Early childhood is such a critical period. And it seems everybody who sells toys wants to tell you how their product will help your child learn. So what should you choose?

Toys billed as educational, like those that say letters and numbers, initially seem to be a great choice. After all, they’re teaching your kids to read!

Or is there something potentially dangerous going on with these talking toys? Learn more about the roll of toys in a child’s life, and how interactive toys affect early childhood development!

The role of play in growing up

“If the rise in anxiety and depression are linked to a decline in sense of personal control, then play would seem to be the perfect remedy.”

– Peter Gray, The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents

little girl holding bear

Play is essential for children’s emotional health. According to Dr. Gray, free play, in which a child does whatever he wants, has several other roles for young children.

Play develops intrinsic motivation

You know how great it feels when you do a task just for the joy of doing it? Think about the last time you sat down and colored in a coloring book, or when you created a wreath, or played catch just for fun. Wasn’t it wonderful?

Play does this for our children! When they decide on their own what to do, it allows them to learn the satisfaction of accomplishing something.

Free play allows for decision-making and problem-solving

When children have to decide whether their teddy bear is going to go into the woods or stay in his cave, they’re making decisions. When a group chooses whether to play tag or hide-and-seek, that’s another decision. Play gives these opportunities all the time.

And there’s lots of problem-solving in play! Just the other day, my daughter was building a house for her stuffed animals out of blankets and clothes pins. When part of the house kept coming apart, she had to think of how to modify her structure. So she made a better house and used her brain, all at the same time!

Play, alone and with others, develops emotional regulation

Sometimes when a child is playing, he pretends to be afraid of something silly. This pretend play gives a less-threatening opportunity for the child to process real-life fears.

And when kids play games with each other, there are all sorts of opportunities for them to learn social graces! Taking turns, standing up for themselves, following rules (even just the ones they’ve made up themselves)… these are all opportunities for growth!

Finally, play is just plain fun!  Without play, human beings simply can’t develop optimally.

RELATED: Teach your kids to take turns

The only three family rules you need

Why do kids need toys?

Toys are the tools of play.  While we can play without toys, they certainly help.

Toys help children process feelings

Have you ever seen a child playing with two dolls or stuffed animals, with one doll trouncing the other? This is actually emotional processing! Children imagine into their toys, so their stuffed animals can take the actions they know they’re not allowed to take. Playing like this allows children to deal with issues that are scary or upsetting in a “safe” way.

Boy with stuffed animal

Toys help children make sense of the world

When a child builds with blocks and her tower falls, she learns about center of gravity, balance, and other concepts from her physical world, without having to crack open a single textbook!

And just think how much you can learn from playing with a ball! Gross motor control from throwing, spatial orientation, motion… There are so many concepts related to this simple object.

Toys help children decompress

Whether it’s a favorite lovey a child holds onto as soon as he gets home from school, or a game they like to play whenever they seem a little stressed, toys can help children relax after a stressful event.

But some toys have a negative impact on kids

But just like the wrong tool for a job can get less effective results, the wrong types of toys can diminish the quality of your child’s play.  After all, you can’t hammer in a nail with a screwdriver, so you can’t expect to develop all the skills listed above with the wrong toys.

So what kinds of toys are best for promoting play? Maybe you’re interested in doing a toy declutter, but how do you know which ones to get rid of and which are keepers?

As you might expect, the toy companies aren’t really the best people to ask about which toys are best for your kids.  Go to the toy aisles at your local store and you’ll be bombarded with choices. The boxes practically scream at you, as if to say, Pick me! Pick me!, with ads such as:

Teaches the alphabet!

Seventy five phrases!

Teaches five shapes!

It’s overwhelming! Plus, we’re told by the packaging that our kids need these toys to prepare them for their schooling.

Why are electronic toys dangerous for our kids?

Let’s be completely honest:  Most electronic toys are really obnoxious!  In fact, some are even a little creepy.

Have you ever noticed that singing and talking toys work really hard to get your attention?  There have been so many times that I’ve accidentally bumped into a toy and it started singing at me.

I move on, and right about the time I notice that it’s quiet, the toy talks again.  I think the toy is finally done, and then it sings a little song one more time. All this takes place in about thirty seconds.

When you notice the little toy every time it makes a noise, it’s because of a function called the orienting reflex.

Back in more dangerous times, like when a rustle in a bush might have meant that a tiger was about to eat you for lunch, the orienting reflex could save your life. But now your orienting reflex is being high-jacked by little race car!

If a toy short-circuits your attention like this, think of what it does to your toddler’s!

This is not good for your little one’s brain.  Over time, he gets used to these noisy toys trying to grab at his attention, so more low-key toys like blocks will seem boring. What do you think will happen in a few years when he’s asked to read on his own?

What about the toys that teach my kid letter and number recognition?

Believe it or not, those electronic toys that “teach” letters and numbers may actually be hurting your child’s future reading abilities. One study put out in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Pediatrics showed that parents and children 10-16 months old interact less when those kids play with electronic toys.

The problem with that?  Parent/child interaction impacts language development.

Electronic toys claim to teach kids to read, but the actually hurt children's reading abilities

Another study noted that babies 9-12 months old pointed at things less and got their parents’ attention less often when playing with “feedback” toys such as the electronic ones we’ve been discussing. Traditional toys like blocks or dolls didn’t cause this reaction.

I mean, think about it. Your kid is so engrossed with his singing toy that he has no need to talk to you! On top of that, you couldn’t get his attention if you wanted to!

This decreased parent-child interaction impacts language development. Remember how we said electronic toys decreased gesturing behaviors?Studies have shown that language ability at three and a half is correlated to how much gesturing babies do at this age.

How do electronic toys affect imagination?

And beyond concern about my child’s future reading and language ability, I just feel like toys like this stifle imagination.  We’ve all seen the videos (heck, we’ve all made the videos) of our baby pushing a button on a toy and bobbing up and down happily with some music. When the music shuts off, the baby goes and hits the button again and begins dancing again.  It’s cute, but is it really engaging for your baby?

It would be much better for your child to either have a soundtrack to dance to, or even better, sing his own little song!

Should we just get rid of every single electronic toy we own?

I don’t believe in being really strict about rules like this. I do suggest, though, that electronic toys have more functions than “push a button for a song.” As discussed in yet another article asking if we should be concerned about electronic toys:

No one toy determines the course of a child’s play history. But when children become used to toys that channel them into acting in a certain way, they begin to expect all toys to tell them what to do and toys that are open- ended can seem boring and uninteresting. This can have a long-term effect on how children play and the kind of learners they become. And while any toy can be used for quality, individualized play, more open-ended and generic toys are more conducive in promoting this kind of play than highly structured and programmed toys.

So for example, my 1.5 year old son has a little four wheel “motorbike” that he can scoot around on.  He loves it, and he spends most of his time with it just scooting around all over our house. I try to just switch it off so that the buttons  don’t make noise, but he’s clever enough to just turn the switch back on.

My children also have little cars that go on a racetrack. The cars can sing songs and say short phrases, but the real fun is driving them around, not making them talk. So they stay.

If play totally changes depending on the “tools” provided, what are the best tools for the job?

Blocks that your child can build with.

blocks are great toys

Generic characters and dolls that your child can imagine stories with.

dolls are great toys for childhood development

Dress-up clothes to allow your child to become someone else.

little boys playing pretend

These are all simple toys, but they allow your child to play in a way that is most fun, and they best serve their needs in the long run.