Dr. Gary Landreth, a play therapist, states that play is the language of children. This means that children communicate through their play. When they've had a stressful day, it comes through in their play. When they're trying to process something that is confusing to them, it comes across in their play. If play is children's language, then toys (according to Dr. Landreth) are their words. This is why it is so helpful to be smart when choosing the toys your children will unwind with.
Dr. Landreth offers parents a "golden rule" for choosing toys for children:
"Toys should be selected, and not collected"
The best toys for children fall into three broad categories: Real-Life, Creative Expression, and Aggression-Release. Here are some suggestions from each category:
Pretend play is very important to children as they try to make sense of the world around them. With toys like play brooms, play dishes, toy phones, puppets, and toy vehicles, children imitate adult interactions picking up communication and imagination skills along the way.
It is important to provide children art materials like crayons, play dough, markers, paper, scissors and glue. Other materials could include cardboard boxes, empty recycled egg cartons, or empty milk cartons. Add in some google eyes and children will spend countless hours creating and expressing themselves artistically. Being creative not only benefits children cognitively, but it also helps them develop fine motor skills that will prepare them for writing and reading later. Plus, being creative gives children an encouraging sense of pride in being able to make something out of their own imaginations.
Many parents are wary of toy guns and other toy weapons, but aggressive toys (as long as they clearly look like toys) are important ways for children to release stress and aggression in a healthy way. Setting limits such as "people are not for shooting" when a child points a gun at a sibling, friend or parent help them learn empathy and healthy boundaries around expressing uncomfortable emotions. Other great aggression-release toys include aggressive animals like sharks, dinosaurs, snakes, and big cats and play dough and paper the child can rip, tear, and squish. Big cardboard blocks and boxes are also great toys for kids to bang, kick, throw, or knock down.
When selecting toys for your children, focus on each of these three categories to select from. While your child plays, sit nearby and talk to them about what they are doing. Allow your child to take the lead in incorporating you into their play world. A little bit of purposeful play at the end of each day can go a long way in helping children process stress, release aggression or anger, and express themselves. And remember, when children have an opportunity to communicate through play, they have less of a need to communicate in other unhealthy ways, like hitting, biting, and having temper tantrums.