Tool use is one of the hallmarks of our humanity. By developing and using tools—levers, hammers, axes, computers—we have greatly extended our abilities. Some of the other primates have been observed to utilize something like a tool to achieve a goal, such as a chimpanzee that sticks a straw down into a termite nest and draws a snack out with it. That straw is a tool in every sense of the word, as the tasty insect could not have been reached without it. But humans have produced far more sophisticated tools. Furthermore, our ancestors and we have made
most of them, rather than simply taking advantage of a straw or club that might be lying around.
We have been able to do this because of that remarkable organ, the human hand. In a brilliant book titled simply, The Hand,
neurologist Frank Wilson presents a powerful argument for the importance of the hand in human development. This remarkable structure, to which we give little conscious thought unless we injure it, is as vital a component of our humanity as is the brain itself. Our ability to rotate the thumb, allowing it to meet the forefinger and thereby achieve a tight grip on a small object, in and of itself puts humans out of the reach of the other primates. Wilson suggests that perhaps the best thing parents and teachers can do to facilitate a child's learning is to 'head for the hands.'
To demonstrate the importance of this recommendation, all we have to do is observe a young baby closely. The hands go into motion at a very early age, and, as soon as they are able, begin to grab at, hold, shake, taste, move from hand to hand, or release objects that come within range. The earliest movements might be achieved by the hand almost alone, but soon seemingly random hand movements become coordinated with eye movements, which in turn become associated with sounds and the feel of different textures. The hand itself is a tool for brain development, as it plays a vital role in the coordination of all these sensations and actions and forces connections to be established between different parts of the brain. But the hand itself needs tools.
Fortunately, the young infant doesn't have to go through the process of devising and making all its own tools. Loving parents for centuries have observed this hunger of the hands for something to hold and manipulate and have provided a wide range of objects to satisfy that hunger. Those objects are what we call toys. While toys might appear to be more important for slightly older children, no group is more dependent on them for its tools than babies.
And what kinds of 'tools' do the hands of babies need? There are at least five qualities that should characterize every tool-toy you give your baby:
Safety. It goes without saying that the toys must be safe—not small enough to cause choking if swallowed, not made of any toxic material, not likely to shatter if dropped and broken. Responsible toy manufacturers now pay careful attention to this quality, but you still need to keep it in mind as you make selections.
(2) Manipulable. A young baby's toys should consist primarily of objects that the baby can manipulate. Toys (like mobiles) that infants just 'look at' are useful, but soon being able to 'do something' with or to the toy becomes of over-riding importance. Babies are born with a grasp reflex that lasts until around three months, at which time they voluntarily reach for objects. And many babies, by the time they reach that age, seem to want to hold something in their hands all the time. But they don't use their fingers very well at that time, so the ideal toy for the early months is one that can be grasped by closing the fingers into the palm. Once the grasp is achieved, the infant will look at it, shake it, put it in the mouth, and get very excited about it, and do everything else with it his repertoire of movements will allow. After about eight or nine months, the baby can move the thumb over to meet the forefinger and successfully manipulate many other toys (such as blocks, rings, big beads, etc.).
(3) Multisensory. In one sense of the word, perhaps every toy possesses this quality. If it can be held (motor), it can also be looked at (visual). Or manipulation of the toy, like shaking a rattle, might produce a sound (auditory). But each of these domains covers a wide range—a sound may be loud or soft, musical or harsh; a visual stimulus can vary in shape, color, and texture. Give some thought to how many different sensory qualities a toy possesses.
(4) Responsive. A tool-toy should do something when the baby does something to it—make a sound (like a rattle), roll when you drop it, move if you push it or manage to press a certain button. Responsive toys begin to give babies a sense of power and accomplishment: something they did has had an effect. That feeling is what development is all about.
(5) Reassuring. A soft, cuddly, warm fuzzy toy is also a tool. It can help a baby find comfort when needs aren't instantly met, when something seems to produce a feeling of anxiety. And that, of course, is a tool we all need throughout our lives.
Think of these qualities when you shop for your baby's toys. There are many beautiful and exciting ones from which you can choose. You will not just be buying something to keep your baby contented while you do other things; you will also be providing vital tools for development.