We’ve all been there. We present our kids with some exciting new toy and sit watching keenly as they rip away the paper, only for them to end up spending the day playing with the box. It’s disheartening, walking past their brand new Musical Whizz-a-Majig as it lies untouched on the floor. I firmly believe in the benefits of simple action figures and dolls in child development: there’s social and educational value in giving voices to characters and unfolding a drama between them. In fact, a 2011 study by Elena Smirnova[1] found that the more interactivity that is built into a toy, the less scope there is for children to play with it creatively. Self-expression and storyline play are lost. Think of them like a movie trailers that give away too much of the plot.

Going Toy-less

The idea of encouraging toy-less play is not new. Twenty years ago, nurseries in Germany experimented with a project called Der Spielzeugfreie Kindergarten (‘the nursery without toys’). Confusion and boredom among the children quickly turned into imaginative play. The children began spontaneous construction projects, and even brought in materials from home to help complete them. The moral of the tale is a simple one: children don’t need toys to play. In Europe, educational approaches such as Waldorf and Montessori schools devote time to uninterrupted imaginary play and allow children the freedom to choose and explore activities in a carefully constructed environment free from the prescriptive appeal of toys.

Curiosity grows according to what it feeds on. The late educationalist John Holt believed that keeping a child’s curiosity well fed didn’t mean prescribing what or how to feed it. In his landmark book, How Children Learn, he argued for simply putting within a child’s reach the widest, most diverse array of good foods. Holt argued passionately that children love the world – that’s why they’re so good at learning about it. We should let them learn and grow through that love.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should abandon toys entirely. Many toys for young children offer great developmental benefits and help the child to explore and interact with the world on their own terms. But the majority of toys for babies and toddlers are made to be played with in a very specific way. As a toddler, my son had a shape-sorter toy. It was brilliant – it lit up and played music to reward your efforts. I think I got more out of it than he did. But that toy, for all its bells and whistles, had only one use. It couldn’t be repurposed, besides wedging other random toys and household objects into the holes! Growing up, my wife and I had very different experiences with Lego. I would follow the same pattern each time: open the thing, read how to make the thing, make the thing, play with the thing. In my wife’s home, there was just a big tub of Lego bricks from which anything could be made. No rules, no restrictions.

Babies

Your baby is a born learner. She doesn’t need expensive toys. Just give her the time and space to explore the world around her. She is innately curious. What is she doing when she’s in her bassinet or Moses basket? What is there to stimulate her in her cot or the change station? Find ways to keep those little hands and minds busy while you attend to business! I would often give my little boy one of his socks to play with while I was changing him. It sounds ludicrous, but he could pull it and stretch it and wave it around, and he found having it draped over his face absolutely hysterical!

Think about her environment. Make it interesting. That doesn’t mean turning the nursery into a circus and bombarding her with round-the-clock stimuli. Use splashes of contrasting primary colours. Babies are interested in human faces, so have family portraits on display. Keep her crib in the centre of the room - rather than up against a wall - so she has a 360-degree view of the world around her.

Toddlers

They’re never too young to be around books, so make their books visible. The glorious artwork is on the front cover, so why store their books sideways on? By shelving their books facing forwards, your child will be able to see those lovely illustrations at all times. Their books will be more appealing and more accessible.

During the UAE’s hotter months, the prospect of venturing out is deeply unappealing. As toddlers become more independent, it can sometimes feel hard to provide the stimulation they need. But you don’t need to be outdoors to explore the world. Learn to stop worrying whether you’re ticking all those sensory boxes. She doesn’t need constant input from her senses of touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight and hearing. Allow her to explore. Provide an eclectic mixture of objects for her to handle. Think what’s in your vegetable drawer: ginger, baby carrots, tomatoes, coconuts. So many different shapes, weights and textures!

Let her handle the things she finds interesting. Be mindful of any risks and keep anything harmful out of reach. It’s easy to panic when a toddler gets hold of something like a piece of bubble wrap. Any choke hazard is a worry. But think about the sensory experiences she can get from it. A simple tactile object that folds and twists and pops!

Ultimately, it is a child’s internal desire to learn, rather than the pressure we put on them, that will motivate them to pursue new experiences. As Yi-Fu Tuan[2] wrote, children “show a natural curiosity about the world, but this curiosity is easily repressed when adults fail to nurture it.” So, don’t underestimate the power of that box. To you or me, it’s just a box. But for the child sitting in it, that box is an aeroplane or a freight train or a bobsleigh or a pirate ship. That box is a clean slate for creativity, and it doesn’t even matter if they sit on it or rip it!

[1] Smirnova, E. O. (2011) Character toys as psychological tools. International Journal of Early Years Education, 19:35–43.

[2] Tuan, Y. (1978) Children and the Natural Environment. In ltman, I. & Wohlwill, J. F. (Eds) Children and the Environment. Human Behavior and Environment (Advances in Theory and Research). Boston, MA: Springer.