Pensacola, Fla. -- It’s every parent’s nightmare: not being able to cross off the must-have toy from their child’s Christmas list. Fortunately, the toys that kindle creativity and kick-start imagination are often overlooked and sitting on store shelves.
With local leaders such as the Studer Community Institute advocating to make Pensacola “America’s First Early Learning City,” Christmas shopping this year takes on newfound importance. Research has shown that how children spend their time through toys and entertainment can lay the groundwork for language development later in life.
Although toy trends come and go, there are tried and true toys that have stood the test of time, said Hanna Lambe, a pediatric speech therapist at The Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart. Sacred Heart Health System is part of Ascension, the nation's largest nonprofit health system.
“The reason toys like blocks, playdough and dolls are so good for play and learning is that they require a lot more thinking and creativity on the part of the child,” Lambe said. “High-tech gadgets may initially capture kids’ attention. But once they master it, they quickly look for a new challenge.”
Toys are valuable tools for social and cognitive development. All toys can be categorized as closed-ended or open-ended, Lambe said.
“Closed-ended toys have a specific ending product (like a puzzle), or there is only one way to use it (like a remote-controlled car),” she explained. “On the other hand, open-ended ones provide kids with more than one way to play with the toy, such as puppets, playdough or costumes.”
Both types of toys can be beneficial. For example, closed-ended toys are good for building attention and teaching task completion, while open-ended toys promote pretend play, expand language and encourage interaction with others. They also tend to facilitate more social play and spark creativity. During speech therapy sessions, Lambe utilizes closed- and open-ended toys to keep children engaged and encourage participation.
Lambe provides tips and suggestions to keep in mind when shopping for Christmas toys this year:
• Building blocks of the imagination -- Blocks have been a toy box staple since the 1800s. The items kids can create with blocks are endless. Playing with blocks not only builds fine motor skills, but also strengthens thinking and language skills. For older kids, there are construction sets that let them snap pieces together to create 3D geometric structures, like snowflakes or DNA.
• Get crafty -- Arts and crafts help develop a wide range of skills. Depending on the age level of the child, parents should consider coloring sets, jewelry-making kits or string art kits.
• Tap your inner child -- The best way to foster children’s development is for parents to be an active participant in their play. Parents can help their children discover new ways to use and experiment with their toys.
• Keep it simple -- Sometimes the best toys are the simplest ones. More often than not, little ones enjoy playing with the toy box more than the toy itself. Too many buttons or electronic parts shift children’s attention to button-pressing instead of using their imagination.
For the Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart, shopping for toys and games is an opportunity to promote language development, development, keep kids engaged and foster early learning. Sacred Heart is a major supporter of a pilot program to develop Pensacola into An Early Learning City -- a community that supports early brain development, parent engagement and school readiness for pre-school children. One component of the program is to provide parents of newborns with one-on-one education on best practices for speaking and engaging with babies in the first three years of life.
About Sacred Heart Health System
On the Gulf Coast, Ascension operates Sacred Heart Health System based in Pensacola, Fla. and Providence Health System based in Mobile, Ala. Together, these Ascension healthcare facilities have served Gulf Coast communities for more than 160 years and they employ more than 6,600 associates. Across the region, Ascension provided more than $113 million in community benefit and care of persons living in poverty in fiscal year 2016. Ascension is a faith-based healthcare organization committed to delivering compassionate, personalized care to all, with special attention to persons living in poverty and those most vulnerable. Ascension is the largest non-profit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system, operating 2,500 sites of care -- including 141 hospitals and more than 30 senior living facilities -- in 24 states and the District of Columbia. For more on Sacred Heart Health System, visit www.sacred-heart.org.