How to Choose the Best Toys and Games for Your Child
We live in an age of ever-increasing complexity that spills over into many aspects of daily life. Countless choices confront us every day, from what clothes to wear and what foods to eat to which school to attend or which route to take when traveling. Among the most important decisions are what types of experiences to offer our children. The vast array of books, games, and toys available in today’s market can be overwhelming. As a parent, how do you choose the best toys and activities for your child?
First of all, remember that you know your child better than anyone else. Be laser-focused on developmentally appropriate opportunities that meet your child’s current needs, abilities, and interests. To support your decision-making, check out valuable guidelines from experts and keep these big ideas in mind.
Practical tips from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) provide a comprehensive set of criteria for evaluating physical toys to be sure they meet required safety standards and pose no hazards for little ones. When selecting products, be especially careful of sharp edges, small parts, pointed objects, and plastic wrapping that might be ingested. Remember to look for the CPSC seal of approval.
For digital engagement, be cautious about exposing young children to online content that might be unsafe or inappropriate. With so much out there, it’s wise to rely on well-informed guidance for choosing digital experiences. Avoid options that lead young minds in the wrong direction (e.g., violence, bad language). Make sure that websites your child uses don’t add unwanted “cookies” on your computer that might expose children to other unsafe sites.
Quality toys and games that can be used in different ways are ideal—and timeless. In the hands-on realm, wooden or foam building blocks, stacking and sorting toys, snap cubes, play-dough, pattern blocks, and magnetic builder sets are just a few examples of interactive toys that encourage multidimensional creativity. Kids can use these materials to make whatever they wish, and that’s a huge plus. When engagement allows for unlimited outcomes, children can apply their skills creatively and benefit from the satisfaction of constructing unique end products of their own design.
In the digital world, games and media that encourage open-ended exploration may be more cognitively stimulating than electronic tools based on single-action play. As with all digital experiences, products should invite interactivity as opposed to passive involvement. Parents can rely on insightful guidance from experts like Chip Donohue and Lisa Guernsey, who suggest consideration for the three Cs: the child, context of use, and content whenever children are engaged with digital media.
Real-World Problem Solving
Sure, kids love to play, but at the same time they are keenly interested in connections with reality. Tool kits, small-sized kitchen appliances and gadgets, dollhouses with furniture, trucks with moving parts, and realistic-looking cell phones with audio features are popular with children who want to do “real” stuff. This type of engagement is an excellent approach to problem solving. When kids have a chance to work with equipment that simulates real-world activities, they grow through trial-and-error practice. While they’re at it, they hone fine motor skills and develop improved eye-hand coordination.
For parents seeking experiences for children in the digital space, the PBS Kids site has a special set of games that incorporate problem-solving challenges. From engineering activities to balancing objects to sleuthing, kids will enjoy fun, onscreen interactivity with these games as they figure out solutions to real problems.
Literacy and Numeracy Focus
By all means, help motivate your child to dive into activities that relate to the sounds of our language, early reading and writing, counting, and number concepts. The foundations for literacy and numeracy start at a young age. Recommended hands-on products to support those skills include magnetic or foam letters and numbers; supplies for drawing and writing such as crayons, paints, and paper or sidewalk chalk; puzzles and pictures that tell a story; large dice with dots or numbers; wooden or plastic counters; and sets of countable objects. As noted above, look for materials that encourage a variety of uses and engagement strategies.
In the electronic realm, there are endless websites and apps that claim to build literacy and math skills, but not all are created equal. How do you distinguish quality from junk? One great go-to site with ratings and descriptions that include advanced browsing is Common Sense Media. Parents can easily zoom in on the information they need and feel more confident about their choices after reading reviews of educational games and apps. Embark Online is a developmentally appropriate set of online activities that support early literacy, numeracy, and basic skills. This rich collection includes read-aloud books, math games, art projects, construction fun, music experiences, and digital engagement to build basic skills.
When searching for quality toys and play equipment, select materials that offer opportunities for your child to be immersed in pretend play, which enriches language development. As children take on different roles, they will emulate what they have observed in their own lives and personify those experiences. This stimulates their imagination and capacity for inventive thinking. Another plus is that pretend play integrates emotion (feelings) with cognition (thinking), moving children forward with socio-emotional development.
Electronic games that integrate imaginative elements and pretend play build social skills (through characters and avatars) and encourage children’s capacity to empathize and self-regulate their own behavior. For young players, this engagement can support their ability to get along with others in the real world. Be on the lookout for positive ratings of apps and online games that are included in Children’s Technology Review or Common Sense Media.
Hopefully, these suggestions will empower you to make well-informed choices when deciding which experiences and products are best for your child. Don’t forget the tremendous value of getting actively involved with your child after you get the right stuff!
Melissa King, director of early learning and product advancement for K12, has more than 35 years of experience as an educator. She holds a Ph.D. in science education from George Mason University and master's degree in linguistics from the University of California at Davis. She recently served as lead content specialist for a new blended program for pre-K learners. Dr. King has co-authored several books, published articles in educational journals, developed curriculum products, and conducted teacher training at the national level. She developed and taught graduate courses for the University of Virginia, George Mason University, and Kaplan University. Dr. King has been a public school teacher and also served as a gifted resource specialist, ESL specialist, and teacher mentor. She has also lived and studied abroad and is a Fulbright awardee.