Toys are so much fun. They inspire children to use their imagination and to be creative. Toys also have the power to promote an incredible amount of learning for children–but not the academic kind of stuff that might pop into your mind like the ABCs. Instead, toys have the potential to help children learn problem solving, strategy and patience.

There is also a great deal of opportunity for toys to help promote and encourage communication. Children love to show off their newest creation. Sometimes they need to ask for help with a toy when it’s not working how they think it should. Other times, they may want to share in using the toys and creating together, which invites conversation to happen. 

Batteries interrupt all this opportunity however. 

Generally battery-powered toys involve buttons and when the buttons are pushed, a pre-determined sound/light/reaction happens. Every single time. It’s the same. That sound/light/reaction is automated by the push of the button and the child doesn’t get to figure out how to make that sound/light/reaction happen by their own means. 

In a society obsessed with making children smarter earlier and earlier, all of the toys sold as ‘promoting’ academics such as the ABCs, numbers or colors, these button-pushing battery-powered toys can seem like they might do some good. The problem is it eliminates the opportunity for your child to use the toy differently, to make the noise/sound the toy is making and eliminates the ability to use any imagination. The ‘play’ part of the toy is already done for them. Just a quick push of the button and the play is over. Finished. That’s it.

This holiday season, when a lot of gifts are being purchased and donations are being made, consider finding toys that inspire actual play. Pick some toys that will allow a child lots of exploration, imagination and communication. As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I’m a bit of a toy connoisseur. I’m picky about the toys I use with patients and for good reason. I want to promote all of that creativity, imagination and communication with my patients. I want them to create the play, not a button. 

If you’re in the market to purchase a gift for a child this holiday season, here are some recommendations to help you choose the perfect gift: 

–skip the batteries

–choose toys that are open-ended, such as building blocks, train tracks, play houses, etc. 

–choose toys that can be shared with others

Here are a few specific ideas that may spark your interest or at least get you thinking along the creativity ideas.

For children who are ages 18 months to 4 years old:

–Fisher Price Little People are a great example of an open-ended toy that involves creativity. There are many different people of a variety of ages, including babies, children, adults, workers/community helpers, animals, etc. To go along with all of the characters, the line also has a house, furniture, cars, buses, and other structures/lifetime items.

–building blocks made of wood or another sustainable material. Nothing fancy, just blocks that can be stacked and re-stacked over and over again in different configurations, different heights, different ways every time. 

For children 4-7 years old: 

–pretend play activities are a big recommendation with this age range. Think pretend food, tea sets, play kitchens where you can pretend to eat out at a restaurant, play grocery store or cook some food. 

–to complement pretend play, some of the dress up costumes can really get your child into the part, such as a firefighter, a pet veterinarian set, or a chef’s hat and apron.

–art supplies such as crayons, water colors, markers and an oversized pad of paper

–early board and card games such as Candyland, memory or Uno.

 While this is a quick list, it’s meant to help get you thinking more along the lines of imagination, creativity and the enjoyment of playing. Eventually the learning of letters, numbers, colors, etc. does become important, but there are many other skills that should be acquired and developing before the introduction of these ‘academics’ that actually support learning. Those include the ability to interact, to pay attention to others, to problem solve and to have patience.

These four areas start developing before a child turns 1! One of the earliest problem-solving activities for young children is building with blocks. To build, it requires strategic positioning of the blocks to ensure they remain upright. When a child plays with real blocks and builds a tower, it’s likely they built it many times over before achieving the tower. The blocks likely fell frequently and each time the child tries again, they place the blocks a bit more strategically to get them to stay upright. In addition to problem-solving, this builds patience and resiliency.

Meanwhile, a child who completes building blocks on a tablet, doesn’t experience the trial and error phases of building the tower–the blocks click into their digitally pre-determined spot and voila, it’s complete. For this child, when they do encounter real blocks and they are not successful the first time they attempt to build a tower, they are likely to become highly frustrated and may even reject playing with the blocks. They lost out on the growth opportunity because they were used to using a button to build rather than to build themselves.

I’ll be on the lookout for new toys that wow me this season. Let me know if you find any–comment below and share your favorite toy and how it inspires creativity, imagination and play! 

Sara Martin is a certified speech-language pathologist and owner of Speech With Sara LLC based in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. She is licensed in Michigan and Pennsylvania offering individual speech therapy specializing in literacy impairments, speech sound disorders, early language deficits and orofacial myofunctional disorders. Contact her for additional information at 

Toy-Gifting? Skipping Batteries Can Lead to More Learning, Growth

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