A Simplistic Approach to Toys For Your Child

A Simplistic Approach to Toys For Your Child

Let’s talk toys, yes? If you’ve poked around the toy section of Target lately or browsed the many (many!) “Best toys for____________” lists floating around the web, then you know the deal: the world holds lots and lots of options for our kids. And the decision fatigue for grownups can be real!

So I’m here today to offer a bit of magic—a research-based framework for thinking about what toys to buy your kids. The simplicity of it is really refreshing, and you’ll go into toy shopping (and sorting through what you’ve already got) with a totally new perspective. Ready?

Let’s start with the brains behind the framework. Jean Piaget--a Swiss psychologist in the early 1900s--specialized in researching play. He was obsessed with what happened in kids’ brains as they played and he observed kid after kid after kid just doing what kids do. The things he learned from all that observation reinforced what you and I already know as parents: that kids learn through play.
You’ve heard the quote, “Play is the work of childhood?” Yep, that’s our guy, Jean Piaget.

A major product of his research is what he called The Four Stages of Cognitive Development--what we can think of as The Four Stages of Play. He was researching over a century ago, sure. But his Four Stages are still the gold standard for thinking about play today. Did I read Piaget during my teaching degree? You bet I did.

Now here’s the magic framework for thinking about what toys to buy your kids. Piaget’s Four Stages of Cognitive Development: each stage will point you toward just what will get your kid’s brain going--will engage and keep their attention--at each stage of their childhood.

Here are the stages:
Sensorimotor Stage (Birth-2 years): Children are learning through their 5 senses and through exploring their environment. Ideal toys for this stage should engage the senses and encourage movement.

The Preoperational Stage (2-7 years): Children are learning both through real-life experiences and also through imaginary play. Ideal toys at this stage encourage creativity (like art or building supplies) and pretend play (like dolls, action figures, and dress-up clothes).

The Concrete Operational Stage (7-11 years): Children are becoming problem solvers. They can think about things from different perspectives and enjoy using logic to find solutions. Ideal toys at this stage offer a brain challenge--like STEM projects, chess, LEGO sets, sewing projects, science experiments, and models to build.

The Formal Operational Stage (11-adult): Children are becoming abstract thinkers. They can consider hypothetical situations, play with ideas in their heads, and hold complicated math or language problems in tandem with their real-world applications. Ideal toys at this age include anything that allows your child to deep-dive into a hobby or interest, strategy board games, and more advanced versions of many of the toys in the Concrete Operational Stage.

Pretty simple, right?

Now here’s the catch: toys can fall into several different categories. And of course, these stages aren’t the only consideration when you’re choosing toys for your child. You’ve got to know your own child’s abilities and interests, consider storage space, note what Grandma’s getting them, etc.

But aren’t these guidelines a breath of fresh air?

Read on in our next posts where we’ll be helping you take stock of the toys in your house. What should stay? What should go? How can you keep the play-time magic alive in your house all year round?