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Like many moms these days, I’m either buying toys for my tot to nurture his development, or looking into which ones I should get next. It’s hard not to hyper-focus on the best kinds, given the vast amount of smart toys out there and the emphasis society places on timely child development.
It’s ridiculous that I’m gathering any new toys at all for Ben, who at 17 months old has his firm favorites. They include: the bread drawer, which he enjoys opening and closing (and opening and closing and opening and …); a slice of bread (“wow wow wow, you can rip one slice into a bazillion pieces!”); the kitchen cabinet that holds water bottles; the bagged comforter lying on the floor of our bedroom (that he climbs over); the TV remote control; door hinges (eep!); the cabinet’s childproof latches (oh, the irony!); and socks — he likes to hold one in each hand and do laps around our first floor, occasionally nibbling on one.
I’ve joked with my husband that our child’s favorite toys are not ones that will make him president of the United States. [Insert your own sarcastic comment about that.] But as was recently revealed to me, I need to quit obsessing about actual toys and let him have at the bread drawer because it’s actually a good thing.
There’s a lot of pressure on parents these days to stay on top of proper child development. We have websites, newsletters, apps, and many, many articles and books to track our children’s every move and milestone. And then there’s the old “Is he ___ing yet?” — the traditional currency of mom conversation.
Of course, it’s good to be in the know about milestones, and to watch out for signs of delays. But sometimes it gets to be too much. I attend weekly music classes with Ben, where the teacher is quick to point out which skills are being learned. She’s feeding parents what she expects they want to hear because God forbid children should just be there to enjoy themselves.
I definitely stress more than I should about development. My oldest child had serious delays and as a result, I know far too much about what kids should be doing and when — hence, my obsession with progress-focused playthings. For perspective, I reached out to child development and behavior expert Betsy Brown Braun, and author of You’re Not the Boss of Me.
“In these days of competitive parenting, which has practically become a sport, parents want to make sure their children have every advantage,” she notes. “But it’s not the toys or classes that put the child in the position of growing well and happily. It is parents who spend time with their kids, paying attention to them and providing what interests and excites them — just not too much of it.”
Braun went on to describe kids these days as “living in mini Toys ‘R’ Us stores,” which can undermine their use of toys and creativity. “Children who own less figure out what more to do with it. Over-abundance breeds inattention and lack of focus. It’s kind of like an inability to see an individual tree in a thick forest,” she says.
So, there: official permission to stop worrying about which toys to get for my boy. Still, I wanted to know if and how the bread drawer could be good for him, and Braun had lots to say on that.
“Children strive to do what their parents do — they are working on growing up,” she explains. “The most popular center in a nursery school is inevitably the housekeeping corner where children can bake and cook, set the table, and iron the clothes. Their play copies what the adults do at home.”
Braun listed several notable benefits of playing with objects that are not actual toys (assuming they’re safe for your child):
They boost children’s confidence and sense of independence.
Unlike toys that shake and rattle and ding and buzz, the bread drawer or a pair of socks have no definitive “right” ways to be used. “Engaging with objects makes a child feel big and powerful, and feeds his sense of self-reliance,” says Braun. “He’s doing his thing, without parental direction or instruction. What a satisfying feeling!”
They work kids’ gross motor skills.
“A child’s large muscles are put into use when lifting heavier objects out of drawers, climbing into the cabinet under the sink, or just crawling over a mound of pillows,” says Braun.
They work their fine motor skills, too.
Small muscles can be developed in so many ways, adds Braun: “Take the kitchen, where a child can open and close containers, fit tops onto bowls, and fit one bowl into each other — just like nesting cups they sell.”
They help tots explore object permanence.
That’s expert-speak for the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they can’t be seen, heard, touched, or otherwise sensed. It’s why babies get such a kick out of peek-a-boo, along with opening and closing cabinets — not to mention, the satisfying “whoosh!” or “whack!” they make when closed.
Plus, so much more!
“A child’s imaginative play is expanded when he explores objects in his own way,” says Braun. “He can work on language development as he narrates what he’s doing or includes another tot in play; his frustration tolerance when, say, a kitchen utensil doesn’t fit or work to his expectation; and his resourcefulness as he learns to use one item for an unintended purpose — like the plastic measuring cup as a drinking cup.”
Our bread drawer is sturdy and has so far withstood Ben’s fascination with it. Now that I’ve been reassured about its validity, I’m cool with letting him open and shut the heck out of it. (It has a slow close so his fingers can’t get caught.) Really, this is the secret to parenthood in general, isn’t it? Relax. Let go. Think outside the (toy) box. Our children will turn out OK.