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Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Dubai: Alia Thobani Verjee, speech-language pathologist and child development expert at The Developing Child Centre (TDCC), Dubai, offers advice to parents on how to choose toys wisely and why such choices have an important role to play in helping their children develop cognitively.

Why are simple toys so effective?

Because they leave more to the imagination.

Think about the difference of reading a book versus watching a movie. Your brain has to work harder when reading a book. It also provides you with more creative advantage. Similarly, blocks, paper rolls, and cardboard boxes provide endless opportunities for creativity. The brain has to work harder to come up with new ideas.

What are basic toys?

Basic toys can be defined as toys that don’t contain batteries, are constructive (meaning you can create with them and use them dynamically in your own way). When deciding on toys, we must also consider what is developmentally appropriate. The following toys tend to be appropriate across a few age categories:

  • Blocks
  • Hand puppets
  • Wooden cleaning sets
  • Modelling dough or moldable sand
  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Toy train sets with trains and tracks
  • Wooden doll houses
  • Crafts – paint, paper, glue
  • A large toy house or a teepee/tent
  • Dress up clothes

“The best play for girls comes from… “boys’ toys”.

Utilising the terminology – “boys toys” versus “girls toys” is merely an observation of society. When you walk into a toy store, the more engaging, problem-solving types of toys are in the blue section and the more simple, pretty toys are in the pink section. This needs to change. We are not succumbing to the stereotypes, but in order to work with society to change perceptions, we also must observe the reality of the situation.

The environments we create for our children in the early years have the potential to change their brains. There is no gender bias here, it’s an ‘exposure bias’ we need to be mindful of.

- Alia Thobani Verjee | Speech-Language Pathologist, Child Development Expert, The Developing Child Centre, Dubai

What should play achieve?

Play at different ages and stages will look different.

Generally, quality play can be defined as play that achieves the following:

Enhances the feelings of autonomy in your child – this means follow their lead in toy choice.

Provides the opportunity for a child to feel heard, seen, and appreciated. This is powerful.

Maximises connection within themselves, or with a family member, or friend.

Creates many opportunities for language to be used – in self-talk or in creating a story.

Allows for focus and attention.

Is constructive and dynamic in nature – play is spontaneous, and can take different shapes and forms, even with the same toys.

Play is fun.

An adult’s role in play, is to follow the child’s lead, connect with them, and coach them to do activities that challenge the child further than they’re able to go on their own.

When you understand the ultimate goals of play, you realise that they are not limited to toys that you buy in a shop, but experiences in your everyday life. A few examples are: observation and participation in everyday chores, parent-child walking and exploring a new neighborhood, father sharing a passion of his with the child, taking a trip together etc.

There is no gender assigned to everyday experiences. Therefore, there should not be any gender assigned to toys. PERIOD. There is learning for ALL children in blocks and learning for all children in pretend play items such as dolls and tea sets.

How did gender-assignment in toys originate?

Generation after generation, limiting belief systems that exist are passed down, unless consciously reflected upon and questioned. Men were the ones out in the field working jobs, and women were the ones at home raising the babies. Therefore, the natural conversion of these jobs was to have the manipulative, fixing, building, cars types of toys in the boy’s section because it mimicked more their destinies. And it seemed more appropriate to have girls play with babies and tea sets because that was their destiny.

In the modern day and age, with equal opportunities for both girls and boys at school and in the work force, come the questions of what needs to change in terms of the experiences and ideas we plant in our children from an early age.

There is a significant amount of research about the importance of early childhood.

From birth to 5 years, there are intense neurological transformations that take place. As children sense the world through exploration and play, connections form based on experience and these become the foundations for the later connections, thereby the blueprints for the adults they will become.

The environments we create for our children in the early years have the potential to change their brains. There is no gender bias here, it is an exposure bias that we need to be mindful of.

London taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus. Meditation teachers have thicker insula, the motor cortex and cerebellum of a musician differs from a non-musician brain. There is no gender bias, it’s an exposure bias.

A child who has the consistent opportunity to practice playing imaginatively will build those areas of her brain or of his brain. There is no gender bias, it’s an exposure bias.

When it comes to the toys our children play with, however, we must also be aware of how this exposure bias can lend a hand to gender bias.

As parents we have the power to help architect our children’s brains. Parenting consciously is vital.

How can we move away from gender classification in toys?

I think each of us plays a role in changing the narrative.

Parents/society: Consider the limiting belief systems that you may subconsciously be adhering to, and then consciously shift the exposure and language you use with your child. For example, when my son says pink is for girls and blue is for boys. I listen because that’s an idea he has heard from somewhere. Then I go on to say, ‘Well I’m a girl and I like blue because it reminds me of the sky when we go on trips together, and the sea, because it reminds me of our trips to the beach together’. So in this way, without forcing him to believe one way or another, I open up the possibility of thinking in a different way.

Advertisers/toy shops: Sometimes we can be so stuck on the same narrative, that we forget to change according to the times. It almost becomes a vicious cycle of advertisers feeding into belief systems that already exist in order to maximise sales. I challenge advertisers to take a bolder step to help society challenge notions that need to change. It can be subtle but conscious shifts in marketing, or perhaps more eye-opening shifts. 

All toys are not created equal in their ability to enhance a child’s learning abilities. What kind of ‘toys’ limit the imagination?

Screen time is not the best way for children to learn in the early years. If technology is being used, it is really important to ask the questions: Why are we using technology? Is it serving a learning purpose? Or is it an easy way out of engagement?

Many studies show that increased screen time results in less movement. And movement is critical for attention and learning (Ratey, 2008)

Overexposure to technologies results in increased executive function and attention difficulties, cognitive delays, impaired learning, an impulsivity, decreased ability to self-regulate — StudSmall (2008) & Pagini (2010).

Research by Dr. Birken from SickKids Toronto @2017, found that increased handheld screen time led to increased expressive language delays. A 30-minute increase in handheld screen time resulted in a 49 per cent increased risk for expressive language delays.

What parents can also do

  • Reflect on: What is my current mindset regarding the potential of my daughter: e.g. doing a simple exercise with 3 columns:
  • What do I think about my daughter’s potential? Am I limiting or supporting her potential? How?
  • What did my parents think about the potential of their daughters? How did they limit or support their daughters’ potential?
  • What did my grandparents think about the potential of their daughters? How did they limit or support their daughters’ potential?
  • This activity demonstrates a generational passing down of limiting belief systems. Once the realisation has occurred, change can happen.