toys - a vital necessity

Esme Slabbert

It was an amazing and puzzling sight.  A child of 2 years had been given a toy yet instead of playing with it, she was standing, motionless, with the article in her hands.  The look on her face was one of bewilderment.

My daughter, Lynn, her husband Eran and my 5 year old grandson were at an orphanage in the Ukraine.  The year was 2002 and the family were in the process of adopting Sasha, the child holding the train attached to a cord.  Sasha was unfamiliar with the concept of a toy and could not push or pull it.  

As none of the children played with a ball in the orphanage, she had to learn how to throw, catch, and most of all, how to relinquish the ball!

The family noticed that Sasha could make puzzles upside down, sideways or the right way up.  When she picked up a book, her method was the same.  She would look at the pictures in the same position in which she had taken the book, upside down, sideways or the correct way up as well.  This was obviously due to the fact that puzzles and books were in short supply at the orphanage.  Therefore children crowded around one book or puzzle and learnt to cope with playing/learning in this fashion.

While at the orphanage, my family noticed a small boy Nikita who was diagnosed  with Cerebral Palsy and as blind because he was left in his crib all day with no eye stimulation.  My grandson, Travis, was distraught that his family couldn’t adopt him as well as his sister.  However, later Lynn found out that Nikita was adopted and now lives in the USA.  He has great vision.  This thanks to eventual visual stimulation.

Travis was so affected by Nikita that when he returned home, he made mobiles for the babies’ cots from old CD discs.  Lately, Sasha has joined him in this venture.

We now know that there are windows of opportunity during which appropriate stimulation must occur if children are to reach their full potential.  If a window of opportunity is missed, permanent loss of function can result.  This can be seen most dramatically in research on visual development.

Lynn noticed that Sasha loves the swings at nursery school and in the playgrounds.  She loves the constant motion.  This reminded Lynn of the children she had seen in the orphanage who had rocked themselves or banged their heads on the walls.

Paul Klein reported in the Spring 1995 issue of Mothering magazine, that complete brain growth only occurs by rocking and carrying a baby.  He maintains that optimal development of the cerebellum is stimulated by motion.  Hence, being rocked or carried is not just soothing, it is essential for complete brain growth.

Dr Jim Prescott, a developmental neuropsychologist in an interview explained that the continuous body movement a child receives when the mother bears her child “provides a source of sensory stimulation that serves as a ‘brain nutrient’ which accelerates neural maturation.”

Ellen Link M.D. states that if a child doesn’t receive appropriate stimulation during critical periods of time, areas of the brain can lose function forever.  For example, PET scans of Romanian orphans, institutionalized at birth and given little stimulation in early infancy, show a loss of activity in the temporal lobes which regulate emotions and receive input from the senses.  Later in life, these children often have impairments that effect both memory and emotions.

My family was so affected by the apparent lack of toys in the orphanage, that Lynn sent out an appeal for toys that would be both fun and beneficial for the orphan’s development.  She was amply rewarded by a magnanimous donation from Little Tikes in the USA.  Dan Skinner was instrumental in bringing about this donation that had a huge impact on the children and the caregivers at the orphanages.

The Director of one of the orphanages, wrote that “the children will grow healthier and happier, will learn to fantasize and use logical thinking, while curiosity will become the first step on their way of exploring the world and becoming harmoniously developed personalities by means of these toys.”

Another thank you letter stated:  “This is terrific!  So exciting!!  Our children are having never ending fun now.  They do not even want any candies, all of them are playing with balls in ball pools and even fight for a place in them.  They are a stimulus for them to behave themselves well because they are then permitted to play longer.”

Certain orphanages have even started looking at the disabled children with new hope and have installed some of the Little Tikes donations in their room.  Lynn recently discovered that the disabled children aged 4 years who cannot walk are sent to a hospital with 500 kids aged up to 18 years, where the majority  DIE.  Given that the average 2 year old child, in an orphanage, can barely walk, one can imagine that many children who fail to thrive or who are moderately disabled never have a chance.

There are many toys that are both fun and beneficial for a child’s development.

Dr. Greene M.D., a medical expert and author of a popular book offers tips.

·    Let kids express themselves:  for example, toy trucks from Little Tikes, offer children the opportunity to express their imaginations as they explore different roles.

·    Make sense-able choices:  Children should play with toys that stimulate their senses, for example, Little Tikes Tunes and Tales Story Lantern stimulates through vibrant colors and lively songs and stories.

·    Promote playing together:  toys that build social skills and encourage interaction with friends and family.

·    Help kids get physical:  toys that encourage crawling, hopping, pushing and running.  These help kids develop balance and strong muscles.

·    Aim for age-appropriateness:  playing with toys suited for a child’s age helps eliminate boredom and frustration.

·    Buy what’s built to last:  select toys from well-known manufacturers.  You won’t have to worry about safety hazards.

The Little Tikes toys have provided a foundation of play and stimulation and we are extremely grateful.  

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About the Author

Esme is a coordinator for Life2Orphans (, a USA-based non-profit that aims to improve the quality of life for Ukrainian orphans. Life2Orphans is a collaborative effort established by a group of caring individuals primarily to directly help the 460 orphans, aged 0 to 16 years,  in 5 orphanages in Ukraine, as well as ship donations cost-effectively to other orphanages in Ukraine.

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