All child care providers should offer children a variety of age-appropriate learning activities that help them practice important skills. But you don't have to spend thousands of dollars on expensive toys to provide valuable chances for children to learn. Many of the best play and learning materials are free or inexpensive.
As you consider these suggestions, the most important thing to remember is that the toys must be age-appropriate for the children you are caring for. If you are a family child care provider, be sure you have toys for the entire range of children in your care, but be cautious to keep toys with small parts away from infants and toddlers.
Start Out Slowly
If you are just opening a child care business or are a new teacher in a classroom that is not well-equipped, choosing the right toys may seem overwhelming. Keep in mind that you do not have to purchase every possible toy at once. If funds are limited, the process of acquiring toys and materials for child care can be gradual. Begin by focusing on basic and inexpensive toys that have a variety of uses. Pay attention to children's interests, and focus your early buying on toys they especially enjoy.
When considering which toys will be a part of your child care program, it is best to use materials that can be used in a variety of ways. Before buying a large number of toys, determine which toys and materials you already have. Make a list of those you plan to have as a part of your child care program, and prioritize the ones that are most important. Think about the learning goals you have for children, and choose materials that will help them learn. Over time, you can move down the list of "desirable" toys and broaden your library of materials.
Consider Classic Toys
Classic materials such as blocks, balls, books, puzzles, and art materials are good places to start when choosing toys for child care. These materials can be used in a variety of ways by children at different ages and levels and can reinforce a wide variety of skills, including motor skills, math, language, and social skills.
Blocks are one of the most versatile toys for young children. Infants and toddlers may enjoy carrying and dumping blocks into containers. Older children can use their mathematical and problem-solving skills to build towers and structures that become more complex with age. A good set of wooden unit blocks can be expensive but will last for decades even with regular use. If you can't afford unit blocks, look for less expensive cardboard or foam blocks, or make them from cardboard boxes or milk cartons.
Balls of varying sizes and weights allow children to develop motor skills. Infants and toddlers may enjoy carrying, rolling, or throwing balls. Preschoolers and school-age children can use balls to play complex games, which require social problem-solving skills and negotiation, as well as motor strength and coordination.
Books provide children with opportunities to develop pre-literacy skills while learning about new things. Choose a wide variety of books with colorful illustrations and interesting stories, and take time to read with children regularly throughout the day. Remember to include books about children from many different cultures. Be sure to allow children time to look at books on their own, too.
Puzzles are great tools for practicing problem-solving skills. Be sure to choose puzzles that match the developmental levels of the children in your program. For young children, begin with inset puzzles — which have pieces that fit into individual spaces — with only a few pieces. Once children can work those puzzles easily, make puzzles more challenging by adding more pieces. Many preschoolers may also begin to enjoy interlocking puzzles, which must be assembled to create a full picture.
Art materials such as paper, crayons, markers, chalk, paint, and paint brushes can encourage young children to express themselves creatively while practicing fine-motor skills. Preschoolers and school-age children may also use art materials to practice writing letters and notes, which helps reinforce their developing literacy skills. Keep in mind that art and writing materials will need to be replenished from time to time.
Tips for Inexpensive Play Materials
Toys and materials do not have to be expensive to be effective learning tools. Here are some tips for finding and using inexpensive play materials in your child care program.
Recycle. Art materials do not have to be brand new to be effective. Give children leftover paper, newsletters, or handouts to use in their art projects. Make collages out of junk mail or newspaper ads. Save cardboard boxes for art projects, or build play houses from large boxes. Unused fabric can be made into costumes, used in the art area, or included in the dramatic play area for costumes or tablecloths.
Visit the library. If you don't have money to buy new children's books regularly, check out books from your local library. Talk with the children's librarian for suggestions. Keep a list of children's favorites, and consider buying those books when you have funds. Take preschoolers and school-agers on a field trip to the library to select new books for the reading area.
Shop at discount stores and thrift shops. Many discount stores and thrift shops have inexpensive toys that could be included in your child care program. Just be sure that any toy you choose is sturdy enough to withstand heavy use by children, and check toys regularly for sharp edges and missing pieces. Be sure you clean and disinfect all toys carefully before you give them to children.
Ask parents for help. Parents of the children in your program may have toys at home that their children have outgrown or that are so familiar that their children are no longer interested in them. Encourage parents to donate the toys to your program. Be sure all toys are developmentally appropriate for the children who are playing with them.
Rotate toys. Rather than having all toys available at once, store some out of children's view. In a few months, trade out some of the toys in your room for the "new" ones you have stored. Children may find new things to do with a toy if they have not seen it in a while.
Trade with other child care providers. If you know other child care providers who work with children of similar ages, make plans to swap toys occasionally. Choose a few toys that no longer interest your children and trade them for "new" toys. You might even consider setting up a formal "Toy Swap Meet," where child care providers can share toys with each other on a regular schedule. What's old and familiar to your children may be new and exciting to another group. Remember to properly disinfect any toys that are swapped.
For More Information
To learn more about about toys in child care, check out the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles:
To find hands-on activities for the children in your care (many of which require only inexpensive materials), go to the Hands-on Activities for Child Care database.
Photo by Diane Bales / CC BY http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/