Play is a child’s work. It is essential for the development of the human brain, which is only twenty-five percent complete at birth.
Play helps children’s nervous systems develop, and drives emergence of individual cognition, social skills, and imagination. It is so central to childhood development that inability to play signals that something is wrong, perhaps a diagnosable problem.
One factor that may be limiting our children’s full play potential is our dependence on screens. The sophistication of today’s video content, games and apps is a double-edged sword, in some cases helping our kids with distance learning and extra-curricular learning, and in other cases leading to a diminished connection to the real world and the transformative power of play.
Healthy play needs to be nurtured and prioritized for our kids. By contrast, online games, YouTube, and TV have limited benefit beyond superficial engagement. It is almost a misnomer to say that a child is “playing” a video game, as the experience is a largely cognitive experience with no muscular and kinesthetic energy being used, like offline forms of play.
In fact, research shows that screen time leads to fatigue and mood swings in many children due to designs that use rapidity of imagery, collapsed frame times and constant bombardment of stimuli, leaving kids too tired to play. Many parents have experienced this phenomenon during the global pandemic, as kids struggle to stay focused and happy during long online school days.
Many video games offer little for imagination and what I call “coefficient of resistance.” If a child plays at constructing a castle in the dirt or sand, for instance, her imagination is engaged with digging in the ground, combining mental, muscular and kinesthetic activity. It is a full experience, not a cognitive process alone.
Toys and Play Value
The child’s imagination transforms the most basic of items into a universe for play. Your bed becomes a “trampoline park” in the imagination of a child at play; or a broom becomes a speedracer and old sheets hung over a cardboard box, a palace for imagined characters and stuffies to come to life.
Despite these opportunities to let imagination lead, Americans are buying more than $20 billion worth of toys annually, 90 percent of which are made of plastic. Almost 40 percent of toys gifted to kids during the holiday season are broken by spring. To make matters worse, most toys are destined for landfill as the plastics used to make them are often blended with other materials that are hard to recycle.
If you’re looking for more sustainable options, you can find toy brands such as Green Toys that are made from recycled or natural materials that are non-toxic and you can look for high “play value” toys, that engage your child’s imagination. Sustainable options for toys will also give you the assurance that harmful chemicals such as phthalates are not being used to make them. Look for toys made from materials like silicone, bamboo, wood, organic cotton and phthalate-free recycled plastics.
The best guidance, however, in buying toys is to consider their play value; asking yourself how a particular toy can engage and develop your child’s imagination, or their natural tendencies to play. Toys that stretch the imagination, like building blocks, arts and craft supplies, clay, balls, and cards have the highest play value.
When buying for infants and toddlers, consider their physical development and their relative vulnerability to toxins, given their tendency to put everything in their mouths. Art cards, cloth books and lovies that are graphically colored or black and white are stimulating for babies’ eyes and brains, and highly tactile and interactive toys or ones that encourage movement, such as the zeki learning Sea Habitat Activity Mat, are also great for their physical and cognitive development.