In the past five years or so, holiday toy trends have consistently put forth electronic toys as the “go-to” gifts for kids. We’ve seen everything from Furby to relaunches of the Nintendo Classic systems. This year, trends are evolving, and children are asking for toys that promote tangible learning of social and emotional intelligence skills. From jaunty puppets and colorful finger paints to Emotion Stones and more, here’s a guide to choosing holiday toys that benefit your child’s emotional well-being.
Exploring Social Situations
Playing pretend is one of the biggest ways that preschoolers learn to explore social situations and navigate their social development. Toys from brands like Antsy Pants put your child in a pretend version of a real-world situation so he can interact with his peers, while puppets like the Farm Friends from Melissa & Doug give children the opportunity to act out real-world experiences from another perspective.
Social interaction is an important skill for children of all ages to continue learning and developing, but it’s most important for young children who are beginning to interact with their peers for the first time. Children can act out interactions on their own, or they can share their social playthings with other kids of their own age.
Make it easy for your preschooler, kindergartener, or grade schooler to break the ice by giving her toys that promote socialization, such as:
- Teach My Baby Learning Kit (0-3 years) for teaching very early social development to infants and toddlers.
- Antsy Pants Market Checkout Stand for children who want to learn about different roles in the adult world (4-8 years). Kids can take turns playing the roles of the market cashier, the customer, or even the farmer.
- Learning Resources Conversation Cubes for children who are old enough to read (6-10 years): kids roll a cube, and start a conversation based on the topic that lands face-up.
Creative expression is an important part of emotional development, and it can be a valuable outlet for children who are learning to express their emotions in a healthy way. Show your child that instead of throwing a tantrum or bottling up her emotions, she can whip out her gear building set and put together a sky-high tower with moving parts, or pull out the easel and show what her emotions look like on paper.
Some great toys for little ones who are learning to express themselves include:
- Djeco Finger Painting Kit, featuring safe water-based paints for the littlest artists (2-5 years).
- Melissa & Doug Easel Companion Set for learning tangible expression through water-based paints and chalks (3-8 years).
- Learning Resources Gears! Gears! Gears! for the budding STEM enthusiast who loves to build things and knock them over again (3-8 years).
- Mindware Chaos Tower for growing architects who are interested in experiencing physics and kinetics firsthand (8-12 years)
It’s common for parents to be wary of too much screen time, but don’t fret too much. The right tablet game can actually help your child’s emotional development in measured doses. Kids can learn empathy and self-regulation through carefully-chosen mobile games.
Choose mobile games that teach a specific skill, or further a specific educational goal, rather than games that are meant to entertain and substitute as a babysitter. Colorful graphics capture your child’s attention, while well-thought-out game mechanics keep her playing to explore every aspect of emotional development. As your child grows older, you can give her games that offer more creative control and less direction, such as “sandbox” type games that give your child tools and ask her to set her own goals.
Some great choices include:
- Any game by Toca Boca: favorite titles include Toca Kitchen, Toca Store, or Toca Lab, all of which simulate social interaction, creative play, and life skills to help teach your child self-regulation and more (3-10 years)
- Habitat, a game where the child adopts a polar bear and meets its needs by giving it regular care, as well as listening to its needs and practicing problem-solving skills (4-8 years)
- Pixie, an app that lets your child put together her own self-interest projects using virtual stickers, text, interactive elements, and even her own voice; the ultimate in self-expression for youngsters. (8-12 years)
Emotional exploration is a must for children of all ages, and children can easily practice this skill at their own pace through creative play. Choose toys that prompt your child to think about emotional experiences of their own, or that can help your child learn to empathize with other people’s’ feelings and experiences.
Around age three or four is a great time to start introducing emotional exploration into playtime, but older kids can benefit, as well. With smaller kids, highly visual toys (such as dolls or figures with expressive faces) are the best way to go, since they can relate to expressive faces easily and may not have fully developed abstract concepts of emotion yet. Older kids do better with discussion-based toys and games that help them explore concepts they’ve already grasped to some extent.
Some great choices include:
- Emotion Stones give children an outlet for exploring emotional situations, with their expressive hand-painted faces in every emotion from happiness to embarrassment. (3-6 years)
- Make a Mood Magnetic Activity Kit features soft foam magnets in a variety of facial types and expressions so your child can recreate his own emotions in a way he can personally identify with. (4-8 years)
- The Talking, Feeling, & Doing Game encourages older kids to talk through their emotions in hypothetical situations, and is perfect for playing with siblings, peers, or even teachers and parents. (8-12 years)
Believe it or not, toys are a vital part of your child’s emotional and social development. Choosing to surround him with the right toys can help him get off to the right start in life. It’s best to choose a mix of toys that focus on different aspects of development, so that your child has a well-rounded collection of learning tools: don’t neglect creativity just because you have social play and emotional exploration covered, for instance. This holiday season, give your child the gift of social and emotional learning. Even if you have an older child or a preteen, it’s never too late to start.