Today I want to talk about an important staple in my storytime supplies–toys! I think toys are so important because play is how children learn. Toys are a safe way for young children interact with the world around them–with the toys themselves, with adults, and with other children. They are useful for learning cause and effect, sorting, counting, motor skills, as well as in developing social skills and imagination. I allow time for free play after my baby storytime and my preschool storytime. It gives the parents/caregivers a chance to socialize with each other, as well as providing important social time for the children. After storytime, I go get my cart of toys (hidden away in a back room until ready for use), turn on music, and spread the toys out on our mat. I usually sit on the floor and either join in or facilitate play.
Now that I have explained why I think toys and playtime are so important, I want to talk a bit about the kinds of toys we offer. I think offering the right kinds of toys is every bit as important as offering toys in the first place. The general rule of thumb I used when shopping for toys was this: the less a toy “does”, the more room it leaves for the kid to use his or her imagination. Thus, you will find no “educational” electronic toys (well, the shape sorter can play music and talk, but I usually leave it turned off).
MegaBlocks (left) and blocks (pictured above). This was a no-brainer. The blocks are from Lakeshore learning. They are lightweight plastic with rounded edges to make them safer for the youngest children. They have letters on them, as well as simple pictures (sun, teddy bear, etc). They come in four colors: green, blue, yellow, and red. The MegaBlocks belonged to my daughter when she was younger. In storytime, I have seen these become a castle, lip balm, and a blender, just to name a few. Both kinds of blocks are great for imaginative play and for developing motor skills.
Puzzles. These are Melissa and Doug wooden puzzles. I like them because they each have three simple pieces with a knob that is easy for little hands to grab onto. These are also great for motor skills, and the kids use the pieces in imaginative play. For example, they have taken the clear plastic tub that the blocks come in and put the water creatures in it, making an aquarium.
Here is an assortment of other toys we have. We have two bouncy balls, a shape sorter, and two cars. The elephant is a wooden pull-along toy, and the circles on his tummy spin around when he moves. The crab rocks back and forth and has a mirror on it (mirrors are great for very small babies–they love to look at themselves!). Last, but not least, Rex from Toy Story. He used to belong to my daughter and I just threw him in with the other toys to see if they would like him. They love that he walks on his own and talks!
In my mind, these are the essentials. They cost very little money, but have endless playtime possibilities. First is the phone. What child doesn’t love to pretend play with a phone? It does make sounds and talk, but I honestly think the kids would be just fine with it even if it made no sounds. They love holding the phone up to their ears and pretending to call Daddy, or Grandma, or even me! In the middle is our stacking toy. This is a classic that most people are familiar with. The rings fit onto the base in a certain order, according to size. I just love the imaginative play that happens with it, too! The rings have been bracelets, doughnuts, earrings, and even gardening gloves. The base is usually a trumpet! Finally, I have to tell you about the superstar of the toys. On the far right are my two sets of stacking barrels. I got these at Kohl’s for 40% off, making them way less than $10 for both sets together. We stack these, play tea party with them, put things inside them….and they also nest inside each other, which is an endless source of amusement for the kids.
A few more notes about our playtime. I always play music during our playtimes–not loud, just a pleasant background. Usually Mozart, Bach, or my Parents Playtime Jazz CD. For my preschool group, I also leave out any flannelboard pieces I used during the storytime–they love playing with those! I sometimes leave out my scarves and/or shakers for them to play with, too. We also have a tunnel that I use for the preschool group. And yes, I clean all of the toys after every playtime.
My opinion is this: don’t worry about buying “educational” toys that do lots of talking and doing, especially for babies and toddlers. Yes, babies and toddlers should be exposed to as much vocabulary as possible, but ideally this interaction would come from a caring adult. The toys that do them the best good cost little money, such as the ones listed above. (Even no money–a pot and a wooden spoon or a box make great toys too!) And don’t forget the art supplies like washable crayons and fingerpaints!