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Overcoming Impulses: How Toys Can Teach Children Self-Control

Impulsive behavior is common in children, who tend to act on their immediate desires without considering the consequences. However, learning to control impulses and delay gratification is an important life skill. Research shows that children with greater self-control tend to have better outcomes later in life, including higher educational achievement, better health, and greater financial success. Fortunately, simple games and toys can help children practice and strengthen their self-control abilities from a young age.

The famous “marshmallow test” conducted in the 1960s and 1970s dramatically highlighted the importance of self-control. In these experiments, children were given a marshmallow and told they could eat it immediately, or wait 15 minutes and receive a second marshmallow as a reward. The children’s ability to resist the temptation to eat the treat right away correlated strongly with future positive life outcomes. Those with greater willpower went on to score higher on SATs, have lower body mass index, and fewer behavior problems.

Since then, many studies have confirmed the lifelong benefits of childhood self-control. But how exactly can toys and games develop these skills? Educational psychologist Dr. Stephanie Carlson notes three main ways toys can boost self-regulation:

  1. Increasing mental flexibility
  2. Improving working memory
  3. Enhancing inhibitory control

Simple board games like Simon Says force children to remember rules and inhibit automatic responses. Sorting toys, puzzles, and shape matchers also make kids focus, plan, and problem-solve. Even basic toys like blocks and legos promote cognitive skills key to self-control. Interactive, responsive toys also provide immediate feedback to children’s actions, helping them learn cause-and-effect and avoid impulsive mistakes.

Here are some examples of beneficial toys for developing self-discipline:

Musical Instruments

Learning to play an instrument like the piano requires focus, memory, patience, and discipline. Children must practice hand-eye coordination and memorize note sequences. They also learn to play steadily, without rushing. These skills transfer to other areas requiring measured thinking and impulse control.

Puzzles and Games

Jigsaw puzzles, memory card games, and simple board games all build mental flexibility, working memory, and reasoning skills. Children must use strategy, pay attention, and refrain from distraction to win. Two-player games also teach losing gracefully and avoiding emotional outbursts.

Construction Toys

Building kits like Lego, magnet tiles, and Lincoln Logs let kids create imaginary structures piece by piece. They must visualize an end goal, then exercise patience and care in bringing their vision to life. Each block added builds focus, planning, and deliberate action.

Shadow Puppets

Using their hands and light to create shadow animals and figures helps children improve fine motor skills, creativity, and impulse control. They must concentrate to form clear shapes, while avoiding sudden jerky movements that disrupt their shadow puppets. Telling stories with the figures also builds sustained focus and imagination.

Busy Boards

These interactive learning boards have knobs, buttons, doors, switches, locks, keys, and zippers for toddlers and preschoolers to manipulate. As they twist, slide, and toggle the various parts, children learn to touch gently and deliberately. Each component provides interesting sensory feedback to reward gentleness over impulsiveness.

Apart from direct play, parents can use toys to teach mindfulness and self-regulation skills. For example, breathe-in/breathe-out games with pinwheels or bubble blowers make children slow down and focus on measured breathing. Toy handbells or rain sticks can provide calming auditory cues for reflection. Songs and rhymes coupled with character toys reinforce self-control mantras like “soft and slow” or “be patient like a turtle.”

The key is letting children lead play and exploration at their own pace. Parents should avoid overly controlling or instructing play, which can diminish its value for developing independence. By allowing kids to engage creatively on their own terms, toys become tools for practicing self-discipline through intrinsic motivation. Children then internalize these skills as their own, preparing them to regulate behavior even without external reward or punishment.

In today’s instant-gratification world, mastering self-control is harder but more crucial than ever. Toys remain a simple, effective way to equip children for success. By engaging their minds and bodies, playthings grant kids agency to direct their actions consciously. Putting decisions directly in children’s hands helps imprint the self-control and forethought that will serve them well throughout their lives. Toys that teach focus, care, mindfulness, and patience may provide children—and society—with a lifetime of benefits down the road.