Play is an integral part of child development. As adults we see sometimes see fun as something that is a bit unstructured and lacking in purpose; however, for children play serves many purposes and helps numerous facets of development emotional, cognitive, sensory, motor skills (gross and fine) as well as language/communication skills. In particular, play is an important way of communicating and processing the world around them. In essence kids play what they know. Seeing how they play can give massive clues about what they are focussed on or how they are processing things that occurred in their day. As children often don’t have the language to express themselves verbally, play is absolutely essential as a communication strategy.
If we can set up the right opportunities and resources in our children’s play rooms (or toy chest) it offers them wonderful opportunities to grow and learn. In my experience as a psychologist and working with children using play to support their emotional health and wellbeing, I have identified a number of toys or types of play which can be of particular benefit to child development.
So, what kind of toys or games work the best?
Dress ups: dress ups are great, because not only is there a physical benefit in terms of fine motor skills (as they have to zip, button their costumes etc) but there is also a benefit to language skills and also empathy. When children get into character they often modulate or change their language to “fit” the character they are playing, and they can also feel more comfortable to practice new words or fine tune phrasing or speech patterns as there is less pressure when they are playing, compared to a “real” conversation. Dress ups also help with the development of empathy, so when they get into character, they are immersing themselves in another person experience. It sounds a bit fancy, but essentially it gets them into the mode of considering other peoples experiences, which is the cornerstone for developing empathy. If you ensure that the dress ups contain a mix of empathic jobs like; nurses, vets, doctors, teachers it will really cement their exploration of compassion as they get into these caring professions.
Nurturing toys: these are great for both boys and girls to have. This includes things like baby dolls, prams, bottles, blankets, cots, nappies, food etc. You don’t need to have all of these things; a baby doll is the key here as children will use their imagination and repurpose other toys or objects to represent food, blankets etc. Essentially these toys help children “play out” and express love and nurturing themes. They can even use this kind of play to self-soothe or nurture themselves. They are also practicing empathy and compassion by caring for someone smaller than them and can feel a great sense of self-esteem in being a “helper”.
Real life toys: things like phones, cash registers, money, brooms, dolls houses, tea sets, kitchen equipment, play food etc. These kinds of toys help children express and explore their daily life in safe ways. You might see your child replicating scenarios that have occurred in your family or that they have witnessed. They do this to help them make sense of their world, and you might see them play through or practice things a few times as they figure it out. Our brains are solution machines, and we feel safe when we know what to expect. Our children are essentially learning each and every day and figuring out how the world works around them, so these “real life” toys help them explore this.
Creative or craft items: playdough, paint, pens, paper, scissors, etc. Firstly, think about access and your child’s development and decide which of these craft items will be readily accessible. Many parents have found unwanted haircuts or deconstructed toys when their children have found a stray pair of scissors. This allows children to express their feelings and also process things around them by creating or crafting. You often see children drawing people or houses because this is what they know, but they are also using craft to express how they might feel about things in a non-judgemental and safe way.
Avoid (or limit) toys that have a set character or set purpose, it can limit your child’s imagination and ability to use them in different ways. If the toy already has a strong character and backstory, it might be hard for your child to play with them in organic ways or use their imagination to come up with their own story. The same goes for “single use” toys – that only have one purpose, or once created cannot be repeated or played with again.
How can I set up the play room to maximise development?
Make the room or toy box easy to access or your child. If they can see it and can open it or go to it easily, they are more likely to spontaneously choose to play.
Rotate toys to keep them engaged. As mentioned above, too many toys can be overwhelming so it's important to keep the toys to a minimum.
“Strewing” is the art of laying toys out in an interesting way to get your child’s attention. This is why a certain elf who appears at Christmas is so popular. When you set a scene or “tableau” you are creating a story that they child is entering part way through and it can be very engaging or enticing for them. You don’t have to get so elaborate, but setting up a nature book, and some of their stuffed animals on their rug could be a good idea, or lay out their tea set on their table, anything really that will catch their interest and spark their imaginations.
If you try to keep toys in the same place (i.e., the craft materials always go back in the craft box) it can also help create a sense of control and consistency which helps children feel safe. When children feel safe, they are more confident and better able to explore their environment. If you’re anything like me, getting your child to pack their toys away can be tricky, but help them with this process as well as to understand that if we leave things in the same place, they will be easier to find next time.
And it doesn’t have to be put back on the exact same spot on the shelf each time, but perhaps you have a shelf, or particular box dedicated to a particular category of toys/games.
Its important to share that setting up your play room or a toy chest doesn’t have to be expensive.
A few good quality toys are much more value (developmentally) than lots of toys with no therapeutic benefit. You can also pick up lots of great resources at second hand shops.
And less is definitely more with kids.
Having too many toys can create indecision and overstimulation, this can leave them flitting from toy to toy, or starting games and being unable to settle. So please don’t feel any pressure to go out and spend big money on resources. Also, if space doesn’t permit, kids don’t need a whole play room, a toy box is absolutely perfect and can actually help them more easily access their toys as they are in a central location. Simply having access to a few, carefully selected toys can be of great benefit to your child by helping release different types of play that help them communicate and express themselves.
Blanco, P. J., Holliman, R. P., Muro, J. H., Tolan, S., & Farnam, J. L. (2017). Long Term Child-Centered Play Therapy Effects on Academic Achievement with Normal Functioning Children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26(7), 1915-1922.
Bratton, S. C., Ray, D., Rhine, T., & Jones, L. (2005). The Efficacy of Play Therapy With Children: A Meta-Analytic Review of Treatment Outcomes. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36(4), 376-390.
Stagnitti K. A Growing Brain – A growing imagination. In: Howard J, Prendiville E, editors. Creative Psychotherapy. London: Routledge; (in press). p. 185-200.
Wilson , B. J., & Dee, R. (2018). Child‐Centered Play Therapy: Aggression, Empathy, and Self‐Regulation. Journal of Counselling and Development, 96(4), 399-409.