Plate with paints and finger painting Photo by Mark Baylor

Toys and learning

In education, it’s recognised that children need access to a range of play opportunities to support their development. Early Years practitioner Leanne Shaw looks at how toys support learning through play, and why it’s important that boys’ and girls’ choices aren’t restricted.

The Early Years Foundation Stage is the framework that everyone working with children from birth to the end of year R (in England) has to work to. By law, we must provide ‘equality of opportunity’ This means many things, but one part of it is to encourage children to play with whatever interests them. This approach of teaching from the child’s interest is the cornerstone of early years education today.

The framework outlines seven area of development for children in this age range:

  • Personal Social and Emotional Development (PSED),
  • Physical Development,
  • Language development,
  • Literacy,
  • Maths,
  • Understanding the World,
  • Expressive Arts and Design.

Let’s take a look at some different kinds of toys, how they help in these developmental areas, and why it’s vital that boys and girls are encouraged to take part in all kinds of play.


Girl and boy playing on trike and scooter.

Bikes and ride-ons in gender-neutral colours in the nursery yard.

Bikes and other ride-on toys help develop strength in leg muscles, stamina and co-ordination. They develop balance, the concept of speed and space, and how to control our bodies. These are all physical elements. Some mathematical elements are also included, such as spatial awareness, and some Personal, Social and Emotional elements, including perseverance and self confidence.

Water play is great fun. It encourages exploration, cause and effect, and initial concepts of weight and volume. Children get more from water play if they play together, developing social skills and language and communication.

Home corner


Home corner toys provide great learning opportunities for boys and girls.

Kitchen and cookery toys help to develop imagination and language. They promote PSED elements of making relationships, as children play together, sharing, turn taking, and working together.

Children learn the mathematical concept of one to one correspondence, giving one cake to teacher, one to a friend and keeping one for themselves. They count and divide, and pretend that the banana is a phone, a simple beginning to symbolic representation.

Role play and dressing up

In the nursery, both boys and girls enjoy dressing up and using their imagination. They often replay things that have seen in their home life, on TV, problems they need to solve, or situations that are troubling them.

Younger children learn self-help skills, including getting the dressing up clothes on and off. Buttons, zips, Velcro and sleeves all offer challenges to young children, and this is the perfect opportunity for them to learn how to cope with them, without the pressure of having to do it for real, where time constraints often mean parents do these complicated things for them.

TTS Education website screen shot - boys and girls in medical-themed dressing up.

Doctor, paramedic and two nurses: education suppliers’ catalogues tend to show a wider range of roles than superhero and princess.

Older children improve social, planning and language skills, as they create a story with their friends.

If girls are offered only princess clothes to dress up in, they will only act as princesses. They will be limited in their imagination, not having the opportunity to problem-solve how to put out the fire as a fire fighter, or to bandage up a limb as a doctor.

Children naturally like to imitate the adults around them, especially their parents or primary carers. What could be more natural than a child pushing a buggy like Daddy, or rummaging through a bag like Mummy?

Jigsaws and puzzles

Jigsaws and puzzles are often aimed at girls, because of the assumption that it comes naturally to girls to sit still and enjoy this type of toy whilst boys “have” to move about. However, boys still need to learn fine motor skills, problem solving, the self-esteem gained from successfully completing a puzzle, and the enjoyment of working one to one with a parent or teacher.



Girls and boys enjoy and benefit from construction play, but it’s rarer to see girls building in toy store signage and catalogues.

In toy stores and advertising building and constructing seem to be marketed almost exclusively to boys, but in education settings we are careful to create an environment where everyone can benefit from the many learning areas promoted by these toys. Physical elements like fine motor skills, Expressive Arts and Design, skills of imagination, Mathematical skills of problem solving, as well as Language development are all covered when building .

Children build tall towers, make plans and decide how to carry them out, and try and re-try when things do not go according to plan. Why steer girls away from these opportunities? They enjoy these activities, and need to learn these skills too.

