How to choose toys that challenge your children

The best toy for a child may not necessarily be the branded or the priciest one.

Instead, it should be the one that provides "just the right challenge for the child's developmental stage", said Associate Professor May Lim, programme director of occupational therapy at Singapore Institute of Technology.

Such a toy should be fun and interesting for the child, said Prof Lim, a trained occupational therapist.

If the child gets bored too quickly, or finds the toy more frustrating than fun to play with, then it might not be appropriate, she added.

Parents should also note that their child may develop faster or slower than others of his age, so they should choose toys appropriate for their own child.

For instance, a three-year-old whose fine motor skills are still developing may find it more rewarding to insert puzzle pieces into slots, rather than join pieces together.

It is important always to take the cue from the child, said Prof Lim. She said: "After all, play is a child's occupation. It should be fun and internally motivating."

Together with Ms Alicia Lim, a senior occupational therapist, and Ms Karen Yap, a senior physiotherapist, both at the National University Hospital, Prof Lim recommends toys that parents can buy or make for their children.

Infants (Up to 12 months)

Babies at this stage tend to engage in exploratory play. Choose toys that attract their attention which they can touch, grab or track for their motor and cognitive development.

From six months onwards, they begin to learn to understand concepts such as cause and effect, such as how shaking a rattle creates a noise and pressing a button on a toy car sets off the siren.

Parents can get toys that make noise when shaken, rattled or rolledor containers that can be stacked and knocked down. Babies do not know how to set toys down at this stage, so buy those that can be thrown or dropped without damage.

Recommended toys

Buy play mats or other colourful durable toys that infants can touch or grab, as well as "cause and effect" toys such as rattles.

Toddlers (One to three years)

Toddlers are developing and refining their abilities to solve problems, imitate others and imagine. Hence, toys and play at this age should hone these emerging skills.

Most toddlers need adults to guide them in their play and adults can be proactive in helping their toddlers to elaborate the play themes to optimise their development during play.

For instance, as the child initiates a type of play, such as when he stirs a spoon in a cup, the parent can elaborate on the theme by asking what the child is making or suggest that the child is making a drink such as milk.

The adult can also elaborate by involving other players in the game. For instance, he can encourage the child to make drinks for a grandparent, a teddy bear or other soft toys. This can also teach the child the concept of sharing.

When choosing toys for toddlers, safety is a major consideration, as toddlers can be impulsive and have poor judgment of safety.

Toys that contain small detachable pieces or that have colouring that comes off easily are not safe for children aged under three.

Recommended toys

Shape sorters, pop-up and stacking toys: These are great for developing fine motor skills. They also provide a medium for the child to learn about colours and shapes.

Balls: A large ball is a great and inexpensive way for toddlers to learn to roll, throw and catch. If the toddler can walk independently, encourage him to kick the ball to train his balance and lower limb strength. You can also encourage him to practise overhead throws and to bounce the ball to prepare for structured games in pre-school.

Pretend play: Pretend play is important for the language, cognitive and social-emotional development of children. At around 18 months to two years, they start pretend play with themes that are familiar to them, such as cooking, bathing and putting a baby to sleep. This is a good time to introduce simple toys such as a soft toy and a cooking set.

You can also make toys from objects found at home. Here are some examples:

  • Used plastic milk bottles for the child to pretend to feed the doll or teddy.
  • A mobile phone that is not in use, for him to pretend to call someone.
  • Plastic pots and pans for him to pretend to cook.
  • Clean old clothes, which he can wipe the table with.
  • Miniature broom and dustpan for him to pretend to do household chores.

Later, the child may progress to play with less familiar themes, such as visiting the doctor. You can take the opportunity to introduce pretend play kits to them.

From three years onwards, the topics of pretend play can become very extensive, ranging from fairy tale princess and pirates to astronauts and dinosaurs.

Dress-up toys and puppets may be appropriate at this stage, depending on the child's interest.

Simple puzzles, large-sized crayons, play clay and construction toys: These toys are good for the development of a child's cognitive and fine motor skills, which involves the use of smaller muscles such as those in the hand.

Tricycle: This can be introduced for the development of gross motor skills, which involve the use of bigger muscles, such as those in the legs. Cycling encourages reciprocal movements of the lower limbs and strengthens the legs.

You can start with a bicycle with training wheels. When the child has improved in his balance, the training wheels can be removed.

Pre-schoolers (Four to six years)

Pre-schoolers are usually more independent in structuring their play and may not need many toys.

Although the adult may not need to supervise the pre-schooler as much as the toddler, he is still encouraged to be part of the child's play.

This is because the child has not yet developed the ability to fully manage his emotions.

Hence, parents still need to help him to understand and cope with strong emotions such as disappointment or anger over, for instance, losing a game or not getting a toy.

Pre-schoolers are also starting to develop empathy. Hence, if they see other children experiencing strong emotions, they may get affected as well.

Development at this stage is increasingly focused on the social awareness of other people and themselves. Therefore, friends may become the most important people in their lives and pre-schoolers would want to spend time playing or doing activities with their peers.

Recommended toys

Pretend play: Continue to encourage pretend play. Get them to dress up as doctors, pilots, fire-fighters and princesses. The play at this stage is significantly elaborate with plenty of play themes occurring around fantasy.

Art and craft, construction toys, board games and puzzles: Children at this age tend to be interested in making things. This is when a child-sized scissors and craft materials can be introduced. Hama beads (which require an adults' help to iron and set in shape) are good for perceptual and fine motor skill development.

Construction toys, such as Lego, can help develop creativity and perceptual ability too.

Children at this age begin to understand rules, so simple board games such as Snakes And Ladders, Bingo, Snap and Old Maid can be stimulating. Such games help them develop concepts of winning and losing, fair play, turn-taking and other social skills.

Puzzles that are more elaborate are also good for this age group.

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