Naughty Or Nice?

By Sandra Howe
Staff Writer

With the holiday shopping season in full swing, adults can be seen in toy stores everywhere staring at the packaging and wondering whether the toys inside are naughty or nice for the children who will open them in a few weeks.

Now, parents, educators and others looking for safe and suitable toys have a guide for the holidays and all year. The Right Stuff for Children Birth to 8: Selecting Play Materials to Support Development by Asst. Prof. Martha Bronson (SOE) is a user-friendly book which describes how the objects children play with can influence their motor, cognitive and social-emotional skills.

Bronson notes which play materials are best at each age and why, and demonstrates how they can be used most productively to enhance children's development.

Although written for students in child development and early childhood education courses, Bronson says, the book is appropriate for anyone providing education and care for young children, from parents to day care providers and health clinics.

"Parents are interested in what is safe, toy makers are interested in what children choose and those in early childhood education want to know what play materials sustain children's development and in what ways," said Bronson, who has co-authored a set of age-appropriate toy guidelines and two related consumer guides for the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Of course, she said, the play objects children prefer are not necessarily the best for their development. But it is important for adults to realize that providing or withholding materials not only shapes children's play, it also sends them a message about what adults value.

"The activities suggested and supported by play materials not only lead children into doing and learning certain things," Bronson said, "they show children what adults think is desirable or acceptable to do."

In general, play materials should be chosen with several considerations in mind, Bronson said. They should be appealing and interesting to the child, and should match the child's physical capabilities and mental and social development. They should also be well-constructed, durable and safe for all ages of children in a group.

"Toys often appeal to children that are too young to use them safely," she said. "Early childhood professionals, parents and toy manufacturers need to consider features of play materials that make them appropriate and safe for any given age."

Bronson analyzes children's abilities and play interests in several age groups - ranging from infants and toddlers to primary school children - and for each describes the role of play materials such as dolls, sports equipment, books, construction materials, games, mirrors, mobiles, musical instruments and puppets. She groups these roles into several categories: social and fantasy; exploration and mastery; music, art and movement; and gross motor play.

For example, while Bronson says dolls are appropriate for all the age groups, soft, cuddly dolls with simple, one-piece bodies are best for young infants, who use them for visual stimulation or to practice simple grasping. Older toddlers can play with peg dolls, dress-up dolls or washable baby dolls to support more complex role playing. Primary school children, meanwhile, can engage in housekeeping play or fantasy scenes using larger baby dolls with clothes and many accessories, or small human-like figures.

Bronson does not cite specific brand names or manufacturers, as they change constantly, she said, and it is "the features of the play materials which are important."

The Right Stuff for Children is published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children - the nation's largest organization of early childhood professionals - which will distribute the book as a special membership benefit to a large portion of its 90,000 members.

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