What makes a toy good?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 25, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara,
I think my daughter has too many toys for her 3-year-old son; they absolutely take over the room. No matter how she attempts to organize them, he is always dumping them all over. Too many choices. Far cry from day care where he always puts toys away.

From: Debi, Oviedo, FL

Hi Debi,

I'm not sure what your question is, but I'm happy for a chance to talk about toys. I agree that more is less. Having too many toys at any one time overwhelms a young child and almost by definition means they will flit from one to the other without sticking with the toy and exploring its play possibilities.

So what are the best toys? Considering that the holidays are not far away, here are some guidelines for choosing toys :

1. Look for open-ended toys. The more ways you can play with a toy, the more open-ended -- and better -- the toy is. Open-ended toys encourage pretend play, which uses and stretches creativity and imagination. There's no right or wrong to the play, the toy is working in the service of the child, not the other way around. Plus, you get your best value for your toy dollar if a toy has many ways to be played with. Consider something as simple as a piece of clay. One day, your boy shapes it into a dog because the neighbor's dog barked at him and scared him. Days later, he creates a pizza and slices it and serves it and makes it again and again because the family ate out last night and he was fascinated by the whole process. In both cases, the child uses the clay in his play to make sense of the real events of his life.

2. Single best toy? Blocks, blocks and more blocks. Blocks come in zillions of shapes and sizes for different ages and stages of development. What makes them so great is that they have endless play possibilities, they expand both small and gross motor skills, and can be played with in groups or individually. Blocks even help pre-math skills. When my son was in preschool, his teacher (Hey, Micki Corley -- shout-out to you!) told me that if a parent could only afford to buy one toy, it should be a set of blocks. It didn't take long for me to see the wisdom in her words. My son loved to build all kinds of things with all kinds of different blocks at all ages, and knocking things down was half the fun.

3. Stay away from "scripted" toys. Any toy that's tied to a video, TV show, cartoon, even to a book, comes with a script, and the child is unwittingly locked into the story line. To her way of thinking, there is only one "right" way to play with the toy, and that's the script. So she can't use the toy in any other way and doesn't grow, learn or -- really -- enjoy the toy. These toys tend to be the ones that are discarded first because they're boring.

4. Stay away from electronic toys for babies and toddlers. Did you see this article in the New York Times last week about parents who think iPhones are good toys? All a child learns from a toy that has bells, whistles and screens is to be attracted to the sights and sounds and to want -- and expect -- instant gratification. Right. It works to shorten a child's attention span.

Every holiday season, TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Childrens Entertainment) publishes a guide for toy-buying. This is the guide for 2010. It's an excellent guide; I printed it for years in my holiday column with the Globe.

Anyway, Debi, don't know if this is what you were looking for, but thanks for giving me the chance to share a few thoughts about toys. I'd love to hear parents' experiences about good & bad toys....

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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7 comments so far...
  1. I disagree that toys tied to a TV show or movie are necessarily 'scripted'. My kids have always had a few toys from their favorite shows or movies, and have incorporated them into imaginative play without any apparent adherence to a 'right' way. I don't think my kids are particularly brilliant or special - I think that any kid is able to break out of the box.

    Posted by akmom October 25, 10 07:10 AM
  1. Until my daughter came along, I never fully appreciated the value of dolls as toys. My 3 year old daughter has several, and it's been interesting to watch the dynamics of her play with them change over time and parallel whatever developmental stage my daughter was leaving or entering. First, it was all about changing their diapers. Then, as my daughter was learning how to use the toilet, she focused on keeping their clothes dry and using the toilet. Now, it's very focused on dialogue not only between my daughter (as "mommy" or "teacher"--she's in daycare most of the week) and the dolls, but among multiple dolls with each other. Fascinating stuff to watch, and often amusing when I hear some of my own phrases come out of her mouth! But we are now reaching a "too many dolls" point like the LW -- to solve that we put some away for rainy days, donated a couple or moved them to other rooms in the house so she gets a fresh take on them. A handful at best is all she seems to need. We also recently purchased a doll house which has been a great addition to her toys--she really gets into the household dynamics and there's been more and more independent play as a result because she is so consumed by it. Toys that have NOT worked include anything electronic (gets bored quickly--fortunately we only have 1 or 2 of those) and, surprisingly, puppets. Bins/shelves for each type of toy have helped keep us organized. And, because we know she does it at daycare, we have her help us put toys away each night. If we say "you pick up all the dolls and we'll get the other toys", or "you pick up all the red toys", cleanup is fun for her, not so overwhelming and the room stays neat.

    Posted by Sleepymama October 25, 10 12:27 PM
  1. I agree with akmom - my daughters don't stick to the script with their toys at all. In their universe, any toys can have an adventure with Dora, who is really just another doll to them. We also have Dora Duplo blocks, because my older daughter wanted nothing to do with legos until she was drawn to the character tie-in. Now they love to play with the duplos with or without Dora.

