When kids are young, it’s easy to tell when they are too old for a toy. They stop playing with it and move on to something else or their bodies quite literally will no longer fit. But what about with older kids? Where is the line between normal play and being the grown man living in your garage surrounded by their action-figure collection?* Is there such a thing as “being too old for toys”?
We know play is important for their development up to a certain age but is there an age when they should stop playing with toys altogether? Psychologist Jean Paiget theorized that children go through four stages of cognitive development. In his theory, the final stage of begins somewhere around age 11 and lasts through adulthood. What he called the “Formal Operational Stage” is when we become able to form ideas from abstract concepts and can test hypotheses — yes, your ’tween really is testing you! It actually becomes harder for kids in this stage to play imaginary games such as dolls and action figures, because their own brains get in the way. This is when some kids can start to seem too old for toys, but developmentally they still need opportunities for play. (And so do you, grownups!)
If your child starts to seem too old for toys, it isn’t time to get rid of playthings altogether. This is a new developmental stage, and just like when they progressed from a tricycle to a bike, it is time to transition to a different types of play. This is when kids get really good at applying information they already know to new situations. Complex puzzles and games of strategy are particularly good at this age, as they can practice their new planning and higher-level thinking skills. Another benefit to these types of toys is that kids (and adults) are reminded that the more you work on something, the better you become at it!
Adolescents are also learning who they are. Games that allow kids to “try on” different roles and personalities can help them explore themselves. Role-playing games and anything that engages their creativity like art supplies or complex construction toys can help your ‘tween learn new ways to express themselves. Toys with an element of danger are another choice that will keep even the most “grownup” kids engaged. Skateboards, slacklines, and even games like Truth or Dare are popular with teens for a reason — they appeal to a teen’s natural desire to learn about themselves and their environment through risk-taking. And because the ‘tween and teen brains are so busy, you may find your child is interested in toys that have no real purpose at all. Yes, there is an actual explanation for fidget spinners, slime and squishies — they give kids (and even adults) a chance to quiet their busy minds!
If a child still wants to play with toys as they move into adolescence, it is totally normal and to be celebrated! Unless a child’s play is affecting or replacing real-life friendships, there is no need to worry. In fact, we need to be more concerned about older kids who don’t play. Researchers have documented a rise in mental health problems among teens — such as anxiety and depression — that parallels a decline in children’s opportunities to play. Many teachers are working to integrate more play in the classroom, noting that it reduces stress, encourages teamwork and inspires creativity. Even Google has bought into the need for the most grown among us to play by providing their staff with LEGOs, slides, scooters and all kinds of opportunities to play.
So how old is too old for toys? Never! Disregard the age limit on that LEGO package, Grandma, you can still play after 99! If you haven’t heard the term “kidult” yet, don’t forget you heard it from me first. I know this may disappoint some, but this year’s hottest toy isn’t going to be an obnoxious finger monkey or a screaming toy that terrifies small children. The trend gaining the most traction is a whole category of toys — “Toys for Kidults.” And I, for one, am excited to see some validation for my endless desire to play.
*For the record, Leonardo DiCaprio collects action figures, and he is welcome to move into my garage any time.