Baby Declan’s room is the epitome of a child who has been lavished with toys of all shapes, sizes and colours.
Different LEGO sets make the bulk of scattered toys in the four-year old’s room alongside miniature cars, stuffed animals, tricycles and music instruments.
His mother, Nancy Wambua, said while the toys keep her son busy, they are her way of showing him deep affection.
Owing to her time-intensive career as a marketing manager, she hardly finds time to take the child out sightseeing or on frequent vacations.
Most of the time, Declan’s father is out of the country on business trips and every time he comes home, he buys his son pricey toys.
“The other day he brought him a tablet from Scotland. You see, it took us eight years in marriage before we had Declan alongside our three daughters,” said Nancy.
The story is replicated at Jasmine Wambui’s home, a single-working mother of two who lavishes her two sons with an array of pricey toys.
But sociologists argue that excessive exposure of a child to toys is unhealthy as it interferes with their cognitive capabilities and what children really value are vacations that allow them long periods of time and play with their parents.
Cognitive capabilities are brain-based skills that a person needs to carry out tasks, ranging from the simplest to the most complex.
Allowing the children to play outdoors or taking them on vacation has more value to their lives as it gives them an opportunity to practice the things they have learnt at home.
Leave the nest
Prof. Halimu Suleiman Shauri, a sociologist based at Pwani University, explains that the first four years are critical for building a child’s cognitive framework.
“A complete human being is made through interaction with society and so children need exposure to the outside world rather than just being confined in their rooms playing with toys,” he said.
For instance, seeing a car or an aeroplane move will put meaning to the child’s interaction with toys and enable them discern the difference between the real and the fictitious world.
He said too much investment in children toys by parents/guardians is misguided and he equates it to spoiling rather than helping the child.
He likens a child to a blank slate, where parents and guardians have to take keen note of what they choose to write on it. Playthings do not help children develop into happy, confident, well-rounded adults.
“Adults who do not want to move from their parents’ houses suffer from fear of going outside, which can be linked to too much exposure to toys during their formative years,” said Prof Shauri.
To remedy such an eventuality, he cautions parents and guardians to balance the time a child spends with toys by complementing it with family outings.
Temporary but frequent change of scenery is not only fun for children, but it also helps them progress in their development as opposed to being fixated.
Psychologist Lucy Wanjiku concurs that while it is therapeutic for children to have toys, there has to be a balance.
“Toys allow children to be able to express themselves just like holidays give them time to be away from their regular surroundings and learn new things,” said Dr Wanjiku, who works under the Kenya Association of Professional Counsellors.
Watching the children interact with the toys can also hint to parents whether they are victims of abuse or if they are exposed to aggressive behaviour which can cause emotional harm.
Dr Wanjiku advises parents to observe from afar when a child is playing with a toy.
‘‘You will be able to see how they express themselves. For example, if a child stabs, kicks and throws around the dolls it could be a sign of things she observes or encounters in their surrounding. In an ideal situation, the child should make mother-doll carry a basket to the market and father-doll to drive a car,’’ she said.
Oliver James, UK’s best-selling psychological author, wrote that parents are wasting money on toys and should spend it on holidays instead.
‘‘Do you have any idea what an extraordinary proportion of presents we give children aren’t actually wanted or valued?” he said.
Research indicates that even if you keep buying things, adults as well as children find experiences like travel more fulfilling.
Therefore, parents should consider the type and number of toys they give their children and balance this out with outdoor activities.
“If a child gets too attached to a particular toy, consider engaging a professional to understand why the child has such deep attraction to the toy,” said Dr Wanjiku.
Despite the caution over pampering children with too many toys, consumer demand has made the industry a booming business. Most parents spend a fortune on toys when schools close, fearing that their children would be exposed to too much TV.
Increased spending on toys by Kenya’s wealthy is rapidly enriching entrepreneurs who sell products that range from action figures to opulent doll beds, earning them millions of shillings in annual revenue.
The Kenya Revenue Authority’s latest ranking of top taxpayers shows that at least one toy shop, Nairobi Toy House, defied harsh economic times, earning between Sh350 million and Sh1 billion in annual revenues.
The toy shop, which has outlets in Westlands, Nyali, Village Market, Sarit Centre and Yaya Centre, ranked alongside private schools such as St Andrews Turi and International School of Kenya (ISK) and high-net-worth individuals.
However, a spot check in Nairobi shows that despite the increased spending, more parents are opting for outdoor toys that enable children to enjoy the natural environment and learn to seek out exercise and fresh air.
Totos and Toys shop along Nairobi’s Biashara Street saw increased purchase of outdoor toys such as bicycles and the Ben-10 toy during the August holidays.
Zavivi Toys & Brands, an online children toys shop saw sales double during the holidays for items such as roller skates and scooters.
“Demand usually doubles when children are on holiday but a number of parents are moving from indoor toy purchases to outdoor ones,” said Edith Mbaya, the shop’s operations manager.