How to select toys for a child’s play (“yes”) space


(Photo courtesy of Andy, Flickr Creative Commons)

How do you decide what toys to include in your child’s “yes”/play space?

While I could have subtitled this blog post “toys for a three-year old” or “what toys to buy for an 8-month old,” I realized that that would be missing the point.

“When setting up your child’s play environment, age-appropriate space and play objects are important considerations. It is best to provide an optimal learning environment according to your child’s stage of development.” (Your Self-Confident Baby, Magda Gerber.)

What I love about Magda Gerber’s approach to childcare and play is her emphasis on the unique relationship between parent and child, one that is built on respect, trust, and careful observation of the individual child. What interests my three-year old daughter might not interest yours; the same goes for my 8.5-month old son. So, instead, I’d like to share with you a list of some guiding principles that I have used to create a personalized “yes” space for each of my children. These are principles that have helped me choose what play objects to buy – or not – for my kids.

Be encouraged, friends.

1.Observe – Magda Gerber wrote,”Observe more, do less. Do less, enjoy more.” Before you buy any toy for your child, regardless of his age, wait and observe. Even before you scour Pinterest for “the best toys for toddlers,” wait and observe. Watch your child.

Ask yourself a few questions, like, “How old is my child (i.e., infant vs. toddler)? How is she using her body right now (i.e., is she crawling, climbing, jumping)? Is he drawn more to fine motor or gross motor activities right now?”

At three years old, E. remains interested in narration, imagination, playing with her words and voice, and processing her days (preschool, the park, the books we read). So, she has dolls, a toy bed, small toy kitchen, a doll stroller, a few play clothes, blankets, baskets, a small collection of board books, a wooden stool.

2.Curated (not “rotated”). – In contrast to Montessori and Waldorf play philosophies, which encourage rotating toys and work materials in a child’s play space, RIE encourages parents to provide children with a curated (for age, developmental stage, and interest) play space that remains the same over long periods of time. While E.’s play space has obviously evolved over time and is much different from J.’s current play space, I do not rotate toys in and out every week or two or three. Why?

First, toy rotation is really an adult-imposed agenda on a child’s personal work space. It implies that I the parent have total and arbitrary control and decision-making over my child’s space. Just because I’m bored with the space doesn’t mean my child is bored! RIE encourages us to suspend our pre-conceived notions of what or how a child might be thinking or feeling. Also, boredom, for both adult and child, is something to be embraced, not something to be fixed or avoided. Big, creative ideas result from periods of boredom.

Second, a stable and consistent play space fosters security and safety for a child. E. wakes up every morning and her play tent is in the same place as the day before; her IKEA tunnel is still under the trampoline, and her dolls are still lying on their play bed. Imagine someone entering your sewing room or garage or paint studio or office every week or so and just rearranging your materials or rotating out supplies. I would go crazy! My pencil case is my life. My post-its need to be on-hand while I read. So, in the same way I respect my husband’s work space and he mine, I respect E.’s and J.’s work space by respecting their need for stability and consistency.

Lastly, a (mostly) unchanged play space helps a young child learn internalize the value of order and place. While E. might not always participate in picking up her room before bed, she has a keen eye and is quick to remind us, “No! Papi! That doesn’t go there. It goes here” (as he takes the toy from his hand and marches it to its correct spot).


(Photo courtesy of Omer Unlu, Flickr Creative Commons)

3.Less is more. – Infants and young children are easily overstimulated, so I have found that less is more. Fewer toys and less furniture lead to a more peaceful play environment, which facilitates concentration. I have witnessed time and time again how much deeper, richer, and more creative my daughter’s play has been with fewer toys; it’s as if with too many objects in her room she feels mentally paralyzed to make a toy selection and consequently floats from toy to toy without delving in. Finally, fewer toys, each with its own place to be stored, also helps a young child to internalize neatness and order, as well as a sense of place and belonging.

4.Safe. – A true “yes” space is one that is as safe as possible (both physically and emotionally) for the child. So, in the case of my infant son, J., I ensure that any and all play objects are safe for him to put in his mouth since he’s at a stage in which he explores through his sense of touch and taste. Through careful observation I have seen that E. is not quite ready to use arts supplies (scissors, crayons, markers, play doh) unsupervised, so those play objects remain out of her yes space. Additionally, I have made sure that all electrical outlets are covered, all furniture is bolted to the wall, and wall hangings/pictures are high enough out of reach.

Finally, their “yes” spaces are what I call emotionally safe: they are free of parent interference in their play (“Why don’t you build a house with your legos?” or, “Let’s have a picnic and you can make me tea.”) and are safe from my NOs! of frustration (“Don’t make a mess!” “Don’t touch that!”). E. and J. are 100% free to roll, walk, talk, sing, play, and explore to their hearts’ content.


(Photo courtesy of Christina Kessler, Flickr Creative Commons)

5.Open-ended. – In Your Self-Confident Baby Magda Gerber wrote, “I’d rather see a busy child actively manipulating a simple toy in a variety of create ways to see how it works than see a passive child playing with a busy toy that encourages her passivity.” Open-ended toys not only encourage a child’s creativity, but they are investment play objects that last years.

The hand-me-down mini trampoline in E.’s play space is sometimes a table for a picnic with her dolls, sometimes a boat, and sometimes…a place to jump! The wooden rocking horse (that my own grandfather made for me) is sometimes her car, sometimes a firetruck, and sometimes…a horse.

For baby J.’s toys, a RIE baby from birth (different from his sister), I’ve learned so much (once again!) from Magda Gerber: “Recommended play objects at this age are large, sturdy cotton scarves…,soft balls, soft plastic teething toys, large beads,…wiffle balls…semi-inflated beach balls…lightweight stainless steel pots and pans can be fun….” (Your Self-Confident Baby) The plush fish toy in J.’s space is sometimes an object to study with his eyes, sometimes an object to pass back and forth with his hands, while other times it’s a scrumptious teething object.

Still feel like you need some concrete gift ideas of toys to buy for your child or a friend? Be sure to check out these great resources.

Your Self Confident Baby by Magda Gerber

Janet Lansbury’s blog

Midwest Montessori

Bella Luna Toys

Nova Natural

Community Playthings


2 thoughts on “How to select toys for a child’s play (“yes”) space

  1. I have to disagree on the rotation: our kids love it. Too many things/books/… In the same space makes it difficult for them to choose what to do. So it is good to have some less used away.

    However, kids are able to say what they like to play with now/ an adult can see what is not used. And there are various phases, now the cars are in but the train track not. It can go in the storage. Later on train is in again.

    As they were smaller, they wouldn’t even remember things in storage. Now they can ask for them. And after a pause the play may develop a lot as well as kids have developed.


    • Hi! So sorry I didn’t see your comment until now. Thank you so much for sharing your point of view.

      Sure! If a child hasn’t used a play object in a long time, then maybe it’s time to transition it out/away. The parent will need to be the judge.

      A main reason why RIE discourages toy rotation on a regular basis is b/c that detracts from the play space having a continuity, a safe predictability for the young child. Think of it as the work space of the child (play is a child’s work), or *your* work space. If someone continually rotated my pens and pencils and notebooks and pictures from *my* work space, I’d feel discombobulated. I like knowing where the same things are, knowing they are always there, where *I* left them.

      That said, I 100% agree with “less is more.” Thats’ why my children’s play spaces are simple, curated, clean. Excess toys get sold or donated or stored.

      Thanks again!!! Audrey


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