Shhhhh, do you hear that? It’s the sound of collective panic, emanating from thousands of parents who have just realised that Christmas is on our doorstep! Please stay calm.
Luckily, with our super-generous festive shopping hour regulations, there’s still plenty of time to get everything you need.
As an Occupational Therapist (OT), I often get asked what the best educational toys are for children.
From my perspective, I don’t get too fussed with “educational” toys. The term “educational” brings rise to images of ABC flashcards and mathematical tablet apps – and to be honest – these aren’t always the most fun for kids!
When it comes to kids, play is paramount. Play is every child’s number one occupation. It is how they learn about themselves, their bodies, their environments, and society around them. They need to play as much as possible and in as many different ways as possible – because that is how they will develop fine motor skills, gross motor skills, body awareness, core strength, upper body strength, social skills, spatial awareness, visual integration, and so, so much more.
When kids develop all of these fundamental physical, cognitive and social skills and attributes, then it lays amazing foundations to allow them to reach more “educational” and academic milestones in the future.
So when it comes to Christmas presents, I say don’t worry about buying some expensive computerised reading program that they (and you) will be bored of in two minutes flat. Instead – get them toys they are going to LOVE to play with.
The good news is, the sort of toys that are great for your child’s development generally aren’t that expensive, and they’re really easy to find. In fact, you can find pretty much everything you need from your local Kmart, Target, Big W or Toys R Us. You can even get some at the supermarket if you’re really in a bind!
So if you still have a few stockings left to stuff and want to find something OT approved that will help support your child’s development, here’s my/Santa’s list for you.
Gifts for Babies
1. Stacking cups and stacking rings – Great for manual dexterity and visual motor integration and help build the foundations for many mathematical concepts such as size relationships and volume.
2. Blocks – Of all different textures: foam blocks, timber blocks, mega blocks, musical blocks. They’re great for gross motor manipulation, visual motor integration (hand-eye co-ordination), and creativity.
3. Balls – Again try a few of different shapes, sizes and textures, and include some with noisy or light up fillings, to make playing with balls a sensory experience. Balls are also great for hand-eye co-ordination. As soon as your baby can sit up you can start rolling balls to each other.
4. Books – I know you’re not surprised by this one! We all know how important books are for child development and it’s my personal opinion that you can never have too many books! Look for a range of different types of books, such as fabric books, bath books, stroller books, board books, particularly interactive books, such as lift the flap, or pages containing different sensory textures.
5. Baby swing – Not the battery operated kind, but the type you attach to a beam in your back patio. Swings are great to promote vestibular awareness – which basically means an understanding of where your body is in space.
Gifts for Toddlers
1. Play dough – Great for building strength in little hands and fingers. It’s a great sticky, gooey, sensory experience. There’s a million ways you can play with playdough. Forget about all the fiddly creation sets, all you really need is a few tubs, a rolling pin and a stack of kitchen utensils – cookie cutters, spatulas, plastic knives and tongs.
2. Blocks / Duplo / Mega blocks – Good for babies, as I already mentioned, but great for toddlers, for all the same reasons.
3. Mr Potato Head – This one always strikes me as such an “American” toy, and I often think we Aussies haven’t quite jumped on board the Mr Potato Head train. But we really should. Mr Potato Head is great for fine motor manipulation, creativity and body awareness.
4. Sandpit toys – It’s true that some of the best developmental tools for children are the messiest and most inconvenient. And you can certainly count sand near the top of that list. Sand is a great sensory medium for children to play with – to get used to the feeling of different textures on their skin, and in their hands. Even if you don’t live near the beach, you can generally find a sandpit to play in somewhere.
5. Puzzles – Again, great for problem solving, fine motor skills and visual motor integration.
6. Card games – such as memory or snap – Sure they can play these games on the iPad, but the actual physical act of picking up and flipping the cards is great for their fine motor dexterity. Physical movement and memory support each other.
