Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Playful Perspectives: Age Appropriate Play

Playful Perspectives is our co-blog with Ty's Toybox. Today, we're taking on the issue of what's age appropriate. It's an important issue as we head into the summer, so read on. And be sure to read what Ty's Toy Box Mommy has to say. The link is at the end of this document.

Ah, little Throckmorton! Talking at 7 months, reading at just over a year, quoting Shakespeare at 18 months. So why is he playing with the box of of the Little Giant Cold Fusion Machine you bought him and not slicing atoms on the play room floor?

Probably because it wasn't appropriate for his age. Don't be mad at us for saying that!

Of course, we're being silly to make a point. However, if there's one thing we find that's consistent with parents around the nation, and the world for that matter, it's that for the most part they think their kids are the smartest who've ever been born. And, for all we know, they could be right.

But just because a child is a budding genius, that doesn't necessarily mean that at 3 or 4 he or she is going to be able to handle toys that are graded for kids 6 or 7. Why? Biology.

Kids develop at different speeds and different times. The child who walks early or talks early may not be more advanced than the child who talks a little later when it comes to things like fine motor coordination. That's why a lot of companies invest a lot of time and money doing research and studying child development to ensure that when they put an age grading on a package it's developmentally sound as well as graded for safety.

In recent years, we've found a lot of confusion among parents about this. And that's not surprising because there are two ways that companies put age grading on packages. The first, and most important for preschoolers, is for safety. Anything that has a small part has to be clearly marked that it is not for children under 3 years old. Moreover, parents should take care that in homes with multiple children that toys with small parts are never within reach of children under 3.

The second reason is based on ability to use the toy. Companies like Playskool, Fisher-Price, LeapFrog, VTECH and most others try to mark their packages very clearly to see what age a toy is best suited for. Here's a good idea: Listen to them. They've invested a ton of money in making sure all this stuff works and is satisfying for children, delivering a full play experience. Playskool has some helpful information about this on their web site.

Now, it's not that a child can't play with a toy that stretches him or her a little, but as with so many things, it's a good idea to take your cue from the child. We've seen children who were accomplished readers at a young age but whose physical abilities were not as developed as some of their peers. So, while they were reading well above their grade level, they might have had trouble and been frustrated by things with small pieces like models.

So why do kids play with the box? Well, especially with infants, it's because the toy appears too complex, and they can make the box work. When you watch a child playing with something--stacking rings for example--if their fine motor skills aren't developed sufficiently, they aren't going to be able to work the toy and will sit and chomp on the rings. Or they'll manipulate the flap of the box. That is actually a satisfying play experience at that age because the child is making something happen, observing the results and then doing it again. What may look like repetitive activity to an untrained adult is actually anything but. With each repetition, the child is learning and discovering something new. And, just like adults, when they stop learning something new, they'll stop being engaged. By that point they may be ready to pick up the toy.

Physical play is something that parents should be espeically watchful about. For example, children may all be in first grade, but depending on the cut off date for your school, there may be kids who have just turned 7 and some who are about to turn 8. There is a world of difference between these kids when it comes to things like Little League. Over and above natural ability, which will vary from child to child, there is the biological fact that children develop a lot in a year, and what was impossible at one point is suddenly possible not because the kid has learned but because he or she has grown into the ability.

The important thing is to watch your child and see what he or she is ready for. Allow them to naturally pick things up and always be supportive. A child who moves quickly and acquires skills will take the lead, and then you can provide all the help and materials you can. On the other hand, a child who becomes frustrated may give up on something and resist trying again.

We'll grant that your kid is special. (We'll grant that all kids are special.) Help him or her become even more so by making sure they're ready for the play experiences you offer. Learning mastery is one of the key elements of play and sets the stage for so many other accomplishments. Being supportive, rather than directive and taking the advice of people who do this for a living may serve you well in the long run...even if you still secretly think that Throckmorton could pilot the Space Shuttle at 5. (We'll wholeheartedly support you in thinking your kids are the best!)

That's what we're thinking on the topic. Check out the perpsective from Ty's Toy Box Mommy. And, hey, we'd always love to hear what you have to say on this, or any subject!