Next Step Therapy Blog: ‘Let’s Talk Toys’

Tracy 1Tracy Cowles, CEO and owner of Next Step Therapy, submitted the following article: “Let’s Talk Toys.”

When I was a girl (yeah, I know, back in the olden days), my sister and I shared a bedroom with bunk beds. Those bunk beds, with the hanging of a few blankets, became a cave, a prison, a hotel, and a hospital recovery room. We were decidedly lower middle class, which meant that we had everything we needed plus a few extras, but we weren’t surrounded by seven thousand dollars’ worth of toys.
We had a plastic kitchen with tiny sink, cupboards, and stove “burners.” We had plastic dishes, pans, utensils and plastic/cardboard food. We had tinkertoys, and dolls, and stuffed animals. We had a doctors’ kit, and we had a chest filled with my parents cast off clothes for “dress up.” We had a few board games, and a Lite Bright. We had a toy phone, and a craft box.

Vicky and I were expected to play in our room for at least some time in the evenings and weekends. We were often accompanied by my cousin Kim, and the neighbor boys, Chris and Jon. We had to negotiate the game of the day – all of which were imaginary/pretend play. We played hospital with our babies and doctor kit. Sometimes we had twenty patients. We played house. We played bakery, with our kitchen and dishes. Our tinkertoys became “candy” and “cookies.” We sometimes played school, or office.

The point that I am trying to make is that back in the day, children played games and played with each other in ways that required talking (planning, organizing, picking roles, and dialoguing back and forth during the play). We also had the ability (necessity) of pretending that one object was another (tinkertoy used at medicine/shot/cookie).

Research shows very clearly that the ability to “pretend play,” either alone, or with others, is an integral developmental step, which is directly related to language ability (which later turns into reading ability). Pretend play involves all of the senses, decision making, cause and effect relationships, and a host of other desirable skills – most notably social skills.

Today’s toys, for the most part, are just not the same. Many have buttons to push and make noise, but have virtually no developmental/educational value whatsoever. When I made home visits, I was always disturbed to find a child who scored two years delayed behind his peers, surrounded by worthless, noisemaking toys.

When picking toys for your child, first, understand that your child’s biological age may be very different from their developmental age. There is no point in buying toys marked for 7-10 years, for a seven year old who tests cognitively at four years old. Buy the toys that are DEVELOPMENTALLY appropriate for your child. They have to develop those skills first, before they are ready for the more advanced toys. If your child is given toys by relatives for Christmas or Birthdays that they aren’t ready for, just put them away for the time being. You can always pull them out later.

Second, look for toys that require that your child learn a skill. Whether it is matching, eye/hand coordination, finger manipulation, or talking, make sure that the toy you are looking at will enhance their ability.

This is my list of my all-time favorite toys to take into homes for the birth to three crowd:

1. Mr. Potato Head (did you know that the original came with only the pieces and not the base? You put the pieces into a real potato!) Mr. Potato Head works on body parts, facial expressions, making choices, and manipulating those pieces into the small holes they fit in. During therapy, I would frequently seal my lips shut and talk through them: “Oh no, I don’t have a mouth! Help me! I can’t talk right!” There is a wealth of vocabulary to work on here (push/pull, in/out, falling down, needing help), and once Mr. Potato Head has been mastered and no longer looks like a Picasso painting, it turns out that Mr. Potato Head can be joined by the Mrs. and the kids! Now you can talk about families and the differences between boys/girls, big/small.

2. Doctors’ kit – A plastic doctors’ kit complete with stethoscope, thermometer, shot, Band-Aid, and blood pressure cuff allows a child and an adult to go back and forth pretending to be both the patient and the doctor. It’s a great opportunity for dialoguing (“Hi! I’m Doctor Tracy. Where does it hurt?”) and it is also wonderful practice to get a child ready for a real doctors visit.

3. Puzzles – I and every other therapist I know, LOVE puzzles. They come in developmental stages (first individual chunky pieces, then large individual pieces with little pegs, then big pieces that interlock, eventually turning into small pieces that all interlock). Wooden puzzles are typically designed in categories, (animals, food, transportation) which works on cognitive/organization skills. They require matching skills, eye/hand coordination, and work on vocabulary. They are also initially frustrating for most children, so it creates an opportunity to work on “try again,” and “turn it.” Some of these “puzzles” have “doors” over the pieces that have to be opened….the vocabulary to be worked on is endless!

4. Wooden fruit/vegetable/pizza/cupcake sets – These typically come with “tools” such as pretend knives/pizza cutter/spatula. Again, great eye/hand work, and tons of vocabulary. “What are we going to make?” “Oh I love Pizza!” “What toppings will you put on it?” “Be careful you don’t burn yourself, because that’s hot!” (All pretend, of course).

5. Big, chunky figures – dinosaurs, animals – you pick. My little clients and I could spend a solid 20 minutes having two dinosaurs get to know each other, have an adventure climbing Mount Tracy or Mount Couch, and then pretend to go to McDonalds to order lunch.

As you can see from this list, none of these things is electric or battery operated. Each one of these things will just sit there, unless the child MAKES it do something.

You should also note that in each description, an ADULT sits on the floor with the child, and helps him explore, talk about and manipulate the toys. Naturally, you can’t do this all day long, but when the toy is first introduced, showing the child HOW to play with it and giving examples of how to talk with it/about it is a must.

Garage sale season is right around the corner – using these guidelines, see what you can get on the cheap. Wash with soap and water before giving to your child, and let’s make some pretend magic this spring! And, as always, make sure that there are no smaller pieces that can choke your children.


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