Are Toys Necessary?

I will be the first to admit it. My house is being over run with electronic, noisy toys. After Christmas and Brickston's first birthday, I've come to the conclusion that the toys are multiplying like Gremlins while we sleep.

My family loves to buy presents. My mom, sister, mother-in-law, and grandmother are all guilty. I'm just as much at fault. I have saved many of the toys from when Kinsley and Zaven were babies, too. This means our toy situation is growing exponentially. On a semi-related note, have you ever noticed how the batteries in the most obnoxiously loud toys will last FOREVER? Seriously, I have toys from Kinsley(she's 8 years old) that we have NEVER replaced the batteries, and they are still going strong. But my remote control, forget it. It's a conspiracy.

So aside from the toys adding to the clutter in my house, why am I reevaluating our possession of them? A couple of weeks ago, my academic advisor shared an article highlighting the research on the effect of electronic "educational" toys. You can read the article here.
The article discusses Sosa's  (2015) study which found that toys that produce lights, sounds, and words actually decreased the quantity and quality of infants' language behaviors. This seems almost counterintuitive. Why would we buy our kids toys that talk and sing only to have their ability to talk and sing limited? But many of us fall into the trap. The toy manufacturers suggest the toys as a way to build skills.  For example the puppy in the above picture claims to:
  • Encourages baby’s growing vocabulary with songs and phrases about letters, numbers, body parts, colors & shapes.
  • Introduces baby to the give and take of conversation with a friendly, cuddly pal.
  • Promotes understanding of cause & effect as baby discovers how to activate the sounds, phrases, and music.
(Retrieved from Fisher-Price website.)

The Importance
While this advertising is enticing, the research done by Sosa and colleagues demonstrates that these claims are much too lofty.  In their study, 26 infants were paired with a parent.  During the study, a series of communication behaviors were documented: children's vocalizations, verbal back-and-forth conversational turns, and parent's use of words (which are all important language facilitation behaviors). These behaviors were documented when children were given electronic toys, wooden traditional toys, and board books.  Researchers found that the most language facilitating behaviors occurred during children's interaction with board books.  The least number of parent words, children's vocalizations, and conversational turns took place during children's interaction with electronic toys.  The researchers warn, "Play with electronic toys is associated with decreased quantity and quality of language input compared with play with books or traditional toys," (Sosa, 2015, abstract).

Mini Experiment
This research definitely made sense to me as I read it, but I was still feeling the love for some of the toys.  I wondered how often Brickston (14 months) independently chose to play with these electronic toys.  In my quick little experiment, I recorded a day in the life of Brick. I found that he did not choose the electronic toys.  Here is our day:

First, Brickston played with my eye shadow while I was getting ready in the morning. I labeled the different parts of his face as he applied the shadow.  "You put it on your nose!"

He colored with crayons while I edited my literature review. Periodically, I would talk about the color he chose or what type of line he drew. "Brick, you made a long, blue line."

During breakfast, Brickston stacked the measuring cups.  He filled them with cereal and poured them onto his plate.  "Can you pour more?"

While I cooked lunch, Brickston took out the spices from the cabinet and rearranged.  He pretended to pour them into the measuring cups.  He gave them to me to smell, so I would "sneeze."

While I folded laundry, Brickston sat in the basket and handed me socks.  We talked about whose they were and the colors.

Don't judge me by this photograph.  My sippy cup was organized at one time, but then my little guy became mobile.  During dinner, Brickston played in the cup drawer.  He tried to match lids.  He would bring a cup to his sister and she would pretend to drink.

That evening, Brickston did play with a toy.  It just so happens that it wasn't even his own toy.  Over the past few days, he has really gravitated toward playing with his older brother's Paw Patrol trucks and dogs.  Ironically, it does not make any sounds nor does it light up...just needs good old imagination.

Routine Based Play
Reflecting on our day, it is obvious that electronic toys are not a necessity.  Most of Brickston's day revolves around routines (just like all infants).  Certain things need to happen everyday: chores, mealtimes, etc. These daily events provide opportunities to practice those communication facilitation skills (vocalizations, turn taking, labeling, gestures, etc).  Routines allow for children to learn new skills because they are functional, predictable, and occur often.

