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Choosing age-appropriate toys

Children’s needs are relatively simple; they need to be given food, warmth, shelter, stimulation and unconditional love. The word “stimulation” seems to be a catch phrase recently and many magazines and books put forth the benefits of stimulating your child and then rapidly backtracked when experts pointed out that it is possible to over-stimulate your child. They were right. You can over-stimulate your children but don’t let this be something that puts you off doing things with them. Children need you to play an active role in their lives. That’s one of the key words of this book – play. The idea behind this book is to give you ideas of what you can do with your children in order to ensure that you enhance your children’s developmental progress, stimulate your children appropriately and, above all, enjoy and have fun with your children.

Often adults look at children and wish that they, themselves, were able to spend all day doing nothing but play. I dare say a toddler or child would be insulted by such an observation as they are not playing, they are working, and along with all that hard work comes learning, growth and advancement. In fact, children learn and grow more in one appropriately stimulated day ‘playing’ than the average adult learns in a week at work! Why is this? Because children have far more energy than adults, are far more curious and spend their time really interacting with their environment and using every means at their disposal to learn more (that’s why they eat, lick and touch practically everything they ever come across, as much as that disgusts or horrifies us as their parents!) Childhood is all about learning, discovery, development and, above all, fun. If it doesn’t remain fun then they will simply lose interest and a lack of interest is going to cause a lack of learning. These games are intended to enhance existing abilities and help to stimulate new ones.


Do I really think parents need to be taught how to play with their children? Well, to an extent, yes! Having just stated that rigid rules should be avoided when playing with your children, it seems ironic to write a section on the ‘rules’ of play. The intention here is to provide some guidelines that will enhance the play and hopefully allow you to achieve that all important ‘quality time.’


  • Follow your child’s lead when it comes to play, it is not fun for her if you dominate and direct the play constantly. Go with what she is doing and contribute where and when you can without dictating.


  • Be guided by your child’s wants, needs and interests when timing the play. You need to catch him in the best possible mood so this means ensuring he isn’t hungry, tired or uncomfortable (no dirty nappy, for example).


  • You should talk often to your child about what you are doing, where you are going, how you are feeling, etc. as this enhances her language development. But don’t chat throughout the time you are playing with her, as you don’t want to divert her concentration.


  • As much as it will drive you up the wall, children learn best by repetition so you need to go along with singing “Row, row, row the boat,” reading “The Lazy Lion” or playing with containers in the water as often as it suits your child. Just grin and bear it, it’ll all be worth it in the end!


  • Praise is so important to a child as it enhances his self-esteem, which is essential for successful interaction in most areas of life, while also letting him become aware of how important his achievements are. This means you should acknowledge each success no matter how small. However, try to be specific in your praise, for example, “Well done. You managed to cut out that shape all by yourself” rather than generic praise, “Well done. Aren’t you such a clever boy?” The latter kind of praise puts a lot of pressure on him to be smart and ‘perfect’, whereas specifying what he did well enhances his self-development and awareness of his own skills and abilities.


  • Often you need to simply allow your child to figure something out for herself, as we learn more through direct interaction than through watching someone else and this is especially true for young children. So don’t always be so quick to do it for her, if she are really battling then try helpful hints and suggestions that will guide her to her own solution, as this will be more productive and rewarding.


  • Following on from not doing for your child what he can do for himself, so you should avoid correcting the way he is playing with something because, unless it is likely to get broken or hurt him, then he is productively using his imagination to see what else the object can do. This is great. You want to encourage this type of creativity and learning.


  • I do realise how many heart stopping moments there are in parenting, such as seeing your child standing on the edge of the dining room table, watching her walk backwards towards a step or slamming a door shut with her fingers close to the edge, but as far as we can we need to avoid constantly warning our children with “careful” and “watch out”. This serves to make children nervous and unadventurous, which inhibits their learning. So make the play areas as child friendly as possible and be aware of possible problem areas. Call out a warning only when there is a real danger of her getting hurt or hurting someone else. I do realise this isn’t always so easy to do, but even one less “be careful” a day will be beneficial in the long run!


