Good toys allow children to improvise, increase creativity

Visions of sugarplums? Forget about it! The only visions most children are having as the holidays approach are of toys, toys and more toys.

But how do parents choose the right ones for their young children to provide the most amount of fun but also some educational benefit as well?

Toys that allow children to come up with their own play scenarios rather than ones that aim for a specific outcome are good gift ideas for the holidays.
Toys that allow children to come up with their own play scenarios rather than ones that aim for a specific outcome are good gift ideas for the holidays.

Two education experts at Washington University in St. Louis offer tips on good toy choices for children.

“Preschool-aged children are much more interested in the process than they are in the final outcome,” says Andrea Atkinson, director of the Washington University Nursery School. “Children are incredibly creative, so open-ended toys and games that can foster that creativity are always great ideas.”

Wooden blocks, LEGOs, dress-up items, balls, train sets and tree swings allow children to come up with their own play scenarios and can allow them to learn more freely than with toys that aim for a specific outcome — like many computer games — says Atkinson.

Keith Sawyer, Ph.D., associate professor of education in Arts & Sciences, agrees.

An expert on creativity and improvisation, Sawyer suggests toys that are “low realism” can improve a child’s creativity. “Buying your child toys that aren’t directly tied to a particular theme or show opens their imagination to attempt new play situations,” he says.

Sawyer is the author of the book “Pretend Play as Improvisation,” based on a year that he spent studying a preschool classroom.

Keith Sawyer
Keith Sawyer

“The best toys for young children are the ones that allow them to create a wide variety of fantasy scenarios,” Sawyer says. His research shows that an improvisational style of play contributes to development more than the scripted play that often results from toys with movie or television tie-ins.

Sawyer’s research also shows that children learn a lot from pretending together with peers, so “toys that allow two or more children to create a pretend world together are really the best of all.”

Atkinson says to avoid toys that are so specific that after playing with them a few times, the child becomes bored.

“A puzzle could fit into this category,” she says. “Though if the child likes puzzles and the puzzle is challenging enough, they’ll do it over and over again. Some toys where the goal is to punch several buttons or keys to get the right combination can also become mundane quickly.”

Atkinson said many of her students — three- to five-year-olds — play video games. While she encourages parents to limit the time children spend playing them and to avoid purchasing violent games, she acknowledges that some good can come from video games, including increased hand-eye coordination.

Sawyer notes that there’s been some recent research connecting video game play with advanced cognitive abilities, but he emphasizes the importance of creativity and improvisation. Video games that require the child to be creative, such as the interactive strategy game SimCity, would better contribute to a child’s development, he says.

And what about when all the toys are unwrapped and there is still another week of vacation time left?

“Cook with your children,” suggests Atkinson. “They love to be involved. Take them to the zoo, the art museum or a park. Help them make a book. Read to them. When it comes to a child’s education, interaction is really a key.”