What is the major take-away? 
As parents, we need to be use caution when giving our children electronic toys.  V-tech and Fisher Price cannot come close to comparing to the rich language opportunities a parent can give.  There is no substitute for talking and playing with your child.  Simple books and traditional toys may afford for more language opportunities between a child and caregiver.  Electronic toys are not inherently bad, but adults must be sure to use them with the limitations in mind.

It is okay if your toy box or play room contains some of these electronic toys, but the majority of the items should be books and open-ended toys and materials.  

What are your thoughts on children's toys?

If you are a research junkie like me, check out these studies:

“Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play With the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication” by Anna V. Sosa, PhD in JAMA Pediatrics. Published online December 23 2015 doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3753

Kashinath, S., Woods, J.W., & Goldstein, H.  (2006).  Enhancing generalized teaching strategy use in daily routines by parents of children with autism.  Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research,49, 466-485.

Easy DIY First/Then Board

Here is a post from a few years ago.  My oldest son was in kindergarten (he is now in 4th grade!), this intervention definitely helped during that first year :)  I teach my pre-service teachers to use this same intervention.  

The madness is back into full swing now that we are back from Christmas vacation and the kids are back in school.  My middle child has not wanted to practice his sight words or do his homework. My husband and I have been struggling with his behavior this week.  I think he is extremely tired.  We have been making sure he is getting enough sleep, but this increase in behavior had me look back to my toolbox.  What could I find to curb some of these conflicts before they start? 
I decided to pull out the good old First/Then board. 
A first/then board is a simplified type of visual schedule.  It tells the child what will happen first and what will follow.  I used these boards countless times when I was a preschool teacher. 
Visual schedules are often used with individuals with autism spectrum disorders.  Visual schedules are beneficial, because individuals with ASD often process visual information much more readily than auditory information.  The same can be true for all young children

Visual supports have been shown to help students with autism transition between activities, stay on task, and engage in activities.
First/Then boards break the visual schedule down even further.  They can also be used on a contingency basis.  If you do this, then you get this.  

If there is an activity that your child is not fond of doing, you can follow it with a motivating activity.  For example, if homework time is challenging, but you know your child loves playing games on the computer you can set up your board like this:

You present the board to your child and say, “First you will do homework, then you can play computer games.”  You can even simplify your language: “First homework, then computer.” You may feel like a caveperson at first talking this way, but often children are bombarded with auditory information.  My son tries so hard to listen all day at kindergarten.  When he comes home, he is spent.  He has a difficult time sifting through what is important info and what is just fluff.  So, I make it easier on him and just say the essentials when using the first/then board.
What are some activities or times of the day that are a struggle for your child?  Could you find a motivating activity or reward to follow up the difficult activity?  Your “then” activity must be available and feasible.  Do not use “First wash hands, then blow bubbles” if you are fresh out of bubbles.  The intervention will lose its power, if you are not able to follow through on the “then” portion.  You will want the “then” activity to immediately follow the completion of the “first” activity.
Here is set of activity cards to get you started.  I like to pair the pictures with words in order to foster early literacy.  You can find your own clip art pictures on the internet to use according to your child’s preferences and needs. 
To make the first/then board, I used a 4X6 photo album. 
I used green and red scrapbook paper to make each section.  I used these colors, because green means “go” and red means “stop.”
 I used stickers to write “first” and “then” on the pages before slipping them into the plastic pages. 
Print the activities on plain paper and cut out the activity pieces. I stored all my extra activity pieces in the pages behind the board. 
This method is great, because you don’t have to mess with laminating or Velcro!  And it is portable!  Just throw it in your purse!
 If you are a research nerd like me, I listed the research behind these methods. 
The Research:
Bryan, L. C., & Gast, D. L. (2000). Teaching on-task and onschedule behaviors to high-functioning children with autism via picture activity schedules. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30, 553–567.
Dettmer, S., Simpson, R. L., Smith Myles, B., & Ganz, J. B. (2000). The use of visual supports to facilitate transitions of students with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 15(3), 163–169.
MacDuff, G. S., Krantz, P. J., & McClannahan, L. E. (1993). Teaching children with autism to use photographic activity schedules: Maintenance and generalization of complex response chains. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26, 89–97.
Massey, G. N., & Wheeler, J. J. (2000). Acquisition and generalization of activity schedules and their effects on task engagement in a young child with autism in an inclusive pre-school classroom. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 35, 326–335.
Morrison, R. S., Sainato, D. M., Benchaaban, D., & Endo, S. (2002). Increasing play skills of children with autism using activity schedules and correspondence training. Journal of Early Intervention, 25(1), 58–72.

