I think it’d be a rather safe bet to say that most of you, at some point, have experienced pure anxiety moments feeling lost and frustrated when having to choose a toy to buy browsing the supermarket aisles, or when entering your bombarded with teeny tiny toys living room or when opening your handbag to get your wallet out but grabbing a digger instead.
Toys are wonderful; they are the resources that we use to promote children’s learning through play and help them acquire new skills, explore and discover on their own, practice their theories without the fear of failure, create bonds and special friendships, experiment and problem-solve, engage in imaginative play representing personal experiences, expand their vocabulary interacting with their peers, sharing their feelings, ideas and thoughts, and achieve the milestones across several developmental domains such as language, fine and gross motor skills, cognitive and social-emotional development.
Different types of toys will offer different opportunities to your child to acquire a new or perfect a skill so for example dolls and dressing up clothes help children to develop their social skills, feel empathy and learn how to cater for themselves and another person, understanding their needs as well as their own. Puzzles are a great opportunity for Maths (eg shape recognition, spatial skills) promoting the child’s fine motor skills and problem-solving abilities.
OK, we have the toys, children love playing, so our job here is done, just empty a box of lego on the carpet and let them to it. I wish it was that simple. In order for toys to be used to the maximum and lead to successful interactions and engagement, they have to be offered in a meaningful context where the golden rule ‘less is more’ productively applies.
I worked in classrooms where you could see piles of toys everywhere around you resulting in children feeling overwhelmed, hyper and easily bored, not being able to engage in any activity, lost at the sight of so many options. I am going to stereotype a little bit but I’d like to help you understand, so you ladies, imagine yourself in Westfields on Boxing Day; the enormous variety and amount of offer makes you feel overwhelmed and frustrated, not knowing where to start from and what to choose. I guess men would feel similarly in a PC World store with all gadgets on 60% sale.
How can we actually create a stimulating learning environment?
1.Offer them one choice. ‘Do you want to play with trains or blocks?’ so they can focus on one thing without getting distracted.
2. Create a meaningful context. Instead of emptying the whole box out, choose two colour blocks only or two sizes (big and small) so children can explore colours, understand and make size comparisons using mathematical language, discover and create patterns, sort them out according to their properties, in this case size or colour.
3. Keep it simple. A small tray with sand or rice, a spoon and a few small containers. You will be amazed for how long children engage in activities like this one, enjoying filling and emptying containers and practicing their fine motor skills.
4.Make it exciting! Think outside the box and try to mix different toys and resources together. Dinosaurs that make footprints in a tray with flour, blocks that float in a bucket filled with water, pasta and paint, alphabet letters hidden in the sand, buttons and playdough, the combinations and choices are countless!