Toys, Toys and more Toys: Which meet your child’s needs?

Having an understanding of the developmental stages of play will enable you to ensure your child’s toy's are meeting their developmental needs.

Having an understanding of the developmental stages of play and which toys can support learning within them will enable you to ensure your child’s toys are meeting their developmental needs.

Toys play a key part in language development and it is important to ‘get toys right’. Our world is full of toys and our children usually have lots, but, too many toys can be overwhelming, particularly if they are struggling to talk or have poor attention and listening skills. For these children, it is really important that we don’t have a crammed, chaotic, playroom.  Having a clear out, putting things away, rotating them and reducing the number of toys on display can make a big difference.

Developmental stages of play

  1. Exploration

In this first stage, children are getting to know their environment and discovering their own senses and how to use them.  They are beginning to modulate their senses to make sense of what they see, hear and feel. The toys that support this stage encourage touching, looking and listening. They have lights, sounds and texture. Good examples are early ‘touch and feel’ books or treasure baskets (For a nice example of a treasure basket see which contains lots of interesting objects with different textures. These could be silky, soft, rough, or bristly. Having access to different textures together can help children get to the point where they want to touch, feel and mouth objects and that’s really important.

It can take a while for this to get going with some children who have language delay. Your baby may have been really quiet and settled and not shown much of an interest in doing that exploration but then things start to change, they become a toddler and their world opens up. They become more interested in touching and exploring and looking and listening. 

It may be that your child is older but they still need these experiences. We can provide this through sensory play with water, sand, play-doh, paints and gloop. It’s not about creating some amazing picture, it’s about the process of touching and feeling and dripping it and noticing what happens when their hands are in it and moving it and dripping it. At this stage children often don’t want to use utensils when eating, they want to put their hands in their food and push it around and feel it. If your child hasn’t done this, it’s really important to go back and give them these sensory opportunities as children who have missed this can have difficulty modulating their senses. Children (and even adults) are never too old to benefit from sensory play activities.

2. Cause and Effect

At this stage children begin to realise that what they do has an impact on other things. At first, children respond to the way their body feels and we, as parents or carers respond to that. So if they cry, we might interpret that, know that they are hungry and feed them although they are not saying ‘mummy, I’m hungry’. In this cause and effect time of development, babies learn that if they cry someone will answer them so they start to cry for many more reasons. They learn that mummy, daddy, auntie or gran will respond. They begin to want toys that they can have an effect on. For example, those plastic boards where you press a button and something pops up, or, a light comes on or, you swizzle something and it looks colourful. This is the stage children will become interested in electronic games, especially if they are older when they go through this stage of development. Electronics and computer games really suit this stage of development because you press a key and something happens, you get a big response, there can be lots of different, attention grabbing effects, but they are all doing the same thing. So that’s the word of caution: When you look around your playroom or toy area, do all the toys or many of them meet this need for cause and effect, do they all do the same thing? There are so many of these toys on the market that we often find that this is the case.  So a good way of pairing down and making your toy area more orderly is to rotate these toys. Think ‘less is more’. It might be a push along toy that bubbles come out or a barrel that makes a noise when you spin it, or a rattle. There is a whole range of actions you can perform but they all teach the same thing- cause and effect.  

3. Relational play 

At this stage, children begin to relate symbols of objects to themselves. If you have a toy hairbrush or toy cup or a little wooden apple or a doll’s bottle the child begins to recognise this as a symbol of the real thing and relate it to themselves. They might pick up a hairbrush and brush their hair or pick up the baby cup and have a drink from it. They are realising that these things are symbolic. This is a really important stage of development.  Once children have started to relate these objects to themselves they will begin to relate them to you, brushing your hair or giving you a drink, then they might do it to their dolly or teddy. It can be helpful to set up a little basket or scene with familiar everyday objects in it for them to play with. It might be a facecloth or a toothbrush, a sponge, a cup or a plate or a spoon, anything that is familiar to your child. You pretend to use it and see if they start to do it to themselves too. 

Next children begin to build up sequences, their play becomes a little more sophisticated and it builds into pretend play. They might wash their doll’s face, then give them some milk and put them to bed. It tends to be things that they are familiar with, things that happen in their everyday life at home. Sometimes people say well I have a boy so were not going to get him a doll or a kitchen but actually those sequences are as familiar for boys as they are for girls so it doesn’t matter whether you have a boy or girl. All children need that familiarity so that they can act out the things they know, the things they see happening at home. If you do lots of ironing get a toy ironing board. If you do lots of mopping get a toy mop. If you don’t mop, don’t buy a toy mop. As time goes on you can bring in new experiences. So if they attend the vet with you get a doctor’s playset and act out the vet examining the cat or things that they saw on a trip to the dentist or if they go to the supermarket set up a shopping stall and  get a basket and enact that. You want to help their play skills by acting out things that are happening in real life. 

Children who have these play skills deliberately taught to them in this way become much more confident and more independent and happier to play in sequence. As time goes on they will be more satisfied with their own company. Children who have good play skills also do well socially because other children want to play with them as they play ‘good’ games.

4. Imaginative Play 

The final stage is imaginative play, what starts off as very familiar, becomes a little less familiar, they might begin to add things in that you haven’t necessarily done. For example, my little girl plays with her babies a lot and she might line them all up because they are going to the park, she’s never seen that happen.  She’s bringing new and different ideas into her play. Imaginative play starts to develop, it becomes more abstract and you get super heroes and fairies and things they might only have seen on television, they are making up games about monsters or dinosaurs. They bring in things that they have never experienced purely based on their imagination.  Again, it’s a really important part of development. When their imagination begins to grow children can begin to get scared of the dark, or going upstairs. Their imagination is flourishing, they are putting their imagination into what might happen to them, what might be scary, their might be monsters in the room. With this knowledge it makes sense that your child who used to sleep alone suddenly wants you to stay with them or have a light on in the landing. 

At this point, play is much more about talking and less about props. Everyday objects can be used to scaffold their play but they don’t necessarily need shop bought toys as anything will do and actually the more abstract the object is the better as they can make it into exactly what they want. With this in mind, we can see that the toys that are available for children can actually be quite limiting as they are often characters or have very particular brands. You could buy a set of fairy figures or superhero figures but they are very obviously a certain brand, Disney or Marvel, when actually it is better to use more natural open ended toys that are not ‘one hit wonders’ that don’t just fit a particular game, they can be changed into anything. When we take away the constriction of plastic toys made for one purpose we help children’s imagination to grow. Research shows that the more creative and imaginative children can be in their play, the better that is for their learning in the long run.