Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

Subtlety at Play in Toyland
South China Morning Post, October 2001
How to pick the right toy for your child

“Everytime I sell a toy to a parent, they always ask for a very large box­—not to put the toy in, but for their child to play with,” says Chi Cheng Lee, owner of toy store Stepping Stones. Sounds familiar? If you are one of the many parents who spend hours picking out a toy only to have your child ignore it completely, read on.

Buying a toy that both entertains and educates is tricky, especially now that virtually every toy promises to turn your child into Einstein. “Educational toys make up about 15% of our sales, and this figure is growing rapidly,” says Bonnie Ho, head of marketing and brand development at Toys “R” Us Asia. But both educators and toy sellers say parents should remember that it is time spent with their child that will make all the difference. “Research shows that it is not the toy that’s important. It’s the interaction with the parent and how creatively you play with it that counts,” confirms Teresa Richman, child psychologist, mother of two and acting director of the Hong Kong Academy Primary School.

Hong Kong parents may also be overdoing the learning. “Hong Kong parents often focus on buying toys which develop school skills, with the result that the children only learn math, numbers and alphabets,” says Clara Yip Su Yee, research and communications manager of Playright, a charity dedicated to promoting play. “Parents overlook the fact that children also need social and pretend play, which encourages creativity, social skills, cooperation with other children, patience and independence.” In a recent study of 614 children aged between 6- 16 years, Playright found that 86.5% said watching television was their favourite activity, with 76.9% choosing electronic games and 68.2% choosing competitive ball games. Social and pretend play was virtually absent.“ For children to develop social skills, it is very important to expose them to different kinds of toys and play,” emphasises Yip.

Hong Kong parents are also big buyers of electronic English learning toys. “Hong Kong parents want their children to learn English as spoken by a native English speaker. That’s why our talking toys are so popular, but I always suggest that parents also use puzzles and games to teach their children so that they don’t simply learn by rote,” says Lee. “There are a few English learning toys worth buying, such as the V-Tech range, but they are still just tools. There is no substitute for interaction with a person who speaks the language,” cautions Richman.

With all the debate over which toys are best, it is no wonder parents are confused. But picking the right toys can be easier if you keep certain things in mind:

Fun: “The number one consideration is that the toy should be fun for the child,” says Playright’s Yip. “Parents should remember that even if the child just appears to be playing aimlessly, he’s learning a lot. Too often parents think that kids should play with toys to develop a particular skill, such as numbers and math. But you can’t program a child to learn.”

The right skills: Educators and toy reviewers recommend toys which develop the following skills: fine motor, gross motor, cognitive or thinking, linguistic, music, mathematical, pretend play, independent play or cooperative play. “Infants, for instance, need sensory stimulation, so toys with interesting sounds, bright colours and different textures are fun for them,” suggests Yip. “When they reach the toddler stage, their motor skills improve, so simple puzzles, blocks and pull along toys are good. Pretend and dress-up toys are good for pre-schoolers who like to imitate adults. Children over six begin to develop social skills and play with other children, so board games and ball games are great for that age. Building blocks such as Lego or Duplo are good learning toys for all ages.”

Don’t overlook classic toys you may have played with as a child. “There are a lot of classic board games such as Jenga, Monopoly and Candyland which can be played at a simple level when kids are younger, then at a more complicated level later,” says Richman. “They teach children skills that are extremely useful in later life, such as patience, cooperation, how to take turns, how to play fairly and how not to lose your temper.”

Toy review sites can serve as a useful guide. Go to www. toyportfolio.com or www.drtoy.com for comprehensive toy reviews and tips on choosing toys.

Age Appropriate: “Very often parents jump the gun and decide that they want their child to learn a particular skill such as counting or colours, without considering their child’s ability and stage of development. You should not give alphabet or number toys to a two year old,” says Yip. Buying toys before your children are ready will only mean that they might get bored of them before they are ready to use them. It can also be dangerous in the case of some toys that have small parts, and are intended only for older children.

At the same time, says Richman, “Labels saying the toy should only be used from ages 3- 6 are very misleading. Toy manufacturers are obviously going to want you to buy new toys every few years, but many parents often unnecessarily discard toys when they think their child has grown out of them. Children of six may still enjoy playing with the toys bought for them when they were two, only in a different way. Velcro fruit, for instance, can be used to develop motor skills when they are young, then used to teach colours and fractions, or for pretend play, when they are older. Put toys away and bring them out again when your kids are older.”

Safety: While US and UK made toys are generally of a higher quality because their toy safety standards are stricter than those of most other countries, the only way to be sure the toy is safe is to supervise your child and use common sense. Follow the age recommendation on the toy and discard the plastic wrappers immediately. For infants and toddlers, avoid toys with pieces small enough to be swallowed, brittle plastic toys, long strings or pulls, balloons, Playdoh and toxic paints. For older children, stay away from toys with darts or missiles that can be fired, and toys with chemicals such as chemistry sets, unless under supervision. (For a checklist on toy safety and a list of toys that have been recalled, see the American Consumer Products Website at www.cpsc.gov)

Back to basics: Educators agree that play can be done just as usefully with household objects as with the latest “educational” toy. “You don’t need to buy a special or expensive toy to develop motor skills,” says Richman. “Children can just as easily develop motor skills by playing with things around the house, or by dressing dolls.”

