Toys Optional

Are toys necessary? Do young children need toys when they play? Can children learn and grow in a toy-free environment?

When my Mom was growing up on a farm in Naples, Italy in the 1950s she had no toys. Zero! Nothing! Nada! Not even a doll, ball, puzzle, jump rope, or bicycle! With 8 siblings and more cousins next door, her early childhood years were filled with interactions that required creative and toy-less play.

In many countries and cultures, play does not necessarily center on toys that are made by a company and purchased from a store. Familiar objects, materials, and imagination are the cornerstone of play.

The use of toys during play and assessment came up recently when I was in California giving a two-day seminar. Home visitors working with families of infants and toddlers discussed ways to facilitate early childhood development. They shared how they use various approaches with and without toys during play-based assessment. It was exciting to see the innovative ways they incorporate what is already in the child's home during their visits.

When I left California to take a flight home, I thought more about our discussion and the role of toys during play. It fit nicely with a book I read on the plane for my book club this month titled, "A Long Walk to Water" by Linda Sue Park. The true story is about a young boy, Salva Dut, growing up in Sudan. His daily struggle to survive each day and his quest for clean drinking water made the pursuit of play a low priority in his life.

When I stepped off the plane I came to the conclusion that toys are fun but unnecessary for play. Toys optional? I think so.

Ribbon Wands & Hand Kites

Homemade toys can save money, and show children the joy of creativity. A preschool teacher made my daughter this pair of green ribbon wands (pictured below). The wands are made of wooden dowels, ribbons, and electrical tape.

The ribbon wands are fun, but there may be safety concerns for some young children. To modify the wands, create hand kites to give kids the same opportunity for movement and expression as the wands. For children with emerging gross motor skills, the hand kites can be a useful modification.

There are many different ways to make hand kites. My hand kite recipe calls for silk scarves and bracelets.

To make: cut the scarf into long strips to fit the bracelet. Tie the scarf strips to the bracelet and VOILA! You have repurposed your accessories to create a new toy for children with a range of abilities.

“Imagination is the highest kite one can fly.” ~Lauren Bacall

Toy Rotation

Children can become bored with the same toys day in and day out. Parents and educators do not need to go out and buy new toys when the child loses interest.  One way to obtain and maintain interest is to rotate toys.

The practice of “Toy Rotation” requires the adult to observe how the child is responding to the toy, and then following the child's lead to provide learning opportunities.

If the child is having fun and continuing to gain enjoyment out of the toy, then continue to allow the child to play with the toy. If the child has lost interest, start the toy rotation process. The following steps can be used to get the most out of your child’s toys.

Step #1- Store Toys

Find a storage area where you can house the child’s toys. In my house, I removed towels from a linen closet which has now become our toy closet. Here is where I have organized toys that are not currently being played with by my child. When storing toys, be sure they are stored in ready-to-go condition. This may include cleaning the toy, replacing a battery, or mending a broken part of the toy.

Step #2- Rotate Toys

If you notice a child’s interest in a toy is fading, pull the toy out of play and rotate with another one that is in storage. Go to the storage area and replace a toy based on your child’s interests and motivation for play. Help your child find another toy s/he would like to play with from your storage area.

This is an iterative process. Repeat steps one and two as needed. There may come a time when your child outgrows a toy. Consider finding a new home for the toy. If possible, involve child(ren) in the toy recycle activity. Incorporate toy rotation for many hours of learning and fun for your child.