In a consumer driven world it is easy to see how we can get sucked in to the mindset of having to buy more and more for our children. There is a lot of pressure put on parents to aid their child’s development and challenge their cognitive abilities by purchasing the latest all singing, all dancing “educational” toy. And to top it all off, the advertisers have gone to great lengths to sink their claws directly into our little ones, to entice them into desiring their product and to ask for each and every item.
Though just five minutes before they were doing just fine without it, now it is a matter of life and death that they have this particular toy in their hands. Nothing less will do.
And yet, days, if not hours later, the toys all get forgotten, as the children turn their attention to the new enticing adverts for the things they don’t yet have.
It is a dangerous cycle, sending a strong message of consumerism, greed and waste to the mouldable young minds of our children.
But what should we as parents do? We don’t want to stunt their development and deny them learning opportunities, but it is obvious that this rampant consumerism is not working for either parent or child. The children complain that they have nothing to play with whilst surrounded by a room full of toys.
So What Toys Do Children Really Need?
Now hold on before you rush off to call me an extremist (though you may well be right :)) and let me explain.
Children have almost everything they need to learn, develop and create amazing play experiences all within themselves. Imagination, curiosity, and a strong desire to learn and explore are already built in.
Yet there are two things they don’t have which are needed in order to create play.
1. An interesting and changing environment.
A child with no toys, in a bare room with nothing to explore cannot, long term, develop and learn. Nothing changes, nothing new fires up the mind and inspiration for play dwindles and dies. However, this is not the natural environment for a child. In their rightful place, outside in nature, the world is alive and interesting. Change and new learning opportunities are abundant as the seasons move from one to the next, as plants blossom and bloom, as a planted seed becomes a meal for the table. Out here, everything is the next best educational toy. A stick, a rock, a snail, the rain falling into cupped hands, a bowl full of ripe red berries, a handful of grass, the clouds in the sky, an ant carrying a woodlouse, a spider catching a bee. The list is abundant and the opportunities endless.
And what about the indoor environment?
Not everybody has access to a safe outdoor space, and though I fully encourage you to do everything in your power to seek one out, it may not be a possibility for you to spend the majority of your time outdoors. Yet the indoor environment does not have to remain an unchanging abyss. It too, with a little creativity, can become a vibrant learning environment, without resorting to a heap of unwanted and unused toys.
A bath or a washing up bowl full of water can mirror the outdoor environment and provide hours of play, as can a tub of sand or soil to dig and move from pot to pot. Dried pasta, rice or lentils mirror stones and pebbles at the beach. Create dens from old sheets, or behind the sofa. Allow them to climb, to test their capabilities and to take risks. Allow them to be free in their environment.
2. The second ingredient that children need in order to create play, is an interesting role model.
So much of play is based on imitation as children practice the skills for becoming adults themselves. Include your child in real life activities and let them watch you as you cook, fold laundry, garden, read, change the light-bulb, check the oil on the car… The more experiences they get to watch and join in with, the more material they will have for creating rich and creative play experiences.
Toys in general, are not necessarily damaging to our children, and in moderation a few open ended play resources can be a wonderful addition to an otherwise rich environment. My son has in the past had lots of toys, followed by no toys at all, and currently we have found a balance with a small selection of play things for him to choose from.
However, it is important to remember that toys are not a necessity for a child to reach their full potential. They are a nice bonus, but they should not be used as a substitute for the environment and role models, which so often happens.
So tell me, what does your child’s environment look like? Is it abundant in play and learning opportunities or can you see some areas for improvement?
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