In education, it’s recognised that children need access to a range of play opportunities to support their development. Early Years practitioner Leanne Shaw looks at how toys support learning through play, and why it’s important that boys’ and girls’ choices aren’t restricted.
The Early Years Foundation Stage is the framework that everyone working with children from birth to the end of year R (in England) has to work to. By law, we must provide ‘equality of opportunity’ This means many things, but one part of it is to encourage children to play with whatever interests them. This approach of teaching from the child’s interest is the cornerstone of early years education today.
The framework outlines seven area of development for children in this age range:
- Personal Social and Emotional Development (PSED),
- Physical Development,
- Language development,
- Understanding the World,
- Expressive Arts and Design.
Let’s take a look at some different kinds of toys, how they help in these developmental areas, and why it’s vital that boys and girls are encouraged to take part in all kinds of play.
Bikes and other ride-on toys help develop strength in leg muscles, stamina and co-ordination. They develop balance, the concept of speed and space, and how to control our bodies. These are all physical elements. Some mathematical elements are also included, such as spatial awareness, and some Personal, Social and Emotional elements, including perseverance and self confidence.
Water play is great fun. It encourages exploration, cause and effect, and initial concepts of weight and volume. Children get more from water play if they play together, developing social skills and language and communication.
Kitchen and cookery toys help to develop imagination and language. They promote PSED elements of making relationships, as children play together, sharing, turn taking, and working together.
Children learn the mathematical concept of one to one correspondence, giving one cake to teacher, one to a friend and keeping one for themselves. They count and divide, and pretend that the banana is a phone, a simple beginning to symbolic representation.
Role play and dressing up
In the nursery, both boys and girls enjoy dressing up and using their imagination. They often replay things that have seen in their home life, on TV, problems they need to solve, or situations that are troubling them.
Younger children learn self-help skills, including getting the dressing up clothes on and off. Buttons, zips, Velcro and sleeves all offer challenges to young children, and this is the perfect opportunity for them to learn how to cope with them, without the pressure of having to do it for real, where time constraints often mean parents do these complicated things for them.
Older children improve social, planning and language skills, as they create a story with their friends.
If girls are offered only princess clothes to dress up in, they will only act as princesses. They will be limited in their imagination, not having the opportunity to problem-solve how to put out the fire as a fire fighter, or to bandage up a limb as a doctor.
Children naturally like to imitate the adults around them, especially their parents or primary carers. What could be more natural than a child pushing a buggy like Daddy, or rummaging through a bag like Mummy?
Jigsaws and puzzles
Jigsaws and puzzles are often aimed at girls, because of the assumption that it comes naturally to girls to sit still and enjoy this type of toy whilst boys “have” to move about. However, boys still need to learn fine motor skills, problem solving, the self-esteem gained from successfully completing a puzzle, and the enjoyment of working one to one with a parent or teacher.
In toy stores and advertising building and constructing seem to be marketed almost exclusively to boys, but in education settings we are careful to create an environment where everyone can benefit from the many learning areas promoted by these toys. Physical elements like fine motor skills, Expressive Arts and Design, skills of imagination, Mathematical skills of problem solving, as well as Language development are all covered when building .
Children build tall towers, make plans and decide how to carry them out, and try and re-try when things do not go according to plan. Why steer girls away from these opportunities? They enjoy these activities, and need to learn these skills too.
Small world toys
Let’s look at cars and other small world toys. Yes, as an early years practitioner, I group all ‘small world’ toys together, including cars, Playmobil, animals, dinosaurs, etc etc etc. From playing with these, children develop all areas of the curriculum. They use imagination, language, finding out about the world, and maths, when they discover that cars roll faster down the ramp if it is steeper, or sorting all the farm animals into one group and zoo animals in another.
Young children don’t make any distinction between these toys. There is no reason, in their eyes, why a Sylvanian family figure, an Action Man and a Barbie can’t sit in the car and drive really fast away from the scary dinosaurs.
‘The work of children’
As the psychologist Piaget said, ‘Play is the work of children’. Children learn so much through playing, it is vital to their development. We, as adults, and especially early years practitioners, need to ensure that all children get the opportunity to experience all different types of play, all different types of toys and all different types of situations, to allow them to grow into all different types of people, not pigeonholed into gender stereotypes.