Dramatic Play: Must Have Toys Series (Part 1)

Some of you have asked me what I think the must have toys are for your children.  It is barely October, and I am reminded that some of you are over-achievers and are already thinking about Christmas lists.  I salute you :) I keep saying that one of these years I will be more organized.

But honestly, this is THE perfect time to talk about building your toy arsenal.

When you look out there in our current Pinterest world, you will see different extremes.  You will see people advocating for buying the latest and greatest electronic toys and apps for your children in order to build STEM skills.  You will also see the opposite extreme, parents advocating for all wooden, beautifully crafted Montessori-esque toys.

I am going to tell you what I always thought were necessities in my classroom, and what we have had in our home toy room.  Most of the toys you will see below have been with us since we have had our oldest two children (they are now 11 and 9 years old).  So, these toys stand the test of time.  Children don't quickly outgrow them.

I wrote a post several years ago about the research behind electronic toys.  I encourage you to check it out.  The toys I'm going to share here are open-ended, meaning they can be used for many different purposes.  This is the key to making sure toys grow with your child.

I've organized my recommendations into 5 Main Categories:

  1. Dramatic Play
  2. Small World Play
  3. Construction Play
  4. Fine Motor Play
  5. Gross Motor Play
This post does contain affiliate links, but these are all products that we own and love. the first category: 
Dramatic Play

Dramatic play is important for all children, because it provides opportunities to build all of the developmental domains.  

Here are the items I think are must haves:

Kitchen Set

This can be a large set or portable pieces.  I have seen bloggers create a toy stove from plastic storage boxes.  Check this one out!

We have a kitchen set similar to this one, my oldest daughter received it when she turned 1 at Christmas time.

Pretend Food and dishes

You can choose either plastic, wooden, or felt food pieces.  We have an assortment of each in my house.  Even better yet, you can give your children pieces of cardboard to create their own.

Baby Dolls

Both boys and girls benefit from playing with dolls.  Each one of my children received from my mom on their first Christmas.  There is just something about cuddling up with a brand new doll on Christmas morning.

You may want to invest in both soft  (great for cuddling) and plastic baby dolls.  The plastic dolls are great for swimming and giving baths.

Cash Register

A simple cash register can change a kitchen set to a restaurant.  A pile of stuffed animals to a pet store.  A bookshelf of books to a library.  There are so many play themes that emerge when a cash register is introduced.  

This exact cash register is still available online, but it is crazy expensive for some reason (it must be an old version).  In my classrooms, we always used this one by Learning Resources. 

You could also substitute a calculator for a cash register!  We do this sometimes during our Friday play group sessions when we play with the drink station.

Dress up Clothes

I have 3 Ikea bins full of dress up clothes!  It is a weakness.  My children have all loved dressing up.  It is a wonderful role-playing experience, and also helps with self-help skills (dressing, buttoning, zipping, etc).

This post is going live in October.  A great time to build your dress up bin.  After Halloween, check out your store's clearance section.  You can find some great pieces.  We have the classic princess dresses and superheroes.  I also like to include community helper outfits.

Most of our dress up clothes are made by Melissa and Doug. We have had them for YEARS!  We have the firefighter, doctor, waitress, construction worker, and pirate.

