There are so many myths about learning through play. These myths are so common, that moms may take it for granted that they are true.
Why do I want to correct these myths on play? First, they cause a lot of stress and guilt for moms. Many moms I know read articles saying these things, and feel guilty because that’s not what they are doing.
To be honest, when I read articles that present these myths as rules, I felt this guilt and pressure too! I wondered if I somehow missed out on learning these “facts” during my training and professional work. So I did more research and consulted other mentors. I then realized that nothing in the research and scientific evidence about how kids learn will support these myths.
Second, I believe they make childhood less fun. Nowadays, it seems like kids can’t just be kids anymore. Even something like play, something that SHOULD be fun for kids, is now surrounded by so many rules.
I definitely believe in rules that make play safe and prevent injuries. You can read more about safe play at healthychildren.org. Other than that though, other “rules” we often hear only destroy childhood fun if you follow them too strictly.
Third, they set up moms and kids for failure. Maybe you have tried so hard and failed to follow these “rules”. You may even feel like giving up on learning through play altogether. You may think, “I’m just not cut out for this.” Or worse, you start thinking, “I’m a bad mom.” You may even think that you have no choice except to just give lots of screen time. These myths make screen-free play seem so hard! If that’s how you feel, you’re not alone. I see this happening quite often.
If you’ve been frustrated trying to follow all the advice on learning through play, you’re in the right place. Read on about why you don’t need to follow many of the rules that you read about on the internet.
Learning Through Play Myth #1: You can push your child to do something that she is not ready for.
I get dismayed at so many of the results that come up when I do a Google search for “toddler activities”. Although there are good ones out there, so many are NOT developmentally appropriate.
I see this particularly with many arts and crafts activities that are labeled “for toddlers”. The activities themselves are okay – for school-age children! But when they are labeled “toddler activities”, they set up moms and kids to fail.
You see, arts and crafts activities are all about fine motor skills. What are the typical fine motor skills we expect during the toddler years? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, at 12 months, they can imitate you in scribbling, and try to stack one block on top of another. At 18 months, they can crudely imitate a vertical stroke, and stack four blocks. At 24 months, they can imitate a circle and a horizontal line.
This means that many of the “toddler activities” on the internet are beyond their developmental level. Handprints and vegetable art in the shape of a heart, a fruit, a face, or an animal? I don’t think so. (I actually remember doing exactly that vegetable art activity when I was in FIRST GRADE!) Neither will your toddler be able to glue all those beads and pompoms to form a scenic diorama.
I have seen articles outright claim that doctors’ developmental milestones are wrong, and that we should push our kids to do more. This is NOT true. Our developmental assessment tools are validated through extensive research. Many of these researches included hundreds of thousands of children from centers all over the world.
Trying to push our kids to do something they are not ready for will only lead to frustration. Many moms who have tried these activities (as I have!) will say that they had one or more of these experiences. “I spent so much time preparing, and it only occupied him for five minutes.” “I was actually the one who made the crafts!” “I think she missed the point.”
I’m here to tell you that your child did not “miss the point”. It’s those age-inappropriate activity guides that are missing the point of the toddler years! The toddler years are about exploration. Learning through play is all about creating connections. So go ahead and skip these activities. Stop worrying that your child is missing out!
If you really love arts and crafts and are excited about the prospect of doing crafts with your toddler, then go ahead – but adjust your expectations. The end product will NOT look like that nice picture you saw on Pinterest. A mess of paint IS already art by your toddler’s standards.
When doing arts and crafts with your toddler, DON’T expect the museum-worthy art you see on Pinterest.
Choose activities that are developmentally appropriate.
The best learning activities are those in what psychologists call the zone of proximal development. This means that these are skills that are just a little beyond his reach, but with your assistance, he can complete them. Create a balance of activities that he can do on his own and activities that he can do with a little help.
Learning Through Play Myth #2: Play must be structured.
Do you need to strictly follow the instructions in all those toddler activity guides? Should produce the same results that we see? NO! Adapt the activity to whatever will suit you and your child.
