In the wake of Christmas, I want to offer my philosophy of toys. I know that might sound ridiculous, but how our kids grow to find their fun will have a lot to do with how they find happiness, and what kind of people they will be.
Following Aristotle’s way of thinking, let’s divide toys into categories of what purposes they serve–what kids use them for. If we start there, it gives us a better chance of picking the toys that will help get us and our kids where we want to go. To keep it simple, I’ll stick with toys, not games (with set rules) or crafts (with instructions).
The short answer, of course, is that kids play with toys to have fun. But the way kids use toys gets them to that goal in different ways. I see four main purposes that kids play with toys for:
- To help them tell a story.
- To help them be active.
- To help them learn something.
- To amuse or thrill them.
It’s no accident that I use the word “help” with the first three, while the fourth one is something that toys do to kids. Let me show my cards: I listed these in order of importance, and I think the first three are all a lot better than the last one, because they help kids make fun for themselves rather than handing them fun on a platter. Most toys fit more than one category, but the categories give us a place to start. Consider some different toys, listed generally from my favorite to least favorite kinds:
- Dolls & stuffed animals: Perfect for inspiring kids to tell stories, as they get their dolls and animals together to talk to each other and do things. Or a kid might take a doll outside with them for an active adventure story.
- Legos: Alongside being beautiful objects to hold, Legos have lots of purposes. When kids start by building the kit, they learn to follow directions and build spatial skills. Then my kids usually pick their favorite minifigure characters, or else build their own animal or robot characters, and start telling stories. For bigger ships and buildings, or things with moving parts, kids naturally learn to exercise their problem-solving and engineering skills.
- Dress-up: Kids put on an outfit and instantly start telling active stories.
- Cardboard boxes, paper, and tape: Kids figure out pretty quickly how to make their own toys when given the chance. They learn to draw, to cut, to problem-solve. Downside is a messy house with paper scraps everywhere, but the payoff is great.
- Weapons: Swords have been good inspiration for my kids to run around and be active. They lead to more tears than I’d prefer, but on the bright side they help kids learn to take small risks. I draw the line at buying toy guns that shoot real darts: they cross farther into the “thrill” category, and in any case I just don’t want to spend my days picking up nerf bullets from every surface in the house.
- Pogo balls, etc.: These seem like a great idea for active play, but my kids don’t end up using them that much. They’d rather be wrestling on the living room floor or running around the yard with sticks.
- Electronics: I love my devices, but I try to keep them away from my kids. Lots of devices include ways that kids can learn if they want to, but honestly my kids seem to spend most of their time just being amused by pressing buttons and seeing what happens.
There’s not a lot that I totally forbid. But to me, amusement toys are the candy of the toy world, fine to enjoy from time to time but not a great idea for everyday consumption. I’m good with my kids racing their friends’ RC cars when they have them outside, but I don’t really want to own any of them.
None of this means I want my kids to play with “learning” toys all day. Have you every heard the joke that the only two bad things about futons are that they don’t make very good sofas, and they don’t make very good beds? Toys are for fun, first and foremost. I would much rather my kids have fun making their stuffed animals talk to each other or fight each other–which they do all the time–than using an electronic toy that tries to teach them language arts. (Alternatively, I absolutely let my daughter use the duolingo ipod app. But that’s an excellent learning app that happens to be fun, as opposed to a game that creates the illusion of teaching something.)
A lot of people have said this, but it’s totally true: kids are made to find ways to play on their own. The only way to keep a kid from coming up with new ways to have fun is to give them too much time with toys that feed them fun that has already been created by someone else.
I disappointed several family members this Christmas when I asked them not to give the presents they wanted to give. But if we come back to the question of formation, it’s totally worth it. My kids can spend their days with toys that are made for amusement, which will form them more and more into people who will always be looking for the next thing to amuse or thrill them. Or they can spend their days with toys that help them make their own fun, which is an underrated skill they’ll take wherever they go. When given the choice between the two, for me it’s no contest.