By: Kierstin Fafulovic, MS, OTR/L   |   Posted: December 09, 2022

A pediatric occupational therapist explains the importance of play — and why children living in poverty face greater challenges simply because they lack access to toys.

How Joyful Play in Childhood Grows Successful Adults

A pediatric occupational therapist explains the importance of play — and why children living in poverty face greater challenges simply because they lack access to toys.

Written by Kierstin Fafulovic, MS, OTR/L
Photography by Nico Benalcazar, Kierstin Fafulovic, Lina Marcela Alarcón Molina and Caroline A Mwinemwesigwa
a boy plays with a toy

We all remember a favorite childhood toy. Something we were likely given as a gift that became our extra appendage, favorite conversation topic or reason for being perpetually late to dinner.

My early favorite toy was a doll named Amy. Amy went everywhere with me, and I told everyone what was happening from her perspective. Yes, Amy was entertaining and kept me busy for hours, but what I gained from Amy was much more than fun. By telling stories from Amy’s perspective, I learned perspective taking and empathy. By copying adults I saw with babies, I learned to care for others who were smaller or more dependent than me. I was not allowed to kick Amy like a ball or color on her like paper, and through that I learned stewardship, responsibility and the value of human life. While I perhaps could have learned these in other ways, I had the pleasure of learning them while having the time of my life with a raggedy and very loved doll.

Play or Science?

I am now a pediatric occupational therapist. Big words, right? It means that I get to work with children who, for some reason or another, are not growing or developing as they should. I have worked in high- and low-income areas of the U.S. and Kenya, providing services in home visits, schools and clinics.

Kierstin working with a young child

Kierstin working with a young child in Kenya.

I use many therapeutic techniques, but toys and play are my favorite tools. Professionally, I regularly see that toys are underestimated. Parents and caregivers show surprise when I suggest play with toys for therapeutic home exercises, and they often say that they were expecting something more scientific. However, the reason I love toys is highly rooted in science.

Exploration Changes Brains

Research shows a strong correlation between motor development and cognitive development. And why is that? Because children learn by exploration. As a child is given opportunities to explore the world around them, his or her brain is connecting synapses — making brain connections. A child is born with all the brain cells they need, but those brain cells aren’t all connected to each other. The body decides how many connections brain cells should make with each other based on how much stimulation it is given.

A child who is given regular, diverse play experience makes more brain connections than a child who does not. The more opportunities for varied play, the more connections the brain has. Our brains are made to be built like trees, and as children explore and play, they are given opportunities to add branches and leaves to make a full, vibrant tree, not just a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

Research also shows that there is some variability in our brains as adults. The Lord gives us grace upon grace, and no one is a lost cause. We can always change. But these early brain connections create much easier possibilities for success.

a young boy plays with toy cars

Play Equals Skills

What skills exactly are children getting from the toys they play with? Here is a breakdown of some of my favorite toys and what can be gained from them:

  • Early toys such as rattles, track toys, crinkle paper and bells let children learn that they are active agents in the world. When they move, something happens. They can have impact.
  • Puzzles, shape sorters and interconnecting toys help children learn problem solving, spatial reasoning, frustration management and persistence.
  • Imaginative toys such as action figures, dolls and stuffed animals help children see possibilities, practice perspective taking, role play relationship scenarios and practice forward thinking (how will the parent respond to what the child says).
  • More advanced toys such as Legos, Magna-Tiles, and Kinex, offer opportunities to use complex reasoning to create an imagined possibility, problem solve, use the scientific process and discover basic principles of physics.
  • In addition, as children age, many of these toys become collaborative and complicated, creating opportunities for turn-taking and cooperative skills as well as anger and conflict management.
  • And let us never forget that toys bring joy, and joy is a gift of God.

Toys in Poverty

a girl plays with a toy made from banana leaves

“I like playing with my dolly,” says 6-year-old Esther, who made the doll out of banana leaves at her Compassion center in Uganda.

Do these sound like prerequisites for life and academic skills? That’s because they are! Toys are important for the growth and development of all children. And yet, children in poverty have less access to toys. The toys they do have are frequently worn out, broken or missing parts. And as is necessary, family money goes to survival needs first.

In order to meet the need for toys in impoverished communities, I have found myself making them. Across socioeconomic status and continents, I want children to have opportunities for growth and development, which means I want them to have toys. I will make them out of anything I can find. I have played with pop bottles and gravel, cut up yogurt containers and milk jug caps, pots/pans and beans, and deodorant caps and plastic cups.

I’ve made complex toys out of plywood, wire and spare parts for a school in Kenya, and I am currently making toys for some of the kids in my low-income urban school district. Why? Because playing with toys will give them more possibilities for their futures.

What About Christmas?

For all these important reasons, I hope that the boy my husband and I sponsor, and every other child in poverty, has access to good toys. This year’s Compassion Christmas Gift Fund is giving me an opportunity to help make that happen, and I’m very excited to give to it for these reasons:

  • People who know my sponsored child well can pick a gift that is just right for his interests and needs.
  • Every child at a Compassion center will get a present that advances their growth and development.
  • Children will get real toys from the store with all parts working and present.
  • Each child will get a personalized gift, helping them understand that someone loves and values them.
a girl runs holding a Christmas gift

Observe a child with a well-loved toy, and it’s easy to see the joy of the Lord as well as the wheels turning in their mind. I would encourage you, next time you see a happy child playing, to think about all the brain cells they are connecting and the possibilities those connected brain cells are opening up for their future. Then praise the Lord for how beautifully and wonderfully he made them and pray for similar opportunities for your sponsored child somewhere else in the world.

Give a Christmas gift to help a child in poverty reach their God-given potential!

the author

About the author: Kierstin is a pediatric occupational therapist. She works to help children who have difficulty in the areas of daily living, fine motor, social-emotional, sensory, feeding and cognitive skills. She has worked in low- and high-income neighborhoods doing home visits with infants and toddlers, in schools and in outpatient clinics. She has also worked in a hospital and schools in Kenya. She currently lives in Ohio, with her husband, and she works for a low-income urban school district.