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What is a toy diet? Experts share how it helps children 'develop different skills'

How building a toy diet can help children develop different skills as they play. (Photo: Getty Creative)
How building a toy diet can help children develop different skills as they play. (Photo: Getty Creative)

The work of childhood is playing, and it serves a critical purpose; children need toys to help them learn, explore and create. At the same time, pressure on parents to buy toys — Legos, dolls, remote control dinosaurs with wheels and flashing lights — is immense. Toy companies spend billions trying to convince children and parents alike that their product is a must-have. Adding to that pressure are the picture-perfect Instagram posts of parents showing off their complex toy rotation systems and immaculately curated playrooms.

But how many toys do kids really need? And how can parents weed through all of the choices to pick the best toys for their children? Here's what experts say.

All toys are educational

“Play is an important part of children's development,” says Erica J. Card, who holds a psychology degree and is a store director and buyer for Child’s Play, an independent toy store. According to Card, "all play is educational,” which is why it's important to “curate a toy collection and focus on what’s appropriate to get children to engage in play” that will help them develop essential skills. With the right toys, she emphasizes, children won’t even realize they are learning.

What is a toy diet?

“Having a variety of toys is important, since each kind of toy is an ‘invitation’ to develop different skills in kids,” says Rebecca Rolland, a Harvard lecturer in education and author of The Art of Talking with Children.

There are six categories of toys that make up a balanced “toy diet," Card says: creativity, movement, communication, logic, fine motor and gross motor. She notes that "it’s important to start young” to help children develop the skills in all six areas.

There is no one-size-fits all approach to creating a balanced toy diet and what children need in their toy collection may change over time as they gain skills in one area but may start to lag in another. Keeping the six “toy diet” categories in mind, and looking for overlapping areas of development, will help parents curate the best toy collection possible for their child.

Knowing more about each category will help.

Creativity

It’s important to give children opportunities to stretch their creativity so they have opportunities to think about things in new ways. Arts and crafts are the most popular toys for developing creativity. Card thinks these are great because even children as young as 1 can start with finger painting, and projects can become more involved as children get older. Toy musical instruments and those that promote pretend play, like toy kitchens, are other great ways of promoting creativity.

Communication

Communication is essential for developing social-emotional skills. Storytelling games, dress-up, dolls and figurines all help children build better communication skills. “If children are playing doctor, they can explain what they are doing, like listening to a doll’s heart,” Card explains. "Or, animal figurines can talk to each other.” If children don’t like these types of toys, she recommends playing cooperative games that require players to talk to each other to get children to stretch their communication skills.

Movement

Games like jump rope help children learn how to move their bodies in relation to others, teaching them to share a physical space in a way that promotes healthy interactions and builds problem-solving skills. Even children who don’t like sports tend to like games that involve movement, says Card, who recommends looking for toys that are “active but fun.”

Steve Coxon, professor of education and executive director at the Center for Access and Achievement at Maryville University, agrees. “Active play toys are beneficial for health and well-being, and when used with other children can serve to help build important social skills like sharing and collaboration, and these are great skills that adults can help guide,” he says, noting that children who develop these “soft skills” early on reap positive benefits later in life, including higher educational achievement and increased earnings.

Logic

Logic toys include math and strategy games, toys that help children understand how things work and those that demonstrate cause and effect, explains Card. A marble run is a classic logic toy because children can rearrange the track in multiple ways to see what works, and what doesn’t. Other toys in this category require children to solve problems or develop a strategy. Board games and basic engineering toys can also help children learn logic and problem-solving skills.

“Activities like building with blocks or LEGO bricks, sewing or engineering with an educational robot set all also help to develop spatial ability, visualizing and manipulating mental images. Spatial ability is vital for future engineers, surgeons, scientists and designers among other careers,” adds Coxon.

Fine Motor

Children need strong fine motor skills to do almost any task that involves their hands, from holding a pencil to tying shoes. Toys that involve pressing, grabbing, twisting, lifting and grabbing can all help build and strengthen these skills. For younger children, Card recommends puzzles that have large knobs for grabbing. Older children will benefit from puzzles that require pressing pieces into place, or Legos.

Gross Motor

Gross motor skills are important for running, jumping and climbing. Scooters, balls for tossing and rolling, trampolines and pull-along toys (like a wooden dog attached to a rope) are all great ways to develop these skills.

