Play is not only fun for children, it is also the natural way they develop, explore and learn about themselves and the world around them. With the increasing prevalence of technology in our daily lives, it can be difficult for parents to limit their children's exposure to screens and encourage natural play, which is especially important for children under five. For this reason, having an area in the home with a variety of toys, games, and activities is important. Below is a list of suggested appropriate toys for children based on several global areas of development.

Symbolic play

Symbolic or "pretend" play is using actions and objects as representations of other actions, objects, or ideas. It is intimately connected to a child's language development and interpersonal problem-solving skills. Parents can foster this by choosing toys based on their children's interests.

If your child enjoys coloring and reading books, set up a "school" area in your playroom, equipped with everything your child needs to play teacher or student. Basics would include: Chalkboard (though messier, much better than the dry erase for fine motor feedback), books, desk, paper, and markers. Similarly, if your child loves helping you in the kitchen, set up his or her very own restaurant, including pretend food, utensils, table settings, and, of course, play money! It's also important to have a range of toys which lend themselves to story lines and imagination, including puppets, stuffed animals, dolls /action figures, cars/trucks and "setting" pieces like a dollhouse, play farm, parking ramp, airport, etc. For many more ideas on developmentally appropriate toys and games, visit growingtreetoys.com.


Visual/spatial skills allow a person to organize and understand visual information. Your child experiences the world through visual and kinesthetic means for a long time before words come along to represent them! These skills are important in order for children to orient themselves in new environments, recognize facial expressions and other nonverbal cues, understand where their bodies are in space, and discriminate letters and numbers for early academic development. For the younger child, shape sorters, pop-up toys and simple construction blocks support visual and motor skills, while games like Kids On Stage, Silly Expressions and Hocus Focus build visual recognition, classification and attention to detail. For older children, object search activities like I Spy, Spot It, Hidden Pictures, Pictionary, and visual puzzles (What's Wrong, optical illusions) are great. The Labyrinth series of games for Ravensberger are also wonderful for visual planning and attention.


Play that incorporates auditory/verbal processing nurtures a child's ability to understand and utilize language. This skill is critical in the capacity to follow teacher's instructions, interact appropriately with peers, and use language to regulate emotions and behaviors. Games and activities that both expose your child to verbal ideas as well as engage them in using language to express ideas are an important part of your playroom! Using all the objects in the room, parents can engage these skills with games of 20 questions and "I spy something…. ". For younger children, commercial games like Guess Who, Mystery Garden and Tell a Story build expressive language. Older kids have fun building vocabulary and shared meaning through games like Hedbanz, What's That Sound? and 5 Minute Mysteries.

Fine and gross motor

Fine motor play engages the muscles in the hands and fingers, while gross motor skills involve the ability to control larger muscle movements to crawl, stand, walk, run, and perform other recreational and daily living tasks. Refinement of these skills is essential for children in order to be able to grasp a pencil, tie their shoes, operate buttons and zippers, build strength and coordination, and participate successfully in many playground activities. Drawing materials, puzzles, stacking games and Play Doh help younger children build motor skills, while older children benefit from more challenging puzzles, Legos and their variants, Marble Maze and arts and crafts materials. While gross motor skills are usually honed outside, kids of all ages can work on these through imitation games like Statue and What Am I?, in which players copy another person's pose or actions and then guess what they are,

Social interaction

There are many options for toys and games that build social interaction, perspective taking and teamwork. Cooperative games like Max the Cat, Princess Game and Sleeping Grump are among the many fun games for all available at www.familypastimes.com that facilitate communication, perspective taking and shared ideas. Games like Apples to Apples and Sounds Like a Plan bring humor and laughter to older kids while helping facilitate different points of view and possibilities.

The options to build a playroom are endless and full of opportunities! The best playroom is one in which everyone is involved — kids and parents — and having fun together! Remember, a child's play is his/her work, the window through he/she is learning to negotiate the challenges ahead. Have fun! ■

Rick Clark is a licensed psychologist at St. Francis Children's Center.


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