Play is the "work" of childhood. While children play, they are learning new skills, defining themselves as individuals, and practicing relationships with others and with the physical world. When this is also fun, they are learning that learning, being themselves, and sharing are all pleasant experiences. Good toys are toys that help kids do those things.
The toys adults choose to buy tell us as much about those adults as they do about the kids they are buying for. Your values—the things you think are important for your kids to learn about in terms of skills, identity, and relationships—are conveyed in your gift, whether you do this consciously or not. It's interesting to take a look at the toys you put in the shopping basket as a statement about yourself.
There are always new and colorful toys for the choosing. Many do have good play-value. But there are some basic toys that a well-stocked playroom should have to encourage children's development. My list of a basic dozen for girls and boys from toddlerhood to around age eight follows. You'll find that most quality childcare programs, preschools, and kindergartens have all of these toys. If your child spends a good part of the day in such a setting, don't worry about having everything at home too. If I had to choose only three items from the list for guaranteeing constructive indoor play at home, I'd get the unit blocks, the animals, and the art stuff.
An Essential Toy List
- Unit blocks. Plain wooden blocks (lots of them) in enough sizes to encourage hours of construction, alone and with others.
- LEGO or some other manipulative toy that encourages development of fine motor skills and creativity.
- Baby dolls and a few basic changes of clothing. Nothing fancy. I'm not crazy about the dolls that crawl, eat, say something, etc. They usually break too easily and they reduce the amount of creativity required to play with them. I do suggest having dolls with various skin tones in the playroom. When children love their dolls, they are practicing loving people who look different from themselves.
- Play kitchen stuff and a play toolbox—both toys for both genders. Kids love to imitate their parents and other adults around them, and their play helps them get comfortable with doing many different activities.
- Dress-up clothes and accessories—scarves, hats, animal masks, leotards. Look in your closets or in the local Salvation Army store and put together a box full of stuff for hours of creative play.
- A collection of sturdy rubber or plastic animals (farm animals, zoo animals, and definitely dinosaurs) and a few vehicles scaled to work with the blocks. Your kids will spend hours making farms, zoos, and dramatic scenes.