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Choosing the best presents for preschoolers – Basic is better

Lana Janey

Special to the Village News

It's the most wonderful time of the year – that is, according to the many little people in my life. I treasure celebrating the holiday season with dozens and dozens of young children that I get to interact with at work every day. The holiday season can be absolutely magical for our little ones in a season that engages all the senses and stirs the imagination.

When I ask the children what their favorite part of Christmas is, the most common answer is usually "presents" – no surprise there, but you might be surprised to learn that the types of toys a child plays with has the potential to positively or negatively impact behavior, attention span, social interaction, problem solving and creativity.

The Timpani Toy study was a 10 year research project that focused on how young children played with a variety of different toys. Toys were recommended by parents, teachers, researchers and even children. The study identified toys that are the most engaging for children in terms of stimulating creativity, imaginative play, and conversation in preschool classrooms. Three things consistently stood out year after year: the best toys are simple, open-ended, and non-realistic.

To the adult mind, toys with all the bells and whistles may seem the most interesting – after all these types of toys have flashing lights and exciting!

In actuality, toys of this type are really designed to entertain a child rather than engage his or her imagination and creativity. One example given in the study compared how children played with a wooden cash register compared to a plastic one that produced sounds when buttons were pushed and it was observed that the wooden toy spurred lots of conversation and pretend play whereas the plastic one mostly inspired children to just push buttons repeatedly. In the same way, a talking doll generally resulted in play that was less imaginative than its silent counterpart.

Open-ended toys are flexible and inspire creativity. In other words, there is more than one way to use them. Wooden blocks, for example, can be used to create any number of things – a zoo for animal figurines, an airport, or a palace for a princess.

I was completely enchanted one day to come upon a small group of four year olds in conversation who were working together to create an "Octopus Castle," made entirely out of wooden blocks. I've also seen blocks used as cell phones and was amazed one day to observe a child who was missing mom have a pretend conversation with her on the phone that made him feel better.

Non-realistic toys (as opposed to exact replicas) were noted in the Timpani study as being powerful in terms of inspiring specific types of positive play. A set of plastic dishes can lead to elaborate conversation as children pretend to prepare and serve meals to their friends or adults who are playing with them. In my first year as a preschool teacher, I remember well the popularity of the mud kitchen outdoors, and the kinds of food prepared for me: chocolate soup, banana pizza, and who could forget pickle pie!

Two kinds of toys stand above the rest when it comes to engaging young children: constructive toys (such as Legos or Magna-Tiles), and replica toys (small people, animals or vehicles, play dishes etc.). Constructive toys require a child to make decisions about what they are creating and communicate their ideas with those they play with or alongside. This type of play often stimulates complex problem solving and creativity as a vision comes to life in the child's hands. Replica toys, on the other hand, create detailed make-believe scenarios and stimulate rich conversation and cooperative play with peers.

Parents, I strongly encourage you to sit with your children and engage in play with them and the toys they will get for Christmas. Give voices to people or animal figurines, make up stories to go with them – and most important of all... be fully present in the moment and watch your child's imagination and creativity soar. Ironically, this type of interaction will build a child's focus and ability to play by him or herself creatively and imaginatively.

Lana Janey is the Preschool Director at Zion Christian Preschool & Kindergarten.


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