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The Best Toys for Babies Don't Do Anything

By Magda Gerber

Dear Magda,

I am a new grandmother, and of course want only the best for my adorable new granddaughter. She already has 3 mobiles, 2 cradle gyms, 2 busy boxes and untold numbers of stuffed animals. What toys do you recommend I buy her? I have heard you say that babies like plastic margarine dishes, but Magda, this is my first grandchild! I want to get her something really nice!
-New Grandma

Dear Magda,

I have been in the field of early childhood development for many years and I recently visited the RIE Center for the first time. I was very surprised. I went expecting to see the latest in infant toys and materials. Instead, what I saw in the babies' play room, neatly arrayed on low shelves were empty plastic soda bottles, aluminum plates, plastic strainers and other things that most people wouldn't consider toys. In fact most people wouldn't even bother saving many of those things. Would you please explain the reasons for your choices of baby toys?
-Confused Professional

Dear Grandma and Professional, (and all Parents),

I hear you both responding to today's frantic sales pitches for "new and better toys" for "new and better babies". I would like very much to give you my ideas on babies' toys, both what I recommend, and what I do not recommend.

First, I would like to say that rather than "toys", I prefer to call them play objects. We say that a baby is playing when she is manipulating an object (even if it is her own hand), so in fact any object a baby would choose to manipulate would be a play object.

As for my recommendations, the most important consideration is safety. Any play object must be safe for the infant who will use it.

This means a play object must be too big to be swallowed. A play object must not have removable parts. The eyes and ears of many teddy bears have ended up in babies' stomachs and, if they are lucky, in their stools. The peas and dried beans that some stuffed animals are filled with can escape through tiny holes in the seams. What a baby will typically do with these small, round objects is push them into his nose. The mucous inside the baby's nose will cause the bean to swell, and a doctor's help will be required to remove it.

The small objects that older children play with (construction toys such as Lego, tiny people and animals, etc.) are dangerous for infants and must be kept away from them. There is a size tester marketed for adults to use if they are in doubt about the swallowability of a toy. It is available through educational supply houses and some big toys stores, and might be useful for you.

Other elements of safety include checking a play object for sharp edges, breakability and anything that might cause suffocation. I would never give a baby a balloon for several reasons. For one thing, it might burst and frighten him, but more importantly he might put a popped or unblown balloon into his mouth, get it caught in his throat, and asphyxiate. For a similar reason I would not give an infant a silk or nylon scarf: babies tend to jam things into their mouths, and a fine scarf could cause a baby to choke.

I would also not give an infant any toy with liquid inside, such as those hour glass rattles with little beads floating in clear fluid. There is always the possibility of the rattle breaking, the beads spilling out, and since babies explore the world largely with their mouths, those beads will end up inside the baby.

Some of the loveliest toys to look at are ones I would not choose for use with groups of babies: those made of heavy wood. In a group situation a heavy wooden object may easily become a flying missile and may injure another child. However, for a single child at home, some wooden toys can be very nice.

I also do not like to see infants playing with objects that have long strings attached, such as pull toys for beginning walkers. The strings can too easily be wrapped around an infant's neck during normal play. (It is partly for these reasons that I do not recommend having infants and toddlers in the same group. Appropriate play objects and styles for toddlers can create an unsafe environment for smaller children.)

Now on to what I do recommend. In general, play objects for babies should be simple, sturdy and cleanable. In a baby's play space at home or in a group care setting there should be a variety of sizes, shapes and weights represented (but none so heavy that a baby would be injured if it fell on her). Most importantly, play objects for infants need to be those which the infant can look at, touch, grasp, hold, mouth, and manipulate endlessly, never repeating the same experience. It is easy to find such objects in your own kitchen or in a dime store.

If you have observed very young babies you know how much they like to hold on to their blankets, clothing, or diapers. I consider the best first "toy" a scarf about 18 inches square made of sturdy cotton or linen and hemmed all around. You can buy or sew several in different colors and patterns. Hold the scarf in the middle and arrange it to form a peak. Place it at an angle where the infant can look at it, reach out for it, touch it, and eventually grab it. You will be amazed at how many different ways and for how long even a very young baby will manipulate such a scarf.

It is true that at the RIE Center we have many plastic and aluminum containers for the babies to manipulate. Cups, bowls, colanders, dishpans, baskets, and camping mess kits in many sizes, shapes and colors provide children with many hours of activity during their first two years of life. Containers offer opportunities for babies to explore many notions, including in and out while the child remains in control of the activity and the object. This builds feelings of competence and confidence along with the concrete information gathered.

You can raid your own kitchen for these wonderful play objects, if you want to. Collect a variety of colorful, sturdy plastic containers. Make sure some will nest inside others, and that some will stack. Check to find some that make interesting noises when tapped against each other or the floor. Infants also enjoy holding things with holes in them, such as plastic bread baskets. Plastic, one-piece ice cube trays are a favorite, too. For more variety, include some light, shiny metal plates or pans (but watch for sharp handles).

For all infants, I recommend balls, balls, balls: big ones, small ones, plastic whiffle-type ones with holes. I like beach balls blown up to different degrees of firmness, so it is easy for little fingers to grab and lift them. Rubber balls are fine, but not those made of nerf-type foam, as infants could bite and eat pieces. Inflatable water toys, especially beach rings offer many different kinds of experiences for infants, all on dry land, of course.

All sizes of plastic bottles, thoroughly cleaned, are safe, easy for babies to manipulate and safely poke their fingers into. They also make very interesting noises when they fall over or bump another object. The 2 liter size soda bottles are among the best of this type.

Plastic chains are always fascinating to infants.

Those well-known oldies, large sized pop beads are still favorites, as well as newer types. Make sure, though, that if the chains are flexible, they are not long enough to tangle around a baby's neck or limbs. (This is not a concern with pop type beads because the chain is not very bendable.)

As a baby becomes older and more mobile, boxes of all types are excellent play objects. Large boxes can be crawled on, in or through, smaller ones can become containers for other play objects. Boxes can become towers, tunnels, walls, vehicles. Of course, the same criteria of safety and sturdiness hold for boxes as for other play objects.

Dear Grandma, if you still feel you want to buy something special for that wonderful grandchild, here are some suggestions for play objects that she will use more as she becomes a little older. As I mentioned, wooden toys are fine for one child to use at home. Many toy stores carry beautiful wooden blocks and lovely wooden puzzles of simple shapes with knobs for little fingers to lift each piece. Some Montessori materials such as wooden cylinder sets in their own trays make fine gifts. And of course it is a grandparent's prerogative to give a favorite doll to any grandchild. (Naturally a favorite doll would be a safe doll, with no small, removable parts.)

What do all of these recommended play objects have in common? None do anything. They will only respond when the infant activates them. In other words our active infant manipulates passive objects. In contrast, entertaining kinds of toys, such as mobiles or later on, windup toys, cause a passive infant to watch an active toy. This trains the child to expect to be amused and entertained, and sets the scene for later TV watching.

The best materials for infants need not be fancy, but neither are they limited to castoffs. The best play objects for babies are those which allow them to be as active .and competent as possible at every stage of development.

Magda


For more information on the RIE® approach, please visit their website RIE.org.

©Magda Gerber,
Originally Published in Educaring, Spring 1986

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