How Can Toys Help Childhood Emotional Development?
With increasing reports of antisocial behaviour and children with mental health issues, Dr. Gummer believes it’s high time we looked at toys that help childhood emotional development.
Research going back over half a century shows the need that young children have for comfort and emotional security. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, emotional needs such as comfort, love and attachment are vital for children’s development as without them, children will not be able to develop their self-esteem, sense of identity and independence.
A loving environment with emotionally available care-givers and mutually rewarding relationships is the best thing a child can have, but there are other things that support a child’s emotional development too.
Teddies are a popular first toy for babies and the fact that they are so familiar to a child by the time she/he is old enough to have worries makes gives them huge amounts of emotional significance. Many adults remember particular teddies with affection because of their importance to their own childhood.
Smell is strongly linked to emotional memory and teddies that have been cuddled and slept with develop a very personal aroma which children find comforting.
Teddies’ soft feel makes them huggable and their faces give them a personality, unlike a comfort blanket, so children can transfer feelings onto them. This can act as a substitute for a person when they have worries they want to work through. It’s not that teddies can ever take the place of a caring adult, but late at night when the child is in bed and supposed to be going to sleep, cuddly toys can help a child relax and get a good night’s sleep so that they’re more able to get the most out of the following day.
Children are often afraid that their worries are silly and that adults won’t understand. The very fact that pets and cuddly toys don’t answer back makes them great listeners and children are often able to work through their problems and find their own solutions simply by saying them out loud – this is the basis for most of the listening therapies (e.g. CBT) that are so popular today.
It’s easy to see the benefits of cuddly toys, but how can adults help children to realise these benefits?
If parents spend time reading with their young child whilst the child cuddles a teddy bear, the child will associate the teddy with positive feelings of security, calmness, love and happiness and so cuddling it can recreate those feelings and help a child cope with challenges they face even when the parent is not there.
Once a child is attached to a soft toy, parents can help their child deal with challenges by asking the child what he/she thinks the teddy would do and helping children learn empathy and other important social skills. The attachment a child can develop to a teddy can help during periods of change, stress or trauma.
During periods of change or stress, parents should try not to wash the teddy too much and certainly not change the scent of the laundry detergent if teddy does need a wash. The smell of the teddy is all part of the comforting effect.
Child minders can use soft toys to maintain continuity between their setting and the child’s home and enhance the settling in process for new children.
Games such as a Teddy Bear’s picnic are great for developing social skills and helping children learn about food/nutrition, manners, sharing. As the discussion is around the teddies, children are more likely to open up and talk about issues as they don’t feel that they are being criticised or singled out.
Teachers in Early Years settings can use a specific cuddly toy as a home learning tool. Children can be encouraged to take it home and keep a diary of the activities that the toy is involved with.
In class it can be used as a comforter for children who are upset.
If a child is calm and feels secure, learning is more effective and children cuddling a teddy bear may find it easier to concentrate on the story and reading the words, thus providing positive reinforcement for learning. This is a particularly effective strategy for children with attention difficulties.
So with all the high-tech toys available, spare a thought for a cuddly bear and help children develop into happy, emotionally healthy adults.
This post was written by Dr Amanda Gummer