Some More Thoughts on Toys

Some More Thoughts on Toys


The holidays are around the corner. As I leaf through the toy catalogs this year, in search of the perfect presents for my grandchildren, I am amazed by the number and variety of STEM toys. They are everywhere! Build your own robot or lunar lander or drone. Make electricity and learn about circuitry, magnets and gears. Learn coding to remote control your (fill in the blank). Take on an engineering project, simple or complex. I have to wonder if these toys (are they still toys?) are fun. I also wonder how much parents have to help children to build or operate them, and how long they will hold a child’s interest.

I have nothing against STEM activities. I realize they probably appear more daunting to my generation than to today’s children. However, I still believe the best presents for children begin with ‘B:’ Books, Blocks and Balls. All can be enjoyed independently or with others, in many different ways.

Every year there is a new crop of wonderful books for children, and the classics are great too. A 4-year old loves books that are dramatic and funny. Our 7-year old enjoys all the Mo Willems books and especially loves that he can read them himself now. Older children read easily and can enjoy family dramas, mysteries, adventure stories, whatever. I love browsing Diane’s Books and choosing a few that feel perfect for each child.

Blocks can be used in ever-changing ways. Wooden unit blocks, cardboard “bricks” and smaller wooden blocks are all great to stimulate imagination, hand-eye coordination, and understanding of space and balance in young children. I like blocks that don’t connect to each other better than those that do, although Legos, Duplos and others that “click” together are very popular. What I have noticed in observing my grandchildren, all of whom love to build, is that sets designed to build a specific object, like a superhero car, Star Wars fighter or Goldie Blox parade float, tend to be built once and then left on a shelf. But wooden blocks are open-ended and fascinate forever. Add different props, like plastic people, animals, cars, planes, etc. and your child can build something new every day. Add friends and more blocks, and they can create cities, zoos, farms, airports, anything! I have a classroom set of wooden unit blocks at my house, and the children, aged 4, 7, two 9s and 11, both sexes, still return to them whenever they visit.

And then there are balls… a child who loves to play ball can amuse him or herself for hours. Shooting hoops, kicking a soccer ball, catching the rebound of a high-bounce ball thrown up on a roof, hitting a tennis ball against a wall, are childhood experiences that never get old. Again, add a friend or two and “having a catch” provides even more open-ended fun. Another great “B” toy, a bike, is always great whether the child is riding alone or with a bunch of friends.

All of the “B’s” have this in common: they are not virtual experiences but real ones, requiring physical and mental exercise. They are age-old brain stimulants that have been enjoyed by generations of children who grew up into very bright adults.

Don’t get me wrong – some of the new offerings look interesting. My grandchildren might like them. I’ll probably give in and buy one or two. I can’t reveal them here, but after the holidays, I’ll report on how popular they were.

Marianne Riess is the former head of the Putnam Indian Field School in Greenwich, CT. She has 40 years of experience in working with young children.

Marianne’s other columns here…