Do you feel overwhelmed by the choice of playthings out there for your little ones?
Shops and online stores are full to bursting with toys for every age group. Just looking is exhausting. Toys are labelled by age group in many stores and this too can be confusing. Does it mean my child should like this? Should I get the one suitable for now or for the next stage? Let’s bring it back to basics and make it a whole lot simpler.
First things first, when do infants really take an interest in play?
According to observations carried out over several decades at the Pikler Institute in Hungary, approximately the first three months of life are given to exploring immediate surroundings. By that, I mean noticing what comes in and out of the field of vision. Limbs are moving, kicking, grasping, head turning from one side to the other.
Muscles are beginning to tone and, from a safe, warm place on the floor or in a crib, an infant starts to grapple with gravity, light and sound.
What a difference from being suspended in that warm, protected space inside the womb. Here are the beginnings of curiosity and experimentation.
When given the opportunity to explore this way for periods of each day, an infant discovers his hands. They drift in and out of view as the arms move, eventually finding each other and becoming the objects of play. It’s fascinating to watch.
What are those? I can feel them. Can I control them? Yes, I can.
This may go on for days or weeks, each occasion being another step on the way to discovery. This then, alongside the many other small but vital movements and discoveries, is all the child needs from play in the early days. The temptation to hang that beautiful mobile almost within reach or place a baby gym over the infant is great. After all, they are designed with babies in mind. But perhaps these will only serve to distract him from the work at hand – self-discovery and self-mastery. Even greater is the urge to put something in front of a propped-up infant to serve as a distraction – whether it’s shaking a rattle at him or using a television or other electronic device. If you take only one thing away from this, please let it be this. Little ones do not benefit from being distracted! That’s not what this is about, so perhaps that’s a whole other blog, but put yourself in their position for a moment.
You’re not mobile yet. You’re sat in a position you didn’t get into by yourself and you can’t move out of it. There’s something moving in front of your eyes but you can’t reach it. You become transfixed. You sit, unable to move, for long periods of time until eventually you either start to cry, likely from overwhelm or frustration, or you go to sleep. But surely, if my child has gone to sleep, that’s a good thing?
Sleep is one of the only controls an infant has. It’s a way to shut down when it all gets too much.
Simply put, if we want our children to be curious about the world, to be strong, self-reliant individuals, we need to give them every opportunity available to explore, to follow their interest and enthusiasm. This requires a supportive environment.
But back to the point. Once interest in the (slightly) wider world increases, placing a few Playthings within easy reach on the floor nearby creates opportunity and choice. It encourages movement, towards the object of choice.
To my mind, the best playthings are those that have endless possibility. (Watch a toddler with a wooden brick. It’s a phone, it’s an iron, it’s a car or a piece of cake. When we give something that is open-ended, we give the gift of imagination.)
For the first two to three years, approximately, much of a child’s play is about discovery – of the self and of the world around. Play is exploration, experimentation and survival. Just as, in the wild, an animal may learn how to survive through playing with its siblings, so we humans need to work out what our bodies can do, what hurts, how to solve problems. Play is the medium. As parents, our role is to provide a ‘YES’ space where this is possible.
My five favourite playthings
- A square of fabric – whether plain or patterned. It’s soft, lets light through and is easy to grab for little hands. And what can it be for the older child? A hat, a scarf, a table-cloth or napkin…
- A simple doll – something with little or no facial features is best. Let the child decide how the doll is feeling. A doll provides companionship and an opportunity to practise caring for another.
- Stacking cups, bowls or dishes – perhaps wooden, bold colourful plastic or metal – each has its own interesting properties of sound and touch as well as endless play possibilities.
- Something to push along. I like the little wooden car-type toys – the plainer the better with maybe a hole that little fingers can use as a handle.
- Baskets and bags. So useful! And here we might sneak in an extra something, which is lots of loose bits and pieces to put in the baskets and bags – cones, shells, blocks etc. (Does that make it six?)
Picking just five is actually very hard. Keeping it simple is not always easy, but if you follow your child’s interest and offer a variety of shape, texture and colour, you won’t go far wrong.