The other day a father asked me to recommend a toy that would make a good present for his child. He wanted a toy that was educational, something that would enhance his child’s learning. He wanted it to be fun, something his child would get excited about. He wanted it to be something lasting, something his child could enjoy for all year. He also wanted it to be within his budget. There is an easy answer, but it’s not straightforward.
Not all toys marked “educational” are necessarily helpful for your child. To start, they must be aimed at the specific child’s ability and interest level to engage the child. The toy must arouse questions in the child’s mind and provide a way to answer that curiosity. In reality, any toy, household item, or even a mud puddle outside can be turned into an educational experience. Look for toys that encourage building, creating, or imaginatively playing.
Unfortunately, many of the toys that a child wants are the toys that have been most heavily advertised, rather than the best choice for that child. However, I don’t suggest ignoring the child’s advertising-driven desires. Get at least one toy on her wish list, otherwise opening presents could be very disappointing for everyone. While the event may never live up to the expectation, don’t be the Grinch by attempting to teach your child all of life’s hard lessons on this special occasion.
Toys that get played with the most often are toys that can be played with in different ways and “grow” with your child. Examples include the train set that can be put together in different ways and can be added onto over the years with different tracks, trains, and buildings. Also included in this category: A doll with its furniture and clothing; blocks, such as Legos, with different combinations of types of blocks; and all types of art materials. And don’t forget mini-cook and building sets.
Two more things are needed to make the gifts stay special. The first is parent involvement. Children do not naturally pick up toys and know how many different ways in which to use them. Get down and play with them. Ask questions such as “I wonder how else this goes together?” and “What would happen if we….?” With other toys, enjoy getting involved at your child’s level. Make snowmen out of Play Dough, blend colors with water colors, get that doll dressed up for lunch. Always stay close when your child is putting together something complicated, but don’t over interfere. Second, when playing is done, there needs to be a place to put the toys away so all of the pieces can be found together the next time. Try a large bin for the train track, a shoe box for the building bricks, a book shelf for the doll and furniture, and a kitchen drawer for the art supplies. This also helps to encourage cleaning up after playing.
Your money will be well spent on your child’s gift when you follow the above considerations. Remember, however, the most important gifts you give your child will always be your time and your attention.
Evelyn Satterlee, M.Ed.