Caution: Child at Work

Equipping your child with the tools to get the job done!

Did you know that your child is a professional at work?  It’s true.  No matter their age or experience, they have been employed their entire life as a top-of-the-line, professional imitator.  Qualifications for this job include: Acute observation skills, heightened awareness of mom and dad’s subtle movements and expressions, strong desire to perform tasks exactly like mom and dad do, willingness to practice all day long.

My educational and professional background is in Sociology and social services. I love to study and learn about people, how they develop and grow, and the factors that seem to influence their development and behavior. Child development is especially fascinating to me, and I am particularly interested in the role of play time and toys in a child’s social and intellectual development. Through play, a child is able to take what they have learned and practice it, processing the information they have gathered while imitating what they have seen.

As professionals, they are quite good at what they do.  Not only are they good, but they are also continually looking for opportunities to expand their skills and expertise.  They start small, immediately following their birth, when they are already capable of imitating your facial movements.  (This is seen as nursing mothers are demonstrating an open mouth to entice their baby to latch.)  Their resume expands as they learn to imitate emotional expressions, such as smiles and laughter, and quickly to follow are the sounds they begin to make.  Small motor skills are soon exercised, followed by full body mobility.  It’s inspiring to see how dedicated these little ones are to their craft.

As moms, we deeply desire to foster these little skills in any way we are able.  From practicing their roll-overs at tummy time, to holding their hand as they take their first steps, we are their biggest fans.  In the first year, so much fun is had while we watch them achieve the physical milestones we’ve been waiting for.  The physical development is often the focus of that year, and many of their toys are designed to encourage their small and large motor skills.

Throughout their journeys to full mobility and beyond, we try to be intentional with helping them learn.  We read.  We teach them that everything has a name.  We identify colors.  We explore sensory objects.  We sing.  We communicate.  They learn.

One aspect of helping your child learn as a professional imitator is deciding which toys are most beneficial to their learning process.

This can be a daunting task for a mother.  There are probably two major factors that influence your thinking when selecting suitable toys for your child: 1) Is it cost-effective?  and 2) Is it beneficial for my child?

The last thing you want to do when buying a toy for your child is spend too much only to realize it will rarely be used and have no benefit to your child’s development.  After your child is into their toddler years and beyond, determining which toys are beneficial can become more complicated.  There are many toys on the market that are both overpriced and poorly designed, yet they are promoted very well and make claims to be educational.

So how do you find the best “tools” for your child to get to work?
Here are some things to keep in mind when shopping for “real life” toys to help your child learn:

1. Your child is a professional imitator and learns best through observation and opportunity to imitate real life activities.

2. Ask yourself the question: Does this toy represent real life activity?  Examples of real life toys: Cooking gear and food, baby dolls and accessories, toy vehicles, animal figures, doll houses with life-like family members, pretend cleaning supplies, tools, or basic objects that can serve as a variety of pretend objects (cardboard boxes are PERFECT.)

3. Popular toys might claim to resemble real life objects, but in reality they neither look or function like the object they are made to imitate.  Example: We were given the Fisher Price Laugh and Learn Workbench.  While this toy plays fun songs and provides opportunities for little ones to pull levers, slide bolts, and hammer pegs, it does not resemble a workbench closely enough for my child to understand that he is pretending to “work” like an adult would work at a real bench.

4. Select toys that fit well with your individual family life.  Example: My husband is a musician, so my child observes him often behind a piano or other instrument.  For Christmas last year, we decided a piano with real keys was something that would benefit our son by giving him a new way to imitate his daddy.  If your husband is a carpenter who is often wearing a tool belt, your child would probably benefit from a pretend tool belt with tools.  Also, toys that fit your child’s individual interests are great ideas as well.  My child is in love with shopping carts, so we opted to get him a life-like shopping cart for his birthday this year.

5. Does this toy come with a script, or does it allow for imagination to lead the way? Example: A character from a popular TV show might excite the child and they may love to play with it, but it comes with a name and personality already associated with it as well as possible story lines to act out with it.  A neutral, nameless doll or action figure will encourage your child to use their imagination as they give that toy an identity and story they have thought of themselves.

6. Never underestimate the power of puppets.  Puppets are extremely useful in helping children learn.  From finger puppets to large doll size, they provide endless possibilities for teaching your child a story in a memorable way and also giving your child a way to role-play and “live-out” a story of their own.  When I did therapy with small children, puppets were invaluable in helping little ones open up and tell me what they were thinking about.  While it was scary to tell me, the strange lady at the office, what was bothering them, it was comfortable to grab a puppet and let the puppet tell another puppet what was on their mind.

7. Often the simplest, least expensive objects are the biggest hits!  As parents living in a materialistic culture, it can be tempting to believe that the price tag is indicative of the quality and desirability of a particular toy.  In reality, the price tag is often an indication of the marketing power of the manufacturer, not the power of the toy.  (Though there are many high quality toys with higher price tags simply because they are well made and extremely durable!)  If it’s a choice between an expensive electronic device and a $10 set of pretend cleaning tools, you are not giving your child “less” by choosing the cleaning tools.

By no means would I claim that these points should inform ALL of your toy purchases, but I encourage you to consider them next time you are out toy shopping.  Ask yourself, “What toy will become a tool for my child to imitate and pretend?”  We serve a creative God who designed us to be creative people.  Help your child to use their creativity by selecting toys that encourage their imagination!