In recent years, the toys and games market has grown exponentially and has become a truly vast segment; it seems incredible to think, for instance, that only a few years ago the offering for children in the 0-3 age group featured few interesting products.
Today, by contrast, when deciding which game to buy or give as a gift it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a choice because there is a huge variety of products available, both on shop shelves and online, and often, as parents, but also as grandparents and aunts and uncles, we don’t have the right tools to guide us in this sea of products to be able to make an informed choice that really meets our child's needs and is also environmentally friendly.
But what is play and why should we really pay attention to what we buy?
Play is a really serious matter. These days we hear this more and more, and indeed we shouldn’t regard play purely as a pastime. It’s crucial for us as parents to be aware that play is strongly connected with brain development, that’s why it is important, if possible, to choose toys that provide experiences which will leave a permanent mark in the children’s mind.
Maria Montessori understood long ago that play was so important in children’s lives that she compared play to work. In a book she dedicated to parents, she wrote: “The wise mother will remember that play time is never wasted. So long as the children are busily absorbed, they are working at their own development – for children would rather work than play. "
Play is first and foremost an activity that requires engagement, continuity and adhering to the rules, and it has a significant function for cognitive, social, motor and emotional development as well as for the development of a range of skills that are essential for “building” children’s personalities.
As adults, when we think about play, the image that often springs to mind is a child engaged in an activity that merely produces pleasure and doesn’t necessarily have a goal. In actual fact, when children are left free to play without adult interference, their activity is very rarely aimless and for the sole purpose of having fun.
So, how can we choose a toy or a game without feeling bewildered? Are there any tips that can guide us in this choice?
Yes, there are! There are some simple tips that we can all easily bear in mind when faced with walls stacked with toys and games featuring countless activities, appealing colours and electronic and digital applications.
Especially when it comes to early childhood, in the 0-3 age group, it is important to choose simple toys, ideally made from natural materials, which do not overstimulate the child with a thousand activities at once (sounds, lights and colours) that only tend to distract the child and hinder the development of attention. Increased concentration is only really achieved when our brain is focused on one activity at a time because that is what our brain is actually capable of handling.
The toys and games that seem useful because they do lots of things, in actual fact do far too much! And this means that the child is inevitably doing too little. So we should go for simple toys that don’t provide too many stimuli at the same time, and opt for those that focus on one activity, or perhaps even multiple activities but which can be performed singly at different times.
For the 3-6 age group, it is once again important for the game or toy not to provide too many stimuli at the same time. Play (particularly sensory play, where children use their hands and do things), which is crucially important for learning and building knowledge, should not be confused with the idea that “the more things I do, the more senses I am activating and the more I’m learning”.
We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the more stimuli we provide during the activity, the more interesting the toy or the game will be for the child.
Too many inputs make it difficult to develop the ability to pay attention to a single task (which is what the brain is effectively capable of), and ultimately undermine the brain’s overall capacity for sustained concentration. Children don’t need to be entertained, hypnotised or distracted by the toys and games they receive, but, on the contrary, these should give them the opportunity to be active and to learn new things. We should therefore favour toys and games that encourage children to explore things with their hands. Sometimes, simple games like stacking cups and blocks, and discovering or pairing shapes can be used imaginatively in many different ways.
Children from 6 to 10 years are going through a new phase that involves a shift from merely showing curiosity about things to wanting to know the reason for them. They are eager to experience and learn about the world around them and are increasingly keen to do so with their peers. It is therefore important to choose toys, games and activities that foster children’s interactions with their peers, inspire creativity, promote their interest in art and encourage them to explore the world around them. Children must actively and fully engage in their play activities in order to exercise and grow their imagination and creativity.
We, as parents, and not just our children, are often influenced by the cultural and commercial messages and signals we are constantly exposed to. It is therefore important to bear in mind that it is not the quantity of toys and games that makes the difference or makes a child happy, but it is genuine interest towards a toy or a game, even a simple one, that truly makes the difference.
Maria Montessori - Maria Montessori parla ai genitori
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Angeline S. Lillard - Playful Learning and Montessori Education
MONTESSORI FLASHCARDS - COLOURS
MONTESSORI - FIRST DISCOVERIES
MONTESSORI - MY HOUSE OF WORDS
MONTESSORI - THE COSMOS
MONTESSORI - THE HUMAN BODY
MONTESSORI - SHAPES AND LACES
MONTESSORI - THE WORLD
MONTESSORI - I WRITE ON SAND