Play it forward

Toys can stimulate a child's development says author and child development expert Meg Faure

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Many people think toys are just for fun, but how can they play a role in encouraging your child's development?
Toys should be fun and ignite a child’s creativity and imagination. But more than that, toys are tools that play an important role in stimulating aspects of a child’s development - fine motor, gross motor or language etc. When a child is fully engaged with a toy, it can increase their concentration span and planning skills. Toys and in particular books can be used to encourage language development. Many toys are designed with specific skills in mind - a block trolley can be used to facilitate walking in a one year old. Balls are great for eye-foot coordination and for visual skills and motor planning.
From what age do toys actually become useful as a development tool?
Right from the first three months, toys can be useful. Take a rattle for example – the simplest of toys shaken near a newborn will encourage listening, identifying where the sound comes from and then visual skills as the little baby looks for the rattle and then follows it with his/her eyes.
What are the most important toys for babies to have access to in order to improve their fine and gross motor skills?
The more simple a toy is, the better. For fine motor skills, rattles encourage grasp and release. Balls encourage your baby to use two hands together in a coordinated fashion. Boxes are fabulous toys for packing and unpacking and teach a baby spatial awareness. Books are also a simple way to enhance language skills. Some switch toys can be useful to learn cause and effect, for instance - "if I push this button, it will do this."
What advice do you have for parents when it comes to maximising play time? 
Make time to play with your little one - switch off your devices and get onto the floor with him/her. Use language in all activities - its the best way to enhance verbal intelligence.
As your child gets older, what toys/games will encourage cerebral development such as memory and even language skills?
For the older child, books continue to hold value for language skills. Memory games like Kim’s game are excellent for cognitive skills - put out a few objects or toys and then remove one and see if your child can recall the objects and tell you which one is missing. Visual perceptual skills like figure ground and spatial awareness are enhanced through puzzles. Counting games and naming colours and shapes are important to teach little ones basic concepts.   
What everyday objects can parents make use of in lieu of expensive toys? 
I much prefer everyday objects as they allow for more creativity. By far the best toy is a large, empty appliance box - your little one can crawl in and out and play house-house. Pots and spoons are fabulous ‘musical instruments’ for little ones. Packing and unpacking a Tupperware cupboard creates hours of entertainment.
Research shows boys and girls develop and think differently – should parents approach play differently with a boy and a girl, using different toys?
I do not think boys and girls need different toys. I think exposure to all activities is important. They will develop differently and may gravitate towards different interests but I think this is more based on exposure and what they see mom or dad do than actual innate preference.
A challenge for parents is deciding when – and if – to introduce screen time. At what age should screen time be introduced and how can parents make use of technology to assist with development?
Research has shown that screen time actually hinders learning and the time spent in front of a screen inhibits language development in children under the age of two. For this reason, the American Association of Paediatrics recommends no screen time for little ones. While this may seem unrealistic, I do recommend that babies and toddlers should not watch TV. If you do put the TV on or use a screens to occupy your little one, make sure you sit with them and use the opportunity to interact. This is the only way there can be any benefit from the experience. Meg Faure, OT, co-author or Baby Sense and founder of Play Sense, a new playgroup solution for 2 to 3 year olds.

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