Toys. They’re everywhere these days. Although their natural habitat is a well-organized chest in your child’s room, they frequently migrate to places like the living room, kitchen table, the car, your bed, and of course, directly under your feet in a dark hallway in the middle of the night.
What’s worse, new toys threaten to encroach upon your home environment all the time, as birthdays, holidays and random visits from grandma and grandpa often bring more and more of these parasitic playthings with them.
So how do parents like us know which of the thousands of toys out there are actually worth keeping (or buying in the first place)? Which ones will maintain our children’s interest, help them learn something, boost their problem-solving skills and inspire their creativity?
It isn’t as hard as it seems. Just look for specimens exhibiting the following five characteristics, and you’ll find your child the perfect toy in no time.
- Bell- and whistle-free: You know those battery-operated toys that talk, blink and play the most irritating sound effects you’ve ever heard? They’re the peacocks of the toy world, and their showy exteriors are distracting you from a dirty, hidden secret: they’re bad at teaching your kids stuff. There are two main reasons for this. First, because they do so much on their own, these toys can constrict a child’s imaginary involvement with them. And second, research studies at places like Penn State have revealed that when kids play with electronic toys, they engage in considerably less conversation with the parents or kids around them. And that should set off alarm bells in your head, because frequent conversations with parents benefit every aspect of a child’s development. So for maximum human social interaction, choose toys that can keep their traps shut.
- Open-ended: Many toys are designed to have a single, best use – a car is for driving and a teapot is for pouring tea. But open-ended toys are different. They’re not for anything in particular, and they don’t really do much of anything on their own. But kids can use open-ended toys like balls, blocks and clay creatively to have lots and lots of fun. These toys are true chameleons, conforming to whatever playtime activities your kids dare to dream up. And they contain other benefits too. Because open-ended toys have infinite uses, kids get bored with them far less quickly than their fixed-use alternatives. And since it’s essential to continually find new and interesting ways to play with them, open-ended toys promote creativity and problem-solving skills as well. That’s why researchers from the University of North Carolina and Florida Atlantic University found that kids with open-ended play experience were more easily able to solve problems requiring creative use of tools.
- Individualized: Look at the packaging for most toys, and you’d think the only thing kids care about is whether their stuff is pink or blue. But picking toys based solely on gender makes as little sense as picking pets that way. Do all girls love cats? Do all boys love dogs? Of course not. The best toys should consider your child’s gender less, and his or her unique interests more. So think about the kinds of activities and topics your little ones are most into. Do they love finishing puzzles, cooking in play kitchens, dressing up as different characters, or covering the walls with art? Try to identify which types of toys your child might especially like and then make a beeline for the appropriate aisle – no matter what color it happens to be.
- Moderately realistic: You can buy abstract wooden dolls with no arms, legs or faces, and you can buy toy garbage trucks so detailed you can practically smell the stench. But researchers have found that kids have the most frequent and diverse play with toys whose realism levels fall somewhere between these two extremes. Although children are drawn to toys with interesting realistic detail, too much detail can restrict their imaginations. For example, a doll with two eyes, a nose and a mouth invites kids to identify and imagine play scenarios with it, but an overly specific facial expression – like an action figure with a villainous sneer – limits the range of emotions and storylines included during playtime. In this way, the best toys are like unicorns. They include enough horse to seem real, but enough horn to become magical.
- Directionless: When you first pull a new toy out of its box, do your kid a favor and toss the instructions aside. Although children benefit from being taught things, independent exploration often leads to more interesting play. Multiple research studies have examined kids’ behavior after receiving a new toy, then either being explicitly taught how the toy worked, or being given no instructions. The children who were taught showed more limited play, using the toy only in those ways that were demonstrated. But the lucky kiddos who were taught nothing showed more varied and creative play, discovering additional new features of the toy all on their own. So let each toy be like a platypus – at first it might look weird and confusing, but once your kid figures out how all the parts work, it’ll be pretty darn cool.
Keep in mind that not every great toy checks every item on this list, and some terrible toys might check one or two. So just think about your kid, do your best … and be sure to keep the receipt!