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Choosing Appropriate Toys and Equipment for Young Children
By Angie Dorrell, M.A.

Children are amazingly resourceful and creative. They will transform cardboard boxes into space ships, stones into animals, and cardboard tubes into telephones. Children do not need the most expensive toys and equipment for optimal learning, but there are guiding principles and helpful processes to use in evaluating and selecting the most appropriate toys and materials.

Determining Need
Most budget-conscious grocery shoppers work from a list to resist impulse and unnecessary buying. The same is true of toys and educational materials. Before shopping or ordering you need to know the amount to spend, the need, and the priority of those needs. Utilizing an efficient and effective process, such as inventory lists for monitoring the amounts and types of materials in each classroom is a must. The inventories are exhaustive lists of what each classroom should have in each learning center, including quantities. The list should include a place to report how many of each item the classroom currently has and specifications for the items still needed. Set up routine times in the year to fully complete the inventories, updating it as materials are added or discarded.

Inventory Items
Learning environments for young children should be rich with a wide variety of gathered and recycled materials and store-bought items children can explore, transform, and combine. Spaces for young children should be equipped to promote hands-on, active learning. The quantity of an item is as important as the item itself. There should be enough materials in each area or center so a number of children can play at the same time (See the samples inventory on the right). Providing at least two of most items will reduce classroom management issues and enhance learning opportunities. Appropriate amounts of the same materials (such as blocks) are important to maximize utilization. For example, twenty unit blocks in a center is not enough for creative building. Give children a full set of 300 blocks and watch the creativity bloom.

Attributes of a Great Toy
The best educational materials and toys are flexible—children use them in a variety of ways in different types of play. Other attributes that make a toy great are listed below.

  • Materials should be appealing and interesting to the children and offer many opportunities for success.


  • Great toys help a child learn how to learn.


  • The best toys respectfully reflect children’s family lives as well as provide opportunities for exploring other cultures.


  • Items for classrooms are durable and suitable for use with groups. Many items offered at local toy stores are designed for home use by one or two children over a short period of time, not for a classroom of children for years.


  • Great toys are well constructed, shatterproof, strong enough to hold a child’s weight, and safe for the ages of the children in the group. Don’t be hesitant to carefully examine and pull on the item at the store or when you first receive it to ensure it’s safe for the children.


  • Materials should not have sharp edges, points, exposed nails, projectiles, loud noises, or require batteries.


  • Corners are rounded and surfaces are smooth.


  • Finishes and dyes should be non-toxic and meet all safety standards.


  • Great toys and materials must be easily cleaned and hold up to repeated washings.

Importance and Benefits of Appropriate Toys and Materials
Having the appropriate types and quantities of toys and educational materials encourages and enhances hands-on learning throughout all the developmental areas.

Social-Emotional and Creative Development
Proper materials engage children in a wide range of play, alone and with others. Children gain confidence as they make their own plans and choose materials that are of particular interest to them. An environment that encourages children to make their own choices helps them feel safe, valued, adventurous, competent, and confident to take initiative. Great equipment encourages children to use their imagination and learn to cooperate with others. Creative art, movement, and drama materials foster creativity, are an appropriate emotional outlet, and provide another view of life.

Physical Development
Appropriate toys and materials encourage children to build muscle control and strength. Children gain practice and confidence as they manipulate materials. Toys that children can explore in many different ways build eye-hand coordination and encourage children to think about how things work. Some items also promote balance and body awareness.

Cognitive Development
Toys and materials that promote active learning motivate children to pursue their own ideas and interests enthusiastically. Hardwood unit blocks help children learn about geometry, gravity, shapes, and balance while construction items help children learn about science and number. Many toys also encourage children’s interests in the physical world—same/different, patterned/plain, and classification. Children also practice problem solving as they figure out how things work, pick up new ideas, and gain confidence in their abilities.

Language Development
Books and recordings help children appreciate words, literature, and music. Pretend play objects encourage children to talk with each other. Children learn through experience that language is a way to communicate with others.

Storage and Clean-Up of Toys and Materials
For optimal, hands-on learning to take place, toys and materials must be arranged so children have direct access to them, not situated primarily for display, demonstration, or decoration. This visibility and accessibility ensures that children see their choices and can easily reach them. All the materials are then organized with like items grouped together in learning centers.

Teachers sometimes get discouraged about using materials that have many pieces like unit blocks or manipulatives because of the time and energy involved in clean up. There are simple clean-up strategies that when used consistently, make this time easier and help the children take ownership and pride in their classroom. Labeling storage containers and shelves is one of the most important steps in a good clean-up strategy. While the initial set up of a labeling system is time-consuming, once in place, it encourages independence and ownership, helps children recognize that words have meaning, infuses the environment with print, frees the teacher for individual instruction with children, turns clean-up time into another learning opportunity and makes it easier to take and maintain inventory.

Each container is labeled with words and pictures. If the containers have specific places on the shelves ten label the shelf as well. This enables children to match the picture and the object and put it away without any adult help. Pictures of objects can be cut from catalogues, neatly hand drawn, traced, the material itself, or photographs taken. The words can be handwritten or typed—be certain proper capitalization and spelling are always used. Labels can be attached with clear contact paper to baskets or containers and the shelves. For more durable labels on baskets laminate the pictures after putting the picture and word on an index card or piece of paper and punch a hole at the top two corners. Slide or zip ties (found at hardware or home improvement stores) can be threaded through the holes affixed to the baskets.

Buying Toys and Educational Materials
The decision to purchase items locally or to order them depends on your purchasing process and personal preference. Ask other programs for names and numbers of reputable vendors they use. Vendors wit local sales representatives are sometimes more attentive and responsive to local program needs. Ask the vendor what happens if an item arrives damaged; including who pays any shipping and packaging costs. Ask the vendor what the company’s policies are for payments, replacements, and refunds and discount programs.

Angie Dorrell, M.A., was the director of curriculum for La Petite Academy, one of the nation’s largest providers of early childhood education programs. She also serves as a NAEYC accreditation validator and commissioner. She is the proud mother of two young daughters.