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Psychological and educational evaluation of toys in Moscow Center of Play and Toys

The main characteristic of play means according to L. S. Vygotsky is the discrepancy between the real and the imagined situation is the main cha-racteristic of play. In role play or symbolic play a child creates imaginary space – with the help of toys or without them [1]. Objects are given new names and functions that are not usually
associated with them, with the playing child proceeding ‘‘from thought rather than from the object’’ in a thought-up, imagined situation instead of the real one. For preschoolers (between the ages of 3 and 6) this type of play is an important activity, which ensures effective psychologi­cal development of the child as a personality [5].

Functions performed by toys in child play

Anything with which children play, is usu­ally called a toy – from rattle to blocks. All these things are, beyond doubt, useful and make their contribution to child development. However, if we consider toys as a means of playing in the strict sense of the term, that is, of acting in ima­gined space, the range of objects covered by this term is far narrower. For instance, when the child shakes a rattle, builds something of blocks or plays with a stacker, his external and inter­nal activity has the same direction. The child imagines nothing outside the limits of his main activity. Consequently, there is no discrepancy between the real and the imagined sphere. To my mind, strictly speaking a toy is an object that enables the child to go beyond the existing situ­ation, to “become” somebody else and to act on behalf of the latter by taking on a new image. Primarily, they are imaginative toys, to which characteristics of living beings can be attributed, which are capable of becoming animate and to which children can impart their experience and feelings. Other playthings, such as toy utensils, clothes, furniture and so on, merely serve to re­alize the wishes and meanings of the “live” per­sonage.

In a developed role-game roles can be as­sumed without any special material support or else with the use of insignificant attributes (mar­kers or role signs). However, at the initial stages of play-acting development and in cases of ina­dequate development material support is indis­pensable as an objective carrier of a new image (imaginative toys). Toy images of human beings are really essential. When playing with a doll, the child identifies himself with it and thus enters the world of human beings [3]. He reflects his expe­rience, especially what is bothering him, and en­acts people he knows or fairy-tale characters in play. Two crucial processes centering on the doll take place simultaneously.

On the one side, the child expresses him/ herself – his (her) knowledge, emotions and events of life and enacts imaginary items. He (she) speaks for the doll, asks questions and gives answers for it, re-enacts past experience and, in a word, externalizes his experience and his own self. The child attributes his/her own words, thoughts and feelings to the doll, to its es­sence, which thus becomes an outward expres­sion of the inner world of the child and in a sort of way his/her “mouthpiece”. Such self-expression can be regarded as a form of spontaneous play reflection, through which the child begins to un­derstand himself and events of his life. Children are known to enjoy reliving repeatedly momen­tous – happy or dramatic – events of their lives. With the help of toys they enact different charac­ters and speak for them. All that, beyond doubt, enables them to place themselves outside a sig­nificant situation and, consequently, to take an attitude to it and to comprehend it. By observing how children play one can understand their inner world and what is bothering them.

On the other side, when playing, the child masters the world of human relations and ideas, in which he lives. Any toy bears the impress of its time and society, in which it has been made. Toys, made for kids by adults, always reflect the views of those adults, their ideology, tastes, fashi­on, etc. That is why they help inculcate certain social and everyday notions in the child’s mind and acquaint children with social and family mode of life. They have a certain influence on the child’s socialization, his/her entry into a given society. It is common knowledge that every generation of chil­dren has markedly different toys (especially dolls, household utensils and vehicles). While using those toys, children, obviously, master different social models. Dolls set a human image that be­comes a model for emulation in children, and it is precisely through dolls that the child gets an idea of humans and relevant ethical and aesthetic cate­gories, such as beauty and ugliness, the good and the bad, and the good and the evil. The doll’s image has got a formative effect on little children because, as the previous observations showed, when playing with dolls children subconsciously take their images on and imitate them. They take on the doll’s appearance and start moving in a characteristic manner and behaving in a certain way in everyday life. Neither adults nor children themselves notice how they absorb the doll’s outward characteristics. Hence there exists the danger of exaggerating the doll’s characteris­tics, especially in little children. Aggressiveness or complacency typical for certain toys can with time show up in children. At 7 or 8 years of age, when children already have a more or less stable idea of humans and relevant ethical and aes­thetic views, they are capable of understanding and appreciating the exaggerated caricature na­ture of dolls, without taking on their characteris­tics. Preschoolers, on the contrary, are unable to distance themselves from what they are playing with, naturally get carried away by play, immerse in it, and therefore take on the nature of their toys.

