Modern Family: It’s Playtime, Folks!

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Dec 8, 2014

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How he would love them! Or, so we thought….

Oops. Our two-year-old stared stonily at the goodies we’d snapped up at Christmas sales in Singapore. We did a double take. On that chubby face was written disinterest, disdain and dismissal – in that order. Where had we gone wrong?

Adding to our confusion, he left the toys in a hopeless tangle on his grandmother’s lap and toddled excitedly to the bathroom. With a plastic bucket and mug, he proceeded to play with the greatest gusto. He turned the bucket upside down with glee. He hung the mug at a jaunty angle on his head with delight. He tilted and twirled those everyday items to make the mundane, magical. In his little mind and hands they became different things in turn: a hat, a drum, even an echo chamber! All that fun, while we flinched to think of the dollars wasted on the pile of posh playthings.

What did we know, in our enthusiastic rush to offer our baby the world? We slowly figured out: that imagination reigns supreme, that mapping milestones is easier when you choose age-appropriate toys, and that nothing can beat simple play, which promotes spontaneous interaction between you and your baby.

The staggering number of choices available now means it’s tough to keep up with the latest trends in toys for kids. One of the many mazes every mum must navigate is choosing wisely from the vast array of educational toys and activity routines to tempt kids of all ages.

Luckily, therapists and teachers can provide guidance on which toys will encourage interactive play. They all agree you needn’t run to the next fancy mall to buy expensive toys for your tot. Bela Desai, who has trained in the Montessori method and runs Jechand Talakshi, a store that supplies traditional play materials to nursery schools, says, “Today’s toys, designed by people only in the business of manufacturing them, miss basic rules of child psychology. For example, they teach two concepts of colour and shape with the same toy, when each idea should be introduced separately to avoid confusion.”

Pediatrician Raju Khubchandani adds his bit of advice: keep away from toys that do too much. “A cuddly doll gives your child the chance to play mama and pretend to bathe, feed and dress her,” he says. “A doll that walks and talks plus does a host of other things is clever but pointless, because it doesn’t hold as many opportunities for role play.”

In recent years, big toy companies have recognized that parents want to be educated consumers when it comes to their children’s toys. As a result, their marketing strategies have shifted from pure advertisement to engagement with parents about development and good play. I am reminded of what Kathleen Alfano, director of child research for Fisher Price, said some years ago at a workshop in Mumbai called Miracles and Milestones. “Play is so important. It is the way children first learn about the world around them.”

Another international toy giant, Hasbro, also announced the results of a survey it conducted on developmental milestones. The survey provides guidelines to help parents choose age-appropriate toys. For example, an infant who is under two months old has limited vision, so it makes no sense to dangle large toys more than 14 inches away from her eyes. From one year to 18 months, toddlers experiment with fantasy actions: using a plate as a steering wheel or blowing a cardboard roll like a trumpet. From two to four years, the child is ready for group play and senses early emotions, primarily love, the need for companionship, and anxiety. Wooden puzzles, pegboards, scooters and train sets are appropriate at this stage. Each toy-buying parent must decide for herself whether to take these studies at face value, or to view them with a bit more skepticism, given who commissioned them, and the fact that they do encourage the purchase of additional toys!

Art teacher Liz Virkar finds that kids become completely engrossed in crafts projects, such as creating their own human and animal figurines. Because kids are entirely responsible for the creation of their piece, their imagination is unbridled. “A bottle cap can become a monster’s eye in a jiffy. There’s eager anticipation in the child to see what a handmade item might shape into. Designer toys may have their value, but they get repetitive.”

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Written By Meher Marfatia

Meher Marfatia lives and works in Mumbai as a freelance writer and independent publisher. The author of 10 books for children and two for parents, she also runs a reading club for pre-adolescents with Rupal Patel. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens. Reach her at: mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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