By Raising Children Network
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Toddler and big brother playing toy car and cardboard house
There are so many toys out there, and juggling your child’s needs (and wants!) – along with advertising and peer pressure influences – can be tricky. But the best toys aren’t always the fanciest – they’re the ones that fire up your child’s imagination.

Toys and play

Toys can be a great way to kickstart your child’s play and support your child’s development. But your child might not need as many toys as you think.

The best toys for children are ‘open-ended’. These are the toys that encourage your child to play using imagination, creativity and problem-solving skills.

Open-ended toys include:

  • blocks – one day your child uses them to build a tower, and the next day he might bring the block up to his ear and pretend it’s a phone
  • balls – they’re great to bounce, look at, roll, hold and throw
  • cardboard boxes – these can stand in for so many things, including pretend shop counters, ovens, cars, boats and doll houses 
  • dress-ups – with some hand-me-down clothes and bits of fabric, your child can become anything or anyone he likes
  • crafty bits and pieces – coloured paper, stickers, crayons and washable markers can get your child started on a masterwork.
You don’t always have to buy toys from a shop – everyday household items often make great open-ended toys. Pots and pans, plastic containers, pegs, clothes baskets, blankets ... children can find a way to play with almost anything! One important note – any household items your child plays with should be safe, so avoid sharp objects, or small objects that could cause your child to choke.

Choosing toys

Many toys have age-range information on their packaging. This can be useful, but in terms of play, it’s only a guide. Your child’s interests and stage of development will probably give you a better sense of what to choose. Age-range information can be important for safety, however – for example, when toys contain small parts that could be swallowed by a baby. In these cases, it’s wise to follow the recommended age-range information.

For your baby, the best ‘toy’ and play partner is you, a carer or other close family member. Your baby will delight in watching your face, listening to your voice and simply being with you. She’ll also enjoy looking at a brightly coloured mobile, listening to a wind-up musical toy or learning to reach for a rattle. When your baby can sit up, she might also like things she can bang – a wooden spoon to bang on a pot is every bit as much fun as a purpose-built toy.

Toddlers love to play with boxes, and often find the wrapping a present comes in more fun than the present itself. Other good choices for toddlers include construction toys (for example, Duplo) and clothing for dress-ups.

Older children often like to solve problems and use their imagination. Puzzles or games that get your child playing with others are also good choices.

You don’t need to spend lots of money on toys – toy libraries are a great way to keep surprising your child with new toys. Most toy libraries charge a membership fee, but then you can borrow toys for free. Visit Toys Libraries Australia to search for a toy library in your area.

Toys you’re uncomfortable with

There are some toys that might not sit easily with your family values. For example, some parents are uncomfortable with toy weapons such as guns, while others might not like the body shape or clothing of some dolls.

Toy weapons
Play with toy weapons often involves aggression and violence. And when children play together in aggressive ways, it’s not always good for their self-confidence and wellbeing.

But toy weapons can also be used in positive ways. It’s a matter of looking at how your child is playing with the toy weapon and working out what your child is actually doing. For example, your child might be using the toy as a prop in a make-believe game of cops and robbers. That’s probably fine. But if your child’s using the toy aggressively towards other children, he might need some coaching from you on playing with others. The gun might not be the issue.

It’s pretty common for children to make guns out of everyday objects such as sticks, celery, toast or Lego. This might not be something you want to encourage, but a gun made of toast doesn’t have the same power as a toy gun. A toast gun is a symbol, and is less likely to be used to scare others.

Sexy-looking dolls
Playing with dolls can be great fun for your child, but some dolls have a grown-up, ‘sexy’ look – for example, some female dolls come with clothing such as miniskirts, fishnet stockings and high heels. This might seem fun and completely innocent, but it can also create an image of women that you might not want your child to play with – or imitate. In fact, a 2009 report from UK human rights organisation Object found that the ‘sexualisation’ of toys and product advertising can directly influence your child’s developing sexual identity, attitudes and behaviours.

Again, it’s worth watching to see how your child plays with dolls. If you’re concerned, you might want to offer dolls with more child-like features so your child is exposed to dolls of all styles and body shapes.

A relaxed approach to toy guns and sexy-looking dolls might be the best way to go – it’s probably a stage that will pass by itself. If it really worries you, you could suggest your child plays with something else.

Talking about toy decisions

You’re the person who decides what toys are OK for your child to play with in your home.

If you have strong feelings about certain toys, it can be a good idea to talk to your child, especially as she grows older. You could mention your family values. For example, ‘Guns can scare and hurt people very much. No-one in our family has a gun’.

Lecturing your child or banning toys isn’t effective. It can make your child want to play more with the toys you don’t like. Instead, you can use your child’s war play, for example, as an opportunity to teach your own values about weapons, war and violence.  

Children can sometimes get mixed messages about toys. For example, if children are allowed to watch violent TV shows or play violent video games, they could get confused if their parents then want to ban gun play.

If you don’t want other grown-ups to give your child certain toys as presents, a short, calm explanation of your feelings should do the trick. In the end, it’s your decision.

The power of advertising

Lots of toys have ads and marketing aimed straight at your child. It can be really hard to resist when your child wants a toy because ‘everyone else has it’. You might like to read more about helping your child become ad savvy

Advertised toys often promote a particular type of play because they’re based on a movie or TV program. This doesn’t make them bad toys, but they might limit the play options for your child. This can happen if your child uses the toys to imitate and replicate TV shows, rather than using his imagination. 

The way your child uses a toy is often far more important than the toy itself in determining the toy’s effects on your child’s development. Thinking about how your child might play with the toy can help you decide whether it’s the right one for you and your child.
  • Last updated or reviewed 29-07-2011