    I will say that I stay away from the tie-in games - we don't need Simpsons Operation or Dora Candyland, and I just think it's overcommercialization. I am sorry I bought Disney Princess UNO because they changed the rules and made it silly. No more.

    Posted by Mom of 2 Girls October 25, 10 01:20 PM
  1. We have too many toys, but I combat this by rotating them in and out of play every month or so. For instance, we have a play "table" in our family room...for the past few weeks it has had "police cars" and other related stuff. My son's other "collections" (matchbox cars, pirate stuff, dinos, animals, trains) are put AWAY in bins in a closet. I noticed this weekend that the police stuff hasn't been touched in well over a week. So I will probably pack it away in its box and put out something else.

    I do the same for my daughter that's a little younger. Right now the Little People Farm is out...but by the end of the week it will sit untouched...and I will swap it for some play food and a cash register to play store. Or I'll adios all of their stuff and load up the play table with puzzles for a week or so.

    Their main bookcase is in the playroom...I even rotate out the books they have in their bedrooms. I do this less often, but I really do it. Over time books travel upstairs to their rooms from the basement play area, and then there are too many books in their rooms. I take them downstairs and put them away in the shelf and bring up a few different ones to start the process over again.

    We are fortunate to have a lot of closet/storage space for this, but even in our old house that was much smaller, I managed to find places to put things completely away. In fact, it was the only way for me to manage toy clutter without having a dedicated "playroom" (which we do have now and I love). Out of sight, out of mind, and when you rotate things well, it makes them seem new again when they appear.

    I also participate in a twice-yearly children's consignment sale (and unsold merchandise from that event goes to charity) so I make a few bucks on what has been outgrown and clean house at the same time.

    Posted by RH October 25, 10 03:08 PM
  1. We have kept my two year old daughter's toy count to a minimum due to household space requirements. She does have a few favorites and she basically ignores all of the electronic ones except for her toy airplane.

    She loves watching (and "helping" me cook), as a result her favorite toy is her play kitchen and associated pretend food items. Before anyone complains that this is a gender stereotype, I am a male who works in finance, I enjoy cooking and do the majority of it at the house. When I am cooking something that is too dangerous for her to actively be involved with, after her initial tantrum, she will drag her kitchen accross the living room to the enterance of the kitchen where she can se me and mirrors what I am doing.

    Next is her blocks, for the reasons that Barbara details above.

    Next is crayons and paper that she draws on. We have a little easel and drawing table for her and will draw for hours (okay maybe not hours, but for full time working parents of a two year old, 20 minutes of her drawing and us not needing to chase her around the house seems like hours ;-D )

    Posted by DadsPlayToo!!!! October 25, 10 03:51 PM
  1. Character dolls are nice as the provide a "story starter" for play. The kids will tell new stories about the familiar people or animals. My kids absolutely loved a set of stuffed Arthur characters (DW was the favorite). What I would avoid is having every single toy labeled with a character, the talking Disney princess teapots, Wiggles checkers, Barbie crayons and markers, etc. Not everything needs to be a tie-in.

    Posted by di October 25, 10 04:03 PM
  1. When my kids were toddler/preschool age, I would sit down with them and show them a few ways to play with their toys to get them started so that the toy itself became fun and not just the dumping out the bin part. I tried to keep each type of toy in its own plastic bin and would try to keep some out of reach or put away so that the temptation to open and dump out the contents of all the bins was minimized. It's easy to acquire too many toys especially when there are well meaning grandparents who like to yard sale and find it impossible to show up empty handed. I generally discouraged toys that had to do with TV or movies except for the one or two shows that my kids really loved. They got such pleasure from the Thomas trains that fit their (knockoff) Brio set and the Bob the Builder pieces for the Duplo set.

    Posted by Cordelia October 26, 10 10:39 AM
 
7 comments so far...
  1. I disagree that toys tied to a TV show or movie are necessarily 'scripted'. My kids have always had a few toys from their favorite shows or movies, and have incorporated them into imaginative play without any apparent adherence to a 'right' way. I don't think my kids are particularly brilliant or special - I think that any kid is able to break out of the box.

