THE BLOG
09/23/2013 11:09 am ET Updated Nov 21, 2013

Dr. Toy Talks About Play and Toys

Why are toys so important?

After many years studying and selecting toys of all kind I strongly believe the toys a child plays with can help to unlock the door to learning. Each new play experience helps to turn the key and unlock doors to experiences that influence mental, social and other aspects of the child's fullest development. Play is the child's work. Toys are important tools for playing and learning. As children grow and become more involved in play, the right toys support and extend learning.

When children play they learn about their own and others' abilities. Children learn to get attention in appropriate ways. Play helps children to expand their curiosity, solve problems, and gain many different skills. All these aspects are important to learning, which continues from baby to being a responsible adult.

Toys are tools that promote the experience of playfulness. What we adults sometimes forget is that playful experience is the heart and soul of real learning. How can we provide the experiences that grow a healthy society in which everybody is being happier, more playful, more productive, less stressed, or less angry?

How do we create a playful and positive world where children have better relationships with their parents and with each other?

Play is a bridge to learning. That's what it's all about. Children learn all the time through play.

Which toys stimulate creativity?
I organize toys into three types with some examples for each type depending on the age, abilities, and interests of each child. roviding a balance of playthings helps stimulate the child's mental, creative, physical abilities.

Active toys improve the child's physical activity and provide essential exercise. They help develop large and small muscles, eye-hand coordination, dexterity, and encourage children to learn and practice climbing, crawling, and improving balance. Examples of active products include balls, blocks, jump ropes, bicycles, construction toys, sand, and clay.

Creative toys stimulate the child's imagination and encourage self-expression. Examples are blocks, crafts, small houses, mirrors, musical instruments, puppets, stuffed animals, and art supplies. These items help the child's dramatic ability, social skills, and artistic development.

Educational toys help a child learn specific skills, and sometimes several skills at once. Any toy can be educational if it is used in an enriching way. Examples are board games, books, checkers, pegboards, puzzles, science projects, hobbies, technical products, musical instruments, videotapes, microscopes, and telescopes.

What age should children begin to read and which kinds of books are better?

Introducing reading early on the child's life is very important. Children enjoy hearing stories. Reading out loud gives them a good introduction to words. Add a puppet or two to enrich the reading aloud experiences.

Books expand information, imagination, and understanding. Very young children can start listening and looking at cardboard, fabric, or paper books.

Basic books of all kinds provide information, stories, and learning. Spending time together with books is enjoyable for young and old.

Concerning television and other digital media, what do you advise?
Reading books and discovering words, meanings and information provides direct learning, and helps expand the child's imagination and understanding.

It is important to limit TV, and all other electronics, so young children spend time first reading books every day. If they are given ample opportunity to read and learn from books, they will enjoy books.

Children are constantly exposed to fast-moving information and technology. As a result, it is difficult to get the child to stop and focus on reading, which happens at a much slower pace, but is vital for fullest brain development.

Adults need to set the example. Turn off the TV and other electronics, and turn on the mind every day. The child learns best first from books, games, construction toys, and from music and art experiences and other direct experiences like exploring nature, visiting the park, or zoo, and growing a garden.

These real life experiences stimulate curiosity, creativity, and enthusiasm for learning and communication which helps children grow more fully.

There are also good TV shows, DVDs, Apps and digital products for iPods/iPads/iPhones and all other examples, but it's best to limit the amount of time spent with electronics and most of all balance the time exposed and encourage experiences with real board games, arts, crafts and other concrete person driven activities.

Provide direct experiences, balance, and exploration with real things -- playing with toys, being active with sports, and having fun with building and all sorts of games. If these experiences are missed, the child's fullest mental and social development will also be deficient. It's like a balance in a healthy diet that children require to grow to their maximum physical development.

When we play games directly with friends and parents, the experiences are different than when we are playing video or electronic games. Children gain most from the real experiences they are exposed to and the electronics are the added values like dessert.

What classic toys that you recommend and what are toys that a child is most attracted to and why?

I greatly appreciate classic toys and cultural toys from each country. You can share nostalgia and enjoyment connected to memories of good times playing with others.

Have you noticed that many toys you played with as a child are still available? Childhood classics have lasted over generations and continue to bring joy. The joy of sharing a toy with your child that you played with is a special treat for you and for your child.

A classic toy can be very simple to enjoy, but it also has a lot of play value, and has been tested over many years. Good classic toys include: balls, checkers, chess, dolls, hula-hoops, kites, marbles, puppets, and Yo-Yos.

