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HomeFamilyParenting AdviceSome of the Best Toys Aren’t Toys—Good Parenting

Some of the Best Toys Aren’t Toys—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

What exactly makes something a good toy for a one-year-old? I’m not talking about anything obviously designed for a toddler to play with, but those random objects that catch my son’s attention – often when I’m not paying attention to him.

Yesterday he was nearby when I was distracted by work on the computer. Next thing I know he’s showing me an old check book (from a closed account) that he’d found in a drawer. He wasn’t happy when I took it from him, and now I’m wondering what would be the harm in letting him play with it?

Toy Or Tool

Dear TOT,

A closed account? No harm at all. Actually quite a lot of good comes from children having access to real tools that they’ve seen adults use.

Word Origin

The word “toy” derives from a Proto-Germanic root that led to the German word “zeug” which means “thing” or “tool” and the closely related Dutch word “tuyg” which means “tool” or “equipment”. So there you have it. People have probably been giving little ones playthings set aside or cast off from going about their daily jobs since the dawn of human tool use. Or, like your son, clever children find these things on their own – tools for the grownups’ jobs – just through natural curiosity.

The Purpose of Toys

Child’s play is serious business. Through manipulation of objects, children are developing the strength and control of their hands that they will need for drinking from a cup, buttoning a shirt, and eventually writing. Some children will go on to be pianists, or sculptors, or electricians, or surgeons by continuing to refine their fine motor skills.

Through play, children are learning about physics and the physical properties of different materials. Properties of paper can be discovered with an old check book – paper rips apart; wet paper (if you happen to spill some juice on it) dissolves; certain objects such as pens and pencils can leave a mark on paper. (Close supervision will help your novice check writer get more ink on the checks than on himself.)

While there is plenty of value in playing alone, children can use objects to interact with another person. An object can bring two playmates together as well as cause friction between them. Social skills are learned, practiced, and mastered through the imitation, idea sharing, and conflict resolution that can happen during play with objects with another person. (Again, close supervision is needed while very young children are learning how other children work.)

When children play they often imitate adult roles. Your toddler may have watched you send your niece a birthday check, pay down a student loan, or calculate how much you can spend on your next night out. He sees you scribbling, watches your face, and may catch a few words from you as you carry out your checkbook business. Have you seen him imitate your speech patterns, holding your cell phone to his ear? A toy phone, or even the tv remote, will serve the same purpose. Pretend play is his way of making sense of your world so he can become competent in it.

Prop Boxes

A local champion for children, Judith Bender (1927-2021), described how to use “real things” for educational experiences through pretend play. A collection of things related to an occupation helps children, sometimes quite literally, walk around in adult shoes. Start with what your child already knows about, then continue to create more prop boxes as his interests expand. 

Some examples of prop boxes –

  • Store:
    • Old checkbook, redeemed gift card, or play money for the customer
    • Goods to sell – empty food containers such as egg cartons, cereal boxes or old shoes and shoe boxes or (toddler safe) jewelry
    • Shopping bags for the customer to take her items home
  • Post Office:
    • Same payment options as above for the customer
    • Junk mail
    • Blank paper and envelopes
    • Stickers to use as stamps
    • A tote bag for the mail carrier
    • A decorated box for the mail to be deposited in
  • Medical Office:
    • Payment options, medical i.d. card
    • Appointment calendar (spiral notebook will do)
    • (Nonworking) telephone
    • Stethoscope, otoscope, reflex hammer, syringe (toy versions will suffice)
    • Magazines for the waiting room
    • Chairs for the patient and staff
  • Restaurant:
    • Dishes, pot, pan, ladle, whisk, spatula, serving spoon, colander, dish rack, dish towel
    • Menu and a notepad to take the order
    • Cloth napkins
    • Payment options
  • Fire Station:
    • Rain slicker or snow suit
    • Boots
    • Telephone
    • A short length of garden hose
    • Steering wheel (or decorate a box large enough to be the truck!)

Odds and Ends

One of the delightful aspects of children is that they will play with just about anything. Whether you’d like them to or not. As your child advances in intellectual development and height, be sure there are ample accessible objects that are safe, sturdy, and not of financial nor sentimental significance. My parents had a set of poker chips in a carousel caddy that delighted five children at various stages of our development. The chips were too large to be choke hazards for the baby (and made such satisfying clacking sounds), and their different colors could be used endlessly for pattern making and math problems until we were old enough to actually learn how to place bets in a card game.

The more your home is set up for free exploration and play, the easier it will be for you to attend to your own thoughts. As long as the objects can do him no harm, and vice versa, your son will be free to explore his own thoughts about the wonderful world around him.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist  and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum . Register for upcoming parenting workshops on Zoom! 

February 23 “How to be the Perfect Parent”

March 9 “Why Do Children Misbehave?”

Read more of her Good Parenting columns by clicking here.


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