Our boys and their toys

Recently in a parent‘s consultation we were told that Leander was reluctant to take the Montessori materials off the shelves and they asked what he was interested in playing with at home. We said: “Toy cars.“ But those are not allowed in The Children‘s House. They are not part of the Montessori Concept. In fact: They had toy cars and cards accordingly so the kids could match the cars with the cards. But all the boys did was play with the cars, not the material as it was meant to be. So they took the cars away. They also took the little London bus that served as a moneybox for which they had provided little buttons in a basket to put inside the moneybox. But as you may guess – the boys only played with the bus as a bus, not a moneybox. 

A mom on twitter recently asked: “My son (2,5) has been obsessed with sea animals for months now. He can name them all and is extremely interested. Should I leave him or should I help him take interest in something else, because it has been going on for so long now. And how can I do that?“

What is our fear when we try and move the focus of our child‘s play to something else? That he could miss out on something important? And if so – what?

There is so much to learn when you are a child that we as parents often feel the need to fill our kid‘s brain with information. Constantly. And who can blame us? As soon as we become parents we ourselves are filled with information and offered all sorts of classes and groups to attend that encourage and foster all sorts of life-important areas such as music, creativity, language, science. You name it. Parent-infant classes as Emmi Pikler or Magda Gerber ( http://www.rie.org/classes/parent-infant ) offered are questioned because the children are not given any input, no songs are sung and no activities lead. What is the point if the child is not learning anything?

What we might miss out on from the very beginning is trust. Trust in our own children, that they have it all and are able and most importantly willing to learn. Maria Montessori said: “A child cannot NOT learn.“ Whatever a child does – he is learning. It‘s just not always obvious to us adults who seem to know everything but in fact quite often – seem to know nothing. This trust is taken from us during those first days, weeks and months when we start focusing on children‘s play and age appropriate toys. Every packaging of a toy has a big bubble blown up that states what this toy is encouraging. May it be “just“ creativity or even logical and scientific thinking. And it is hard not to look at it and choose just simple play objects. In the end – everyone has it. And is amazed. So there must be something to it, right? Right?

Another reason why parents are so worried their children might miss out if not being offered early learning opportunities in all sorts of ways, is our own background. If we feel we haven‘t achieved everything we quickly project those expectations on our own children. So they at least do better in writing, spelling, math, playing an instrument or whatever. And how can this be achieved other than by attending a class that offers it all?

If you have terrible childhood memories because you had a hard time understanding math you might know how that feels. The need to offer numbers, puzzles and counting games at the earliest possibility. And in the end – if it does not help it won‘t harm either, right? Well, we’re not sure. Some experts, who have been working on the concept of play, might disagree. As long as we don‘t understand play as it really is and what it really offers to our children, we might harm them in taking those important hours from them by doing something that “has a point“. Because “The importance of play is, that it has no point.“ ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/how-childrens-play-is-being-sneakily-redefined/2011/11/15/gIQAMNjdPN_blog.html )

We might not harm them directly by offering them charts with letters to be able to read at an early age. But we harm them by not leaving them enough time and room to explore on their own. To engage with something they are interested in. And maybe even learn to read, write and count in the process – who knows? But how much more fun would it be, if this whole learning was done on their terms, while playing with their beloved cars, sea animals or tea sets?

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But, for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood. (Fred Rogers)

And therefore we have happily been watching our boys play with cars. But not just that. We have been trying to discover what they are actually learning by “just playing”. Because of course, just like all of the other parents out there, we are curious about what they do when they “just play”. So, is there any learning going on? Even without the special materials, and all the educational toys? We don’t know for sure, but here are some of our ideas of what might be going on. These are not based on Parten’s or Piaget’s categories, they are purely our ways of understanding what our children are doing when they… well, play

Movement – large and small

We have already talked a lot about how important movement is in development of play, and how much of movement is really play. When just playing with cars? Well, there is the pushing and pulling that can get discovered, practised, and practised again – what surfaces and slopes are better for which one? What happens when you pull the truck downhill?









And then there are the fine, small movements, which we probably barely even think about now that we just have them all in our toolbox – opening and closing tiny doors, and putting little people (or, in A’s case – allspice) inside, taking them out, making sure they are sitting upright and that they all fit – these are all extremely precise movements of hand and fingers. Have a look at how your child is trying to manipulate something small – it really is fascinating!


Car parts. Different types of cars. Different types of vehicles in general. What they do. What kinds of people drive them? What are they wearing? What do these people do? This could go on for a long while… Here we also have a unique opportunity to join in and answer all the questions – starting with pointing and a questioning look on a face of a very young baby, up to probably much much later and all the ‘how?’ and ‘why?’

The only thing we have been very careful of is not to have an agenda. If they ask what color the car is, we try and answer ‘yellow’ – not have them guess, or try and make them remember. We believe the trust the boys put in us by asking us to tell them names of things in the world needs to be respected for what it is, rather than unnecessarily tested.

