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Choosing toys for babies

Are you spoiling your baby? Or starving him of much needed stimulation? Is there more merit in a simple handmade toy than a singing, flashing, beeping plastic one? There are so many conflicting views when it comes to baby toys, and it’s hard to know how to choose toys that are right for your baby’s developmental stage, and right for you too. Parenting Expert Elizabeth Pantley shares her tips on choosing toys for your baby, and using everyday household objects to stimulate your baby’s developing senses.stacking baby toy

You may not be sure what kind of toys, or how many, your baby should have. It’s likely that you hear conflicting advice that runs from one extreme to another! It’s either: “Don’t give your baby toys ⎯ he’ll be spoiled,” to “Give your baby lots of toys ⎯ they develop his brain!” So… which is it?

Both sides of this debate have valid points. A baby does indeed learn from the things she plays with, and the more things she has access to, the more she can learn. With this in mind, many parents spend a fortune buying toys; however, many toys hold a child’s attention for three or four days, only to be relegated to the bottom of the toybox or back of a shelf.

Babies learn about their world by using all five of their senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Toys engage and refine these senses by:

  • Helping your baby learn how to control his movements and body parts
  • Helping your baby figure out how things work
  • Showing your baby how he can control things in his world
  • Teaching your baby new ideas
  • Building your baby’s muscle control, coordination, and strength
  • Teaching your baby how to use his imagination
  • Showing your baby how to solve simple problems
  • Helping your baby learn how to play by himself
  • Setting the foundation for learning how to share and cooperate with others

Experts agree that babies need a variety of toys to enrich their lives and encourage learning. While your baby can learn from expensive store-bought toys, she can also learn from a crumpled piece of paper, a set of measuring spoons, an empty box, or a leaf. Everything is new and interesting to a baby, and if you open your eyes to the many wonders in our world, you’ll see that you don’t have to spend a fortune to keep your baby happy, interested, and learning.

What home-grown toys are the best?

Playing with a bottle
As you view the whole world as a bottomless toybox, here are some tips to consider:

Search for items of different weights, materials, textures, flexibility, sizes, shapes, colors, and smells. (Most store-bought baby toys are primary-colored plastic; that’s why your metal keys on a leather key ring are so very appealing ⎯ they’re different!)

Babies are generalists. Your little one will apply what he learns from one object to any other that is similar. Therefore, don’t give him an old book or magazine to scribble in unless you want all of your books to be potential notepads. A sealed bottle may look fun, but your baby may then think he can play with your pill bottles.

Take a closer look at the things you consider “trash.” Some may be valuable toys! Empty boxes, egg cartons, and tin containers are just a few examples of everyday castoffs that, once cleaned, can provide endless hours of play.

[box]PARENT TIP: “I made a great set of blocks for my daughter by collecting an assortment of empty boxes from regular household products and covering them with contact paper. They are colorful, light weight and interesting shapes and sizes.” – Yu-ting, mother of Shu-Lin (3 years old)[/box]

Your kitchen is overflowing with baby toys! Once your little one begins to crawl, it’s time to rearrange the kitchen. Put all your baby-safe items, such as plastic containers, pots and pans, potholders and canned goods, in your lower cabinets and let your baby know where his “toys” are. You’ll have to relax your housekeeping standards and deal with disorganized cabinets for a while, but the play potential is so fantastic that it’s worth it!

Young children love water play, and a bowl or pan of water along with spoons and cups of various sizes make a fabulous source of fun. You can put your baby in his high chair, sit him on the floor on a beach towel, or take him outside in a shady spot if the weather’s warm. I guarantee he’ll be soaked when he’s done, but that will be after a very long and happy play session.

Containers to fill and empty are lots of fun for a baby. You can safely fulfill your older baby’s desire to manipulate small things by filling a large bowl with a variety of colorful children’s cereals (nothing hard or ball-shaped) and supplying spoons, measuring cups, and other containers. Since you’re using cereal pieces, it’s okay if some end up in his mouth. Don’t try this with beads, seeds, macaroni, or other items that pose a choking hazard.

Which store-bought toys are the best?

Swatting the Things
A while ago, I went to the toy store to buy my youngest child, Coleton, a toy that my older three adored when they were babies. It was a simple pop-up toy for toddlers with various buttons, levers, and dials. I found a bewildering variety of this kind of toy, but to my dismay, every single one was electronic. They made sounds, they made music, they had blinking lights ⎯ they just about played by themselves! I finally had to order the prized toy from a specialty catalog that carries “back to basics” toys. Sure, electronic toys can be exciting ⎯ for a while ⎯ but they can also stunt your baby’s developing ability to imagine and manipulate (and let’s face it: those repetitive electronic sounds can get annoying). If a toy does everything by itself, it loses its potential as a tool for developing creativity. Also, if your little one gets used to these toys, then simple pleasures like wooden blocks seem boring by comparison because he expects the blocks to play for him. And those simple toys are among the very best for baby playtime.

[box] recommends LeapFrog Learn and Groove Musical Table – perfect for inquisitive babies and toddlers, and a solid favourite in our home.[/box]

Look for these qualities as you shop for your baby:

  • Long-term play value: Will this hold your little one’s attention for more than a few weeks?
  • Durability: Will it hold up when sat on, thrown, jumped on, mouthed, or banged?
  • Solid simplicity: Babies don’t need complicated toys.
  • Challenge: Look for toys that teach but do not frustrate.
  • Appropriateness: Does it match your baby’s thinking, language, and motor skills?
  • Interest: Will it encourage your baby to think?
  • Stimulation: How does this toy foster creativity and imagination?
  • Interactiveness: Does it engage your child or just entertain him as he watches passively?
  • Versatility: Can your baby play with this in more than one way?
  • Washability: Well-loved toys tend to get very dirty!
  • Fit with your family value system: Does this toy reflect your family’s particular values? For example, is the toy friendly to the environment? Does it promote diversity? Are you comfortable with what the toy represents?
  • Novelty: Is this toy different from others your baby already has? You don’t want a toy box filled with 30 different kinds of rattles!
  • Fun appeal: Is it something that you will enjoy playing with, too? Toys that encourage you to play along with your baby are ideal.

Elizabeth Pantley Greatvine consultant, author of No Cry seriesAbout Greatvine Consultant Elizabeth Pantley:

Elizabeth is USA-based parenting educator and president of Better Beginnings Inc, an American family resource and education company. Her No-Cry parenting book series achived worldwide recognition and won Amazon’s Best of Parenting Award in 2005 and 2007. Elizabeth lives with her husband and four children in Washington, and can offer expert advice through Greatvine.

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Image of baby playing on activity mat courtesy of NateOne on Flickr.
Image of baby playing with empty plastic bottle courtesy of futurestreet on Flickr.

Written by Janis P.

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