The proliferation of infant toys, now marketed for every stage of development from birth to twelve months, is a fairly recent phenomenon. Until the twentieth century, TOYS made specifically for the entertainment of infants (mainly in Western societies) consisted almost solely of rattles, often made of expensive materials such as coral or silver. Other artifacts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as walking stools, are more indicative of prevailing philosophies of child rearing than those of PLAY. Other cultures took care of their babies in different ways. Many Native American tribes placed their children in wooden cradleboards, SWADDLING the baby tight. Cradleboards could then be carried on the back or propped up next to the mother while she worked, presenting the baby with a wide array of visual stimuli. Small toys could also be hung from the hoop of the cradleboard. Patterns of child rearing also shared certain common characteristics across cultures. For example, toys for babies (whether coral rattles or woven ornaments) often served the dual purpose of entertaining the infant while warding against disease or accident.
The renowned folklorist IONA OPIE and her son, Robert Opie, in their book The Treasures of Childhood (1995), attribute the elaboration of playthings and games over time to the attainment of culture, which is historically delineated by the invention of rules and structures. In general, toys play a very important role in the socialization of children, promoting the values and expectations of the prevailing culture. The infant, then, engaged in acquiring basic physical and mental skills, is at the very beginning of this process of acquiring culture through play.
In reality, toys are only a small part of a baby's daily life up to the age of one year. For a newborn, the earliest source of stimulation is the mother or primary caregiver. Since the 1960s many books have been published on infant play, most consisting of suggestions for activities and games for parents and babies such as singing songs, making the baby laugh, offering a variety of objects for the baby to examine, and popular games such as peek-a-boo. While it can be assumed that parents have everywhere entertained and interacted with their babies in these and similar ways, such books reflect how modern theories of child development became mainstream in the course of the twentieth century.
By the mid-nineteenth century, new definitions of childhood promoted notions of learning through play. Child-rearing manuals from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries may be the best evidence of these more modern theories of child development. It is also possible that advice books served the purpose of suggesting toys for infants as well as aiding parents to make similar playthings with similar goals for stimulating the very young child. Certainly parents have made toys for babies out of a variety of materials since time immemorial. However, few if any examples of this ancient history exist. In particular, handmade toys rarely survive childhood and almost never reach museum collections.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, psychologists and educators had established a set of precepts almost identical to today's notions of child development. In 1934, when the psychologist Ethel Kawin published The Wise Choice of Toys, children's projected abilities according to age were a primary consideration in choosing toys appropriate to their interests and skills.
This new body of research (and conclusions) became increasingly part of the fabric of everyday life as accepted educational institutions such as the KINDERGARTEN incorporated it into their teaching activities. The kindergarten, in fact, as conceptualized by the German educator FRIEDRICH FROEBEL in the 1840s, was instrumental in transforming the field of early childhood education and influenced thinking about infancy as well. Froebel's idea that children learn best through play is still the basis for most scholarship on early childhood.
Today play is considered to be a key part of the daily care of infants. Current child-rearing literature emphasizes the importance of early childhood development for achievements later in life. As a result, parents in industrialized societies often feel a real sense of urgency in stimulating their children enough, often through toys. The noted pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton observed in 1974 that this sense of urgency has been fueled by both toy manufacturers and child experts. So-called educational toys, in particular, are products of this trend. Lamaze toys (made by Learning Curve) and products made by the Baby Einstein Company are specifically marketed as playthings that contribute to an infant's physical and mental development. Baby Einstein, for example, produces a line of toys designed to stimulate precocious development through exposure to classical music.
Toys for babies are in the main discussed as tools to encourage the physical and mental development of very young children. For example, editions of one popular child care book produced by the American Academy of Pediatrics include lists of recommended toys for each developmental stage as well as possible activities.
In general, most recent child-rearing manuals recommend almost exactly the same types of toys for different stages of development. Mobiles, for example, are considered to be ideal toys for babies from one to three months, giving the baby a stimulating object to look at. Toys for the brand-new baby, then, are designed to gently stimulate developing senses of sight, hearing, and touch. Unbreakable crib mirrors are also very popular playthings for newborns, based on research showing that babies are interested in faces most of all. As the baby's vision develops, experts suggest the introduction of objects with high-contrast colors. Floor gyms are also popular toys, giving babies something to look at and reach for before they learn to sit up (between six and eight months). Throughout the first year, rattles, musical toys, and soft balls and toys are recommended to go along with babies' growing comprehension of the world around them. By the end of the first year, as infants learn to crawl and acquire more small motor skills, toys like stacking cups, plastic telephones, "busy boxes," board books, blocks, and push-pull toys are considered to be more appropriate.
However, babies, just like older children, do not always use toys in the recommended mode (according to adult designers). A young child, for example, may take the pieces of a stacking toy and pack them into a small bag to drag around the house rather than practicing the specific skill that the toy was manufactured for. In the same manner, an infant may find a use for a more advanced toy that has almost nothing to do with the original intent.
Certain traditional playthings have undergone major shifts in popularity due to changes in recommended child-rearing practices. The baby walker, for example, has lost the support of mainstream child care professionals because research has shown that babies prepare themselves for walking in other, more efficient ways. Other factors have also contributed to this trend, including the rise of concern about ACCIDENTS. Safety is an especially important concern in considering infant toys. Most safety recalls (now widely available through the Internet) concern products for infants and toddlers as the population most at risk from accidents.
Books for babies are often grouped with toys. Inherent in this classification is the notion that babies spend the majority of their time engaged in play. Many authorities, most notably Brian Sutton-Smith, have contested the latter notion, asserting that very young children primarily explore and master important skills and that those activities are commonly perceived as play.
However, picture books (board books, in particular) do constitute a substantial body of material manufactured specifically for very young children. In the last decade, more and more picture book classics have been transferred to the more durable board book format. Other formats created for very young children are the bath book and the cloth book. The bath book, made of plastic, is intended for use in the tub, either for reading or for playing; the cloth, or stuffed, book, as in examples manufactured by Lamaze, are often written more simply than board books, with more movable features. Many of these books are nearly indistinguishable from other stuffed toys.
Today there are a large number of companies that focus on toys for infants, designed for each stage of early development, as previously defined by child psychologists. Most of these businesses maintain websites with large sections devoted to parenting guides, which include information on how to select toys based on the growing skills of the baby and how to further stimulate those skills using their toys.
Brazelton, T. Berry. 1974. "How to Choose Toys." Reproduced in Growing through Play: Readings for Parents and Teachers, ed. Robert D. Strom. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Hewitt, Karen, and Louise Roomet. 1979. Educational Toys in America: 1800 to the Present. Burlington, VT: Robert Hull Fleming Museum.
Kawin, Ethel. 1934. The Wise Choice of Toys. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Opie, Iona, and Robert Opie. 1989. The Treasures of Childhood: Books, Toys, and Games from the Opie Collection. London: Pavilion.
Oppenheim, Joanne, and Stephanie Oppenheim. 2001. Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Baby and Toddler Play Book, 2nd ed. New York: Oppenheim Toy Portfolio.
Segal, Marilyn. 1983. Your Child At Play: Birth to One Year. New York: Newmarket Press.
Shelov, Steven P., ed. 1998. Your Baby's First Year. New York: Bantam.
Singer, Dorothy G., and Jerome L. Singer. 1990. The House of Make-Believe: Children's Play and the Developing Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Strom, Robert D., ed. 1981. Growing through Play: Readings for Parents and Teachers. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Sutton-Smith, Brian. 1986. Toys as Culture. New York: Gardner Press.
White, Burton L. 1985. The First Three Years of Life. New York: Prentice Hall.