Serious science

Playing with cars has been a source of some serious scientific discoveries for our boys. These are just some of them:

  • Hypothesis: Some cars, when pushed, go faster than others. Tested for the van versus the truck. Will it also be true for other cars? Which ones?
  • Hypothesis: Some cars are much bigger/ heavier/ longer than others. Tested. True, with different answers for different combinations.
  • Hypothesis: Some cars will fit into other cars. Tested for some, true for some.
  • Hypothesis: Some cars break when thrown on the floor. Tested for one. Enough proof obtained. Not willing to test on others.

And of course there are the many categories that they have been using to organize the cars – by size, speed, length, color… These discoveries are particularly engrossing; it takes hours to figure out just the right way, and is as fascinating to watch as any Discovery channel documentary. These categories, discovered on cars, sea animals, tea sets, so early on, help all of us understand life later on without going crazy.








Therapeutic play

A. became scared of flying, especially take off and landing, once he turned 2 and had to be in his own seat. On our return from a first trip like that, he dug out a plane tucked neatly among his many cars. He was practising taking off and landing for a couple of days. He put his plane in the air (on the windowsill), then took one of his cars (that’s right, cars!) in his hand and proceeded to explain to the car: “You are bigger now, you will have your own seat on the plane. You can hold my hand.” I watched quietly as this play continued for another few days. We were due to take another flight in a week or so. It was much better.


(Also have a look here: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/10/the-power-of-play-therapy-and-4-ways-to-encourage-it/)


Fantasy play: cars aren’t always cars, you see…

… sometimes they are potatoes, when you need to go shopping and fill your bag with them; sometimes they are chopped veggies that will taste so nice for dinner tonight; sometimes they are people, or animals. They really are what you want them to be. Just like acorns can be coffee, once you put them in a cup, or a turtle can be a table when you put a cup on top of it.

Which is why it’s ok that our boys don’t have all the toys in the world – they really only need the ones they have. If they did have all those toys, would it be half the fun?








Oh and just maybe – social stuff?

Kind of funny, but it is also quite amazing. A. has two tractors, but only one little cart that goes on the back of the wooden tractors. I have just found out recently that the two tractors share the cart.

A. usually explains to one of the tractors that the other will now borrow the cart, but that later it will be back. Not quite what is happening on the playground yet.



So does it matter that they have been playing mostly with cars for… well, quite a while now? We’re not too worried about that, to be honest.

It doesn’t matter what you play with, but what and how you think and feel as you play. You can play intelligently with a doll […] and you can thoughtlessly read books. (Janusz Korczak)

It doesn’t matter if our boys are playing with cars, sea animals, or tea sets. What matters is how they think and feel as they play. And to let them develop in this thinking and feeling as they play, to let them discover the creative possibilities and scientific facts, we are choosing to give them the freedom to choose what they want to play with, how they want to do it, and the time and space for their explorations.

What about your children – do they have their favorite toys, or play objects? What are they? We would love to hear your thoughts!

20 thoughts on “Our boys and their toys

  1. I love this. My bro in law often said his first child only needed him to buy a ball and give her a paper bag her first year of lide. Children are so imaginative and will play for hours with any object that helps them in their play. That being said, i think its also important to realize that this means we dont need to be so rabid in our toys choices. E.g., I have seen many a blogpost and/or comments with people ANGRY that a family member has bought their child a plastic toy or god forbid one that makes noise and takes batteries. Rather then being grateful for the thought and generosity they would rather tell them to not buy anything if they dont comply with their demand of natural toys. Isnt that parent just like these teachers who require a child to play with toys a certain way or not at all? If children are imaginative enough to use a car as a potato arent they able to use a squawking toy as a crying child? Why do set limits on our kids in what we trust them to be able to do?

    • Hi Nina,
      thanks for your comment. I totally agree with you. Most of the time the child plays at home with the toys we provide. If these are open-ended and leave enough room for creativity and unknown fun there is no harm in having “plastic noisemakers” around too. I do admit though that I have cut the wires on a small fire engine simply because I could not stand the noise of it anymore at all. In the end this makes my son come up with his own ideas of what noise the fire engine does when running along the road. So all good. I do believe it’s – as with everything else – about a good middle way, right?

  2. I love this! As I read this I realized how much learning is going on. My 21 month old son has been into cars as well. Mail trucks, garbage trucks and his tractor specifically, as well as his two planes. He has learned that he can scoot on most of them….they are not meant for this, but it works for now. He’s learning sizes and speeds as he pushes them across the floor. He manipulates people and animals inside or on top of the vehicles. He loads cars onto his car transporter that I didn’t think he was old enough for yet and slides the pieces up and down. I bought him a small wooden train track to add to the collection of vehicles and now he’s learning about magnets and which ends need to go together to make it “stick”. The set has a small crane that can pick up the cargo from the train cars and he is working very hard to slide the piece back together once the crane has picked it up. His favorite stuffed toy is a small cat named “meow-meow.” He instructs her to “look” when we read books and “listen.” He also feeds her snacks, wraps her in a small blanket and puts her to sleep. He has some small wooden animals he likes to “feed”. They eat bread, water, crackers, dirt and ride on top of cars. Apparently the llama also pooped on my son’s knee, but he said he cleaned it. This has been his favorite joke for a couple of months now. Social skills, story telling, imagination.

