All parents want the best for their children. This is especially true when buying toys for their infants and young children. While it is important to provide interesting and stimulating toys to a child, it does not necessarily mean you have to buy the latest or most expensive toy. The purpose of this article is to offer parents some suggestions and guidelines on buying toys that will foster cognitive development and creativity, without having to spend a fortune.

First, remember to KEEP IT SIMPLE. An infant or young child will not know (or even care) that a particular toy is the latest or most "stimulating". The infant will care that the toy is, above all, fun to play with. You should consider what you want the child to gain from play with the toy. For instance, if you want the child to learn about the cause and effect relationship, it is just as useful to offer the child a clear plastic bottle with a block or other object (large enough so the baby won't swallow it) to shake, as opposed to a fancy rattle that makes noise. You can also assist a child to develop fine motor skills by offering small, edible objects (such as Cheerios) to develop a pincer grasp (using the thumb and forefinger) or use a coffee can with a hole cut in the lid to practice putting in and taking out. There are pegboards that also teach the same fine motor skills, but are only useable for that one specific task.

For an older child the use of paper, crayons, and paste is very helpful in developing creatively as well as fine motor and social skills. Think how happy a child must be as he or she makes a special picture just for mommy or daddy. At the same time the child is developing writing and hand to eye-coordination skills. These materials may not be fancy, but they go a long way to help a child's development. Think about the many items that you have in your home already that could be used to foster cognitive development and language (pot and pans, plastic containers, a mirror, etc). Of course you need to ensure that the item is child safe.

Also, think about how a toy can be used in more than one way. As mentioned above you can use a pegboard for essentially one thing, putting pegs in and taking them out. But if you buy one of the shape sorters that has a cover that you can take on and off, or place the shapes in the different holes in the top, you have a multi-purpose toy. The child can practice putting in and taking out, practice placing the shapes through the correct hole in the lid, and can stack the shapes on top of one another. All of these are vital fine motor skills, yet they can all be taught through the use of one toy. Later on, as the child gets older, you can encourage the child to match the shapes or point to the shapes, which are important pre-academic skills.

Try to avoid materials such as flash cards, computer games, and coloring books. For older children these can be useful in reinforcing what is taught in school. For a young child these types of activities can cause frustration (as young as they are they still understand that they have to keep in the line or make their picture like mommy or daddy's) or foster rote skills in which the child does not understand the concept behind the activity, but can remember the correct "answer".

For children with special needs, toys and materials may need to be adapted to accommodate for physical or other challenges. The same guidelines already offered can still be applied. If a child has difficulty with fine motor control, perhaps a switch plate (available through specialized toy catalogs, through an early intervention program, or through an occupational or physical therapist) can be connected to a mechanical toy so that the toy will only operate if the child touches the switch plate. There are now thicker crayons which are easier to hold and balls that have sound so the child knows where to find it. If you have a child with special needs, it may be helpful to ask the advice of one of the clinicians or therapists working with your child for specific recommendations.

The most valuable commodity you have to offer your child is you. What really assists a child in developing cognitive skills or creativity is a parent who will sit and play along side the child, read to the child, and merely spend time with the child. A simple game of "Peek-a-boo" will do more to foster your child's cognitive, social, and language development than the fanciest most expensive toy you can buy. Good Luck!!


This article is Copyright © 2000 by Ann Rab Ed.D. No duplication is permitted without the permission of the author.