Everyone has heard the story: A child gets a fantastic, new, expensive, whiz-bang toy Christmas morning - and then spends hours playing with the box it came in.
Misty Roberts (left) and Tammy Jones and her grandson Tyler Justice, 14 months, shop for toys at Kmart at the West Towne shopping center in Martinez. Children Tyler's age are more likely to play with a colorful box than they are the toy inside it.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
While it might be disconcerting to gift-givers that their present is trumped by a cardboard box, experts say such play is actually healthy and constructive.
"It is normal for kids to be interested in the boxes," says Dr. Laura Hand, an assistant professor of psychology at Augusta State University. "Many toy boxes have lots of bright pictures and patterns designed to capture children's attention. Also, boxes can pull for all kinds of constructive play."
Hand says small boxes are light enough for infants and toddlers to pick up or move around, and children of that age might enjoy taking things in and out of boxes.
"These are all good activities for motor development and building hand-eye coordination," she said. "For older children, boxes can foster lots of imaginative play, serving as accessories for the toys - for example, a garage or service station for new toy cars, or a table at which new dolls can have a tea party. Larger boxes can be fun to hide in, and they are great for building forts and puppet theaters."
But when you're looking for that perfect gift, without giving thought to the box, which toys provide the most constructive play?
Martinez resident Henrietta Holmes, a former licensed day-care provider who now babysits her grandchildren, says she has found that the Magna Doodle is always a favorite, as is the Fisher Price Little People School Bus.
"They love that and don't want to put it down," she said. "The bigger kids like the basketball goal and the mushroom slide. And, of course, they all love the swings."
Hand says a good rule of thumb is to follow age guidelines on the toy packages.
"In general, play serves a number of important functions: it fosters the development of language, motor skills, creativity, problem solving and social skills," she said.
"Toddlers are undergoing rapid language development, so activities that encourage them to make up and act out stories are constructive. These might include playing with cars and trucks, dolls or stuffed animals, and looking through picture books with adults who ask them to point out certain objects or to tell about what is happening in the pictures.''
Hand says small blocks and balls and complex puzzles are good for older children.
In addition to pretend play, such as with cars, dolls and dress-up clothes, age-appropriate board games can help build social skills and mastery of colors, letters, numbers and other concepts that preschoolers need to be ready for school.
"Continuing social development, as well as creativity and mastery, are important for school-age children," she added. "Examples of constructive play for them are activities like building and making things, sports and games that encourage problem-solving and reinforce information they are learning in school.
"For adolescents, 'play' becomes more focused on identity development - figuring out who you are - and close peer relationships."
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