For the child an imaginative toy is far more than just an object of play: it is a communication partner, friend and an important figure in his/ her [4]. Many small children are known to have favourite toys, which they never part with: they talk to them, share their joys and thoughts with them, sleep and eat together with them, and take them along for walks or to the kindergarten. A poll conducted recently among grownups about their favourite toys has shown that toys had become engraved in their memory as communication companions. Those polled had diverse answers to the question ‘‘What did you do with your favourite toy?” ranging from took along for a walk, slept with it and talked to it, to shared my problems and joys with it, in a word, they did “everything” with them. Few said that they played with them.

People usually communicate with other people. However, preschoolers fairly often com­municate with their toys, which serve as support for inner dialogue and as a life companion. In the overwhelming majority of cases dolls, teddy bears or doggies, that is, not imaginative toys be­come such companions. A close friend like that makes it easier for the little one to face danger or loneliness and gives a feeling of one’s usefulness and independence. Such favourite soft toys have a special role to play at moments of trial when children feel lonely and are in want of help and protection. This happens, for instance, when kids have to go to bed, are ill or when they find them­selves in an unfamiliar situation or else when they are adjusting to a kindergarten. Teachers and psychologists have noticed that during the early days at child care centres little children never part with their favourite toys. A special study has shown that children, who find it difficult to adjust and are obviously ill at ease, under stress and alarmed in a new situation, are especially in need of a soft toy. Such children constantly cling to fa­vourite teddy bears or hares, getting a feeling of being protected and safe in the physical presence of a soft toy. Children find it easier to fall asleep, eat better, willingly get dressed and in general feel more confident in the presence of a favourite toy. As soon as children gain confidence in a new situation, they no longer need to have their favou­rite toys around.

To sum up, an imaginative toy may become a real communication companion for little children. They fairly often communicate with their favourite toys and ask them questions, which they them­selves answer. They attribute their own feelings and worries to them. ‘‘The kitty is crying because it’s waiting for mommy to come and mommy is late,’’ a little girl kept saying, stroking her favou­rite toy. The child seems to, transfers him/herself to the toy, which becomes his/her alter ego. At the same time the toy is not a mirror and the child is not immediately reflected in it.

It is the child’s alter ego because any imagi­native toy always has its own image. A conver­sation with a toy is thus a conversation of one ego with another one embodied in a material object.

A “dialogue” with a toy is an important phase of the development of inner dialogue, which will subsequently transform into inner speech, a chief means of human thought and consciousness. It is a sort of a transition stage between the social (separated between the child and the adult) and the psychological (inner) form of action, when the child shares his life and feelings with something he himself animated. An imaginative toy may be­come a pillar of the child’s emergent inner world and a subject of his mental life. Animated by the child, the toy appeals to the child, turning its re­quests, observations and emotions to him, and thus enabling the preschooler to become cogni­zant of himself and his behaviour and to trans­form both himself and his behaviour. In this sense imaginative toy is, beyond doubt, a psychological tool for the child.

But the possibility to become a psychological tool depends on qualities of a toy itself.

Qualities of a toy as a tool of play

The discussion about toy’s qualities is quite important now when new generation of toys ap­pears. A lot of new toys are not suitable for child play. Toys are increasingly becoming self-suffi­cient things meant to evoke surprise, admiration or curiosity instead of becoming a media.

The child gets an idea of human relationships through play activity which is conventional for this process.The more detailed is an action in prac­tice, the more compressed and subconscious is the role relations plan. In child play the con­ventional or detailed nature of a practical action largely depends on whether the toy is simple or complex, realistic or not. For this reason objects used in role-game should not be actual copies of real things. They are not to monopolize the child’s attention but to stick instead to the conventional designation of things. The fact that play actions are generalized and contracted (i.e., made con­ventional) shows that the inner game plan, that is, relations between people and their emotional experience, has become important to the child.

A good toy should primarily be open to the different actions and emotions of the child. Toys should make it possible for children to im­part their own activity – their voices and move­ments – to it. To remain a media, toys should neither impose themselves nor suggest concrete actions. It is only in this way that the toy can at­tain the function of a psychological media in con­trast to being a mere object of manipulations.

