Holiday Toys: Have Fun and Build Vision
We all grow following the same path, beginning from when sperm meets egg, through gestation, birth, and beyond. As we grow, we learn, without even trying. It’s a natural and spontaneous process that defines us as intelligent beings (not the only ones on the planet, but ranking pretty high in the animal intelligence ranks.)
Learning also follows a set pattern. We begin with simple sensory and motor experiences and build upon these to produce more complex physical behaviours. Eventually, knowledge of the physical world and interactions with it become represented in the mind as persistent ‘thought’ and the child then learns to manipulate these mental representations of the world without having to actually reach out and touch it. These basic mental skills evolve, allowing for more complex concrete thought (visualizing real objects interacting, such as what happens if I push my plate off my high chair table). Eventually, concrete thought leads to more abstract thinking, such as having visual patterns representing concrete objects; for example, a visual signal (‘C’ ‘A’ ’T’) representing that furry purring thing rubbing up against your leg. But it all starts with basic sensory and motor experiences – if these basic experiences are not in place or insufficient, what is built upon them will also be lacking. Like in a house or skyscraper, the foundation, or core, of the structure allows for stability in what is built upon it. Furthermore, strong foundations allow for more expansive growth of the structures laid upon them. In other words, one cannot expect to erect the Taj Mahal (literally or mentally) on an incomplete or inadequate foundation.
This is why infant play is so important and why the toys we select influence future reading ability. When children are exposed to toys appropriate to their level of development, they will learn the key foundational skills required to acquire more advanced concrete and abstract skills later. If we rush past one stage and don’t allow it to develop fully, we run the risk of limiting and impeding the development of more advanced skills. Parents often fall prey to electronic toys (in particular) that seem marvelously intriguing and promise to prepare children for school and reading, but in reality only serve to confuse young minds by starving them of the foundational activities they require. A child might well learn to recognize ‘CAT’ as the ‘word picture’ that goes with a picture of a cat, but this is not reading. He must learn, later, that ‘CAT’ is not just another picture but an abstract representation of a real thing. There is an important difference here; learning to recognize a shape of a word is not the same as understanding what the word is, let alone how the printed word works.
This holiday season represents another opportunity to focus on the importance of what I will call ‘foundational toys’, that is, toys that help children develop the skills they need to succeed in school. My best advice is to avoid toys that are far removed from the physical reality of the world until the child is well into elementary. While video games seem an easy target, some games have great ‘physics engines’ that very accurately simulate real world physical interactions that are simply not practical to reproduce at home. One of my favourite games to develop muscle coordination in hands as well as general balance skills is an iPhone app called ‘Labyrinth 3D’. It looks, sounds, and functions like an old wooden labyrinth maze through which the player must move a steel ball by tilting the game to and fro in order to get from the start to the finish.
Other video games that are less representative of the real world, yes, including many so called ‘preschool’, ‘genius’, or ‘early reader’ games can indeed be more harmful than beneficial in the hands of a preschool-aged child who has not yet had the chance to develop an awareness of the physical world. Parents who are interested in encouraging reading skills should sit quietly with their children every night, and read with them. Follow text with your finger occasionally, but do not focus on the task of reading. Rather, focus on the closeness between you, and on the joy of the story. Pick stories that are of interest to the child and that challenge their burgeoning vocabularies.
As for developing the skills necessary for later success in school, consider toys for preschoolers that have some or all of these features:
1. Open-ended toys: Avoid toys that only do a few things. (Lego blocks, seem to all be all like this these days, where you really only build one design, then that’s it; gone are the days when the blocks were so generic, they could become anything). Many games are rather limited in what they do, even though they might seem technologically quite advanced.
2. Spatial reasoning toys/games/books: These can be join the dots, mazes, cut outs, origami, puzzles. My favourites are ‘geoboards’, stacking/building blocks, and parquetry blocks. If you can build it then knock it down, it is a great choice.
3. Gravity toys: Jenga is a great example, so are real handheld mazes where you must move balls around on a track or target by moving only the maze itself, and not manipulating the balls themselves directly. I would also include in this category toys that incorporate fluid movement, such as water, or water and oil games and mazes. Toy trucks and trains, especially if they can carry a load, are great options.
4. Models: Building models (and puzzles) requires great manual dexterity and planning. This can be model planes, cars, boats, or anything. I would also include in this some action figure sets that require painting and set up before play – Warhammer being a good example.
5. Arts and crafts: This can be just about anything that requires the child to plan and execute steps in sequence. Sewing, painting (especially finger painting in young children!), knitting, cutting, pasting, cooking, baking – there are many ways to stimulate the mind while developing visual motor integration skills. Again, this is a terrific way to enjoy your children and help them build important academic and social skills.
6. Balls: There are innumerable games to be played with balls that help develop eye-hand skills and coordination of gross (big, less refined) motor ability. Included in this would be various pre-packaged ball games, including traditional ‘Jacks’ games, or other sports like basketball.
7. Memory games: These are fairly easy to find or create. Children need to develop not only pure memory (as in the classic card game of ‘memory’ where you must pick one card from an array of pairs, then find where the other card is amongst the remaining turned-over cards), but they must also learn to sequence things. For example, the ‘whole in the bottom of the sea’, or ‘the twelve days of Christmas’ require not only memory, but memorizing things in sequence. There are a variety of games of visual memory available commercially.
8. Books: Read to your children every day, whether they actually read or learn any words. As they get older and more able to read on their own, have them read to you. This is a great way to bolster reading and to build confidence.
9. Quiet: Encourage games that require more thought and concentration. Avoid the constant barrage of sight and sound stimulation that comes from the vast majority of computer/video games.
Avoid point and click games in preschoolers. While computer skills are a benefit, they will have plenty of time to learn the mechanics of computers in school. Besides, kids with solid foundational skills will easily adapt the the abstract world of the mouse and keyboard.