Stacking cardboard boxes, sorting differently shaped Tupperware containers, and pouring water from plastic cups will all help develop motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Spatial awareness can be encouraged by draping towels over chairs, or by making houses out of cardboard boxes. Pretend play can be encouraged by providing unused phones or calculators, mini brooms and dustpans, a watering can or a dress up corner with cast off garments and hats. Before you buy an expensive toy, see if you have a substitute in the house.

Versatility: Try to buy toys that offer different kinds of play rather than fancy features. Brightly coloured building blocks, for instance, can be used to visually stimulate infants, then for stacking and sorting by toddlers, and later for building castles and learning shapes by older children.

Rotate toys: A tip that every seasoned parent knows, but one worth repeating. “Too many toys can confuse the child,” says Lee. “Keep only a few out, and rotate them every month or so to prevent boredom,” says Williams.

Teach them how to play: “Play does not come naturally to some children and they need to have it modeled for them by parents,” says Richman. Agrees Lee, “I have to remind parents that they need to show their child how to play, especially children below five. Eventually the child will learn to play on its own.” If your helper is caring for your child, spend some time showing her how the toys work.

Look beyond toy stores: While educational toy stores provide a wider range of toys, educational toys can often be found in large department stores-or even in stores such as IKEA-at cheaper prices. “The description educational is completely subjective. Any toy manufacturer can use the description, but education really comes from how creatively you use the toy, not the toy itself,” says Richman.

Other affordable sources for toys are church sales and non-profit organisations. The Pre-School Playgroups Association (PPA) operates a resource centre selling a small range of educational toys, which are also used in their playgroups. “We specialise in selling educational toys you can’t find elsewhere, such as wooden blocks, board games and puzzles, at much lower prices than toyshops,” says manager Kate Docherty. Street markets such as the ones on Queens Road East in Wanchai can also be good sources for cheap, “one season only toys”, but beware of safety hazards.

Toys to be avoided: Avoid spending too much money on toys based on cartoon or comic book characters. Children are likely to get bored with them easily. The same goes for soft toys and dolls. “You can have too many Barbies and Beanie Babies,” says Williams, “especially since they are not very mobile and can’t be dressed or played with as easily as other dolls or toys.” Unless you are patient and organized enough to change batteries frequently, or can endure annoying sounds all day, don’t buy too many noisy battery operated or talking toys either.

Computer and electronic games: “Most computer and electronic games do not encourage interaction or creativity, because they can only be played with in one way. Generally, whatever skills kids are learning on the computer, they can usually learn better through conventional toys,” says Richman. Still, parents may find it hard to keep their kids away from them entirely, if only so they can fit in with their peers. “These games are all right in small doses,” believes Yip, “as long as your child is not playing with them all day.” “Educational computer games which teach numbers, colours and general knowledge are now available at many computer shops,” points out Docherty.

Set limits: No matter how much you try to steer your child away from wasteful or faddish toys, they are probably going to want to buy the latest Pokemon, Gameboy or Barbie to keep up with their peers. “My solution is to give my kids a weekly allowance, which they save up for whatever toy they want that I don’t want to buy,” says Williams. Or they can choose toys for special occasions such as Christmas or birthdays. This also helps children to develop judgement, and you may find that they might forgo the toy if it means having to wait for it or pay for it themselves.

Avoiding gender stereotypes: The bad news for parents wanting to avoid sexism is that there may well be a congenital difference in the ways boys and girls play. Playright’s study found that girls participate in social and pretend play more than boys do, while boys preferred more functional toys such as cars. The good news is that many experts say that, while this may be true of most children, if you give your sons dolls from an early age he may well play with them. “I notice that many of the toddlers and pre-schoolers in our playgroups play with dolls and kitchen sets along with the girls,” says the PPA’s Docherty. “Consumers like to know where to find the right toys at a glance,” says Ho, explaining Toys “R” Us’ policy of placing dolls under pink signs marked “Girls” and cars under black and red signs marked “Boys.” “But we do plan to have more “gender neutral” space in the future to display toys such as board games and craft kits.”

Violent toys: “You can’t keep boys away from guns,” says Ruth Williams, echoing the views of many resigned parents who find that boys will be boys. While some parents may prefer not to allow guns at all, many educators believe that pretend play with plastic guns and action figures is not necessarily bad, provided children are told clearly that violence is unacceptable. “Its O.K if kids play with harmless plastic guns, but they should be steered away from violent TV shows and video games. They must be told that guns should be used only for pretend play and that it is not right to hurt someone with them,” says Yip. “ I think children need to have some fun and outlets for fantasy play as well. They also need colour in their life. Every toy in their life need not be educational,” says Ho.