Many light-up or electronic toys for babies and toddlers have a predicable response to an action taken by him or her. If a baby shakes an electronic rattle, the toy will beep and light up. If a toddler opens a door on a battery-driven barn, a cow will pop out and say “moo.” Sometimes a single action can cause a limited number of “random” electronic responses, such as when a button on a toy phone is pressed and the baby or toddler can hear a variety of responses (e.g., “Hi, it’s Daddy” or “Call you later.”). These types of toys are good for stimulating a child’s senses for sights, sounds and textures. They are great for learning about simple cause and effect. It’s not that these toys which integrate the senses and motor skills at the same time are bad, of course. They are entertaining, for a while, and babies and toddlers do learn from them. However, they are not good for learning about unpredictable responses that arise from specific actions, which is a skill they need to be ready for preschool and beyond. When babies and toddlers go to school, they must deal with a variety of people who will make a variety of unpredictable responses in the environment. Being able to observe, manage, work through and learn from one’s own and others’ unpredictable responses and actions is crucial for a child’s success in school.
One problem with the single action/single response or single action/random response toys is they are toys for watching and experiencing passively rather for exploring and making complex brain connections during play. There is limited discovery about the toy beyond the actions the toy elicits and the response(s) it provides. These toys do not foster skills needed to be successful in a 21st century classroom, such as curiosity, flexibility, problem solving or critical thinking.
The best toys that give babies and toddlers the chance to experience their world more fully and help them learn school readiness skills are those that allow them to shape their own play in order to make their own discoveries. Objects in the child’s environment that are safe and age-appropriate can be considered “toys” that build these skills. A spoon can be banged, mouthed or dropped. It can be banged on a pot, the floor, the chair or the highchair, and it will make a different sound on each place it is banged. A baby or toddler can shake the spoon, listen and then stop. He can bang it quietly, listen and stop, and can then bang it loudly, listen and stop. She can drop it, listen and stop. Each time a child goes through the steps of doing, listening, looking and thinking (while stopping), he or she is processing sensory information, integrating it in his or her mind, and making thousands upon thousands of brain connections that will prepare him or her for school.
According to neuroscientist Audrey van der Meer, a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), another “toy” that can build brain connections is a baby or toddler’s own body. When a baby or toddler uses his own body in play (e.g., grabbing and sucking on his toes, kicking his legs, making sounds), the child is learning that he can entertain himself, that he is powerful enough to satisfy his own needs, and he can work hard to get done what he wants to get done through practice and problem solving. A toddler who knows the joy of playing with her own body movements as she crawls, bounces, jumps and steps on the stairs is one who has a great attitude about controlling her body while having fun and problem solving. SciencyDaily.com tells us that “van der Meer believes that even the smallest babies must be challenged and stimulated at their level from birth onward, need to engage their entire body and senses by exploring their world and different materials, both indoors and out and in all types of weather” as well as that van der Meer “emphasizes that the experiences must be self-produced; it is not enough for children merely to be carried or pushed in a stroller.”
All that said, what is the very best toy for them? You, the parent! As a parent plays with a baby or toddler, the play is transformed into something even more important and worthwhile. It is transformed from play for play’s sake and into play that teaches and guides, as well as play that observes a child on his or her developmental journey. It is fun and brings joy to all participants as well as helps parents know when there is the possibility of a concern or a developmental delay. Play that involves a parent is multi-faceted, multi-directional and multi-sensory for the baby and toddler with a partner who knows him best. It turns play into something solitary and uni-directional into a cooperative, social experience in which unpredictable responses that arise from specific actions taken by each participant in the play build crucial brain connections. To be sure, the “parent-as-toy” concept is irreplaceable for play that is best for learning about how people respond, what happens next after they respond and how that has an effect on the play or the people involved.