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Why Basic Toys May Be Best

Tools for the "Work" of Child's Play

You're hoping to run a quick errand at the mall but your five-year-old drags you into the toy store. He races the aisles, pressing buttons, and howling in delight as electronic sound effects fill the air. He points excitedly at the packaging that features Star Wars characters, or the Rugrats.

Maybe you break down and buy him something; maybe not. In either case, don't feel like a Pushover Parent or a Mean Mom. Just remember: The toy he gravitates to first is most likely the toy he'll play with least over time. So take your time in deciding what to get.

When it comes to playthings, parents are well advised to hop on the "Back to Basics" bandwagon. Go retro — not only with your choice of a toaster, but also with your choice of toys. You don't need an advanced degree in early childhood education to learn the ABCs of kids' play. Click next to learn about some guidelines you should follow when you shop in a toy store.

Simpler Is Superior (or, Batteries Aren't Better)

When toys become complicated with microchips, flashing lights, and sound effects, children are easily mesmerized. Trouble is, the more the toy can do, the less the child can do.

Do your own research: Give your child an age-appropriate electronic toy and observe how many things she does with it. Chances are, the toy will do most of the work and your child will "respond" by pushing buttons and watching what happens next. Then give your child a more basic, traditional toy, such as a baby doll or wooden blocks. Does she dress and undress the baby, give her a bottle, and then have a tea party? Does she build a pyramid or a house with the blocks, then knock it down and make a zoo? One important test of a toy is the variety of ways a child can use it.

Toys that encourage children to use their imagination are great. Toys that come pre-programmed with their own themes and scripts, such as toys tied to favorite movies or TV shows, discourage children from using their own ideas during play. Instead, their play merely repeats what they've seen on screen. Sure, they're having fun, but since they're using someone else's ideas, not their own, chances are they'll become bored more quickly. The game won't last as long.

All-Time Top Toy List

Think about types of toys, not specific brands. You can't go wrong with any of the following for young children:

  • Blocks
  • . This is the All-Star of children's toys, educators agree. Through the "design process" of building and rebuilding structures, kids master math concepts about shapes, space, balancing, and gravity. Using blocks, a preschooler is transformed into an engineer: How can I make the tower even taller? How can I build the zoo so that the elephants and zebras can visit each other?

  • Other building toys
  • . You can always count on Legos, Duplo, or K'Nex, especially for school-aged kids. The "free-style" kits that let children create their own designs are preferable to those with an assembly plan (because kids — not the manufacturer — decide what the final product will look like).

  • Dolls
  • . As with other types of toys, the fewer "whistles and bells" there are, the better. Dolls that talk, pee, eat, and do somersaults "program" the play, deciding for the child what will happen and when. You want your child (not the doll itself) to decide what it will do. Playing with dolls is one of the primary ways kids learn what it means to be a Mom or a Dad. For that reason, no little boy should ever be made to feel like a "sissy" for showing interest in a doll! Chances are, he's showing interest in being a Daddy!

  • Play dough (and other art materials)
  • . Any early childhood educator will tell you: The benefits of play dough are enormous. Not only does it give children a chance to get creative, it's also great for small-motor-skills' development (hand/finger muscles) and can be soothing in times of stress (think of the corporate executive's squeeze ball).

  • Dress-up clothes
  • . Drag out some old ties, fur coats, funny hats, and high heels. Add a few scarves and "gold" necklaces. Watch kids transform themselves into all sorts of characters. This is more than just cheap, old-fashioned fun; kids are learning to think in the abstract by putting themselves in the role of another person! Remember: The dress-up stuff from the back of your closet is not only cheaper than what you'll find packaged at the Disney store; it's also better, because your child gets to decide who he wants to be.

    More on: Best Toys

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