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Reclaiming Playtime: Engage, Encourage and Unlock a Child's Imagination with Simple Toys



Playtime may seem like an insignificant part of a child's day, but it's a vital aspect of their growth and development. As much as we'd all love for kids to behave like mini-adults, that's just not how it works. Children learn through their play, honing skills like problem-solving, socialization, and creativity. Furthermore, playtime plays a crucial role in shaping a child's cognitive, emotional, social and physical development. Playing also allows children to experiment with different roles, make mistakes, and learn from them. It is the time they can unleash their imagination and creativity. Playtime is so important that it's been dubbed the "work" of childhood.


The challenge of finding toys that keep young children engaged

It's no secret that young children have the attention span of a goldfish. Additionally, while being a parent to twins is a double dose of joy, it also comes with its fair share of challenges- one of them being playtime. As a parent, it's essential to make playtime an enjoyable experience for both the children and yourself. However, it can be tricky to meet the different needs and interests of two (or more) children at once. And let's not even talk about the constant bickering over toys, or, for that matter, any object ( a twig, a stone, a piece of cardboard!) that one has and the other one wants. So, finding toys that keep them engaged for more than five minutes can feel like a Herculean task. With so many options, it's easy to get sucked into gimmicky toys that promise to keep your little one entertained, only to be left with a toy box full of regret. But fear not, dear parent, I will distill for you, the important lessons that we learned as parents of multiples.


The most important factor for early childhood play-you!



As this TED talk suggested, the Millennium Cohort Study highlights the importance of parenting for children's development, as those with parents who actively engaged and showed an interest in their education had a greater chance of overcoming any socioeconomic disadvantages. The study suggests that parental behavior plays a key role during a child's formative years and that despite being born in poverty (which places a tremendous social burden on the child), kids who had parents advocating for them were able to do better than those that did not. I do think that some of the same principles might apply for toys and games that we ( as mindful parents) select for our children. This is because children start making their own purchasing decisions around the time they enter primary school, but for nursery-age toys, adults are still the ones doing the buying.


The Pressure to Stimulate Young Minds: The Impact of Toys on Children's Brains



A lot of great nuggets of wisdom from this excellent article are summarized below and I am shamelessly borrowing from this author's insights because they jive so well with my own experience as a parent.

  • American families spend, on average, around $600 per year on toys; a typical 10-year-old child in the UK may have possessed 238 toys in her short life, totaling about £6,500. I wholeheartedly agree with the author when he says "That abundance bespeaks an entire world – of a postwar boom in plastics, babies and disposable income, of humans in Chinese factories and Madison Avenue marketing agencies, of the not always benign neglect of parents with relentless careers or hangovers or an aversion to spending time with other emotionally volatile beings."

  • Over the last two hundred years, people such as educators, psychologists, toy companies and parents have believed that playing should be used to prepare children for their adulthood.

  • With the increase of neuroscience in the latter half of the twentieth century, toys were increasingly bought and marketed as a way to create better adult brains that would be more successful and competitive. The pressure to do that has been felt most intensely with the youngest kids, aged five and under.

  • Young children are far more cognitively sophisticated than many toys on the Amazon results page or the Hamleys shelves assume. For decades, we’ve been getting our children, and their toys, all wrong.

  • The animal research in neuroplasticity in the mid 20th century got extrapolated to young children and it became accepted that parents/caregivers need to stimulate infants' brains with toys, bilingualism and small doses of Bach while in the womb to make sure their brains develop as many connections as possible.

It became obvious over time though that even though parents with high hopes go the extra mile, it appears you can't make three-year-olds into geniuses by gifting them with music training and musical instruments (which may instead cause crippling perfectionism and feelings of inferiority). Similarly, you don't need to have hundreds of toys or speak three languages to be exceptionally bright (in fact, you can still master multiple languages when older). As the article goes on to say, one of the oddities of many so-called educational toys is that there isn't much left for children to do or work out by themselves. Turn a dial, tug on a string and an animal sound is made; end of story. To quote Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University and researcher into play's effects on child development. "If it's 90% toy and 10% kid, that's an issue." Researchers at Eastern Connecticut State University who have been conducting the TIMPANI study for the past 10 years, came to a similar conclusion that simple, open-ended, non-realistic toys with multiple parts, like a random assortment of Lego, inspired the highest-quality play.


Concluding Thoughts: Learning the Humbling lesson that Simple is Best




The article concludes and I wholeheartedly agree, that as a consequence of such studies, it is becoming more and more understood that the best new toys are actually the best old ones – ordinary sticks, blocks, dolls and sand that don't generate pre-programmed routines nor encourage fixed activities. I highly recommend a fantastically educational article by the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding toys talking about the lack of evidence that digital media–based virtual “toys” have similar or better benefits in child development. Believe me, as a new father and an immigrant to the US, I was sooooo looking forward to buying all the different electronic gizmos that would supposedly enrich and excite my children. However, I found that my children could spend endless hours playing with a stick that they found in their school or a piece of thread that they picked up on the road. These "toys" did indeed unleash their imagination and creativity as they made up stories and thought of the different ways in which these supposedly "primitive" toys could be used. I recognize that we are living in complicated times and there is tremendous pressure on parents to "upgrade" the brains of their children but I have been surprised and humbled by my observations and I hope all you busy parents out there are getting some time to engage with and be amazed by what these little geniuses can come up with using the simplest tools. Cheers!

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