To some people, toys are likely seen as mere by-products of a materialistic society, a source of fun and distraction for kids but nothing more. Yet, there is a wealth of research that demonstrates the importance of toys in children’s development, and when several toy retailers including Toys R’ Us offered ‘quiet shopping’ for autistic children at the end of 2016 (1), it highlighted the necessity of toys throughout childhood.

Toys are useful for engaging children, stimulating their imagination and facilitating interactions with one another by providing a shared point of interest (2). Toys offer a facilitative role in fantasy play, by creating make-believe scenarios children are able to develop their decision-making and creativity skills (3). Play has also been found to improve confidence and social skills, through allowing children to practice real-life situations and learn how to share or be part of a group (2). Importantly, toys offer parents and children a different communicative route which can maximise the social, cognitive and language skills that play develops, whilst strengthening family bonds (4).

However, in cases like autism where sufferers are unable to empathise or understand emotions, communication can prove difficult (5). Nevertheless, certain toys have been shown to be especially stimulating for young sufferers of autism; a recent study found that fluorescent toys were good at holding the gaze of high functioning autistic children, whilst reflective or light-emitting toys can provide pleasure (6). The level of engagement that certain toys elicit in sufferers of autism can offer parents other opportunities for interaction with their children, and thus facilitate the developmental benefits of play already mentioned.

Given that roughly 700,000 people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum (5), and we have an increased understanding of the developmental role of toys for children with autism, we should be encouraging more retailers to offer inclusive shopping experiences in the future. At the very least, the developmental benefits available to all children are a reminder that sometimes toys are more than just toys.

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1. England, C. (2016, November). Toys R Us quiet hour launched to help children with autism. The Independent. Retrieved from

2. Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182-191.

3. Goldstein, J. H. (1994). Toys, play, and child development. Cambridge University Press.

4. Tamis‐LeMonda, C. S., Shannon, J. D., Cabrera, N. J., & Lamb, M. E. (2004). Fathers and mothers at play with their 2‐and 3‐year‐olds: contributions to language and cognitive development. Child development, 75 (6), 1806-1820.

5. ‘Autism’. The National Autistic Society. (2017, February 8). Retrieved from

6. Lee, Y. H., & Ma, M. Y. (2016). Investigating the parent-child interactive behavior of autistic children by using composite light-emitting or reflective toys. Interaction Studies, 17 (2), 279-305.

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