Toys stop play

A well-stocked nursery attracts many new parents. But is a toy-filled environment conducive to social development of our toddlers? I talked to experienced nursery teachers and looked at some of the research.When observing young children in nursery settings, I have noticed that staff appear to accept the idea that “at this age they play alongside each other, rather than with each other”.

However, I had noticed that the same children, when in a room without toys, such as waiting in the hallway, waiting on the carpet for a story for example, would be taking much more notice of each other. It was after listening to a radio programme about a theatre company where actors interacted with babies and toddlers, that my attention was once again drawn by the description of how, when only people were present, the babies interacted, mimicked and experimented with the actors and other babies, but when any object was spotted by the babies, such as the researcher’s pad and pen, the babies were immediately drawn to investigate the object in preference to the other people.

I decided to take more of an interest in the role of toys in promoting or inhibiting social interaction. The next time I was in a nursery I asked a member of staff for her views on this. Rose, had over 30 years’ experience in a nursery setting and she said she could clearly remember a time before the multi-coloured plentiful toys were a common feature of nurseries. We were talking in the outside play area of the nursery and all around us there were tricycles, water and sand trays, slides, hoops, castles and other attractive playthings. As soon as the children were let out to play, they each gravitated towards one of these toys and proceeded to play mostly alone to begin with, although some then joined each other to play together.

Rose said that in the days before there was enough money for all these toys, the children would play much more interactively. The boys would spend most of the time simply running and running, chasing and jumping on top of each other. The girls for the most part would walk around together and sit and pick grass and make nests and houses out of the grass and leaves they picked. They would also compete with each other for how far they could jump and would do roly-polys and somersaults and play with each other’s hair.

I started to look up what researchers said about toys and social interaction and found that there is a wealth of literature on the subject. A few of the references I read are given below, with links.

One researcher found that without toys available in the room, infants of both ages more often contacted one another, smiled at and gestured to one another, and duplicated each other’s actions. With toys, they showed and exchanged toys and spent more time synchronously manipulating similar play material.

The conclusion from much of the research is that in the absence of toys infants explore other infants. Some researchers have classified toys into either “social” or “isolate” toys, but others have concluded that it is not the characteristics of the toy, but the experience and perception of the child that classifies the use of a toy.

In one nursery I visited recently I looked out for which toys appeared to be associated with social interaction. Interestingly, it was the plastic swords and the toy castle that attracted most interaction, with play fighting being the resulting activity. No sooner had I identified this than the children were told to calm down and the swords taken away and put into a cupboard!

So what is going through my mind as a result of all this?

  1. Some time should be set aside where no objects are around, to allow the children to explore each other as playmates, and be taught games they can play without toys.
  2. Children who appear not to show interest in other children may do so when they have no objects to distract them.
  3. Techniques used with babies by the dancers and actors in the Jabadeo movement company  could be used in nursery settings to give them confidence to approach and explore each other.

Now read Home Relevant Literacy

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Eckerman CO, Whatley JL. Toys and social interaction between infant peers. Child Dev. 1977 Dec;48(4):1645-56.

Pulaski, Mary Ann Spencer Play as a Function of Toy Structure and Fantasy Predisposition Child Develop, 41, 2, 531-537, Jun ’70 Child Develop, 41, 2, 531-537, Jun ’70

Rabinowitz, F. Michaelet al  The Effects of Toy Novelty and Social Interaction on the Exploratory Behavior of Preschool Children Child Development, 46, 1, 286-289, Mar 75

Catherine A. O’Gorman Hughes; Mark Carter Toys and Materials as Setting Events for the Social Interaction of Preschool Children with Special Needs Educational Psychology, Volume 22, Issue 4 September 2002 , pages 429 – 444

Hay, Dale F et al Interaction between Six-Month-Old Peers. Child Development, v54 n3 p557-62 Jun 1983

Image credits: IngaPlinga77

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