The best play is creative and flexible. It should be fun too! If we focus too much on following a certain structure, we may miss out on the fun. Read this article on 5 tips for having fun and stress-free toddler activities.
Another version of this myth is about how you organize your playroom. According to these rules, you should sort your toys into baskets. Then you should train your child to get one basket, play with the items there, and put them back when he is done before he moves on to play with the items in another basket.
Because of this myth, many moms feel pressured to provide the picture-perfect playrooms they see all over Instagram. We see toy shelves filled with beautiful, matching baskets. We feel disorganized unless we do the same.
This myth is based on how play is usually conducted in many preschools. (more on this in myth #5) Preschools NEED this level of organization because there are just so many kids there.
If, like a friend of mine, doing this feels like therapy for you, go ahead! But you absolutely don’t have to. A few bins to put away the toys – even mixing them up (gasp!) – will work just as well. You can also repurpose boxes or containers you already have at home.
It is true that you do not want a completely chaotic playroom. Though if you do, I feel you! (I remember this time my toddler excitedly described his playroom as, “typhoon here!”) Your worth as a mom is not measured by how your child’s playroom looks.
It is also true that you can teach your toddler to put away her toys. You can even make it into a game! However, it does not need to be as rigid as it is often described.
I remember this time when my toddler was finished playing with some blocks. I tried to get my toddler to put them away before getting his toy truck. He refused and looked upset, so I decided not to insist. What did he do? He pretended the blocks were construction bricks and put them in the truck. He then proudly announced that he had a “construction truck”.
This reminded me that we should let our kids be free to combine toys in new and different ways. Let her use the circle in the shape sorter with the Play-Doh and the cars if she chooses. I can guarantee that no Google search or activity guide can rival your toddler’s own ideas for creative play. This way, you’ll get more mileage out of each toy too!
We should also try to avoid insisting that our kids put back toys in a specific way. I remember one time when we were packing away toys, my toddler kept a toy in the “wrong” container. I was going to remove it and put it in what I thought was the “right” container, but then I stopped myself. What would I be teaching my child if I did this? A few times is no big deal. But if I repeatedly do this, I might end up destroying his initiative and happiness at being able to put away his toys.
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Learning Through Play Myth #3: Throw away all your plastic toys.
Plastic toys get a bad rap on the internet and social media. If your family has decided, for environmental reasons, that you want a home free of plastic, that’s fine. As long as YOU were the one who made the decision, and not someone else who made you feel guilty about your child’s plastic toys.
One reason I often hear is that plastic toys don’t provide enough sensory stimulation. Plastic does not have the same texture as, say, toys made of wood or natural materials. However, I don’t think your child touches nothing but that one toy the whole day! Your child will naturally have plenty of opportunities to experience various textures in your everyday activities. You don’t need to stress too much about it.
Another common objection to plastic toys is that they do not encourage creativity. The truth is, learning through play is not about the toy, but how it is used. A child can be creative with a wooden block just as well as with a plastic shape sorter or a set of Legos. You don’t even need to use toys all the time. Common household objects work just as well. Pretend people are great too! These can be peg people made of wood, figures made of plastic, or dolls made of cloth.
Another form of this rule is that you should get rid of all toys that have batteries (which are often plastic toys). Many of these are noisy and have flashing lights. It is true that too many of these toys may be overwhelming. However, unless your child was diagnosed with sensory issues, or a condition such as seizures that are triggered by flashing lights, these should not be harmful. If the noise bothers you, remove the batteries, and it will act just like a regular toy.
Learning Through Play Myth #4: Use only realistic toys and pictures.
Some articles say that you should only choose books and toys that look realistic, and not cartoonish. They also tell moms to avoid books with fanciful scenes. For example, they claim you should not show your child books where, for example, a dog is driving a bus, because it doesn’t happen in real life.
Various reasons are given for this rule. They claim toddlers don’t learn from drawings and unrealistic toys. Toddlers don’t understand the difference between fantasy and reality. While these may be partially true, they are not good reasons to remove illustrated books and fairy tales from your child’s library.