Art and crafts kits help spark creativity. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Art and crafts kits help spark creativity. (Photo: Getty Creative)

How to narrow down the selection

As Card points out, "there's a lot of overlap" across different categories. For example, dolls that promote creativity also promote communication skills. Similarly, logic puzzles and arts and crafts often promote fine motor skills.

Even so, sorting through countless toy options can feel overwhelming. According to Card, when deciding which toys to buy within each category it’s important to focus on two factors: age and interest. Kristen C. Eccleston, a consultant for Weinfeld Education Group, concurs. “You may have a young child that shows interest in becoming a budding artist, but the child and your walls may not be ready for a 100-piece art set with paint and markers. However, a no-mess color wonder paper by Crayola may be right,” she says.

Making sure that a child is interested in a toy is key to keeping them engaged, says Card. A child may reject logic games if they don’t like math, but if they love dinosaurs getting them a stegosaurus-themed logic toy may encourage them to give it a try. Another child may love science but have weak fine motor skills. If the goal of buying a science kit is to help them progress in science, look for a kit that does not involve a lot of small pieces, as that may be frustrating and cause the child to give up. Instead, focus on developing fine motor skills in other ways.

Card cautions that the target ages toymakers list on boxes may be selected to create a wider audience and may skew younger than necessary. Sometimes figuring out what works is a process of trial and error. Independent toy stores usually have trained staff that can help. If your child does wind up with a toy or game that’s too complex, Card recommends putting it away before the child becomes so frustrated they give up, and trying again in a couple of months.

Fewer toys are better — but there's no perfect number

Rather than going out and buying several toys in each area, Card recommends being intentional about choosing toys to promote specific skills. She stresses the importance of getting quality toys that will last through repeated uses. Even though these toys may cost more money up front, they tend to save money in the long run because they are less likely to break and are likely to hold children’s interest longer.

Eccelston also thinks fewer toys are better because “children with too many toys often do not gain opportunities to develop their creativity and imagination … causing children to miss out on gaining essential life skills that help with problem-solving and brain development.”

Rolland agrees. "Filling a playroom with toys most often only leaves kids distracted or moving quickly from one toy to the next, without really exploring any of them," she says. "Instead, focus on having a few toys that fit your child's interests and current skills.”

Coxon says that while there is no magic number of toys a child should have, parents should ask themselves two questions: “Does everything have a place for your child to easily put away when it’s time to clean up?” and “Does your child have a sufficient variety of toys that can engage them in developmentally appropriate pretend play, active play and building/creative play?”

"If you answered both of those with a yes, your child has a good number of toys,” he says. That’s good news for parents who feel pressure to rotate toys or who don’t have enough storage space for a big collection.

A marble run is considered a great logic toy. (Photo: Getty Creative)
A marble run is considered a great logic toy. (Photo: Getty Creative)

How to deal with boredom

Eventually all children will hit a wall and get bored. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to go out and get more toys if the ones you have are still developmentally appropriate and in line with your child’s interests.

According to Coxon, if children get bored parents should “provide your child with interest and age-appropriate challenges or suggestions: "I’d love a new painting for my office." "Can you use all of the wooden tracks for your trains?" "I think your dolls would love a block castle!" "Can you make your robot follow a wall?”

Dr. Zishan Khan, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, also recommends “helping your child enjoy their time with activities that don’t require toys."

His advice? "Encourage them to go outside, help them develop a passion for reading, make them feel included when you are baking in the kitchen and think of ways to make life enjoyable, fun and exciting without the need for a specific toy.”

How can parents resist pressure for the latest hot toy?

When parents see a hot toy splashed all over social media they may be tempted to ignore this advice to keep up with the Joneses. Eccleston cautions that “when it comes to pressure from social media … someone is sitting behind the screen making money off of people clicking on their affiliate links and/or from their marketing efforts. So even if a pitch comes off a personal social media page, it is most likely assisting with financial gain.” Once parents realize that, Eccleston hopes that they won’t feel as much pressure to get the next "hot" toy and will focus on their child’s needs instead.

If pressure is coming from your own child to buy the latest toy, Khan says that parents should “set limits as to what their children are watching on television and the tablet. It is helpful to avoid commercials, since they are designed to attract a person’s attention and encourage them to buy their product, and children are of course not immune to this.”

He adds, “It is actually beneficial for your child’s future to set limits and help them realize that they can’t just get whatever they want as soon as they want it.”

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