Northwestern Clinicians Recommend the Best Toys to Give, and Why, This Holiday Season

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December 13, 2017

Resist the urge to buy the latest, flashiest tech gadget for children this holiday season. Consider, instead, a developmentally appropriate toy that requires more active rather than passive participation. This was among many recommendations made by expert Northwestern faculty and staff at their second Toys to Talk About event November 29.

“The less a child can ‘do’ with a toy and the more the toy ‘does’ tasks itself, the less the toy asks a child to be creative,” said Judith Roman, a lecturer and clinical supervisor at the Northwestern University Center for Audiology, Speech, Language and Learning. “So, we would encourage toys that don’t do so much that a child becomes a bystander during play. We would encourage a child to make animals sounds to match an animal puzzle instead of buying a puzzle that makes the sounds itself. We would much rather have a child create a truck's back-up ‘beep beep’ sound than have the truck create the sound.”

Clinicians at the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders told parents and community members in attendance at the free event to resist the allure of wifi-enabled toys with lights, sounds, and automation that can sometimes take the place of a child’s imagination. Children use toys to further their development, and the wrong toy won’t encourage growth. Roman also discussed how certain kinds of toys can be important for each new developmental stage of a child.

“Very young children play in a way that uses their senses: they look at, touch, taste, and listen to their toys,” Roman said. “After babies mature a bit, they become interested in using real-life-looking toys for their intended purposes, like pretending to talk on a cell phone, putting on sunglasses, wearing parents’ shoes, carrying around a purse or backpack. Kids a bit older than that start constructive play, where they want to build and crash… A higher level of play emerges when children begin engaging in pretend play, where they act out and tell long, extended stories and create events in their play. This is the age when kitchen sets and workbenches, ice cream shops and fire stations become completely appealing to kids. They learn to tell stories, create dialogue, think creatively, solve problems and discuss options.”

For instance, Roman said, children might debate how to keep an artificial scoop of ice cream on a cone, or talk about how they prefer strawberry to vanilla flavors during a round of pretend kitchen play. Later, games with rules become more popular in preschool-aged children, followed by rough-and-tumble play, where sports might become more a focus of interest.

“The main point we want to convey is that children will show off more engagement with toys when the toys align with a child's developmental level,” she said.

NUCASLL held its first Toys to Talk About event in 2015, and for the second time partnered with Evanston’s Becky & Me toy store to provide in-person examples of the best developmental toys for kids of all ages. Playsets by Playmobil, building and other STEM-heavy toys, arts and crafts for creativity and fine-motor skill work, and stacking and sorting toys for babies and toddlers were on display for attendees to see.

Roman said many children come to the clinic for help with speech, language, and audiological needs, and often they use toys in their therapy. The talk for parents and community members seemed a natural extension of the work done in the clinic, and Roman said she hopes parents make informed choices for their children this holiday. Often, classic toys like wooden train sets, stuffed animals, and traditional dolls can be better for children than the latest talking Barbie or Elmo, research suggests.

“I hope that we provide a good reminder that toys facilitate all kinds of thinking and development, including speech and language growth,” Roman said. “I hope that we can also provide a reminder that different toys serve different functions for different ages of children. Toys are not only fun, but important for children’s development.”

- Cara Lockwood