There is no doubt about it, kids love toys. In our society, children literally cut their teeth on toys – check the marks on a well-loved wooden block and you will see that this is no exaggeration. But are toys merely a distraction? A way for parents to catch their breath while their toddlers are occupied? An elaborate rouse perpetuated by lazy babysitters?

The answer is a resounding no. Studies have shown time and time again that toys are instrumental in many aspects of child development, from pattern recognition and hand-eye coordination to mathematics and literacy. Toys also are great props for early childhood social development, in which kids learn to play together, strategize, and of course, learn to share.

All societies have toys for their children, and this was true even in prehistoric times. From the deep past to today, the best toys teach children about themselves, help engage their imaginations, and encourage them to participate with others in play.

Play is actually an amazing ability in itself and should not be overlooked. One of the distinctions between humans and other animals is that we stay playful through our lives, well into adulthood. This trait must be nurtured though. Children who do not have access to safe play with adults or other children can lose this creative spark.

Toys make play a part of everyday life, from babies onward. Let’s explore how toys are great for children at each stage of their development.

Infant Toys
Babies are amazing to watch. They are wide-eyed and open to the world in a way that is difficult to explain. They are curious and want to be a part of the environment around them. Toys focus this natural learning mechanism by providing exciting colors, textures, shapes and sounds for them to experience safely. Babies learn how to engage their senses with simple toys, learning physical boundaries and limitations as well as exciting new sensations.

Toddler Toys
Toddlers will often be interested in the same toys as younger babies, but they use them in different ways. Toddlers want to figure things out, take them apart or build something using their newly acquired dexterity. Toys channel this drive.

The best toys for toddlers are shape-sorters and Legos or other more complex building blocks. Interestingly enough, toddlers are fascinated by destruction as much as creation. Knocking over block walls is a total delight for toddlers so make sure this sort of learning is encouraged too. Making messes are important…. and they can be a lot of fun.

Preschool Toys
Preschool-aged children are complex learners, and toys provide many benefits. They are a great platform for alphabetic and numeric literacy; in fact, most preschool toys are designed with this aim in mind.

However, preschoolers are also more socially complex too. Group participation, mediation and consensus are all valuable social skills that can be learned through shared toy activities like putting together a puzzle, working on a mural, or building a large Lincoln log cabin.

This article just scratches the surface on the value of toys in children’s lives. Toys are only as good as the values that parents provide for their children in terms of safe play, sharing, and maintaining clear boundaries and expectations.

Children must feel safe in order to play, and play is often chaotic and non-linear. So if education is a your primary goal in children’s toys, let your hair down and relax the goals for the day…. And remember that adults can join the fun too!