7. Mini trampoline, tunnels, cocoon swings – Great for building core strength and burning off excess energy. Also wonderful for kids who are “sensory seekers” – those kids who crash-tackle everything!
8. Musical instruments – These also go into the “great for kids, not so great for Mum’s headache” category. But really musical instruments are wonderful toys for children of all ages. Babies can start with rattles or bongos, moving up to tambourines and xylophones as they become toddlers, and heading through to the dreaded recorder and harmonicas as they move towards pre-school. We know that music stimulates parts of the brain related to reading, mathematics, memory and social development.
9. Imaginative play toys – dolls, trucks, dress ups, kitchens, food, shopping carts, toy animals, doctors kits – Creative play is one of the most important tasks for children to take part in. It is how they learn to socialise with other children and adults, and how they make sense of the society around them. Try not to be too locked in to gender stereotypes – girls can play with trucks, and boys can play with dolls. In fact, I have it on good authority that Santa is bringing my girls a firetruck this year….
10. Trikes, bikes, scooters – Anything that your child has to use their body to make themselves move around. Great for all areas of physical development, such as motor planning, strength and balance.
Gifts for Pre-schoolers
Pretty much everything I listed for toddlers can also be great for pre-schoolers, perhaps just lifted up a notch – a slightly harder puzzle, a smaller type of Duplo block. But what else could you choose?
1. Sporting equipment – Ten pin bowling sets, Velcro grip balls, totem tennis, tennis racquets, cricket sets, soccer goals, netball rings, golf clubs. The list of potential gift ideas here is almost endless. Great for all the same reasons as trikes, bikes and scooters – plus the added benefit of all the ball play we talked about earlier.
2. Threading and lacing toys – Want your kids to be able to tie their own shoelaces soon? Get some threading and lacing cards or beads, or sewing activities. If you go for beads, make sure you get decent sized ones and that your pre-schooler, or their little sibling, isn’t into mouthing objects still.
Gifts for Primary school kids
Again, look back at the toddler and pre-schooler list and think about what your kids love to do. How can you add a level of complexity to their play?
Go up another level in items such as puzzles, sports equipment, bikes, etc. It is important to keep challenging your child’s physical development. So once they can ride their scooter really well, is it time for a skateboard, or roller skates? How about increasing their imaginative play – do they love playing doctor? How about getting a doctors set for their dolls, so that they can move to a different level of directive play?
And sure, by now they probably want an iPad or Xbox, but if you want to balance that out with something else – how about….
1. Board/card games – Remember those? They were what we used to play with for hours and hours before we had Gameboys to entertain us. Board games are great for so many reasons, problem solving, strategic thinking, fine motor dexterity, social skills. There’s sooooo many out there, but here are a few of my favourites: Operation, Jenga, Connect 4, Twister, Snakes and Ladders, Tumbling Chimps, Battleships, Monopoly (kids version), Scattegories, Kerplunk, Pick Up Sticks, Uno, Guess Who, Pictionary, Scrabble. There’s so many. Take a walk down memory lane – I’m willing to bet if you loved it, your kids will too.
2. Lego – Blocks on steroids. Great for all the same reasons that bigger blocks were for little kids. Lego is a great toy for continued fine motor dexterity, visuo-spatial planning, creativity, and learning the basics of mathematics and physics.
3. Shared or experience presents – Children of this age can now understand really well the concepts of sharing and also of delayed gratification. How about a kayak or a tent for the whole family to share? A season pass to the local pool or perhaps a ticket to a concert they really want to see. Gifts like this help children to understand that gifts can come in all shapes, sizes and forms. What about charity? This is also a good age to introduce the concept of giving and charity to your children. Perhaps they might be willing to receive one less gift this year, and instead put a present under a giving tree at your local department store?
So there you go. This list is by no means exhaustive. There’s literally hundreds of toys I could put on this list. These are just a few of my favourites. So if you still have presents left to buy, get your skates on and head down to the mall. After all there is just 11 shopping days left…