Play is one of the most important and useful aspects of early education. It allows children the chance to develop in a multitude of ways, and to experiment with the concepts of roleplay and growing-up. Toys in early education thus become the tools that children employ to facilitate this process.

Types of educational toys

Toys in early education take on various forms. They can be specifically targeted at early education, and purchased for the specific purpose of ‘being a toy’, or they can be random household items like pots, pans or socks that are then transformed into play-items in the imagination of the infant. Indeed, as long as an object does not pose any threat to a child’s physical safety, it can be used as a toy.

There are four main groups into which toys in early educational environments fall, depending on what skills the particular group of toys develops. It is important to recognise that toys fit into more than one of these categories, and that each group is pivotal for development.

Firstly, there are toys that foster physical growth and strengthening, such as brooms, mops, spades, puzzles, buckets, wagons and bikes. The second group focuses on promoting the development of the five senses. Examples of these types of toys include bubbles, playdough, plasticine, musical toys, and sand or water toys. Another group of toys develops social skills and the imagination. Dolls, board books, dress-up clothes and accessories, cars, trucks and games make up this group. Lastly, there are toys that promote creative and intellectual capabilities, for example crayons, paints, paper, clay, stencils and stamps.

Why are toys important?

In order to learn, understand and to situate themselves within the world, infants require actual lived experiences. Toys in early education provide such experiences, and illustrate how the world works.

One example of how toys in early education function is in the theory of gravity. Children discover through the use of their toys that objects will fall to the ground. A child may inadvertently drop a toy and observe that it falls on the ground. He or she will then repeat the process to see the same thing happen again. Through this recurrent activity, the child learns that gravity exists. This is how actual experience with toys teaches children about the surrounding world.

Developing self-confidence with toys and play

Toys in early education also help children to develop self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth. As infants learn how to use their toys (for example when they complete a puzzle or successfully blow a bubble), they become more in control and more capable. This sense of accomplishment is important – parents, teachers and caregivers should take care to acknowledge these milestones in order to bolster their self-concepts. Indeed, the way in which a child learns to see him or herself at this age will have a large impact on how he or she views him or herself for life.

Playing with toys in early education environments also encourages friendships to develop, especially when a toy or play-situation requires more than one child to master it. Other advantages of toys in early education include allowing children to express feelings and to release energy.