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How can parents encourage their children to play with more toys in a digital world?

Have traditional toys fallen out of favour with our children, with them instead preferring to play games that require a screen or device? In today’s connected world, developing digital skills during childhood is essential, but should we be encouraging them to play with more engaging toys that require more thought and imagination? 

We analysed analysed a series of facts and data to explain why parents should encourage more playtime with traditional, engaging toys and games that provide a wide range of incredible benefits for their children’s learning and development. 

Madbricks also speaks to psychologist Dr Becky Spelman on how they can balance their children’s playtime with toys alongside their digital games and devices. 

How do children access the internet in today’s digital world? 

The internet has only been widely available for public use since 1991, however advancing technology means that nowadays we’re always connected and our lives have become heavily dependent on it. 

It’s no surprise then, that 98% of the UK’s population has access to the internet and 95% of households have an internet connection at home. This means that children growing up in today’s digital world will never be far away from the online world.

A recent study by the media regulator OFCOM suggested that 97% of British children aged between three and 17 used the internet on various mobile devices in 2022. 

Over two-thirds of children aged 3 -17 years old chose a smartphone to access the internet, making it the most popular device to access online information and games. Just under two-thirds of children also used a tablet to connect to the internet, suggesting that portable devices are favoured by children compared to personal computers or laptops. 

Children over the age of 12 were most likely to use their smartphone to access the internet, with children under 11 years old using a tablet instead. 

Data from CHILDWISE provided insights on gaming and how children used and accessed games consoles. The study revealed that 68% of children owned a games console or handheld device, with a further 9% having access to one regularly. These figures show the popularity of online gaming and how it plays a big part in keeping children entertained.

What about traditional forms of entertainment? 

Whilst games consoles and television have played a big part in keeping us entertained for decades, traditional toys and books have featured in children’s lives for centuries. But their days could be numbered, according to a 2023 study by the National Literacy Trust

Their research found that just four in 10 children between the ages of 8 and 18 enjoyed reading in their free time, the lowest level since the trust began the survey in 2005. 

The survey detailed that within children aged between 8 and 18 years old, one in 2 had been encouraged to read by a parent or carer throughout their childhood, however just one in five stated that they had read together with their family. 

Despite the decline in popularity in books, the demand for physical toys remains strong, with building sets, games being some of the most popular toys of 2023, contributing to £3.5bn in overall toy sales. 

Why is it still important for children to engage in screen time? 

Before we look into the benefits of playing with traditional toys, there are plenty of reasons why children should immerse themselves in screen time. After all, we’re living in a digital world where our lives are becoming more reliant on online technology and our children’s future will benefit from learning the skills they develop from online play. Some of the main benefits of digital play for children include: 

Digital literacy – Simple skills such as using a keyboard, mouse and how to navigate a webpage are just some of the basic skills that children are likely to pick up. As time goes on they’re sure to develop  important digital literacy skills such as research, reading, typing, and spelling, just by using a computer, tablet or smartphone. 

Problem solving – Take online gaming for example, these often require players to think strategically, overcome challenges and adapt to new situations. Problem solving skills can benefit children away from the games console and into real life scenarios at school and in their future workplace. 

Working as a team – Online multiplayer games require teamwork and collaboration with others to achieve the end result. This will help build children’s communication skills and the importance of working together in certain settings. 

Creativity – Some online games can encourage some level of creativity, particularly simulation games and those that promote open-ended exploration. This can help children develop their creativity and skills that require imagination to solve a problem.  

How can playing with traditional toys and games benefit your child? 

Alongside the hours of fun and escapism, there’s a long list of incredible benefits that children can obtain from playing with physical toys and games from a young age. Whilst technology can keep our kids occupied and have their own set of benefits, it’s still really important to encourage them to immerse themselves in creative play with physical toys. Here’s why: 

Development in social skills – A study by neuroscientist Dr Sarah Gerson from Cardiff University found that children playing imaginary games with toys can help with the development of social skills, emotions and empathy. The study looked at how playing with dolls could encourage children to talk about their feelings and emotions, helping to build social skills that will help them in everyday situations throughout childhood and beyond. 

Enhancing fine motor skillsFine motor skills focus on the muscles in your children’s hands, fingers and wrists, helping them to develop their movements to aid them in everyday life. Playing with puzzles and building sets such as LEGO encourages children to get hands on with their toys, which will aid the development of their coordination and increase their confidence in using their hands from a young age. 

Strengthening focus and concentration – It can be hard to get your children to concentrate on a certain task at the best of times, however regular play time with toys could have a positive effect on concentration levels. Sensory play can have a positive effect on a child’s concentration, with scientists suggesting it helps to filter out any excessive distractions that surround them, instead focusing solely on playtime.

Encourages creativity – One of the main reasons why toys exist is to spark creativity and fun for our children. Puzzles, building sets and games that require imagination are great places to start to spark a child’s creativity, helping to showcase their self expression and problem solving skills all through playtime. 

Helps with problem solving – Puzzles and building sets require time and thought to complete, therefore mistakes and problems could arise during play. These types of toys encourage a child to think about the problem at hand and what they can do to solve it. It could also help them to think about where they can get help from, whether that’s from an instruction manual or from an adult who could point them in the right direction. 

Achievement and a sense of accomplishment – Giving your child a toy that requires thought and creativity naturally has a wide range of benefits, but the sense of accomplishment that children get when they complete something could be the most rewarding of all. Completing a challenge shows that they’re developing their problem solving skills, they can follow instructions and are able to concentrate in order to achieve the end result. 

Expert reveals how to get the balance right between play time and screen time

Madbricks spoke to Dr Becky Spelman, psychologist and founder of the Private Therapy Clinic, who gave her expert advice on how parents can encourage their children to engage with traditional, physical toys and reduce their screen time.  

We asked Dr Spelman how parents could start to encourage their children to play more with physical, engaging toys rather than digital games, she said: 

“To encourage children to enjoy more physical play time with traditional toys, parents can set boundaries by limiting screen time and creating designated times for play with their toys and games.”

“Establishing routines throughout the week that include time for outdoor play, board games, or creative activities that can help shift focus away from screens and online games. Parents can actively participate in playtime too, providing valuable bonding time and learning experiences. They could provide a variety of toys and games, and praise and reward children for engaging in physical play, so a positive association with traditional play activities is formed.

When asked about the importance of encouraging our children to engage in physical play time from a young age, Dr Spelman said: 

Physical play at a young age is crucial for children’s development as it helps them to develop motor skills, cognitive development, social interaction, and emotional intelligence. It also helps children to stay active and maintain a healthy lifestyle.”

Computers and devices play an important role in our everyday lives and our children’s future, therefore it’s important that they start to learn digital skills alongside other areas of their development. But what age is it recommended for children to start engaging with digital devices and online gaming? Dr Spelman said: 

“It’s a personal decision, but if parents want their children to start safely engaging with devices, using them for the internet and online gaming, you can do this from 2 to 3 years old, under parental supervision and with age-appropriate content. It is crucial to avoid device addiction by setting boundaries to limit screen time and balancing digital activities with physical play and other offline experiences.”