Back in the days when my children were toddlers and our home resembled a Fisher-Price obstacle course, I used to envy a local toy lending library. What if I could follow that method at home and keep all toys, books, and other childhood paraphernalia sorted into locked cabinets, allowing my “patrons” to borrow only three items per week? The restrictions could be expanded to enforce the replacement of all playthings after 5:00 pm and prohibit their removal before 9:00 am the next morning. Nothing would be allowed to remain on the floor in major traffic paths, puzzle pieces would never be lost (or eaten), and life would be peaceful and pleasant. That, however, was only a daydream, and like nearly all daydreams, it is not compatible with reality.
As messy as playtime can become, I have learned to see the tremendous value in it for education. When I enrolled my son in public Kindergarten (yes, that was a mistake, but I remedied it the following year), the teacher spent a brief time with each child and assessed their skills. She praised me for having given my son so many different experiences, from trips to the zoo to reading books to him. She praised his ability to use scissors, crayons, markers, and paintbrushes with relative proficiency. She said he ranked far above some of her previous students in his knowledge and talents. Silly me, all this time I had thought that was what parents were supposed to do with their children. What has filled the past five years, if a child entering Kindergarten has never used crayons or sat on a lap to hear a story?
I have friends who have recently returned from several years as missionaries in Africa. In hearing the mundane details of their daily routines, I began to see deeper into the value of children’s playtime. The toys I used to dread picking up day after day are not available to most African-bush children or to the poorer children of any culture. The education supplied by what we consider to be simple toys was demonstrated in the adult man who was employed as household help for this missionary family. He worked for them for several years and yet never could master the task of stacking the bowls, pans, or containers in the kitchen cupboards. The colorful, nesting cups that my children stacked into towers, knocked over, nested together, dumped out, and stacked again had not played a foundational role in this man’s education. As a result, he was not familiar with a concept that is so incredibly common to most of us. This gap in his education left him confused as to how to successfully arrange the kitchenware with largest on the bottom and smallest on the top. Repeated demonstrations and instructions did not help. His lack of experience in the early years had left a seemingly permanent mark.
Just as adults can become bored with doing the same repetitive tasks over and over, children also appreciate variety in their playtime. If I can belabor the nesting cups topic just a bit longer, any variety within that task will act to further the child’s understanding of the nesting concept, whether various shapes of cups (round, square, hexagonal, etc.) or different types of stackable items (paper cups, Mom’s measuring cups with handles, or an assortment of empty shoe boxes in graduated sizes). Other types of toys expand upon this same nesting principle: stacking colored rings onto a peg in size order, nesting dolls, even shape-sorter toys combine the principle of matching with nesting the object into its coordinating hole. Likewise, variety enriches lessons of all types for older children; hands-on learning goes much farther than simply breaking up the boredom.
Children learn from the moment they take their first breath, from learning how to express discomfort and that their expression results in someone’s attention to those needs, to observing how others around them eat, speak, walk, and draw pictures. Toy tools give early practice to the budding carpenters, just as toy kitchens help to prepare the future cooks. Puzzles teach problem solving, fine-tune motor skills, and improve observation and memory skills. Dolls offer children “parenting” opportunities, from dressing the baby to cuddling and comforting. Art and craft materials broaden a child’s ability to express his ideas, improve motor coordination, and satisfy the grandparents’ need for something to put on the refrigerator door. Stop for a moment to ponder the educational gaps in the child who grows up without any of these “playtime” skills.
It has been said that “play is a child’s work,” and there are many aspects where that is true. Children work hard at their playtime, often becoming physically exhausted through their efforts and needing a rest from playtime. We should also expect that they will experience mental fatigue when they have been engrossed in play tasks that require thinking and problem solving, such as nesting the boxes mentioned above (for the littlest ones) or assembling a jigsaw puzzle (for somewhat older children).
Moms and Dads, although your family’s collection of playthings may never seem to stop growing and rarely seems to be out from underfoot, be assured that those toys are serving a very valuable purpose in your little ones’ lives. The more experiences you can offer your children with widely varied play activities, including problem solving concepts or art and craft materials, the better equipped your children will be when it comes time for them to delve into “real” learning experiences.
[See also Sorting Toys Is Algebra]