2016 News Releases

Texas Woman's professor says toys should spark child's imagination

Parents who can’t afford or don’t want to buy the latest high-tech toy on their child’s holiday wish list can take heart – traditional toys may help your child learn more.

Melissa McInnis Brown, an assistant professor of early childhood development and education at Texas Woman’s University, says decades of research indicate that children benefit not only from the amount of language they hear, but also the quality of the conversations they have with their parents, which frequently occur during play. Studies have indicated that different kinds of toys spark different kinds of conversations.

“Although we might expect that more electronic ‘bells and whistles’ would enhance a toy’s educational value, emerging research is suggesting otherwise,” she said. “Studies have corroborated and extended the finding that conversation quality is lower with electronic versions of traditional toys. It appears that such toys evoke less pretending and less elaboration than their traditional counterparts.”

However, Brown said, it’s important to note that not all electronic toys are bad.

“There are many high-tech toys that allow for open-ended play, which enables children to express themselves freely and creatively,” she said. “Whether a toy is high-tech or low-tech, it should strive to spark imagination and creativity, promote physical activity and encourage social interaction. The more children have the opportunity to use their minds and bodies to problem solve and develop their own ideas, the more engaging the play is and the more they learn.”

When buying toys, Brown said, it’s important to keep the ultimate customer – the child – in mind.

“Parents should ask themselves, ‘Does the toy direct my child, or does my child direct the toy?’” she said. “Open-ended toys lead to open-ended play, which encourages children’s creative problem-solving skills.” Open-ended play frequently allows for peers to join in on the fun as well, she said.

“When a toy is multipurpose, children have to discuss and negotiate how best to use it. These types of interactions lead to wonderful social and developmental gains.”

When choosing toys, Brown said, “a great rule of thumb is that toys should be 90 percent child and 10 percent toy. Today’s toys often only require 10 percent input from a passive child who does little more than turn on a video or respond to a computerized request to press a specific button or pull a certain lever without letting the child figure it out on his or her own.”

Instead, parents should look for toys that actively engage children and ignite their imagination, she said. For infants, toys should vary in texture, shape, motion and color. As children get older, look for toys that have multiple uses, components and purposes. This can include toys that involve construction, arts and crafts, musical instruments, and games that require the involvement of others.

Of course, as parents know, children sometimes will abandon the gift and play with the box it came in instead. Brown said that can be a good thing.

“The play possibilities for a cardboard box are limitless,” she said. “Some of the most perfect toys for children require little to no investment. Cardboard boxes and other recycled items such as clothes, pillows and kitchen items offer wonderful opportunities for open-ended play that lets children do the directing.”

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Karen Garcia
Senior Writer
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