Toys that Do Nothing

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A gift-giving guide for your grandkids this holiday season

As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I frequent toy stores looking for the next amazing toy. As I wander the aisles I often find myself attracted to brightly-coloured electronic toys that make lots of noises, have all sorts of buttons or moving parts, and serve some ambiguous play function. If you have ever seen these toys, I’m sure you’ve also thought to yourself, “I wonder what this one does” as you look over the pictures on the box.

It’s so easy to get drawn in by these flashy and visually stimulating toys! They are, after all, designed to achieve this purpose. When choosing a toy for your grandchild, it’s natural to pick a flashy toy you think will get a big and excited reaction from your child, which is often a ‘busy’ electronic toy. However I have a different suggestion—get your loved one a toy that does nothing.

I know this sounds underwhelming, but allow me to explain!

Simply put, my definition of a toy that does nothing is one that has no batteries and that easily allows for interactive and/or pretend play. This may sound boring, but it’s these kinds of toys that allow for the most creative and active play. After all, if the toy does nothing, then the child must do everything!

Generally speaking “toys that do nothing” end up being more traditional toys, such as simple farm sets, dollhouses, play kitchens, blocks, or puppets. Combined with a willing play partner, these traditional toys support responsive interactions that help build children’s language, communication, and play skills.

Think about the last time someone tried to talk to you while you were watching your favourite TV show or movie. Did it take several attempts before you noticed the other person? If they launched into a conversation (like my partner does!), did you catch everything that they said or did you need them to repeat themselves? Did you feel a little annoyed that someone was interrupting you? Do you think it would be easy to have an extended or meaningful conversation while the show was still playing?

When we are absorbed in something that is both motivating and extremely stimulating, it can be difficult to share our attention. It’s the same with our grandkids playing with many of these “busy” toys! All the lights, sounds, and moving parts are appealing and are great at getting children’s attention, but they can also be attention hoarders, monopolizing the child’s attention and making it difficult for them to notice you in play.

Have you ever noticed how quiet children get when they become absorbed in high-tech toys? Likely that is because they are tuning out everything around them. To many, this may not feel like a big deal. After all, don’t we want our children to enjoy the toys we give them? All children should be able and expected to play on their own sometimes; however it is important to recognize all the benefits that come from active play with another person.

Research shows us how important quality interactions are between caregivers and children in supporting language development. When children engage in back-and-forth conversations with adults, they receive good language models and also have the opportunity to practice what they’ve learned and receive natural feedback as a part of the conversation.

Recent research shows that engaging in conversations with young children works to strengthen the areas in their brain associated with language. And one of the best ways to have conversations with children is to participate in their play.

Regardless of how a child plays with a toy, there are many opportunities for adults to model language and for children to practice using language as you talk about what you are doing together, or perhaps what you plan to do next. Engaging in conversations during play is a great opportunity to link experience to word meanings in that the children are experiencing something as it is happening (even if it is just pretend).

Play is a child’s work. Children learn about the world and develop all kinds of skills through play, such as fine and gross motor skills, personal awareness, emotional well-being, social skills, creativity, logic, and problem solving, to name a few. Play and language skills develop hand-in-hand, and each supports the development of the other.

This is especially true when children start engaging in pretend play and role playing. Here, children learn to use their imaginations, and they need language to create and enrich their play when they engage with others. This includes using language to decide what they will play, who will play what role, and what each person will do as part of their role, as well as what happens in the “story.”

Language development is most likely to happen when the toy is not monopolizing the child’s attention, or if the toy is doing all the playing by itself with the child as a passive observer.

Busy toys are not detrimental to children’s development, but more traditional toys tend to support interactions that will have a positive impact on a child’s development.

When we use toys that “do nothing” to play with children, adults and children are more likely to be tuned-in to one another. This sets the foundation for interactions that include more conversational turns and more opportunities to support language development. When the toy does less, it’s easier for the child to pay more attention to you and less attention to the toy.

It is not the toys that are so important; it is the interaction and conversations we have while we play with those toys that are critical. So it is important to choose toys that will not undermine the interaction and distract children from communicating with us or engaging with what we say or how we say it.

If you are thinking about getting your grandchild something special, consider the benefits of a toy that does nothing. Try not to be drawn in by the toys with all the bells and whistles! Remember that the flashy, high-tech toys do not allow much space for interactions that will support your child’s development. Find a more traditional toy that you would enjoy playing with your grandchild, such as blocks, role-play/dress-up toys, puppets, or pretend food. The best toys are simple and come with a willing and attentive play partner! I am certain that the gift that keeps on giving will be the toy that does nothing.

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