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Play Builds Strong Minds and Bodies

By Tish Davidson

Ventura County Parent (CA), San Francisco Peninsula Parent, Family Times (Christiana, DE), Atlanta Parent, Today's Parent (Coconut Creek, FL)

December 1998

Ding! Ding! Ding! Listen to those cash registers ringing up holiday toy sales. About $1 billion is spent in the United States each year on over 50,000 different toys. Almost seven times more is spent on video games. Two-thirds of all toys are sold between October and December. Clearly, parents are voting with their pocketbooks for play.

Toy companies are interested in products that will sell, sell, and sell some more. To generate sales, they rely more on advertising than on meeting the needs of the developing child. Parents can counteract some of this sales persuasion by understanding why and how children play. This gives them a rational way to direct their toy dollars toward products that encourage constructive activities.

Play is a natural activity, and all children are born with the capacity to play. However all play is not created equal. Stevanne Auerbach, Ph. D. of San Francisco, also known as Dr. Toy, has spent 25 years studying how children play. She is the author of the new book Dr. Toy's Smart Play: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ(St. Martin's $13.95). PQ or play quotient is the ability of a child to play in a way that helps him attain his physical, creative and intellectual potentials.

According to Auerbach, the natural ability to play can be stimulated and guided or discouraged and repressed depending on the toys a child is given. "Through play children practice the basic skills needed in the classroom and in life. Play enriches both sides of the brain - right and left hemispheres. Thus the underlying principal of play, smart play, is that the child will gather essential experiences necessary for her fullest mental development," said Auerbach. Good toys are safe, durable toys that stimulate a child to be active and practice physical skills, be creative and develop imagination, or learn something new. The best toys serve more than one purpose.

Age and Play

Children play differently at different ages. It might seem that infants do not play at all. But they do. "You are your child's first Big Toy," says Auerbach. The way parents talk, sing and touch their babies provides babies their first experiences with the physical and emotional world. Stimulating the senses in an age-appropriate way is one of the hallmarks of a good toy. Babies especially enjoy toys with different textures, sounds and patterns.

Toddlers are ready for active toys. They often turn ordinary household items - pots and pans, rolled up socks, cardboard boxes - into toys. Household items can be supplemented with back to basic toys like blocks, balls, trucks, or bath toys. This is an on-the-go age, so toddlers like things they can move around, sort, ride on, push or pull.

Preschoolers are busy broadening their imagination with let's pretend play. Imaginative play gives them the chance to practice role playing in social situations. As they grow, they also become more interested in arts and crafts that develop fine motor skills.

Lower elementary school children thrive on play with friends. They acquire social skills that let them play board games and other games with rules. Outdoors they learn to ride bikes and roller skate. Children this age may seem wrapped up in playing with friends, but they still like and need adults to play with them.

Upper elementary children develop a strong set of diverse interests. Some enjoy model kits and arts and crafts that require patience and fine motor skills. Others are attracted to sports and outdoor activities. Computer problem solving games are interesting to this age group.

Choosing a toy that is right for the developmental (not chronological) age of the child encourages constructive play. "A product that is developmentally inappropriate leads to frustration," says Auerbach.

Gender and Play

For years toy companies have divided their products into "girls toys" - and "boys toys." Look at the color - pastels for girls, primary colors or blacks and dull greens for boys - and you'll know the intended target. Certainly our culture expects different things from boys and girls. But researchers are children born with preferences that fit our expectations or do they learn them from the social environment?

After studying the research Janese Swanson, Ed. D, founder of Girl Tech, a company based in Livermore, California dedicated to bring girls the world of technology believes that many children's play preferences are learned.

She cites studies that indicate that:

On the other hand, some studies indicate differences in how each sex relates to the world.

What does this mean for parents choosing toys? Generally "girls toys" encourage children to play quietly while "boys toys" encourage physically active play (Think how kids play with Barbies vs action figures). If parents want their children to get a good balance of activities, they need to choose toys from both categories, including some toys that encourage girls to be more active and boys to be more cooperative. Most of all, parents should choose toys that they are willing to spend time with. "The family that plays together, stays together, and has lots more joy together," says Auerbach.

Dr. Toy can be found on the web at

Janese Swanson's summary of research on gender differences in play can be found at

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