Meanwhile, the toy market develops along the lines offering no chances for toys to become both a plaything and a psychological tool. Kids no longer have to animate dolls that can talk, sing, dance and so on. A toy flat iron can hardly be play tool, if it functions as a real thing. Instead of stimulating children’s play, such toys encourage them to consume toy qualities and soon lead to satiety. As a result the very possibility of indepen­dent creative play is nipped in the bud. Thus the child becomes a toy accessory guided by the toy instead of guiding it.

Whenever toys have intricate technological equipment and impose certain modes of acting, they inhibit not only imagination in children but also their inner psychological life. Such toys dictate children what to do with it.

A good toy should leave room for the child’s fantasizing and enable children to generate their own ideas and to implement them, that is, it should be open to play. By making the task easier for children and confining their play to monoto­nous stereotype movements, adults limit their ca­pacities for independent meaningful actions and therefore inhibit their development.

Whereas they become more and more distant from their main designation – infant play.

Parents don’t have any toy selection referen­ces. Parents simply don’t have enough informa­tion which would guide them through the pecu­liarities of child development – what the child needs at this certain age. As a result parents fully rely on producers’ offer while producers depend on consumer’s demand. As a result, most of toys bought by parents reduce children’s play to primi­tive manipulating activity.

Under the circumstances it is extremely im­portant to have toys examined by qualified experts from among psychologists and educators from the point of view of not only possible health hazards but also psychological effects on child development.

To solve these crucial social and educational problems pertaining to child play, the Мoscow State University of Psychology & Education (MSUPE) has founded a Play and Toys research centre. The main task of the centre is to develop a concept and methods of examining toys by expert psychologists and educationalists and to evalu­ate the developmental qualities of concrete toys. The given examination by experts is based on the possibility for toys to become a real psychological tool and, consequently, to promote the develop­ment of not merely concrete psychological func­tions and abilities but the child personality as a whole [2].

The criterions of toy examination

The main task of toys is the activation of age-specific child play. Requirements and criterions of evaluation of toys must correspond to this task. Before the evaluation every toy should pass the ethical and aesthetic filter. The unconformity of toys with ethical and aesthetic norms accepted in the culture, cannot go through the psychological and pedagogical examination.

The attractiveness of a toy and its corre­spondence to the child’s interests and mean­ings is a very important requirement that, in fact, makes the toy a matter of the child’s independent and initiative activities. In this case, and in this case alone, the toy stirs a desire to play with it and ensures the motivational compo nent of the play activity.

Attractiveness is associated with different characteristics of the toy per se and with the general sociocultural context in which the child develops. First, this is a sensorial, perceptive at­tractiveness connected with the toys’ appearance and physical properties (bright colors, the way it sounds, complex shapes, expressive image, etc.). Second, it should be potentially understandable to be used for meaningful play activities. The ap­plication of this criterion depends on the type of a toy under examination. The image-based toys re­quire a vivid image of either a human being or an animal. Easily recognizable images create certain feelings and suggest the char acter (how he or it walks, talks, what he or it likes, etc.). The attrac­tiveness of a toy is defined by the degree to which it is familiar to the child. Familiar toys are more attractive than absolutely new and unfamiliar ob­jects with no analogies in the child’s personal ex­perience. They do not stimulate individual actions and do not breed the desire to play with them. The most attractive and stimulating toys should combine novelty with easily recognizable fea­tures.

Third, the degree of the toy's attractiveness is determined by its place in the hierarchy of chil­dren’s subculture. The child wants fashionable toys that other children have and that are shown on TV. Toys contribute, to a certain extent, to the child’s socialization and the way it adapts to any specific society. Toys change from generation to generation (this is especially true of dolls, objects of everyday use and transport). They help chil­dren master various social models typical of con­temporary society. That is why the toy’s ability to imbibe the “spirit of time” and convey it to the child should be taken into account. No matter to what extent the tastes of children contradict the ethical and aesthetic ideas of adults any assessment of a toy’s attractiveness should take into account its ade-quacy to the present-day and its popularity in chil dren’s subculture.

