(from Fat Brain Toysby Kristen Stehli) Many of us as parents and grandparents have heard the message of how junk food is ruining our children. We watch what we feed our children and do our best to buy organic or healthy foods. But Kristen from Caution Twins at Play explains her experiences with junk toys – and how they can have a damaging effect on children. Check out her site for great reviews and parental advice.

Parents often worry about their kids eating junk food. Whether it’s too many carbs, sugar, whole milk vs. non-dairy, or processed foods, are all legitimate concerns. But what about putting junk in your child’s playtime and mind with bad toys? There is such a thing as junk toys, just as there is junk food.

If you don’t want your children eating junk food, why would you want them to play with junk toys? Maybe we don’t realize the effects that junk toys are having on your children, or even yourself!

I am constantly hearing Moms complaining about their kids’ toys running all over the place, and how they can never keep their children or their toys in order. I also hear a lot of moms complain that their children can not keep busy for very long during play, or do not want to play with their toys very much at all.

Maybe it’s time to take a closer look at what kind of toys children are playing with.

When kids have mostly all “wow factor” toys and not enough open-ended toys, it creates big messes in their play space. Why? Because the child is getting frustrated and bored, maybe even annoyed with their toys. When a child feels that their toys cannot help them play creatively and explore their imagination, they seem to go endlessly searching through their toy boxes to find that right combination of exciting toys. Before you and the child know it the room is in complete disarray.

By the time you ask them to clean up the toys, it is the last thing they want to do or can even handle. They are in over their heads with the amount of toys that they spread all over the room in search of something fun to play with, so how could they even know where to start? You direct them to clean one thing up at a time, and it looks to them like they are stranded on a tiny island in a sea of toys during high tide!

As a Mom of five, I have had a lot of experience with toys of different types. With my older three children, I just stuck to the standard hot toys. You know, the “wow factor” blinky and noisy toys. What I mean by blinky and noisy toys are toys that have both flashing lights and sounds and/or music. You know, the toys that bleep, blip, woo-woo, screech, sizzle, squeal, siren, talk, dance, flip, flop, hip-hop, cry, whine, blink, flash, etc. I learned that those toys have a tendency to bore and sometimes even over-stimulate children. They seem so exciting at first with all of their noises, music, and flashing lights. However, in the long run, they aggravate the parents and over stimulate the children far too often. When kids have mostly all “wow factor” toys, the excitement wears off quite quickly.

It’s kind of like when your child spots something that looks exciting and yummy in the grocery store. They beg for it, and you give in. Then you arrive home, they try it, and it was not really that great after all. They end up not wanting to finish it, or even have any more of it later. Think about that next time your child sees a “wow factor” toy on a t.v. commercial. Don’t worry; every parent has been through this with their child.

Parents often don’t even realize that they are even over stimulated by their children’s’ toys. If you find yourself saying “play with a different toy”, “turn that toy off”, or “go play with that in a different room,” most likely, the toys are now even over stimulating you as well.

If your children are aggravating you, more often than not it is because they are over stimulated and taking you down that path with them. Children need toys that are open-ended and allow for lots of imaginative play. Loud toys with flashing lights do not have much room for imagination and are definitely not open-ended. Having open-ended toys allows children to create, explore, and imagine. The ability to create, explore, and imagine will help a child to thrive on many different levels. Children who are given open-ended toys are usually very creative and eager learners.

Some great examples of open ended toys are Magnatiles, Lincoln Logs, blocks, any kinds of building and construction toys, plus unique toys with educational value, or any sort of toy that can have several purposes; like Bilibo or Squigz. Loose parts are also open-ended. Great examples of loose parts are little animals and people, sticks, blocks of various sizes, decorative plant gems, marbles, craft pom-poms, chenille craft stems(aka pipe cleaners), pony beads or other types of beads, acorns, leaves and flowers(real or silk), reusable ice cubes, plastic spoons and forks, plastic or wooden bowls, plates, and cups. Pretty much anything you can come up with that is safe and non-toxic will work nicely. You can judge by the age of your child to determine what loose parts work best.

Open-ended toys are toys that don’t have only one specific use, don’t play for the child by themselves, and are usually not very age specific. They are toys that grow with the child and can be re-purposed into different ways of playing, as the child grows older. Basically, they will have endless uses and can be incorporated into many ways of playing. Creative, imaginative play with open-ended toys can be very calming for a child. It helps them to be really engaged in their play. Play is the most important work a child can do. Play paves the way to a child’s future as a successful adult.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that no kid should ever have any toy that is not open-ended. I am simply saying, be sure to have a good balance of more open-ended imaginative toys and loose parts. That way, your child has lots of options that allow for a lot of creativity and do not cause over-stimulation.

Over-stimulation generally always leads to undesirable behavior in children. Undesirable behavior in children, generally always leads to frustrated and overwhelmed parents. There has to be a balance in the type of toys and materials that children are given to play with.

My advice is to take some time to seek out some fun, open ended, creative toys.
You may see a lot of changes in the way your child plays, thinks, and behaves.

Plus, be sure to create a good play space with a “home” for every set of toys. That way when your children want to play, they can choose creatively and have an easier time cleaning up when playtime is over. Offering shelves with boxes on them is a great way to help your kids keep everything neat tidy, and clean up more easily. You can even label the fronts of boxes with a small printed photo of what toys go into each box. Then, there is no question on what toy goes where when it is time to clean up!