On her own, your toddler may not be able to learn from a book or toy – whether or not it is realistic. It doesn’t matter whether it is an exact replica of a dinosaur or a cartoonish dinosaur toy. Either way, she will learn best if you use that toy to interact with her. Talk with her about it. Make up stories about it. Soon she’ll be making up her own stories too!
There is also nothing wrong with fantasy. In fact, pretend play is a major milestone in early childhood. This begins during the toddler years. We expect it to be fully developed by the time a child reaches preschool age.
As pediatricians, when we assess a child’s development, we always look for whether or not a child can do pretend play. We love it when a child can take a wooden block and pretend it is a phone, a car, a dog (while making barking sounds) – anything! This shows the child’s creativity and flexibility. These are very important characteristics to develop. So removing fantasy from your child’s life will actually hurt his development.
Finally, following this rule will steal so much of the joy from your toddler’s childhood! Among my child’s favorite books are Aladdin, Winnie the Pooh, and Peter Pan. By this rule, I shouldn’t expose my toddler to these books. People don’t fly on magic carpets, genies don’t exist, bears don’t have honey collections, people don’t fly – you get my drift.
Learning Through Play Myth #5: Your home must be like a preschool.
There are many blogs on the internet that teach moms how to turn their home into something that resembles a preschool. They adopt concepts that work in preschool settings. They conclude that because it works in preschools, then your home should be like that too.
This myth has resulted in so much mom guilt. Our Instagram and Pinterest feeds are full of photos of picture-perfect playrooms, toy shelves organized with military precision, neatly labeled drawers, and color-coded folders. If you truly enjoy doing all this organizing (like that friend I mentioned who considers this self-care), then that’s great! But if you don’t have the time, energy, or desire to do all this, I’m here to tell you that you DON’T.
Blogs that advocate this usually cite the writings of Maria Montessori and what she did in her “Children’s Houses”. Maria Montessori advocated learning through practical activities, spontaneous self-discipline rather than external rewards, and an emphasis on developing self-help skills. It is true that you should include these in your daily routine! Many of the activities in this guide below (sign up below to download it for free!) are based on these ideas.
Also, we do recommend what we call a “structured home environment”. This means that the child knows what to expect at home. There is a routine. There are designated areas for playing, for eating, and for sleeping. This can help remove many reasons for toddler tantrums when they don’t know what’s coming. However, there is no need to take it to the extreme.
Your home just needs to be that – a home. A place where your child is loved and accepted unconditionally. That’s it. Yes, the home is a child’s first school. Yes, we are our child’s first teachers. But first and foremost, you’re a mom. And right now, the lessons he needs to learn from you are love, trust, self-worth, and belief in his capability. Letters, numbers, and arts and crafts can wait.
“Montessori” has become a marketing buzzword used to promote a very lucrative industry. So many things that are labeled “Montessori” are not even based on Maria Montessori’s actual writings. Remember too that each of Maria Montessori’s children’s houses had 50-60 children! She never meant her exact system to be copied in individual homes everywhere.
With all of these rules, I believe it is best to strike the right balance. Have a routine and some structure, but allow for creativity and flexibility. Enjoy the different kinds of toys. Welcome also everyday household objects that end up becoming toys too! Have a few books that have real pictures, but don’t dismiss the ones that are illustrated drawings.
Today, remove one thing from your to-do list that comes from believing in these myths. Create a “stop doing” list. Use the time you save for self-care, or for spending extra time just BEING with your child, without worrying about whether or not you are following the rules of the mom internet police.
Toddler mom life comes with enough challenges already. Don’t overcomplicate it by believing these myths that only add to your stress. Enjoy your moments with your child. Don’t let these myths steal these wonderful, happy moments from you.
There are so many misconceptions that make mom’s life needlessly stressful. We struggle with sorting through all the conflicting advice, which is why my passion is giving you accurate information and practical solutions. I promote a fuss-free, balanced parenting approach based on the principles of child development. Share this article with someone whom you think will benefit from it! – Dr. Victoria, developmental and behavioral pediatrician, toddler mom