What is the best toy for a young child? Go ahead, guess. I’ll wait. Here are some hints: It doesn’t have batteries or any moving parts. With a little woodworking skill, a table saw and some sandpaper, you could make it yourself.
Give up? The best toy for a young child is unpainted wooden blocks. You know: those boring-looking rectangles, squares, and triangles.
Unpainted wooden blocks have limitless potential for children to build and create whatever they can imagine. The blocks don’t hinder children because there is no specific outcome or way that they need to be used. Blocks can be telephones, ramps for cars, or castles.
In my niece Samira’s case, her blocks were paired with play dough to build her very own MedBay from Among Us, the multiplayer video game she loves. In the game, a small number of players are imposters (the evil antagonists of the game) and the rest are crew mates. As Samira was building, she told me a long story about how the Purple play dough was being scanned in MedBay, so that’s how you know it wasn’t the imposter. But Lime was hiding near the vent in the corner. The game has its own lingo, including “sus” which means suspicious. In Samira’s block MedBay, Lime play dough was sus.
The flexibility and open-ended nature of both wooden blocks and play dough allow Samira to use her imagination to create a completely unique scenario based on a video game she enjoys. She was able to use the materials to convey what she was thinking in a way that I could easily understand. With simple, cost-effective toys she was practicing artistic representation and communication. She was deepening her understanding of how the game works by translating it into a new medium.
Unpainted wooden blocks, and lots of other toys that promote open-ended play, are great choices for kids. They promote creativity and healthy developmental growth. On the flip side, there are some categories of toys parents should try to avoid. It may be unrealistic to completely steer clear of these types of unhealthy toys, but here are some red flags to watch out for:
Toys that overly focus on appearance.
Toys that focus on makeup and hair styling can be problematic, especially for young girls. There is nothing wrong with being mindful of appearance, but when children receive toys that focus on physical appearance, they may believe that what they can contribute to the world and their ideas are less valuable than looking pretty.
The reality is that someone, somewhere will give your child a toy that overly focuses on appearance. Or more likely, your child may ask you for a toy makeup set. If that happens, make sure you’re talking to your child about how it’s fun to play with makeup and lots of people like to wear makeup, but that it’s more important to be kind, smart, and creative.
Overly gendered toys.
The next time you receive a toy catalog in the mail (‘tis the season for toy-related junk mail!) take a moment to critically flip through the pages. Here is what you will likely see: boys holding toy guns, toy axes, blocks, and building sets. Girls will be shown pushing toy vacuums, playing in toy kitchens, and holding dolls.
Take a moment to look at the children’s faces in these ads. The boys are often grimacing or their mouths are open in a battle cry. Girls are often smiling softly or look like they’re laughing.
Better options are toys that are not marketed in a way that is overly gendered. There is nothing inherently wrong with toy axes and vacuum cleaners, but toys like building blocks, puzzles, and active toys like balls and scooters are prefereable.
Highly academic toys.
This may surprise many people, but something marketed as a “smart toy” is not usually a smart choice for a young child. These types of toys are often technology based and try to replace interactions with adults. For example, a $50 electronic toy that promises to teach your child how to read isn’t better than you reading a $3 book to your child. Play is sacred to children and creative play is the best way to prepare kids for reading, school, and life.
You may be wondering why I haven’t singled out violent toys. You know: all the toy swords, daggers, and guns that most kids love. Toys like that are problematic because they are strongly gendered, but they aren’t necessarily bad choices because they are based on weapons.
Here’s how kids’ brains work: They explore their world by engaging in what early childhood educators call “dramatic play.” They play it and pretend it in order to learn it. They process scary and intense stuff through play. I try to not intervene in pretend weapon play too much and the only rules are “don’t hurt others, don’t hurt yourself, and don’t break anything” with play weapons.
You’ve probably seen it. A child bites pieces off their graham cracker until it looks like a gun. Or every block and every sandbox shovel turns into a sword. That’s nothing to worry about and can be a good time to remind children that we never point weapons at people or pets. When weapon play becomes taboo, children will learn how to do it in secret. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather kids be upfront with what they are processing and learning about so I can support them.
You only have to worry if you see Lime hiding around the corner.