By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

In our culture, toys play a major role in many children’s lives. In the first few months, a child is given a “lovey” to hold and to use for transitions such as when she’s going to sleep or feeling hurt or lonely.

The lovey – often a blanket, a piece of soft material or a beloved teddy bear – becomes an extension of herself and her caregiver.

With the lovey, she feels secure and ready to face transitions. Without it, she must rely on adults who can’t always be there, no matter how reliable they are.

From the time a child looks at or reaches for objects, some parents equip the crib with the latest toys for infants. “Learning” toys soon supplement cuddly ones.

Musical, speaking and reading toys reflect parents’ concerns about providing enough “brain stimulation” to enable toddlers to excel in competitive preschools.

Computer games have become part of many 3- and 4-year-olds’ lives. Children imitate their parents, manipulating handheld electronics, just like them. But watch a child’s face when a parent looks away to a smartphone at each intruding text message.

Such sophisticated toys can cause pressure rather than stimulate exploration and play. Parents who are away all day or are leading very busy lives may feel they need to satisfy a preschooler by offering constructive, educational replacements of themselves. Toys can become surrogates by filling the isolation in which many of us live. But toys don’t have to be used this way.

When a child chooses an object as a toy, it becomes part of her world. Toys extend a child’s dreams. A parent can attend seriously to a child’s choice of toys and observe how she plays with them.

If a parent can help choose a toy as a way to learn about the child and who she’s becoming, the process can become a form of communication. (Toy stores, too stimulating for most children at this age, are rarely set up to encourage such communication.)

For a toddler, pots and pans give her an opportunity to mimic kitchen chores. At 3, 4 and 5, simple dolls and toy soldiers help children live out fantasies.

The distorted anatomies of Barbie dolls and pumped-up action figures are intriguing to some children, as is the mysterious adult sexuality they evoke. But toys like these impose adult preoccupations on child’s play and don’t encourage a child’s self-discovery and self-expression.

Many children turn to safer toys, such as toy animals and puppets, when they play out the aggressive feelings that they need to test. Simpler toys leave room for a child to try out her own dreams and wishes, her own aggressive or sexual fantasies. Toys offer the child a link for play with a peer as well as an opportunity to learn about others.

A parent must ask: Does the toy elicit her own fantasies and imagination and allow her to spin them into dreams that sustain the play? Does it challenge her, while leading her to find her own solutions? How much room does the toy leave for her – or does it take over and make her give in to it?

Other considerations include:

  • Safety. Inspect toys for parts small enough to be inhaled or swallowed. A toy shouldn’t be breakable or easily taken apart. Toy safety is regulated, but not always enforced, so parents need to be careful.
  • Durability. Will the toys withstand the experimentation that is a necessary part of their future?
  • Noise. Can you stand the repetitious music or crooning speech that accompanies some toys?
  • Interest. Can the toy hold the child’s long-term attention, or will it be forgotten?
  • Appropriateness. One child may need a quiet, solitary toy that challenges her intellectually; another might prefer an activity-based toy.

(This article is adapted from “Touchpoints: Three to Six,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Prior to Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at

Reprinted with permission from the authors.