    Posted by akmom October 25, 10 07:10 AM
  1. Until my daughter came along, I never fully appreciated the value of dolls as toys. My 3 year old daughter has several, and it's been interesting to watch the dynamics of her play with them change over time and parallel whatever developmental stage my daughter was leaving or entering. First, it was all about changing their diapers. Then, as my daughter was learning how to use the toilet, she focused on keeping their clothes dry and using the toilet. Now, it's very focused on dialogue not only between my daughter (as "mommy" or "teacher"--she's in daycare most of the week) and the dolls, but among multiple dolls with each other. Fascinating stuff to watch, and often amusing when I hear some of my own phrases come out of her mouth! But we are now reaching a "too many dolls" point like the LW -- to solve that we put some away for rainy days, donated a couple or moved them to other rooms in the house so she gets a fresh take on them. A handful at best is all she seems to need. We also recently purchased a doll house which has been a great addition to her toys--she really gets into the household dynamics and there's been more and more independent play as a result because she is so consumed by it. Toys that have NOT worked include anything electronic (gets bored quickly--fortunately we only have 1 or 2 of those) and, surprisingly, puppets. Bins/shelves for each type of toy have helped keep us organized. And, because we know she does it at daycare, we have her help us put toys away each night. If we say "you pick up all the dolls and we'll get the other toys", or "you pick up all the red toys", cleanup is fun for her, not so overwhelming and the room stays neat.

    Posted by Sleepymama October 25, 10 12:27 PM
  1. I agree with akmom - my daughters don't stick to the script with their toys at all. In their universe, any toys can have an adventure with Dora, who is really just another doll to them. We also have Dora Duplo blocks, because my older daughter wanted nothing to do with legos until she was drawn to the character tie-in. Now they love to play with the duplos with or without Dora.

    I will say that I stay away from the tie-in games - we don't need Simpsons Operation or Dora Candyland, and I just think it's overcommercialization. I am sorry I bought Disney Princess UNO because they changed the rules and made it silly. No more.

    Posted by Mom of 2 Girls October 25, 10 01:20 PM
  1. We have too many toys, but I combat this by rotating them in and out of play every month or so. For instance, we have a play "table" in our family room...for the past few weeks it has had "police cars" and other related stuff. My son's other "collections" (matchbox cars, pirate stuff, dinos, animals, trains) are put AWAY in bins in a closet. I noticed this weekend that the police stuff hasn't been touched in well over a week. So I will probably pack it away in its box and put out something else.

    I do the same for my daughter that's a little younger. Right now the Little People Farm is out...but by the end of the week it will sit untouched...and I will swap it for some play food and a cash register to play store. Or I'll adios all of their stuff and load up the play table with puzzles for a week or so.

    Their main bookcase is in the playroom...I even rotate out the books they have in their bedrooms. I do this less often, but I really do it. Over time books travel upstairs to their rooms from the basement play area, and then there are too many books in their rooms. I take them downstairs and put them away in the shelf and bring up a few different ones to start the process over again.

    We are fortunate to have a lot of closet/storage space for this, but even in our old house that was much smaller, I managed to find places to put things completely away. In fact, it was the only way for me to manage toy clutter without having a dedicated "playroom" (which we do have now and I love). Out of sight, out of mind, and when you rotate things well, it makes them seem new again when they appear.

    I also participate in a twice-yearly children's consignment sale (and unsold merchandise from that event goes to charity) so I make a few bucks on what has been outgrown and clean house at the same time.

    Posted by RH October 25, 10 03:08 PM
  1. We have kept my two year old daughter's toy count to a minimum due to household space requirements. She does have a few favorites and she basically ignores all of the electronic ones except for her toy airplane.

    She loves watching (and "helping" me cook), as a result her favorite toy is her play kitchen and associated pretend food items. Before anyone complains that this is a gender stereotype, I am a male who works in finance, I enjoy cooking and do the majority of it at the house. When I am cooking something that is too dangerous for her to actively be involved with, after her initial tantrum, she will drag her kitchen accross the living room to the enterance of the kitchen where she can se me and mirrors what I am doing.

    Next is her blocks, for the reasons that Barbara details above.

    Next is crayons and paper that she draws on. We have a little easel and drawing table for her and will draw for hours (okay maybe not hours, but for full time working parents of a two year old, 20 minutes of her drawing and us not needing to chase her around the house seems like hours ;-D )

    Posted by DadsPlayToo!!!! October 25, 10 03:51 PM
  1. Character dolls are nice as the provide a "story starter" for play. The kids will tell new stories about the familiar people or animals. My kids absolutely loved a set of stuffed Arthur characters (DW was the favorite). What I would avoid is having every single toy labeled with a character, the talking Disney princess teapots, Wiggles checkers, Barbie crayons and markers, etc. Not everything needs to be a tie-in.

    Posted by di October 25, 10 04:03 PM
  1. When my kids were toddler/preschool age, I would sit down with them and show them a few ways to play with their toys to get them started so that the toy itself became fun and not just the dumping out the bin part. I tried to keep each type of toy in its own plastic bin and would try to keep some out of reach or put away so that the temptation to open and dump out the contents of all the bins was minimized. It's easy to acquire too many toys especially when there are well meaning grandparents who like to yard sale and find it impossible to show up empty handed. I generally discouraged toys that had to do with TV or movies except for the one or two shows that my kids really loved. They got such pleasure from the Thomas trains that fit their (knockoff) Brio set and the Bob the Builder pieces for the Duplo set.

    Posted by Cordelia October 26, 10 10:39 AM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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