I used to work in a toy store, and I would hear it all the time. A parent or a grandparent would come in asking for a toy with a child of a certain age in mind – let’s say three. I would show them the toys that were aimed at a three-year-old kid, and time and time again I would hear the same thing: “My son is three, but he’s very bright.” Of which I had no doubt. There are loads of smart kids out there. But every kid isn’t a genius, and of the ones who are, very few are doing calculus at age eight. What I’m saying is, these people were wanting to buy toys that were too advanced for their kids.
There is a lot of controversy around how toy and game manufacturers apply age grades to their products, and I’ll be the first to admit that those age ranges reflect more than just the developmental appropriateness of the item. There are many regulations surrounding age ranges on toys, and for good reason: physical safety is the most important factor in everything that children do. No one wants to hurt their kid. But what many parents don’t realize is that, when they try to buy a toy that they think their kid is ready for and will grow into, they may actually be hindering their child’s ability to learn from that toy in the future.
Of course, pushing a kid beyond their comfort zone is one of the best tools for teaching them new skills, as well as more abstract virtues like resilience and perseverance. But be careful not to push your child beyond what can be reasonably expected of them. Dr. Gail Gross, a childhood development specialist, finds that when parents push their children to learn skills before they’re ready, “many children have blocked their learning skills because of anxiety-promoted memory lapses and exaggerated fear of failure.” So, when a child gets frustrated by a toy that is beyond their age range, rather than push through to something that they are several years shy of learning, they put the toy aside until they are ready for it. And when they pick up that toy later, the chances of remembering that failure or frustration are increased, making it a purchase that they may never put to use due to bad associations.
Additionally, just because a toy has a 4+ age range on it doesn’t mean that once your kid turns five, she’s outgrown the toy. A lot of parents only see the four, when in a lot of cases what really matters is the plus. Jenn Choi, author of blog Toys As Tools, laments how “as parents, we mistakenly start with the most advanced activity that can be done with a toy and don’t allow our children to explore their toys intuitively.” The lowest recommended age for a toy “doesn’t show a breakdown of what a 4-year-old can do with a toy versus what a 6-year-old can do with it.” A toy that is not advanced enough for your child is just as much of a lost cause of a purchase as one that is too advanced, if not more so. But don’t write off toys that seem young just because of the age range attached to them.
If you can’t trust age ranges, then what can you trust? As a consumer of toys, as in all things, it is important to do some research before making any purchases that you want to have lasting effects. Knowing what stages your children are at developmentally and what milestones they should be coming up against soon is a great place to start. Then try to find toys that help to develop those specific skills. Many family-owned toy stores and small toy retailers educate their staff extremely well on the appropriate ages for different toys, and they can usually make excellent recommendations for your specific child – with a little help from you, of course. And don’t be afraid to buy something that may be just a touch beyond what your child can do currently…just make sure to introduce it at the right time.