When describing play activities we should dis­tinguish between what the child does and what he masters (actions, qualities and abilities) in the pro­cess of playing. For example, when stacking rings into a pyramid (playing action) the child mas ters a mental operation of matching objects by size. Playing actions are the main meaningful element for the child itself. The psychological task of age-related development is solved in actions (or abili­ties) mastered through play. Correspondingly, the toy as an intermediary between the child and cul­ture and as a means of its development should help shape new mental actions, psychic ties and personality traits corresponding to the child’s age while providing an opportunity to stimulate mea­ningful play activities performed on the child’s own initiative.

To perform its developmental (educational) function a toy should suggest adequate and culturally consistent actions, that is, orientate towards what should be done with it and how and to encourage the child to realize the toy’s poten­tials. In fact, suggestions for independent actions and their obvious nature are two indispensable qualities of all educational (developmental) toys. The toy’s cog nizing and educating potential can be realized by the child only if the suggestions of playing activities correspond to the type of such activity. The toy should nei ther reduce playing to stereotype acts nor to detract activities to false and destructive values: it should stimulate comprehensive development of child’s activities and his personality.

The suggestions, on the other hand, should not interfere with the child’s ini tiative: playing is a free and independent activity. The toy should open horizons for the child’s creative and meaningful activity, it should offer a wide range of variants. Objects that presuppose useful yet stereotyped and monotonous actions can be used for exer­cises and training but not for playing. The toys that restrict imagination because of their firmly deter­mined nature narrow down the space for the child’s creative activity. Too complicated and too perfect toys predetermine the child’s actions and force the child into a groove, making play a monotonous routine work. Simpler and less definite playing ma­terial permits a wider range of playing activities. It is highly important for an educational toy to be simple and open for varied and flexible actions.

This means that in order to realize educatio­nal playing activities it is necessary to combine suggestions that will guide the child’s acti­vity and the toy’s openness to encourage the child’s own activity. These requirements vary according to age and types of play (and toys): in some cases the suggestions should be more detailed and precise, in others, the toy’s degree of its openness is highly important for the child’s initiative. It should be said that all toys designed to ensure the educational potential of playing activi­ties require an adequate orientations and a cer­tain degree of openness.

Toys’ operational possibilities contribute to the realization of the education al potential. The playing material should correspond to prac­tical playing activities because they are reali­zed by the child independently. The feasibility of practice related actions with a toy is also de­termined by several factors, the toy’s durability and its high quality in the first place. These are not purely technical or econom ic requirements: they are directly related to playing activities and ensure the pos sibility of playing with a toy. The best of designs and the toy’s potential useful­ness can be devalued by its low quality; toys should not break easily and should correspond to the child’s age.

The toys should be easy to play with: the rings of a pyramid should be easy to stack, puzzles should be easily collected and as easily scattered, etc. The pure ly physical descriptions such as the size and weight may also either encourage or dis­courage the child.

So, the toy examination in the Center MSUPE based on next criterions:

  • ethical and aesthetic filter;
  • motivation of play activity connects to the attractiveness of a toy and its correspondence to the child’s interests and meanings;
  • the play activity which connects to deve­lopment potential of toy;
  • operational characteristics of toy provide the possibility of self-dependent child activity.

The given criteria have laid down in a basis of a technique of psihologo-pedagogical exami­nation of toys which is carried out in the Moscow center of examination of toys. Our examination has recommendatory character. The toys cor­responding to criteria of examination, сhildren’s psychologists receive a sign “Child psychologists recommend”.

Toys corresponding to these requirements get the trade mark (the small red hors – symbol of top-quality goods).

  1. Vygotskij L. S. Psihologija razvitija rebenka. M., 2004.
  2. Smirnova E. O., Salmina N. G., Tihanova I. G. Psihologicheskaja ekspertiza igrushki // Psihologi­cheskaja nauka i obrazovanie. 2008. № 3.
  3. Smirnova E. O., Filippova I. V. Obraznaja igrushka kak sredstvo razvitija soznanija // Psihologicheskaja nauka i obrazovanie. 2008. № 3.
  4. Smirnova E. O., Salmina N. G., Abdulaeva E. A. i dr. Nauchnye osnovanija psihologo-pedagogiche­skoj ekspertizy igrushek // Voprosy psihologii. 2008. № 1.
  5. Smirnova E. O., Rjabkova I. A. Struktura i varianty sjuzhetnoj igry doshkol'nika // Psihologicheskaja na­uka i obrazovanie. 2010. № 3.
  6. Еl'konin D. B. Psihologija igry. M., 1978.

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