Small world toys

Let’s look at cars and other small world toys. Yes, as an early years practitioner, I group all ‘small world’ toys together, including cars, Playmobil, animals, dinosaurs, etc etc etc. From playing with these, children develop all areas of the curriculum. They use imagination, language, finding out about the world, and maths, when they discover that cars roll faster down the ramp if it is steeper, or sorting all the farm animals into one group and zoo animals in another.

Young children don’t make any distinction between these toys. There is no reason, in their eyes, why a Sylvanian family figure, an Action Man and a Barbie can’t sit in the car and drive really fast away from the scary dinosaurs.

‘The work of children’

As the psychologist Piaget said, ‘Play is the work of children’. Children learn so much through playing, it is vital to their development. We, as adults, and especially early years practitioners, need to ensure that all children get the opportunity to experience all different types of play, all different types of toys and all different types of situations, to allow them to grow into all different types of people, not pigeonholed into gender stereotypes.

Fingerpainting photo: Mark Baylor


  1. nichole beauchamp

    thanks for this article – couldn’t agree more. really nice to see all the different skills gained by different toys explained. will pass it on!

  2. I love this article. Finally people are waking up! I would love to use this article and any other material based on this concept for my university dissertation. Any help or more information or practitioners I can interview would be very welcome!
    Email me.

  3. Jules

    Great article, very succinctly written- helped me to understand the ‘function’ of toys. Have a question, about the small world toys as you call them. My 4 year old son only wants to play with cars, he soon tires of other activities and other toys. He has a range including dinosaurs, cooking sets and food and lots of puzzles and books. He will choose a book to read with me but usually once read will go back to his car collection. Should I encourage other forms of play or leave him to it? If I am to encourage then what should I be doing? Thanks for your help.

  4. Leanne

    Hi Jules, thanks for getting in contact with us. If your son loves to play with his cars, that’s great. There is no need to worry that he has a limited range of interests, that’s completely normal for a child of his age.

    However, if you do want to encourage him to widen his experiences, there are ways you can do it.
    One of the most effective ways is ‘modelling’ play to him. To many adults, this feels odd at first. It basically consists of you playing with the toys, on your own, where he can see you. Don’t ask him to watch, or try to engage him, just get down on the floor near him whilst he is playing, and begin to play with something different.
    Now for the really hard bit. Narrate to yourself what you are doing, just like a child would. For example, ‘I’ll put the dinosaur in here, and give him some food. Oh, here comes the dog, he wants to share the food’
    Your son might just ignore you, but he will hear and see what you are doing, You will be showing him how to play with these other toys, and that it is fun. He might come over and join you, he may not, but he will be attending to what you are doing.

    Another way to encourage play with other toys, is to introduce his cars to other play situations. For example, put the cars in a sand tray, or let him roll them though paint to make track pictures.
    Allow him to mix toys together, so the cars could drive around a farm, or take a doll to a picnic. If he has toy food, he could become a pizza delivery driver, or deliver the weekly shopping.
    He can use the toy tools (or real ones, if you are feeling brave) to mend the cars at the mechanics.(A garage is easy to set up, just get tools, a phone, and some coins, and you have a complete role play garage. If you want to add to it, you can print signs and labels from the internet)
    Don’t insist he tidies up one thing before getting the next toy out, Children’s creativity is sparked by exploring and making links between different areas of play.

    I hope these ideas help you to encourage your son to play with different toys, but if he prefers to stick to the cars, that is fine. He will move on in his own time.

    Happy playing.

  5. Dianne

    Hi, Fab article. Loved reading all about the different toys and how they enhance play and imagination. I have a little question too Leanne. Are you able to help. My little girl has just turned 5 and we spend a lot of time with her as a baby, engaging, singing stories, playing everything. She has a wide selection of toys (maybe too many) we have started to cut back! The trouble is she finds it extremely difficult to play by herself, she seems to thrive on playing with us. She is bright and will happily play many board games with us, or do lots of drawing, plays, and general toys with us but not by herself.

    I have tried various things, set something up, engage then leave her for a bit, she lasts 5 minutes, and it’s play with me from her. I done a toy rotation recently so there is not so much selection, worked for a short time but then back to I have nothing to play with and play with me.

    She is a wonderful well behaved child, loving and great all round, but I would like her to engage in something by herself…Any ideas thanks

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