Why "Real Toys" Make Better Holiday Presents

Neither batteries nor chips guarantee learning or creativity.

Posted Dec 07, 2018

My brilliant, globe-trotting colleague was bragging about her one-year-old niece’s comfort with the use of her father’s cell phone: “You can see just how smart and curious she is by how she plays with it. This generation is so lucky to have these gadgets for their kids. They might get her one for the holidays.” “Ooh, not so fast” popped out of my mouth, as I started a conversation about the value of real toys vs. gadgets as promoters of play that teaches and promotes creativity and curiosity.

Technology has its place in helping promote learning for children, but real toys are more efficient and powerful in their ability to delight, intrigue and challenge the imagination. Real toys can also help develop memory and problem solving, as well as build confidence in young children. Real toys feel good in your hands, stand up to age-appropriate abuse and give the child the sense of satisfaction of being the player in charge. Blocks, puppets, dress-up clothing and simple puzzles invite children to be the boss and reward them with the “I did that” feeling so essential for growing confidence and competence. The rapidly growing young brain doesn’t distinguish between learning and playing, and playfully learning is the biggest bang for the buck.

Getting the look the child wants in the dress-up mirror, completing the simple bridge despite some collapses, practicing separations by packing a doll or puppet into a truck and sending it across the floor are all activities that simultaneously build imagination, self-esteem, motor skills, cause-and-effect thinking and emotional exploration that would be hard for any software program to match. Compare the different levels of interest, initiative and delightful give-and-take between playing peek-a-boo with a parent and pretend peek-a-boo with a battery-powered stuffed elephant that flaps its ears over its eyes and emits a mechanical “peek-a-boo” when the child presses a button. The former is endlessly repeatable; the latter, ignored after a few uses.

Some suggestions for real toys that playfully teach by age follow:

  • For pre-toddlers choose simple, small baby dolls; sturdy plastic or wooden (with lead-free paint) vehicles with turning wheels; stacking bowls and boxes; small balls; larger soft blocks/cubes; water toys; larger plush animals for cuddling, rolling and crawling over; push/pull toys. 
  • For young toddlers choose pull toys; toy phones; baby strollers; puppets for small hands; smaller cubes and blocks for building; simple puzzles; larger balls for kicking and rolling on top of; a few items of dress-up clothing; boards with switches, knobs, gears and dials; large sheets of paper and waterproof markers.
  • For older toddlers choose toys for pretending (plain dollhouses with simple furniture such as a bed and a potty); boards or dolls with snaps, buttons and hooks; more complex puzzles and stacking toys; rhythm instruments; large, safe cardboard boxes.

Don’t avoid your favorite toys from childhood just because they are not high tech. There’s a reason you loved them.

Finally, the more a toy “does,” the less space your child has to ”do.” You want the opposite if you want her learning while she’s playing (which she can’t help doing).