humor at about age 5. What an exciting time!

Play games together, and notice the self-control it takes to wait for a turn, to follow someone else’s rules. You’ll know when your child is ready; playing games should be fun. Notice the skills needed depending on the game. They may require counting, one-to-one correspondence, color matching and even multiplication, problem-solving and developing strategies. They also may require that you adapt the game so the children can hold fewer cards, follow fewer instructions or have no winner or loser (play until everyone is out of cards, for example.)

So you don’t have to go broke buying toys for the holidays. They will love these toys more, and they will remember them in later years, especially if you play along.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Laurel Bongiorno.

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Hooligan

    This whole concept about the "best toys for learning" is ridiculous. A child will have an amazing time with a cardboard box if the kid has an active imagination. Whether they build sky scrapers with legos, have races with hotwheels, create battle scenes with army men and power rangers, play house with Barbie, or blast each other away with super soakers.. the toy is just the vessel... The kids do all the real work.

    January 1, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
    • Medallon

      A little short sighted on your part. The toy provides the canvas for the imagination, there is only so much you can do with a cardboard box, where blocks offer a great deal more opportunities to challenge the imagination. Its a balance, which maybe you cannot comprehend.

      January 2, 2013 at 9:04 am |
  2. Nieves Morera

    Dear Lauren: I appreciate the article about the importance the toys like an important way to learning development. I am teacher of 4 years, and in my experience while the children play they learn, isn't necessary to have expensive toys only great imagination, also is important that the parents know, in the house the parents can to create their own games.
    I recommed this article.
    Thank.

    December 28, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  3. knightstorm

    hum...we have to get them to stay in class before we can engage them with playtime...high school anyway.

    December 27, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  4. JZG

    One word: Lego

    December 24, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  5. AB

    Thank you, Dr. Bongiorno, for sound advice that will help parents with last-minute shopping.

    December 24, 2012 at 3:43 am |
  6. USA

    Merry Christmas & Happy New Year :-)

    December 22, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  7. christopher reid

    Why doesn.t Christmas have its own click on subject so people can talk about Christmas this year.

    December 22, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  8. mm

    WELL SAID ARTICLE...totally agree....our value of play has given more priority in learning and memorizing everything in academics. Play is truly fundamental....and children learn through play....

    December 22, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  9. Terry C

    It's about time that IMAGINATION, is recognized as the best way to learn!

    December 22, 2012 at 2:24 am |
  10. JMac

    Simple toys suggested are fine, and recognized. Our grandkids ( 2 male, 2 female ) were offered yogurt cups with numbers and letters drawn on the bottoms; facial tissue boxes; plastic cups, saucers, tumblers, etc. readily and cheaply available at Thrift Stores. Let your imagination loose, and kids will find ways to utilize even everyday objects – just keep them clean!

    December 21, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  11. Sara Fleagle

    I love this article. As a licensed regular ed and intervention specialist, I wish more parents would see the value of simple play and interaction in their kids lives, instead of constantly being "plugged in" to the TV, IPOD, IPAD, etc. There are many unique learning activities that netbooks, IPADS, etc. have to offer, but for those that cannot afford those things it's great to get back to basics. Although, as a teacher and a parent, I do realize as kids get older and older it is increasingly hard to do this!

    December 21, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  12. Jack Bishop

    Tabitha, You have proven, one has to say small words in order for others to see the BIG PICTURE. Try reading it once more, maybe then you will get it.

    December 21, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  13. Something Profound

    Agree with article. Nice to see there are some who recognize this. Our infrastructure was created by people who played with these toys as kids. Nowadays adults who were videogame kids simply know how to turn on a computer program and where to click to accomplish things, computers do everything. I think more kids need simple toys to build brainpower.

    December 21, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  14. squirrelyone

    Well said! And the beauty of blocks and books are that they can be enjoyed endlessly, as opposed to fad toys that will cease to be popular about 5 minutes after 12pm on Christmas Day. Even if you don't want to risk the messy stuff, there are art supplies out there now that will only mark on certain surfaces, so let the kids scribble with wild abandon!

    December 21, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  15. Tabitha

    I like the idea about it but if you don't have the materials at your house you still have to buy it!

    December 21, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  16. Tabitha

    I like the idea about it but you still have to pay if you don't have the materials.

    December 21, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • L

      The point is simple toys are better for our kids minds than endless technology. My kids are 22 and 24 now. They preferred playing with my pots and pans and making tents from every blanket and sheet in the house. Stacking canned goods, "plasticware" in the bathtub for water fun, there are endless imaginative ideas.

      December 21, 2012 at 8:45 pm |