In another article, I indicated that much, if not most, of children's learning during the early years occurs through the medium of play. As children play with toys, with one another, and with adults, they acquire and improve the skills necessary for formal learning in later stages of their lives. Children who are deprived of play opportunities and play materials are at a definite disadvantage in forming a solid foundation for literacy and mathematics, and for developing adaptive responses to the environmental challenges they encounter daily.
When children play, they are first of all active. They are doing something with their eyes, their hands, sometimes their whole bodies. They manipulate objects, sometimes over and over with surprising repetitiveness. They tend to explore objects with all their senses, not just one or two. For example, give a 3-month-old baby a rattle and watch all that she does with it—she shakes it and listens to its sound, she transfers it from one hand to the other and repeats the procedure, she brings it to her mouth and 'tastes' it, she drops it and watches where it goes. Without this opportunity to act on their toys and to explore them with all of their senses, the learning that is possible will be restricted.
Young children often do not use toys in just the way their parents think they should. They are frequently innovative and creative. And they most certainly like to play with things in their own way. 'Can't he ever play with a toy the way he's supposed to?' a father will lament as his small son takes the engine of a train off the track and pushes it along as though it is a car. He may then take one of his cars, put it up on the track and notice that it doesn't fit, and then put the engine back. He has carried out whatever little scenario he had in his mind and then adjusted it to the physical characteristics of his toys. But without that little self-directed 'experiment,' an integral part of his play, he might not have understood how the two-wheeled objects differed from one another.
Along with the skills of eye-hand coordination and control that come from playing with toys will come a fantastic amount of concept development—understanding the meaning of relationships and intrinsic characteristics of objects. A child who tries to put a big puzzle piece into a small recess learns a lot about 'big' and 'little.' A child who tries to roll a car on the dining table and is told that he can play with it 'under' the table but not 'on' the table learns to understand concepts of position. And one who hits herself one time with a wooden block and another time with a hollow plastic block learns some very practical information about 'hard' and 'soft.' Countless other examples could be given.
One thing parents want to be sure and look for in toys they buy their children is that the toys should communicate directly to the children and not necessarily require adult explanations. For example, the child knows immediately if he has worked a puzzle correctly (interesting that we don't say 'played a puzzle,' which is what it really is); the put-together puzzle communicates that fact as well as if it said, 'Good job, kid!' There is nothing wrong with our commenting, 'Oh, boy, you got all those pieces in place correctly' and adding a little social reinforcement to the occasion. But the toy itself has already sent out that message.
The skills that are developed in play mature along with the child, evolving into ever more mature manifestations. And, though the level and complexity of toys will need to be changed as the child ages, the skills acquired and rehearsed with the early ones will comfortably move along to the next level.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.