Give the gift of healthy brain development this holiday season

You can nurture healthy brain development through the toys you buy for kids on your gift list this holiday season.

As you make your gift selections for children this holiday season, avoid perpetuating limiting stereotypes focused on what neuroscientist, Lise Eliot calls “extreme action” for boys and “extreme fashion” for girls. For example, toys typically marketed to girls (fashion accessories, dolls and household items) can help them develop nurturing, empathy and small motor skills but often don’t encourage them to be physically active, take risks or develop visual-spatial skills. In addition, by emphasizing fashion and appearance, we may unwittingly contribute to the tendency for girls’ confidence to slip as they move toward puberty. For too many girls, their interest in math and science tends to decrease as their sense of what it means to be a girl becomes defined by their appearance, unrealistic standards of beauty and submissiveness.

Toys marketed to boys (cars, trucks, weapons and sporting equipment) often encourage large motor skill development and visual-spatial skills, but don’t encourage the development of empathy or fine motor skills which can put boys at risk when it comes to school readiness and academic success. In addition, many toys for boys encourage aggression and violence without consequences, providing little opportunity for the development of empathy and perspective taking.

The bottom line is that for healthy overall brain development, boys and girls need opportunities to develop a wide range of skills – and the toys they play with can make a difference. As you make gift selections this holiday season, here are some tips based on the work of Lise Eliot:

  • Kids need lots of verbal interaction to boost their vocabulary and language skills. Reading to them from a very early age is probably the best way to do this. Select books for boys and girls that show diverse children and families and stay away from books that perpetuate gender and other stereotypes based on human differences.
  • Boys and girls need opportunities to develop fine motor skills that are essential for school success. Choose toys that encourage drawing, painting, cutting and building with small construction toys.
  • Give both girls and boys age-appropriate tools and encourage them to see themselves as people who can learn to fix things around the house.
  • Musical instruments teach spatiotemporal reasoning skills. A toy piano or keyboard can help young children learn to recognize patterns in both space and time which is especially helpful for mastering mathematical concepts such as fractions, proportionality and geometry.
  • Computer games that involve spatial manipulation improve children’s ability to mentally visualize and rotate objects. This kind of spatial ability may benefit girls in particular when they are involved at very young ages.
  • Jigsaw puzzles are another great way to teach important spatial and mental rotation tasks important for healthy brain development.
  • Building blocks and other toys that can be created into three-dimensional structures provide excellent practice and are linked to higher mathematic achievement.
  • Cuddly dolls and stuffed animals provide opportunities for both boys and girls to develop social and emotional competencies including nurturing, empathy and healthy parenting skills that can serve them well in later life.

Toys that over-emphasize stereotypic gender roles can box kids in and limit their overall health and development. You can give the gift of healthy identity and brain development this holiday season by choosing toys for children that provide opportunities to teach a wide variety of important skills that are essential for their overall health, well-being and school success.