Toddlers, Toys and Cognitive Development

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Toddlers, Toys and Cognitive Development

A Tale of 4 Lizards


It is an incredible and wondrous thing to watch a newborn infant develop into toddlerhood, early childhood, adolescence and emerge into adulthood. During the first four years of growth, the speed at which a person develops is truly astonishing. After all, they go from this utterly helpless and tiny infant into a little person who, well before age two is not only walking but talking as well.

One of the advantages of being a grandparent is that there is plenty of time to observe all of this dramatically unfold. 

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It’s great fun to go out and shop for age appropriate toys. It’s fun to watch a child’s delight when they see the new toy and play with it. However, it’s puzzling to see how quickly toddlers become bored with these expensive items. 

Toys are a fundamental part of child development. In fact, adults seem to have an instinctual or intuitive understanding of the importance of play to children of all ages. Actually, both toys and play are basic to the infant’s learning about their environment.

For example, did you ever feed a baby with a spoon? Very quickly, the spoon becomes an object to play with. As a result, the toddler learns how to handle this and other utensils as they increase their skills in self feeding. How often do you see them grab the spoon and play with it instead of eating? They put it in their mouths, stare at it, bang it against the tray of the high chair and put the handle in their mouths instead of the spoon part of this utensil.

Toys are part of play. Play helps stimulate an understanding of spatial relationships, sizes and dimensions, depth perception, the concept of “in and out,” as well as coming, going and the continued existence of people and objects if they are not present. By a certain age, the youngster grasps the idea that mommy will return even if she has left the room.

Yet, it can be frustrating for parents to watch their toddlers quickly lose interest in an expensive toy that is supposedly designed to stimulate intellectual growth.

I recently observed just such a phenomena with my two-year-old grandchild. His home is filled with all the wonderful educational toys that are available. Nevertheless, he has quickly lost interest in them.

My wife went shopping in one of the many “Dollar Stores” located all around the nation. Annoyed by the expense of the gifts we have made available, she bought a package containing small plastic lizards costing one dollar. The 4 little lizards became a major and immediate hit. He holds them up, announcing each one’s color. Then, he makes growling sounds to demonstrate how fierce they are. The lizards then become tired and are put down for a nap, with a paper napkin as a blanket. As they nap they make snoring sounds, soon, to be awakened so that they can make more growls. Sometimes he says they are lizards and sometimes he’ll tell you they are dragons. In fact, the variety of creative things he does with these small plastic items is truly delightful to watch.

Both observing my grandchild and joining in the play brought back long forgotten memories of my own childhood. I remembered a time when I loved to play with the box more than the toy it contained. The toy seemed almost boring compared to the box because of all the things I could do with it. I remembered using the toy and the box in an interactive way.

It is my opinion that manufactured toys have a staid, uninteresting quality about them. For the toddler, there are not too many things they can do with them. Instead, it is often household items that seem to stimulate interest and imagination. Grandpa’s shirt pocket, pen, glasses, watch and other such items, become the center of great curiosity and interest. Mom’s, Dad’s, Grandma’s, Grandpa’s shoes are fun to try on and walk in.  

Perhaps it is better to purchase fewer expensive toys and make available household items to play with.  After all, we want to enable our children to create, think, and use imagination. Often this is accomplished when objects are present that they can  shape and use in any way they want. It should go without saying that household items used for play should not be toxic or dangerous to the health and safety of the child. In addition, there is a place for commercial toys that also stimulate thinking.

What are your thoughts and experience with children and toys?

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan N. Schwartz

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