Children learn through play. This fact is well researched and supported across multiple disciplines (psychology, education, behavior analysis, etc). With that in mind, it stands to reason that a child’s development can be largely affected by their environment and what items or toys they have available to them. Disclaimer- this isn’t always the case. There are definitely children with access to every toy ever made and they still have significant delays in several areas. And there are also those kids who have next-to-nothing but develop perfectly fine.
But, what I find in my work as a developmental evaluator is that the children I assess often lack skills due to lack of opportunity. They don’t know how to use toys according to their function, they don’t know how to manipulate items, they don’t know how to pretend, they don’t sing along or copy dance motions… because they’ve never been given the chance to. Given exposure to various toys and interactions, many of these kids would easily acquire the skills. Enriching a child’s environment, through toys and through meaningful interactions, gives them the opportunity to learn. The skills they develop early on will have a significant impact on their functioning in other areas as they grow and mature. For example, a child’s ability to match colors helps them later to sort which leads to being able to organize things in their environment (groceries, laundry, dishes, work files, etc). A child being able to imitate simple motor movements leads to being able to imitate sounds and words, and later being able to monitor their social behavior depending on their environment (professional at work, relaxed at home, friendly at church, etc). Point being, there are a million ways that little toddler tasks are actually linked to higher-level thinking and daily living skills.
Here are some toys and activities I recommend to cultivate learning opportunities for little ones, pre-school age or younger.
- Shape sorters
- Ring stackers
- Large piece board puzzles with shapes, animals, etc.
- Cause and effects toys that light up, make music, or have ball ramps
- Train sets or car ramps
- Pretend kitchen, tool bench, vanity, etc.
- Baby doll sets
- Colorful picture books with pictures of everyday items
- Markers and crayons
Once you have the tools to promote learning, it’s also important to have a relationship that creates learning opportunities. Sadly, many kids rely on technology for entertainment and companionship, spending hours on end without any real social interaction. Television, iPads, and cell phones are one-sided and don’t allow children to truly interact with their environment or those around them. While cartoons or apps might be an easy distractor, they are generally empty and rob children of true learning opportunities. Parents have an important role in making sure their children engage with their environment. Here are some ways I recommend parents can stimulate their children through meaningful interactions.
- Read books together– ask your child to point to various pictures, label items you see in the book, have him or her turn the pages
- Play with toys together– demonstrate how to use toys, take turns, build things, act out daily life routines using pretend items
- Sing songs together– do hand motions or facial expressions, let your child fill in some of the words (Wheels on the bus, Itsy-bitsy-spider, Head-Shoulders-Knees and Toes)
Combining the right materials with the right interactions sets children up for success. Access to age-appropriate toys and a parent’s ability to engage with their child are the key factors in maximizing a child’s learning opportunities and fostering healthy development. So take these tools and help your child learn though play.