Before I had children, my relationship with animals was pretty basic. Some I ate, some I petted, and some (New York City subway rats) I ran from in terror.
Nowadays, I’m surrounded by animals all the time — albeit, fake ones. There are the stuffed animals spilling out of the kids’ toy chest, the electronic animal toys piled in the corner of the family room, and the animal picture books crowding the shelf in the nursery. If it moos, neighs, chirps, or ribbits, chances are I’ve got several tchotchkes paying homage to it somewhere in my house.
If you have young children, I’m willing to bet you’re in the same ark.
Here’s the thing: Unless they’re living on farms, children today don’t have much contact with live animals. Sure, there are family pets and occasional trips to the zoo and…?
So if real farm animals and real wild animals play such a minor role in children’s lives, why are so many toys, songs, books and educational materials dedicated to them? Don’t children learn best when they’re presented with familiar concepts? My suburban children don’t see many cows, but they sure do see a heck of a lot of cars — why don’t we ever sing “Old MacDonald had a Honda?”
I looked to child development experts to set me straight in regard to my Old MacCynicism … and they did.
The fact of the matter is that many animal songs and books “were written at a time when children had much greater exposure to animals around them,” Dr. Ingrid Crowther, an education consultant, told me.
But animals still appeal to modern kids, including babies, for a number of reasons, she said. For one thing, when children do see animals — such as your neighbor’s dog or the bird in your backyard tree — they notice that “they move in unique ways and they make neat sounds that can be repeated.”
“Children’s natural curiosity will focus on these animals and adults usually explain what children see,” she said.
When animals are replicated in toys, she added, those toys “automatically attract the senses” through soft textures, sounds and vivid colors. Babies, in particular, are attracted to faces and not just human ones — large stuffed toys with large shiny eyes can prove appealing too.
But it’s not just about satisfying kids’ curiosity and aesthetic appetites — animals sounds can help children develop speech and language skills.
“The secret behind animal sounds is simple: most animal sounds are easy for kids to make. Combine that with the fact that young children are often fascinated by animals and you’ve got an easy way into helping children produce some of their first ‘words,'” pediatric speech-language therapist Becca Jarzynski wrote on her blog.
Animal songs, in particular, are a great way for kids to learn animal sounds, said Dr. Fran Walfish, a child psychologist.
“Kids love singing songs with animals sounds [and] these animal songs utilize sounds necessary in building good articulation skills,” she told me.
In other words, I really need to get used to rocking out to “Old MacDonald” — the original version.
I’ll spare you audio clips of myself and my offspring “mooing” and “quacking” our little hearts out, but I will share — in no particular order — my kids’ favorite animal toys.
What are yours?
Our 5 Favorite Animal Toys 1 of 6
If your home is going the way of a zoo, these will make lovely additions to your growing menagerie...
LeapFrog Fridge Farm Magnetic Animal Set 2 of 6
So Scrunchy Face isn't quite sophisticated enough to figure out how to match different halves of animals together on the magnetic barn (I do it for him), but he does love pressing the little chick button at the top to hear music and animal sounds, while I get perverse pleasure in (mis)matching a pig's head to a horse's rear. Don't judge me.
Fisher-Price Laugh and Learn Jumperoo 3 of 6
Both Saucer Eyes and Scrunchy Face have enjoyed countless hours of fun bouncing on their little legs in this happy contraption. Really, all the farm animals toys attached to it and the animal sounds it makes are just gravy.
Fisher-Price Laugh and Learn Apptivity Monkey 4 of 6
This monkey talks and sings, though I have yet to hear it make an actual animal sound. But how do you say no to a cute purple monkey? You. Don't. Apparently it works even better when paired with a Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Learning Letter Monkey App (that you download to your iPhone and attach to the monkey) but we haven't gotten that far yet...
Melissa & Doug Fold and Go Mini Barn 5 of 6
So Scrunchy Face is actually way younger than the recommended minimum age for this toy and I never let him play with it unless I'm literally on the floor next to him, making sure he's not poking himself with the hooves of a miniature horse or the horns of a miniature goat. It's really his big brother's toy, but I think he enjoys it when I make animal sounds to match whichever figurine catches his fancy. Admittedly, I have yet to perfect my angry goat yell but that's what practice is for, right? (Be grateful you don't live next door to me.)
Under the Sea, 1 2 3 6 of 6
Lest you think we're a bunch of land lubbers, check out this neat board book and block set all about underwater creatures. Scrunchy Face loves playing with the lightweight blocks and, once he's older, I can't wait to help him put the blocks together like puzzle pieces to form various colorful pictures of whales, crabs and more. The board book is lovely too, but I happen to have misplaced it at the moment...It's probably buried somewhere under the 65 other animal toys we own.
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