Guest Post: The importance of toys for children’s development

As an early childhood specialist, I spend a lot of time with children and much of this is spent observing the benefits of play. In recent years, there has been a shift from “traditional toys” to more natural and heuristic resources, which are objects and properties from the real world (think pots, pans, buttons, corks, pebbles, mud and cardboard boxes).

Whilst I am an avid fan of this form of play, it is all about creating a balance. I recently visited a nursery who had almost eradicated their use of “traditional toys”. Initially, I thought, “what a great idea” but it quickly became apparent that the children were missing something…

When I spoke with the children, they shared stories of their favourite toys including action figures, construction blocks and books. It made me realise that whatever we offer children in terms of play, we have to include their beloved toys. Children love and learn from toys. If we have any doubts about this, half an hour in a toy shop will show us the way…

Less is more, basic is best

While children do not need an abundance of toys, playing with different types of toys has been found beneficial to young children’s interactions, thinking and creative expression (Trawick-Smith,2011). Open-ended toys such as blocks, construction, role play, and small world, which includes objects such as dinosaurs, play people or small dolls houses are considered most valuable because children have endless and multiple opportunities to develop their play scripts. And what’s more, these items can be combined with heuristic materials, for example, playing with the dinosaurs outside in the mud, or drawing roads on cardboard boxes for endless adventures.

Rotate for clutter-free toys

Children on average have 238 toys, but parents suggest that only 12 of these are used on a regular and daily basis” (Dauch et al., 2018)

Play is considered a child’s “work” and they often become very immersed in a particular theme or with a particular set of toys. The advantage of this is that children learn to focus, pay attention and to problem solve. For example, talking through the steps to make dinner with a wooden tea set. Children need uninterrupted play with toys to really reap the rewards.

However, when children have access to an abundance of toys, their play can become fleeting and they may not become as fully invested. Imagine, going into a sweet shop and being told to, “help yourself”. It would be difficult to fully focus, and you may become much more easily distracted. Research suggests that too many toys reduce play quality-time and stifle creativity (Dauch et al., 2018 ). Rotating toys is a useful solution to this and means that you can build anticipation for your child. You may also find that if your child has a particular attachment to a toy, they will ask for it, helping you to build a more meaningful toy collection.

Try and test it

Research has suggested that often when a child shows an interest in a particular toy, it may not live up to its expectations, or they may outgrow it quickly. The use of toy-swaps or donating once you are finished can lead to the right toys getting to the right children. It can also open up important discussions with children about the ways in which toys can be shared and encourages the concept of turn-taking. Often toys can pile up and go unused, but toy swaps give children the chance to tell you when they may have finished with a toy and to think about the power of recycling. From an environmental perspective, it also cuts down on our purchasing of plastic resources.

Final thoughts

There has been extensive research on the importance of play for young children (See Ginsburg, 2007), and findings consistently suggest that children benefit from enhanced cognitive (thinking), social, emotional and physical development. This is especially true if they are supported by a playful adult, who can act as a play partner and facilitator. It is through play, that children make sense of the world, allowing them, to try out and practice new skills safely and securely.

Building a meaningful toy collection is an important process in child development. Children often become very attached to their toys and this forms the foundations of their play memories. Children’s interests and fascinations can change rapidly as they become more skilled in their play, so sharing and re-distributing toys can lead to other children making happy memories. And what a great way to avoid the pile up!

Reference list:

The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. Kenneth R. Ginsburg. Pediatrics Jan 2007, 119 (1) 182-191. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2006-2697

The influence of the number of toys in the environment on toddler’s play (2017). Carly Dauch, Michelle Imwalle, Brooke Ocasio & Alexia E. Metz. DOI:

Measuring the effects of toys on the problem solving, creative and social behaviours of pre-school children (2011). Jeffrey Trawick-Smith 2011. DOI:

Further reading:

The “What to expect when” booklet from Foundation Years provides top tips for enhancing your child’s development according to their stage of development:

The influence of the number of toys in the environment on toddlers’ play:

LEGO foundation – The role of play in children’s development:

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Kerry Payne

Early Childhood Specialist

Kerry is an Early Childhood Specialist at the British Association for Early Childhood Education. With over 12 years of experience in early education, Kerry is a positive and committed practitioner and consultant with a specialist knowledge in SEND and social and emotional behaviours.