I am adding these Play Scarves to my youngest daughter's wish list for Christmas this year.  Many Reggio and Montessori classrooms use play silks (these scarves are a more affordable version and have decent reviews).  They use these scarves because the children can use their imagination to turn them into many different things.  They can be a cape, a skirt, a baby blanket, or the top of a tent!

Doctor Kit

I think a simple doctor kit is great to add to your dramatic play materials.  This allows you to role-play before going to check-ups.  


There is so much rich language that occurs when you hand a child a pretend phone!  The toy phone pictured below is from our toy kitchen and has needed batteries for 2 years :)  The other is an old cell phone.  The point is, the phones do NOT have to do anything.  Your child will do ALL the talking! Add 2 in your space so that children can talk to each other.

Still not sure what to get?

You may already own most of these things.  In that case, pat yourself on the back!  You are providing rich play opportunities for your child!  Is there something that your child is really interested in?  Could you create a play kit just for that interest?

For example, your child may really love babies.  Buy an inexpensive diaper bag.  Fill it with baby bottles, blankets, the smallest diapers you can find, and a few baby rattles.  These real authentic items will enrich your child's play.  Check back soon for a post all about interest play kits!  

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DIY Colored Spaghetti

Rainbow colored spaghetti is one of my favorite invitations at our play groups. It is such a versatile material.  You can put it in the sensory table, in a kiddie pool, or anywhere you please!  The kids don't get too messy, but your porch or floor might!

At my youngest daughter's birthday party celebration, I had several questions about how to make the colored spaghetti.  So here it is!

 I am almost embarrassed to share this tutorial, because it is so easy to do!  I have actually tried several methods that I have found on pinterest: using vinegar, using rubbing alcohol, dying the spaghetti after cooking it, etc.  Some of these tries were failures. I have had mishaps in the kitchen.  My hands have gotten stained.  The spaghetti was too brittle and sometimes too oily.  Let me save you the headache, and fill you in on the best way to do it!

I came up with this no-fail method that has worked perfectly. 

What you need: 

  • Uncooked spaghetti
  • Food coloring (I have used both Wilton and the Dollar Tree brand, both work!)
  • Large pot of boiling water
  • Strainer
  • Cookie sheets
  • Couple drops of olive oil or vegetable oil


  1. Decide how much spaghetti you want to make.  In the photo below, I cooked 1.5 pounds of spaghetti.
If you are filling a larger area, you will need MORE spaghetti :)

2. Evenly divide your uncooked spaghetti according to the number of colors you want to make. If you want to make red, blue, and yellow spaghetti; you will need to separate it into three groups.

3. Fill your large soup pot with water.  As it begins to boil, put 3-5 drops of red food coloring into the water.  Let the dye distribute. Then stir in your spaghetti.  

4. Boil the spaghetti for 2 minutes less than the instructed time.  For example, my box says to cook the noodles for 10-11 minutes.  For colored spaghetti, I would only boil the noodles for 8 minutes. This keeps the noodles from turning to mush as the children play with them.

5. Drain the water and noodles into a strainer over the sink.  Be careful, that dyed water can splash onto things that you do not want to be dyed (speaking from experience).  Run cold water over the noodles for a couple of minutes.  This will keep the noodles from sticking together.

6.  Spread the red spaghetti onto a cookie sheet.  Let this sit there for 45 minutes to cool.  This will allow the color to set into the noodles.  When your children play with it later, the dye should stay on the noodles and not on their hands.

7. Put 2-3 drops of olive oil on your hands and work it through the cooled spaghetti.  Then put into a plastic ziplock bag and store in the refrigerator until you are ready to play.

8. Repeat the process with each of the other colors.  Be sure to rinse your pot before making a new batch, unless you are interested in color mixing :)

Because this recipe does not use rubbing alcohol, it is taste-safe.  
My cat has eaten a large portion and is still around to talk about it :)

I would love to know if you make colored spaghetti at your own house!  Post pics to Facebook or Instagram and tag #branchandblossomatelier

If you would rather skip out on the mess, we have several Friday Play Group Sessions coming up!  Email to register.  We would love to spend the morning with you!