Wouldn’t it be so great if you could buy a toy that would make your child talk more just by having it in your house? Something you could sit them in front of and it would teach them some important skill while you do dishes? Don’t get me wrong- I need my kids to be occupied while I do housework tasks (Um or read a book or write a blog post). Not judging at all- but I want you to see through some marketing BS that comes out this time of year in the form of educators- including speech therapists- making lists of recommended toys. Literally every toy is educational. The way you enhance and enrich a playtime activity is not so much about the toy you use but your presence, your interaction and (most important) your child’s interest. Think about the difference between leaving your child with an artisan-crafted wooden shape sorter painted in muted earth tones with organic beet paint or whatever- and sitting down with your child and talking about the shape-sorter as you play with it. Same goes for the light-up noisemaker toys- you can sit down and talk about those too. What makes a play activity more instructive and interactive is your instruction and your interaction- not the actual toy. What kind of toys should you get your kids? Stuff they’ll be interested in and want to play with. You add language practice, vocabulary, social skills, etc when you interact with your child doing something he/she enjoys.
I have a bone to pick with this idea that toys have to teach the ABCs or some other “academic” concept. It implies that “just playing” isn’t enough or isn’t as worthwhile if the child isn’t being “taught” something or “working” on some skill that will eventually become marketable. Playing is how kids learn things. Playing is how kids communicate- how they connect with caregivers and each other. It’s how they practice being in the world. I think we adults, who have to do things we don’t like all the time (that’s what we call “work” right?) get kinda nervous about the idea of our kids whiling away an afternoon doing “whatever they want.” Maybe they’ll like it too much and just do it all the time and they have to LEARN that life is more about doing things you don’t want to do and then they’ll become a “failure” because they played video games instead of doing math.
Doing “whatever you want” is how you figure out what you like to do. And guess what? You learn more when you’re doing something you’re interested in.
This fear of play/enjoyment/pleasure is rampant in school- which is where all this comes from, right? We feel compelled to buy toys for kids that will end up helping them in school. School is very much about rewards and punishments. It’s about making kids “work” so they can “learn” so they can “earn” things they actually “want.” Because we think that’s the way the “real world” is… so that’s how they have to spend their childhood. So some teachers/educators/therapists get nervous when kids start having fun… The activity’s value becomes directly linked to how much suffering the child has to go through to accomplish it. The more “work,” the better. So play, fun, pleasure, etc. becomes currency- they see a kid express an interest in something and it gets held hostage and used in exchange for the kid doing “work” (“Oh you like the book? Want the book? Finish this puzzle.” **this is unfortunately a real life example of a kid expressing interest in a BOOK at school and not being allowed to look at it until he complied with an adult command). A kid getting to have fun/getting to do something he wants without “doing work” is a kid getting away with something.
Most of my speech therapy sessions have become “play-based” and driven by the kids’ interests. And what I don’t really have to deal with any more is “behaviors”… That word is what we used to use to talk about kids who wouldn’t comply with our requests… I just don’t care (almost) at all about compliance anymore. I prioritize communication- and if I have a kid communicating to me (either using their words or by walking away from me or by throwing the materials across the room) that they don’t want to do whatever elaborate lesson I’ve planned for them, then it’s my obligation to honor their communication. If I frame it like a behaviorist, I’ll say that I want them to form positive associations with communication (e.g. I get my needs/wants met when I communicate. I have more control over my environment when I communicate. My communication has power.). If my overall goal is that they communicate more or communicate more effectively, I’m going to start with the real-life communication they’re giving me now- I’m not going to ignore that in favor of them cooperating with my directions just because I said so.
So anyway- if you care at all about my professional opinion as a speech-language pathologist when it comes to choosing toys to buy your child this holiday season, here’s my advice: Choose things that you know will interest him and make a commitment to play with him. And be prepared for him to not show interest in the thing you paid $$ for- opting for the box it came in or some other household detritus. Because it’s not about the toy. If your intention is to support your child’s learning, it’s more important to see their interest and encourage it, cultivate it, expand it, honor it, build on it. Their interest is the spark of all learning and it should be held precious. You can skip the toy lists.
P.S. There’s a quote floating around the internet that gets attributed to Einstein- some variation on “The highest form of research is play.” Spoiler alert, it wasn’t Einstein. In a 1962 journal article, a guy named NV Scarfe wrote “The highest form of research is essentially play” and then he goes on to quote Einstein “The desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of a vague play with basic ideas. This combinatory or associative play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought” which sounds more like what I’d imagine Einstein would sound like. So it’s the envious scarf guy who should get that attribution, not Einstein- here’s a link to a reprinted version of the presentation he gave: https://www.playaustralia.org.au/sites/default/files/LibraryDownloads/Play%20is%20vital%20to%20Childhood%20Professor%20N.%20Scarfe%2C%20Vancouver.pdf )
Thank you to “Quote Investigator” who sussed this out for me: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/08/21/play-research/#note-9611-2
Here’s a visual aid- or whatever the opposite of a visual aid is: