Ask Amma

The right toys

In What on 8 June 2013 at 3:30 am

My son is 18 months old and it feels like he is growing up very fast.  I often have thought about “Am I giving him enough toys to play?” or sometimes “Am I giving him the right toys?  I have also heard about introducing new toys to children which are age appropriate, and it would be helpful to get your insight on this topic.

– mother of an 18 month-old in Irvine. 
Though almost anything can be a toy, play does not require toys.  Running, climbing, dancing, hide-and-seek, hopscotch and all kinds of imaginary games are fun and appropriate for all ages.   Coming to your question, what makes you think he needs more toys?
What are the things that your son reaches for now?  Observe the ways he engages with the people and things around him.  Young children often want to be involved in whatever those around them are doing, and so common household objects like dishes and buckets and cabinets become attractive.  If people in the family are into gardening, art, music, woodwork or other crafts, kids would probably want to get their hands on the shovels, brushes, instruments or other supplies involved.  Of course if the important objects seem to be the phone or laptop, kids will want those too.  Most of us would be better off spending less time with our gadgets, and diversifying our activities.
More important than selecting the right toy is cultivating a positive attitude towards work and play, which are one and the same for a child.  Why should we as adults break that continuum?  Often I hear children who are taking pots and pans out of the cabinets being told to “go play” and even given “toy” pots and pans for this purpose.  Rather than recognizing the child’s desire to be part of the action and including the child in their work, these parents impose a separation between work and play.  Having given the the plastic kitchen set to the child, do the parents join them?  No, they continue in the actual kitchen.  Children resist this second-class status, and hence the instructions to go and play and stay out of the kitchen are repeated and reinforced through various means, often including more toys.
What if you could share the space and material in the kitchen?  It would slow down your work, only if you narrowly define your work as getting that specific meal prepared in a timely manner.  But the work that you thought you were accomplishing by providing age-appropriate toys, can also get done by allowing kids in the kitchen.  Secondly, why be so possessive about your work?  Doesn’t the work belong to the family, including the child?  Taking items out of the shelf may seem useless or counter-productive to you, especially when you are putting them back, but if you hear what the child is communicating (I want to be part of the family, to do what the elders of my species do), it is not pointless.  And if it makes you feel better, there are some motor skills being honed, and spatial relations being worked out in the process.  When you believe the noise has a purpose, it is less likely to give you a headache.
As you mention that he is growing up fast, you may not be surprised to find that soon he can also do things like put the spoons away or wash some tomatoes or roll some chapatis, if you let him do it in his own way.
Another positive attitude parents should develop is a positive attitude towards dirt.  As Fraulein Maria said, “Children can’t do all the things they’re supposed to if they have to worry about spoiling their precious clothes.”  I can also summon the New York Times, “Babies Know:  A Little Dirt is Good for You.”  Much of the toy market is driven by a motive to engage kids in a way that keeps them indoors, sitting still and not getting dirty and not falling down and scraping their knees.  This is hardly age-appropriate!
So to recap – the way to encourage play is
  • provide plenty of space to run, jump, climb, etc
  • allow children to get dirty and take some risks
  • don’t separate work and play

And now for toys.  As the new / old wisdom on food says, “buy no food that you see advertised (Michael Pollan).”   Why not apply the same to toys?  Especially toys that talk, light up, or claim to develop the brain.   Of course such educational claims are part of the sales pitch for most toys, so I would probably just ignore them.  Also avoid any toy that is so expensive that you would not want to see it broken.  Toy inventor and scientist Arvind Gupta says that the best thing a child can do with a toy is break it … and on Arvind Gupta’s website you can find toys that you can put together and take apart all you want, since they are made of odds and ends.

Everything that toys are touted to promote – be it imagination, creativity, problem solving or – arise more meaningfully through self-directed interaction with real time, space, people and ordinary objects found in mission-critical places like the kitchen, bathroom, laundry room, or the puddle in the yard.  Toys from the store often have predesigned functions, whereas in the imaginary world of the child, anything can be anything.   A boat made of paper or tinfoil can be a raft or a coast guard vessel or cruise ship.  Even a bead or a twig or a leaf can be a boat.  Or a passenger.  Or an iceberg.

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If I had to buy a toy, I would go for one without many features, that does not do much on its own (or require batteries!) or have a script already designed for it.  Even if it does, of course there is no requirement that one follow the given script.  So I would avoid suggesting the “right way” to play with a toy.
When one has only a few toys, their roles grow over time.   What I have found is that through years of playing, some toys are far more versatile than we imagined at first.   Even if you don’t buy any toys, you might get some as gifts or hand-me-downs.   To avoid accumulating too many toys, you could pass old ones along to make room for new, but a word of caution: if this happens frequently, then one of the lessons learned from the toy will be its disposability.

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  1. I have a follow up question but it could be an independent topic by itself. I have a 3 year old (Akhila) and a 10 month old (Avani). I will be flying to India alone with them shortly. I never visited India with the older one, so this is my 1st trip after kids! Any tips or suggestions regarding toys I can easily pack and entertain them with on a long flight? Also, any other tips for flying with young children would be great!

    -Divya from San Jose


    • Hi Divya,

      How long is the flight and how many waking hours does it cover? Toys per se are hard to play with on planes since the space is so small and anything with parts will fall down. It is hard to keep bending to pick it up. I would suggest nursing through take-off and landing, and at any other time, and taking plenty of food so that you and the kids can sleep whenever you want.

      When mine was little she slept through most of the flight but while awake she would like to

      – nurse / eat
      – talk
      – walk up and down the aisle saying hello to people
      – play the card game that the airline gave out in the kiddie pack
      – draw / color
      – play guessing and other games (see below)

      Your older one might also like the scenery from the window.

      We also made up our own “video game” that we use on trains and planes – we look out the window, and “click” on people and things (by touching the window and pointing to them) and put them where we think they should go. If you are on the ground waiting for the plane to take off you could, for example, send someone to baggage claim, or onto another plane, or to another city. In the process you make up little stories about why you think they need to go there. This is a game that changes every time.

      We also played the “dot game” where you draw a grid of dots on a paper and take turns connecting them. You try to make squares. Another game is a guessing game where you think of something and the other person tries to guess, or “humming and guessing” where one person hums something and the other one tries to guess.

      Other tips – the sling was essential for me during any kind of travel. How many times have I wished I had a sling to offer someone struggling to carry a child and push the luggage cart in the airport.

      If you haven’t already, you should request the bassinet for the little one. And hope for an empty seat next to you! If you have to change planes it is good to have a stroller in case the kiddos are asleep at least one can stay sleeping in the stroller (and the other in the sling). Things are generally smoother when you don’t have to wake them up. If they do wake up though, many airports have places where kids can climb and slide and also watch flights take off. Amsterdam even has a mini museum right in the airport.

      All the best!


  2. Thank you Aravinda for your very detailed reply.
    To your question “what makes you think he needs more toys?”
    He doesn’t get amused with the toys he has, atleast not as much as he did when we got them first, which made me think he might need more or new toys.
    After reading the post I tried involving my son in small chores like unloading the dish washer and he absolutely loves it! I also tried to sit down on the floor and knead the dough for roti and that didnt seem to interest him,i will continue to try and have him take part and contribute in whatever he wants to.


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