Ask Amma

Why is my baby not playing with toys?

In Why on 17 October 2012 at 8:08 pm
My son has a lots of toys (given as gifts), and we haven’t found the need of them so far. Is that a good sign or should we engage him with toys, just as a general protocol?  Every time he is fussy, we talk to him, make noises and try to interpret some sort of a conversation when he responds to our talk. He has gotten so used to this that, when we try to engage him with toys he doesn’t like it. He prefers being carried and talked to all the time. What is your take on this?  
-mother of a 3 month old in Baltimore
     His preference makes perfect sense to me.  Why would you want to change it?  My take on toys is that less is more. Or for a spiritual take – tat tvam asi – you are the toy.   (Or a Louis XIV take:  Le jouet, c’est moi.) In the early months and years of life, very few store-bought toys can satisfy one longer than the simple entertainments of being carried and talked to all the time.  Soon kids get busy in the kitchen, garden, or laundry room, and invent a number of other pursuits using pens, books, clothes, phones, utensils, and just about anything other than a toy.
     Those who give gifts are well-meaning, but remember it is the thought that counts.  You can appreciate that thought while carefully keeping the toy in storage, generously passing it along to someone in need, or gratefully exchanging it.  You can also be thoughtful when giving gifts to others – rather than giving toys, why not something that does not accumulate?  Fruit basket, art supplies, a coupon for a special storytime with you or playdate at the park.  Such gifts delight the parents as much as the child.
     To get the most fun out of toys, introduce them slowly.  To avoid having to throw out / pass along a toy simply to make space for new ones, get fewer toys and let your child decide when s/he no longer wants it.  I have seen my daughter play with the same toy differently over the years, and I could not have predicted which toy would have this lasting appeal and potential for versatility.   Don’t limit their use to the one intended by the manufacturer.  As Arvind Gupta says, with a gleam in his eye, “The best thing a child can do with a toy is to break it!”  Worried?  Try these toys!
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  1. […] – mother of an 18 month-old in Irvine.    Though almost anything can be a toy, play does not require toys.  Running, climbing, dancing, hide-and-seek, hopscotch and all kinds of imaginary games are fun and appropriate for all ages.   Coming to your question, what makes you think he needs more toys? What are the things that your son reaches for now?  Observe the ways he engages with the people and things around him.  Young children often want to be involved in whatever those around them are doing, and so common household objects like dishes and buckets and cabinets become attractive.  If people in the family are into gardening, art, music, woodwork or other crafts, kids would probably want to get their hands on the shovels, brushes, instruments or other supplies involved.  Of course if the important objects seem to be the phone or laptop, kids will want those too.  Most of us would be better off spending less time with our gadgets, and diversifying our activities. More important than selecting the right toy is cultivating a positive attitude towards work and play, which are one and the same for a child.  Why should we as adults break that continuum?  Often I hear children who are taking pots and pans out of the cabinets being told to “go play” and even given “toy” pots and pans for this purpose.  Rather than recognizing the child’s desire to be part of the action and including the child in their work, these parents impose a separation between work and play.  Having given the the plastic kitchen set to the child, do the parents join them?  No, they continue in the actual kitchen.  Children resist this second-class status, and hence the instructions to go and play and stay out of the kitchen are repeated and reinforced through various means, often including more toys. What if you could share the space and material in the kitchen?  It would slow down your work, only if you narrowly define your work as getting that specific meal prepared in a timely manner.  But the work that you thought you were accomplishing by providing age-appropriate toys, can also get done by allowing kids in the kitchen.  Secondly, why be so possessive about your work?  Doesn’t the work belong to the family, including the child?  Taking items out of the shelf may seem useless or counter-productive to you, especially when you are putting them back, but if you hear what the child is communicating (I want to be part of the family, to do what the elders of my species do), it is not pointless.  And if it makes you feel better, there are some motor skills being honed, and spatial relations being worked out in the process.  When you believe the noise has a purpose, it is less likely to give you a headache. As you mention that he is growing up fast, you may not be surprised to find that soon he can also do things like put the spoons away or wash some tomatoes or roll some chapatis, if you let him do it in his own way. Another positive attitude parents should develop is a positive attitude towards dirt.  As Fraulein Maria said, “kids cannot do all the things they are supposed to do if they have to worry about keeping their clothes clean!”  I can also summon the New York Times, “Babies Know:  A Little Dirt is Good for You.”  Much of the toy market is driven by a motive to engage kids in a way that keeps them indoors, sitting still and not getting dirty and not falling down and scraping their knees.  This is hardly age-appropriate! So to recap – the way to encourage play is – provide plenty of space to run, jump, climb, etc – allow children to get dirty and take some risks – don’t separate work and play And now for toys.  As the new / old wisdom on food says, “buy no food that you see advertised (Michael Pollan).”   Why not apply the same to toys?  Especially toys that talk, light up, or claim to develop the brain.   Of course such educational claims are part of the sales pitch for most toys, so I would probably just ignore them.  Also avoid any toy that is so expensive that you would not want to see it broken.  Toy inventor and scientist Arvind Gupta says that the best thing a child can do with a toy is break it … and on Arvind Gupta’s website you can find toys that you can put together and take apart all you want, since they are made of odds and ends. Everything that toys are touted to promote – be it imagination, creativity, problem solving or – arise more meaningfully through self-directed interaction with real time, space, people and ordinary objects found in mission-critical places like the kitchen, bathroom, laundry room, or the puddle in the yard.  Toys from the store often have predesigned functions, whereas in the imaginary world of the child, anything can be anything.   A boat made of paper or tinfoil can be a raft or a coast guard vessel or cruise ship.  Even a bead or a twig or a leaf can be a boat.  Or a passenger.  Or an iceberg. If I had to buy a toy, I would go for one without many features, that does not do much on its own (or require batteries!) or have a script already designed for it.  Even if it does, of course there is no requirement that one follow the given script.  So I would avoid suggesting the “right way” to play with a toy. I would have only a few toys and let their roles grow over time.  What I have found is that through years of playing, some toys are far more versatile than we imagined at first.   Even if you don’t buy any toys, you might get some as gifts or hand-me-downs.   To avoid accumulating too many toys, you could also pass old ones along to make room for new, if this happens frequently, then the main lessons learned from a toy is its disposability. You may also like What toys do I buy for my baby? Why is my baby not playing with toys? […]

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