  • In order to expand your child’s creativity and imagination, you should limit the number of toys and games that are electronic and do things by themselves. He will benefit more from games and toys that he needs to manipulate.


  • Remember to rotate your child’s toys by putting some away for a period of time (about two or three weeks) before swapping them around again. Or if you want, join a toy library and take home different toys and return them every couple of weeks. If you cannot find a toy library in your area, then arrange swaps with your friends. The reason for doing this is to allow your child to get as much benefit from the toy as possible as she doesn’t have the time to become bored with it. Also when a toy reappears it’s almost like a new toy.


  • The sad thing about growing up is having to leave behind those carefree days of childhood, where you could just run and play and have fun all day long. The good news about having a child then is that you get to do some of this all over again. You need to let go of your inhibitions when playing with your child, in order for both of you to get as much out of the activity as possible. The same goes for when you are reading to your child (something I believe you should try to do daily); use different voices and exaggerated expressions in order to help develop a love for books and reading, and in turn, a love for learning.


  • When a child has finished playing with something, don’t be in too much of a rush to pack everything away, this is his ‘work’ and he may intend coming back to it later. This doesn’t mean that you must allow your house to look like a war zone or toy shop, by all means have rules in place about tidying up, but maybe it could be left until the end of the day and enlist your child’s help too. If your child has been working on a big project that you know he may not want packed away, then try to get him started on it in an area where it can be left for a day or two.


  • When interacting with your child, it is important to make use of real, everyday situations. Let’s say you’ve been teaching your child colours, then you should point out the various colours you see wherever you are, in a shop, the car, a book, in the garden, etc. Help a toddler with vocalisations and different sounds while you are driving in the car.


  • Just a quick note on play materials and young children. It is natural, normal and developmentally appropriate for young children to put everything in their mouths. So please ensure that your young child is given non-toxic things (like crayons and paints) and avoid small things she can swallow or choke on.


  • Children do not have very long attention spans, so if he is bored or distracted before you’ve finished whatever you were doing, that’s fine. Forcing him to carry on will be counterproductive. For this reason, the games in this book are simple rather than elaborate so your time and energy aren’t wasted laboriously preparing an activity for half the night that interests your child for 10 minutes!


  • There are going to be many times when it is better for your child to be left to her own devices than to interact with you on a chosen activity. This is the difference between appropriate stimulation and over-stimulation. You are not responsible for engaging your child’s attention every moment of the day; often you must leave her to explore and learn for herself. Over-stimulation leads to an agitated child and a teenager who is demanding and expects to be spoon-fed. Besides which, alone time allows her to develop independence, explore and discover as well as practice all the other things that she has learnt.


  • On the topic of leaving your child to his own devices, it’s important that you don’t always leave him alone in a room, sometimes it’s nice for him to just have you there, even if you aren’t actively participating, because you are letting him know that he is really important to you and this is great for his self-esteem.


  • Something you may find useful is creating a list for yourself of places you can take your child to when he has extra energy that needs to be exhausted. Ask friends, look on the Internet and browse through local magazines to get ideas of what you can do and where you can go.


  • It is really important that your child has an opportunity to interact and socialise with other children her age. Social skills cannot be developed any other way so keep in touch with the ante-natal class mums, go to one mom and child group activity a week, or just have tea with your friends who have similarly aged children. You may even want to look into play schools and day care centres.


  • Remember how important it is to wind down at the end of a day. Don’t try to engage your child in activities just before you want her to go bed. Rather put into place a loose routine that suits your particular household, parenting style and child. For example, tidy away the days activities, have dinner, followed by a bath and story time with the last drink of milk and into bed, keeping it all quiet and relaxed.


  • Finally, please take the time to enjoy your child. We all know how quickly they grow so it is important to enjoy the time you have while they are still willing to sit on your lap and play with you, and hang onto your every word as though you are the best thing in the world (which you are to them while they are young!)

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