As we express our appreciation this month for what we've been given, we also start thinking about what we want to give. Of course, experiential gifts, such as a trip to the aquarium or a live performance of The Nutcracker, are a fantastic alternative to material things. But when we do purchase things for children, we want those items to bring joy and contentment for as long as possible. I haven't purchased any Christmas gifts yet, but I'll be acting on my ideas soon.
Here are the guidelines I try to follow when choosing toys to purchase:
1. Choose toys that inspire creativity and imagination. Toys that allow for a variety of creative outcomes will be used the most. The more a toy does by itself, the less a child can do with it. Toys that are initally stimulating with lights and sounds will be tossed aside when the child tires of the same repeated outcomes.
2. Choose durable items. Granted, some children's delights--such as bubble bath--are fun simply because of their transiency. But value comes from items that can be enjoyed and appreciated over several years. Choosing durable, quality items also helps children appreciate the value of things well-made rather than growing accustomed to the trap of constantly consuming and desiring new items.
3. Choose items that reflect God's values. Yes, toys can model values, such as beauty, thoughtful design, and respect for others. This might seem like a strange concept until you realize how many toys in our culture promote competition, self-centeredness, and even violence.
4. Choose items that allow children to create stories about themselves and others. Toys that encourage mimicking adult activities, such as cooking, creating, building, and designing, are popular at all stages of childhood. They can promote language development, social skills, and self-confidence.
5. Aim for simplicity. Where will it be stored? How will the pieces be kept together? Will it be a safety concern for younger siblings? The toy should add life to the home rather than contributing to chaos.
Here is a brief list of classic toys that have stood the test of time:
- Books (here's a list of children's classics from the American Library of Congress)
- Musical instruments
- Dolls, basic dollhouses, and toy vehicles (without sounds)
- Balls and sports equipment (bikes, skateboards, hoops, mitts, etc.)
- Blocks and building materials (ideally, wooden items rather than plastic)
- Tools and materials for working with natural substances such as water, wood, dough, or sand
- Art supplies (choose open-ended and quality-made items such as large, heavyweight paper instead of coloring books)
If you could use toy suggestions for a specific age group, The National Association for the Education of Young Children has an excellent list of good toys for children by age and stage.
In contrast, here are toys that I specifically try to avoid:
1. Mass marketed toys & toys featuring licensed characters. If the toy needs to be marketed and hyped, it's a passing fad designed for limited use.
2. Age-inappropriate toys. Sometimes we are so anxious to give the child something we like that we rush the experience. Usually we wind up disappointed or stressed as a result. If we're not really considering the child as he or she is, whom are we trying to please?
3. Overstimulating toys with lights, sounds, or a screen.
4. Overpriced toys that cannot be resold for a decent percentage of the inital cost. Nontheless, I'm willing to pay for quality if my children will appreciate the item's value as they grow. If they won't appreciate it for a while, consider waiting until they can contribute to the cost.
I don't intend to convey snobbery with these guidelines; I simply wish to promote toys that are a durable and worthwhile investment. Which toy purchases have you been really pleased with in the last few years? Which toy purchases do you regret?