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Are toys good for kids?

This time of year, parents spend billions on toys and toy companiesspend millions advertising their latest toys and gadgets to kids.

This time of year, parents spend billions on toys and toy companies spend millions advertising their latest toys and gadgets to kids. With toy manufacturers selling so-called “educational” toys — this year top sellers include junior tablets — what’s really best for kids?

“The marketplace has been doing a marvellous job of telling parents that unless you buy the right toys for your children — that is to say, the toys they manufacture — they will be stunted intellectually. It leads parents to buy toys that really aren’t ideal,” says Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, psychology professor at the University of Delaware and author of A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool and Einstein Never Used Flash Cards.

“People in my job have done a lousy job of educating the public about what matters in child development. A lot of parents are buying, for example, expensive electronic toys that have really questionable benefits.”

Research shows that kids learn from play, not toys. Parents should be wary of toys marketed as educational — in fact shockingly few toys of any type are developed in consultation with child psychologists.

“Everything is educational, but what are kids actually learning?” says Dr. Susan Linn, psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

“Children learn the most from hands-on creative play and from interacting with adults who care about them, so parents should approach toys that claim to be educational with healthy cynicism,” says the academic who led CCFC’s victorious campaign against Baby Einstein’s unsubstantiated claims that babies learn from its DVDs.

“They should ask themselves: Is this toy encouraging my child to be creative? Does it require my child to actively do things? Can it be used in more than one way? Toys that talk, sing or dance at the push of a button are pretty useless for kids.”

“The kind of toys kids need are 90 per cent kid and 10 per cent toy, not where the toy determines what you do,” says Golinkoff. “That’s why children are more fascinated by the box the toy comes in than the toy, because the box has a million possibilities and the toy has one.”

Children learn most from toys that offer multiple possibilities and allow kids to express their creativity including art and craft projects, puzzles and games, dress-up outfits, role-play toys and building blocks.

This holiday, place a large appliance box in the middle of your living room, suggests Golinkoff.

“Parents will be shocked by how much their children age seven or under will love that box because it frees up their imagination — it can be a boat, spaceship or house, and they can colour it, cut bits out, paste things on it. Kids love this.

“Parents feel like if they don’t buy expensive toys with batteries that they’re failing their children but it’s the exact opposite. You want the kid to be in charge and not the toy.”