During the early days of my career as a visiting teacher, I began to build my collection of toys from specialised catalogues. I was sure that I needed lots of these toys for my students with special needs. I really enjoyed browsing catalogues full of beautiful coloured educational and wooden toys with no tv characters on them!
When my sister had her first child, I always bought presents that were either educational toys or books. I left it to other family and friends to buy princess costumes and little ponies, which she loved, but that couldn’t possibly come from her educator Auntie!
When my own son Sebastian was born, of course, I made sure that I had the most stimulating toys for babies. When he was diagnosed with autism, another few boxes were ordered from those specialised catalogues, to make sure that I was able to cover every area of his development.
Looking back, I see that our early play sessions were actually teaching sessions, and I remember feeling frustrated that he wouldn’t play by himself with the toys. I felt like I had to sit in the playroom with him for long periods – otherwise, he wouldn’t “learn”.
As time passed, Sebastian began to watch tv – I sometimes bought kids magazines that featured his favourite characters, first, it was Peppa Pig, then he moved on to the Ninja Turtles. During our shopping trips (my local supermarket has a toy section at the entrance, which makes shopping with kids impossible!) he started noticing other toys. Figurines from cartoons, plushies, slime, Mr Strong, you name it. All of the toys that I had avoided!
Gradually these little toys and figurines made their way into his playroom. I still remember the first time I went into his playroom and it was a total mess, hurray! This was the first time he had been rooting through the boxes and was playing by himself!
Initially, he used to replicate parts of tv episodes with his little characters. But in time, he imagined and created new stories, which really helped his language and conversation skills to develop.
Sensory toys were a real favourite of his, Mr Strong Arms, a lava lamp, and any toy that made music and sounds. His way of exploring and playing was unique and not typical, but he was there exploring, playing, chatting, and interested in his own way.
One day, Sebastian had a “bring a toy to school day” in his preschool (an autism-specific preschool). Sebastian’s favourite toy at the time was a Minion figure that you could feed and then press his tummy and he would make rude noises. It was his choice, so I let him take it. When we arrived, he took it out of his bag and put it on the table and started playing with it. The other children in the class quickly surrounded him and they all began to laugh and they took turns pressing his tummy to hear the rude noises. This was a rare sight in that class, all six kids together interacting and laughing. It was such a special moment!
It was this experience that led me to review my concept of educational toys. In the past, I believed that some toys were educational and good for child development, and other toys were just commercial and had no benefit. These days, I decide if a toy is educationally based on whether the toy is of interest to the child if the child will want to play with it, if it makes them smile, have fun and interact with other children. So instead of the toy being educational, I focus on the interest that the toy creates for a child – this is what determines if it is educational or not.
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