Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

How to Buy Toys That Kids Actually Use

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It is easy to feel overwhelmed when walking the aisles of a toy store.  Toys can be expensive and there is no guarantee that your investment will payoff.

The good news is that buying toys doesn’t have to be another annoying task or a waste of money.  Here is a complete guide to buying engaging toys, which will enrich your home instead of collecting dust bunnies.

What NOT to Buy

Before I can explain how to select a fabulous toy, I need to highlight what makes a toy get tossed aside.  Toys are often purchased with the assumption that the primary purpose of play is entertainment.  Therefore, it is assumed that toys should also be entertaining.  However, the function of play is more existential, because it prepares children to survive and thrive in an uncertain world.  It just so happens that play is also entertaining.

This means that there is no need to purchase toys which primarily seek to entertain children.  Perhaps you’ve already noticed, but the most exciting toys are usually tossed aside after the honeymoon period is over.  Think of Happy Meal toys, holiday gifts and birthday presents all clumped into the bottom of the toy box or thrown out with last week’s garbage.

The reason that these toys end up there is because they can only offer external entertainment, while the best form of engagement comes from within a child’s own mind.  While toys are fixed in their design, the human brain is not.  You see, external entertainment is usually too simplistic to capture a child’s attention for very long.  Children are smart and they can pick up on patterns quickly.  Once a child figures out what a toy can do, it will stop engaging the child.

Ironically, the most externally entertaining toys are often the very same ones that your child selects from the toy store.  This is because children are easy distracted and not typically in a position to focus while toy shopping.  Due to the over-stimulating environment in the toy store, children tend to pick up toys that do the thinking for them.  While at home, however, there is a lack of external stimulation and so children will be ready for, and desiring, toys which require them to think at a deep level in order to use them.

What do externally entertaining toys look like?  They typically have batteries, lights, buttons and buzzers and they walk, talk and move.  These toys are very exciting and your child will be thrilled when they open one as a present.  But, instead of buying a house full of entertaining toys, pick out a couple for special occasions and save your money for more stimulating toys, which will capture the imagination of the child.

The Primary Purpose of Toys

Now that you know what not to buy and why, it is important to highlight what a child seeks to gain from playing with toys.  When shopping, ask yourself if the toy you are considering will meet the following developmental needs of the child:

#1) Productivity

Young minds are curious and stimulation through play keeps them engaged in a positive outlet instead of crying, complaining, fighting, coloring on the walls, or worse. Play is a child’s purposeful, daily work. Keep in mind that productivity is not the same as entertainment.  Stacking blocks is important, purposeful work for children.

#2) Intellectual Development

Great toys stimulate the intellect.  As children interact with toys, they begin to ask questions like why, how, if/then, etc…  Toys also provide a medium for experimenting with, and solidifying, new knowledge.  For example, if you have been practicing counting with your child, you may hear her counting blocks during play.

#3) Emotional Development

* A “lovey” is the special toy that your child takes with him or her on their daily adventures and/or sleeps with each night.

Toys can provide a stable presence for children as they undergo change.  For example, your child may find his lovey to be especially crucial during a move to a new home because, unlike life, Teddy Bear never changes.  Also, a child can express and act out all of his positive and negative emotions (e.g. anger, love, compassion, jealousy) safely with a toy, without judgement or an undesirable response.

#4) Social Development

Toys allow children to work though and process social experiences, rules and norms within a safe environment.  For example, you may see your child putting a toy car in time-out for bashing into the toy bus.

What to Look for in a Great Toy

* Make toy shopping a breeze!  Visit Intelligent Nest’s Toy Store, powered by Amazon.com. Click here to visit & happy shopping!

The most important question to ask yourself when buying a toy is, “How many ways can you conceive of a child using this toy over the next month and/or years?”  Keep in mind that the question is not asking how many built-in activities and buttons that the toy offers.  Rather, how many different ways can a child initiate play with the toy?

Consider that a simple wooden block can be mouthed by six-month old baby, tapped together by a one-year old to make music, stacked by an eighteen-month old, counted by a two-year old and made into a fort for cars by a three-year old and then transformed into a catapult by a five-year old child.  The more ways that the toy can be used, the better the toy.

Determine if the toy serves the child’s developmental needs or if it just entertaining him for a minute or two.  A toy that stimulates the intellect, emotions and/or a child’s social development, as well as offering the child a productive outlet, is a keeper!

When considering your budget, opt for quality over quantity.  You’ll make a better investment in buying one expensive, yet quality, toy which is used for a couple of years verses buying several cheap toys that offer only quick thrills.  An example of an excellent, quality toy is MagnaTiles by Valtech.

Activity Cube

Another sign of a great toy is that it has parts which can be easily and freely manipulated.  For example, one of the most expensive, but worst toys that parents get trapped into buying is the activity cube.  The activities on the cube are very simplistic and static, which means that do not change and quickly become a bore to children.

* For toy ideas, visit Intelligent Nest’s Toy Recommendation Guide for suggestions of toys for kids ages birth to five years.

Finally, consider buying toys that are different than those at home.  If you already own twenty-five cars, give a doll a try instead.  Offer instruments, even if you and your child have no interest in music.  Don’t be afraid of messes and buy a variety of art supplies.  Let boys dress up in gowns and heels (it’s OK!) and buy your daughter a rocket ship or science kit.  Think outside the box of what you grew up playing with and your own expectations of what you think your child should enjoy doing.  Offer a variety of learning opportunities to your child and watch him or her blossom.

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