When it comes to toys for the kids, I am very selective. They must have a combination of these elements to make it into our home:
– They are gender-neutral
– They help in cultivating learning
– They allow for problem-solving
– They are durable, preferably wooden or a material that does not look like cheap plastic
– They provide space for creative and imaginative play
– They encourage siblings to play together
– They are affordable and can endure through at least 2-7 years of age, or passed down from sibling to sibling
I have other more specific guidelines, but this is the most basic. If you are a first-time parent and looking to buy toys, I will say this. Don’t bother getting toys until your child can sit, grasp and crawl. If you would like some stimulation for your infant at home, a baby playmat is sufficient.
Once they can sit, move and hold things, fabric books are wonderful. My friend recently introduced me to these book series called Indestructibles (available via Amazon) and its meant to withstand being chewed and salivated on.
And when your child is almost 1 year old, they can start playing with real toys. And we found that simple stacking toys, blocks, shape sorters, and balls of any kind are a hit in this age group.
Once they reach 2, they love puzzles, pretend play and basic arts and crafts. Livia has a play kitchen, a container full of dress-up accessories, Lego, Play-Doh, and puzzle pegs that keeps her entertained more or less everyday. She also loves her soft toys, and likes to pretend she’s their mother. She wipes vomit from their mouth, puts them to bed, and sings and read to them. I suppose she is mimicking me. If you have read to them from the beginning, they are more interactive with books at this age and want to point out everything in the book or even read it themselves (albeit, incoherently, doesn’t matter).
If your child enjoy dolls, I recommend buying a Barbie-like doll from the Tree Change Dolls. This lady basically stripped down Bratz dolls to look like normal girls. We don’t have Barbie in our home even though Livia enjoys playing with dolls simply because Barbie looks unreal. I think its silly for little girls to play with dolls that look like they underwent plastic surgery. Instead Livia plays her animal plushes and these two ikea plush baby dolls that everyone says look freaky. She likes them though because she can change their clothes.
I am not against flash cards, but I don’t believe in using them to train infants and children to memorize vocabulary. We use flash cards to teach Mandarin but we use them very casually, like when Livia asks to see them and we bring them out to talk about the pictures and pronounce the words. We also don’t teach her ABC nor 123 yet, because I personally believe a child should relate to words and numbers through play and not from an adult’s already fixed idea of words and numbers. You will know when they are ready to have a more structured curriculum because they will display signs that they are eager to learn and want to know more in-depth. But when they are smaller, they can’t sit still and love novelty, and that’s perfectly normal.
Generally toys from these following brands fulfil the criteria I mentioned above in my experience: Lego, Melissa and Doug, HABA, Play-Doh, Grimm’s Spiel and Holz, Crayola, Learning Resources, and toys from Ikea. When they say they recommend so and so toys for girls and so and so toys for boys, I ignore it. Girls and boys can play the same thing.
I also do not buy toys for birthday presents or as like treats. I think it creates a child who is prone to materialist consumerism. Like I never bring Livia to the toystore and most of her toys are actually bought online or without her presence. I treat these things as assisting in her learning journey. The only presents we buy are books and we tell our friends to also buy books for the children. And if Livia goes out and wants to buy something for herself, I tell her to pick a book.
If you enjoy DIY activities, you can also make toys and create activities for your children instead of purchasing toys I think kids from aged 3 onwards love creating things with their hands. Even if you do not like to do crafts, you can set up activity tables for your kids to engage them. I subscribe to the following blogs for ideas of activities to do with children (searchable via Google): The Artful Parent, Tinkerlab, Be a Fun Mama, Art Curator for Kids, Red Ted Art, Playful Learning, Imagine Childhood, and so on. My favorite is The Artful Parent and Tinkerlab. They even have books out which you can purchase through Amazon if you are the reading sort. Playful Learning also has online workshops for parents and educators interested to discover how to incorporate play in your classroom or home.
And most importantly, when they can start walking, bring them out, let them run, climb, skip and hop, throw a ball around, swim, dive etc. If they are 2.5 and older, they can also start to learn to bike on a balance bike. No toy can replace physical activity. We are very excited to introduce Livia to basketball, badminton, and table-tennis – sports my husband and I enjoy playing. And we have grand plans to stock our closet with board games for when the girls are older.
I did not mention iPad here and I am not against it. I think its okay with parental supervision. Its not something we use for play at home because our kids are still very small. But I can see how it can be useful for older kids because they have a lot of interesting apps that encourage learning.
At the end of the day, toys are really a medium to encourage open communication. On it own, toys are not very useful as learning tools. They are only useful when they spur engagement between child and parent, or between siblings, or between play-mates/friends. I recently bought Livia a coloring poster and I know they say coloring books are not good for kids but I really like coloring, and it was something for us to do together. She gets very excited when I start coloring on the wall (the poster is on the wall) and exclaim really loudly, mummy, color color!