The visual system is the most complex sensory system in the body, and yet is the least mature system at birth. As the visual system develops, infants need to learn to make the change from simply responding to brightness or contrast towards developing effective functional vision and applying meaning to their visual world. This progress from the blurry world of light and dark to the sophisticated ability to handle complex visual tasks is enhanced through play. By thoughtful selection of toys and activities, parents can stimulate this process of visual development while integrating it with the fun of play.
GENERAL GUIDELINES WHEN CHOOSING TOYS
Walking into a toy shop can be overwhelming and quite daunting, particularly when it comes to selecting toys to facilitate development. There are certain guidelines to consider.
Toys Are Expensive - Cost is not everything! Inexpensive toys and games at the age and interest level of a child can be just as stimulating and effective in fostering visual development as sophisticated costly toys.
Age-appropriate Toys - Toys are made for every age group. By selecting something appropriate for the age of your child, you are making sure that, as well as providing fun, the toy will be right for a particular stage of development.
One Toy, Many Activities - Choose toys that can be used in a variety of ways, sparking the child's creativity and imagination. Some toys are designed to grow with a child and be used in different ways at different stages of development.
Toys Can Be Hazardous - Avoid toys that may pose a choking risk because of small parts that can detach or be chewed off easily. Ensure that there are no sharp or protruding edges. Be aware that the material or paint used for some toys can be toxic.
Washable Toys - Whatever material toys are made of, be it plastic, wood or different fabrics, it is always a good idea to ensure that they can be regularly washed without the risk of damaging them.
Sturdy Toys - As part of the fun of play, children throw, bang and generally mishandle their toys. Make sure they are not easily breakable.
Toys to Encourage Interaction - Many toys are ablaze with lights and sounds. These toys may entertain the child but don't necessarily foster interaction and learning. The more the toy does, the less the child has to do. Select toys that encourage the child to learn by performing an action to make a toy work.
Balloons - A party is not the same without balloons! Children love to play with them or watch them float nearby. Once they have burst, be sure to discard all the small rubber pieces, which may be a potential choking hazard.
Throw Away Plastic - Instead of the toy, children often prefer to play with the container in which it was packed. Cardboard boxes can provide hours of fun and imaginative play, but plastic bags and bubble wrap should be discarded as soon as the toy is unpacked because of the hazards they pose.
CHOOSING AGE- APPROPRIATE TOYS
The development of visual abilities is a gradual process. Because all children develop at their own pace, their developmental age does not necessarily align with their actual or chronological age. Children present with a variety of strengths and weaknesses, preferences and abilities, all of which need to be taken into account when choosing toys that will interest and stimulate them.
The First Six Months
Babies are able to see immediately after birth, but their vision is not yet clear. As vision gradually develops, the baby begins to react to objects of high contrast and to focus on faces and stare at them for a few seconds from as early as 2 - 3 weeks. At this very early stage the best stimulation is the human face so talk, smile and interact with your baby, as well as presenting toys with bright vibrant colours. At about 2 months the baby's ability to track objects with his eyes begins to emerge. He will be fascinated by leaves blowing in the breeze and by mobiles hanging above his cot, learning to focus and co-ordinate his eye movements as he watches their movement and gradually develops hand-eye co-ordination by reaching for the moving parts. Towards the end of the fourth month, depth perception and the ability to differentiate near and far objects starts to develop. By five months of age, he will recognise and react to familiar objects and faces. As he gains better control of his eye movements and learns to manipulate objects, give him brightly coloured toys of varying textures and toys that make sounds or light up as he grasps or squeezes them, creating an awareness of cause and effect.
Six to Twelve Months
During this period of development, present toys that can be stacked, fitted into each other and pulled apart, such as building blocks, nesting cups and stacking rings of different sizes. As well as improving hand-eye co-ordination they help to develop visual memory. Fun activities to increase visual memory include "peek-a-boo" and finding objects that have been hidden from view. It is never too early to start introducing books and reading to your baby. Choose cardboard or cloth books so that he can turn the pages himself and focus on pictures that attract his attention. At this stage pictures should depict bright familiar objects and pages should not be too full or busy, making it difficult for the child to visually select and focus on objects that interest him. As the child starts to learn about his world by crawling, and co-ordination between the eyes, the body and the environment develops, spatial perception emerges.
One to Two years
At this toddler stage the child becomes an explorer, wanting to see and touch everything that catches his attention. Visual skills continue to develop along with improved physical proficiency and dexterity. Activities such as finger painting, play dough and playing with sand and water are enjoyable learning experiences at this stage. The child enjoys bouncing, throwing, and chasing balls (and probably a few objects not meant for throwing!). Visual skills are linked with other important developmental skills, like balance. Children enjoy the movement of toys such as rocking horses which help to integrate balance and spatial perception. Hand-eye co-ordination, visual discrimination and eye teaming become more refined and can be encouraged with shape sorting toys, simple puzzles and interlocking building blocks such as Lego. Toys that reflect the world around them stimulate imaginative play and problem-solving.
The preschool years are the time to sharpen pre-literacy skills, including the visual skills that are fundamental to learning to read and write. Cutting, painting, moulding with clay or play dough and threading beads strengthen fine motor abilities, while ball games develop gross physical co-ordination skills. While reading to your child, encourage him to look at the book and to match and identify shapes, colours and even letters, for example the letters of his name. As imaginative play becomes more sophisticated, provide opportunities for imitation of daily activities with toys such as household objects, cars and dress-up clothes.
SIGNS OF PROBLEMS
Even if you're doing everything you can to encourage your child to develop visual skills by the typical ages, you may notice signs that alert you to potential problems. If your baby is unable to focus or the eyes appear crossed by the age of four months, consult your doctor. Constant tearing or crusting around the eyes is not uncommon in the first few weeks, but if it persists it may be a sign of a blocked tear duct. Red or swollen eyes may indicate an infection. Seek medical advice to help you manage these concerns.
If your child has a functional vision problem, this may be detected at preschool or only once the child has started school and is having difficulty learning to read. Your optometrist will guide you towards the appropriate course of action.