Here are other some good examples of excellent classic toys and their value that helps the child practice a range of skills.
• A bubble pipe is fun to use and helps develop breath control.
• Checkers teach simple strategy, when to take turns, and can be enjoyed over again.
• Chess helps develop advanced strategy, problem solving, and focus.
• A gyroscope allows the child to understand the challenge of gravity and basic principles of physics.
• The Hula Hoop and Frisbee encourage the child to exercise, strengthen and develop agility and other physical skills.
• A kite is a fun way to enjoy light breezes plus learn about gravity and air currents and focus.
• A kaleidoscope is great to expand imagination, creativity, and appreciation of color and form.
• A top provides a lesson in on-going balance.

What are the safest toys?
Toys that we recommend have been tested by laboratories, found to be non-toxic, and pass all the criteria for safety for young children.

Some guidance to remember for toys: No sharp edges. No loose ties. No little pieces. No small objects for children under three. Always confirm that any paint, like finger paint, is non-toxic.

Check the reputation of the company and store where you purchase your toy. Buy toys from a store you know and trust. Buy from a company that guarantees its product and confirms that each product has been carefully tested and is safe and appropriate for your child's age and developmental stage.


How do you make your choice about toys and other products?

I review toys all year to find the best products for home and school. Selections are made for the Dr. Toy Award Programs, which include Best Classic Toys, Best Green Toys, Best Vacation Products, and 100 Best (in 8 categories -- active, creative, educational, socially responsible, audio visual, high tech, games, and toys). We look for large and small companies, and new products introduced for the first time, from around the world. I look for products that fit these criteria.

• DESIGN. The product must have been tested carefully by the manufacturer with the intended age group. The best possible materials should be used in assembly. The item should be durable. The toy should be easy for the child to use and to keep clean.

• QUALITY. Consider the materials used to make the article. Is the product appealing in color, shape, and workmanship? We expect to get what we pay for but, unfortunately, sometimes this is not true and we are disappointed.

• DURABILITY. How long will the toy last? Is it childproof? Can it be easily broken? Will the plaything be long lasting? Is it substantial and made of good materials?

• SAFETY. The toy must be tested by the manufacturer and by an independent laboratory. It must meet all standards set for toys.

• PLAY VALUE. You want a product that lasts as long as possible and has many different and long-lasting uses. Good examples of toys with high play value are blocks, construction toys, and yo-yos. The item should have clear instructions so players can be guided to its best use by the designer and the manufacturer.

• APPROPRIATENESS. The toy must fulfill the usual play patterns for the child's age. Products that are too complex are easily frustrating. Toys that are too easy are boring. When necessary, show the child how to use the plaything properly. It's best to allow children to discover how to use the product themselves, depending on their age and ability.

How did Dr. Toy and the Awards start?
I studied child development, play, and toys as part of her doctoral work in the '70s. I began evaluating toys and products for teachers and wrote for a variety of magazines in the '80s and wrote three books on toys. In 1985, I created the world's first hands-on toy museum where children saw historic collections and also played with new toys, thousands of LEGOS and many other toys. Over 50,000 children visited the toy museum. I began evaluating toys and products and has continued since 1989. I created Dr Toy's Guide, www.drtoy.com the first website on toys on the Internet, where our unique toy and product awards are posted. We look for products that bridge home and school, help children learn and are fun.

What is important to know about play when raising a child?
Good to remember that the parent is the child's first "Big Toy." The more you know about yourself, your child's development, and the importance of play, the more you'll be able to use toys and yourself as learning and skill-building tools.

Although learning follows a sequence of gradual stages, each child learns at its own rate. Children cannot be pushed, pulled, rushed, or hurried. By absorbing, practicing, learning from mistakes, and, most of all, through discovery, children advance as their individuality dictates. This natural drive to discover through play becomes central to a happy childhood and helps to shape a productive adult.

see earlier articles for Dr. Toy's Tips on Selecting Toys and Other Children's Products


Dr. Toy's book Smart Play/ Smart Toys (published in 12 countries) covers the importance of play from baby to older children. The unique book helps parents and teachers to identify specifics that promote play and helps parents and teachers to make the right toy selection at each age to help support each child's progress. See Dr Toy's Guide www.drtoy.com for more details on specific products.

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© 2013 Stevanne Auerbach, PhD, Dr. Toy, San Francisco, CA.