    So much fun in their play. I do love to sit back and watch it unfold.

    • Hi Jen,
      thanks for reading and sharing your experiences. Seems like our boys have the same wooden train with the crane :) And he looooves the magnets too. It must be fascinating when you think about it without knowing how magnets work.

      I always say: “Who needs TV when you have a playing child in the house ???”

  3. Great article regarding child development “Boys and their toys”. Small young boys when they are playing with their toys such as trucks and cars, they need to be given their space to learn for themselves which enables them to use their creativity and to give them a sense of independence which is a bonus. It helps them in the long run! Moms and Dads that have young boys, this is a “must” to read!

  4. Lots of interesting things in here. Caveat: I am a Montessori teacher, have been for 20 years. Also, I have two sons, now grown, and a daughter. Yes, pretend play is important ( v. fantasy play, which is based on ideas not created by child, adult ideas, like “spider man”, but that is another story….). Probably vitally important. All mammals play, to put it briefly. However, childhood is also when children want to lean skills. Like walking, using tools (scissors, screwdrivers, nut crackers, wheat grinders, hole punches, brooms, smart phones….) Reading, writing and using numbers are skills, too, but, in preschool, I put more emphasis on social skills (part of the Montessori curriculum! Awesome!) and physical skills, including self-care (nose-wiping, putting on coat, etc). Moving with intention, problem-solving.

    So, if your school is a good one, they are not getting rid of the cars so your child will look at charts of letters- ugh. If they really are, run away. They are trying, I hope, to expand his curiosity about the rest of the world, and some other skills and interests. As long as you are not taking away cars at home, I think all is well. At home, I hope he is also helping to take clothing out of dryer, washing dishes, sorting socks, helping to cook, putting groceries away, gardening, digging, raking leaves….all awesome learning opportunities which children love. We mammals were programmed to learn a lot from the real world. We just need lots of opportunities and people to do it with.

    • Hi Mary,
      thanks for speaking up here with your Montessori background. My first thought really was: get the boy and RUN !!! But he loves it there. Despite the fact about the cars he loves the structure and the routine they have. He knows exactly what is going on when and where and how and they have lots and lots of outdoor time in all sorts of weather conditions. So I still believe it to be a good place. He is moving up to the bigger children in january so lets see how he will get on with all the materials up there. I do think that Montessori’s concept is great and hits the nail when it comes to learning skills and stuff. I just think that sometimes the child as an individuum can be overseen by all the “sticking to a concept”. Well it certainly is the case there but as I said – he is happy and that again is something I should not ignore.
      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

  5. :):):) This article is fantastic. My son spends all day playing with cars… They drive, they eat, they drink, they go to sleep:) He uses the cars for driving, transporting other toys, he knows that they need a driver… I am sure that he learn a lot!!
    thank you:)

  6. My favorites:1. Transformers More than meets the eye! (I still have all my orgiinal Transformers and their boxes or card backs.)2. Lazer Tag The game that moves at the speed of light. (I still have my Lazer Tag gun plus my younger brother’s Lazer Tag rifle!)3. Othello A minute to learn…a lifetime to master. (I still have my orgiinal one and a travel one I bought at Montgomery Ward in Topeka, KS)4. Boggle (I still have it!)5. Nerf (I had Nerf Golf, Nerf Football, Nerf Baseball, Nerf Basketball, etc. You name it, if Nerf made it I probably owned it.)6. LEGO (I gave my old LEGO toys to my brother but I’ve bought newer ones since.)7. Star Wars (I still have all my orgiinal figures and vehicles from all three films.)8. Micro Machines (I don’t have all the ones I bought because I let other kids play with them and they stole some of them from me.)9. M.A.S.K. (I don’t believe I have them anymore.)10. Voltron (Whew! I don’t know what became of him.)11. Air Raiders (I gave virtually all of them away to a couple of boys I knew.)12. G.I. Joe A Real American Hero! (I have a Snake-Eyes figure still, but that’s about it.)13. Battle Beasts Fire burns Wood! Wood floats on Water! Water puts out Fire! (My brother has em, I think.)14. Visionaries (My brother had them; I don’t know what he did with them.)15. Robotech (I think my brother took the one figure I had.)16. Dino-Riders Harness the Power of Dinosaurs. (I don’t know what became of them.)17. Simon (I don’t know what happened to it.)

  7. Pingback: The urge to play | Mamas in the Making

  8. Pingback: Our boys and their toys | Mamas in the Making | Early Childhood Education | Scoop.it

  9. Pingback: Our boys and their toys | Mamas in the Making | playbased learning | Scoop.it

  10. Pingback: Our boys and their toys | Mamas in the Making | Ms. Charaine's Class

  11. Pingback: Our boys and their toys | Mamas in the Making | Ms. Bokor

  12. Pingback: Our boys and their toys | Mamas in the Making | Ms. Vosloo

  13. Pingback: The Healing Power of Play | Mamas in the Making

  14. Pingback: Raising Kids Who Enjoy Coming Home | Janet Lansbury

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>