The women of the Pediatric Therapy Services at the hospital gathered around a list of the hottest toys for the Christmas season to see what parents were buying.
At first, they were excited. Sally Hertzog, Judy Dettwiler and Diana Sperry have made a life of using toys as tools to help children with delayed development.
Toys have the power to teach children to speak, think and bond with their parents. But halfway through the list of popular gifts, the women started to get disappointed.
What they saw was that parents are buying the latest technology and not the best toys for their children's development. Many parents, it seemed, also may have been buying toys as babysitters.
With Christmas around the corner, Hertzog, a speech language therapist; Sperry, a physical therapist; and Dettwiler, an occupational therapist; offered a workshop to interested parents titled "Stimulate your child's growth through toys."
The turnout was good, and the parents were full of questions. They hoped to pad their Christmas lists with specific toy suggestions. Although the women at Pediatric Therapy Services pointed out a few toys, they spent most of the time explaining what children needed to learn at certain ages. It was up to the parents to select toys using their new understanding.
The most important message was "don't substitute the latest, greatest toys for time spent with your children."
"We've gotten away from healthy physical touch," Dettwiler said. "The age of electronics has separated us."
Children are learning to read from computers, she said, instead of snuggling up to parents with books. Children can learn to read from computers and be very good readers, but what they miss is the social development.
Electronic toys have their place, but they should be combined with toys that stimulate the imagination.
"Young children who have active imaginary lives also tend to be good at problem solving and have the ability to be empathetic to others," Dettwiler said. Toys that stimulate the imagination are things such as plastic kitchen centers, farm sets and doll houses.
Newborns are intrigued by the human face. They like mirrors, mobiles and movement.
"At that age, being in different positions is very important," Dettwiler said. "Swings are good but don't leave them in too long."
Music is also good for newborns. Dettwiler suggests buying CDs of Baroque music, which research says stimulates both sides of the brain.
"Baroque music is very calming for babies," she said.
4 months to 8 months
As their sight and mobility improves, babies ages 4 months to 8 months are interested in objects they can explore.
"You hear about babies exploring with their mouths," Hertzog said. "Buy things they can put in their mouth. Buy things that make noise, that they can shake and explore with their hands."
8 months to 12 months
This is the time for imitation play. At 8 months, babies start to imitate sounds like the sound of a motor.
Playing copy-cat games and peek-a-boo is fun at this age. It's also the time to learn about causes and effects. Toys for this age include things with big buttons that a baby can push to make something happen -- something pops up or a noise is made.
"You want to buy toys that have simple parts to them, but also include some problem-solving aspect or visual tracking so the child can continue to use it as they get older," Sperry said.
This is also a good time for a child to work on their mobility.
"If a ball rolls away, they have to go get it," Sperry said. "You want to find toys that use the whole child."
From this time forward, toys should include as many different skills as possible -- motor skills, language skills and problem-solving skills.
"In terms of how much you learn in life, most of it happens from newborn
through the preschool years," Dettwiler said. "Playing with your child helps them develop social skills, personal concept and cognition, and it helps them to be successful in school."
This is a good time to introduce blocks and objects children can put into containers. Simple sorting exercises are interesting for children this age, as well as toys they can put things in and dump things out of.
At this age, Dettwiler suggested setting up a low cupboard in the kitchen full of things the child can play with -- measuring cups they can stack, pots and pans with lids and Tupperware.
"They really like pots and pans at this age," Hertzog said. "You don't have to spend a lot of money to keep them entertained."
18 months to 24 months
This is the time to introduce symbolic play, Hertzog said. "Show them they can use a shoe as a phone or a piece of paper as a blanket for their doll. Just pretend.
"Our language is based on symbols, and this helps them to understand that."
At the Pediatric Therapy Services, Hertzog, Dettwiler and Sperry see many children who do not make it successfully through this phase.
"We see children who are very literal, and it's tough for them," Dettwiler said. "Those are the kids who are afraid of monsters. They don't see the difference between reality and the imaginary."
2 years old
At this age, children are awkward, but they are learning how to climb and jump and understand where their bodies are in space.
Sperry recommends a toy called the Little Dome Climber.
"It's three feet high," Sperry said. "The child can move in and out of the big structure or hang on it. It's a good way for them to get control of their bodies."
3 years old
Workbenches, kitchen sets, action figures, a dress-up box -- these are the best toys for children this age. Working with clay, buttoning, unzipping and unlacing are the types of skills they need to practice.
"Children this age like group activities more than they like rule-based activities," Dettwiler said. They can begin to put together the simplest puzzles -- shapes in a form board.
No matter what toys you buy for your children or what stage of the child's development, the women at Pediatric Therapy Services had one piece of advice to offer to parents: "Try to relax," Hertzog said. "Have fun with your child. Play is the most important thing for development, especially with an adult or another child."
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