Play is a natural activity as well as a developmentally significant phenomenon for young children. A number of researchers have recognized the value of play for young children since 1900's (Sutton-Smith, 1985). According to the United Nation's "Declaration of the Rights of the Child," a child's play is as equally critical as the right for nutrition, housing, health care and education. Although it is not easy to define what play is about, there is a general consensus on the common characteristics of play behaviors. First, a child's play is intrinsically motivated. Second, the focus of play is on the activity itself. Next, there is a certain degree of freedom to which play can be nonrule based. In addition, a young child is actively involved in play. Finally, there is pleasure gained from play activity (Guttfried, 1986; Levy, 1978).
When children play, they figure out how things work. Children understand that they can solve problems, learn to talk and share ideas with others, develop and express their imagination and creativity, learn about themselves, others, and the world and express their feelings and energy in healthy ways (Spodek & Saracho, 1987). Thus, play is an important indicator of children's linguistic, social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development (Eisert & Lamorey, 1996; Eisner, 1990; Smilansky, 1990). Eisert & Lamorey (1996) found that play was correlated with adaptive and fine motor skills at 12 months, with language at 20 months and with all scores of early learning subtests at between 14 and 13 months.
In the book entitled The Philosophy of Play (1920), Gulick stated that "Toys are objects in connection with which our instinct feelings have a chance to develop. They might be called pegs on the wall of the mind on which to hang instinct feelings" (p.69). However, Kline (1993) mentioned that the world of child toy play was no longer the world of the solitary imagination, but the world of children's fantasies driven by commercial means, which was told as the commercialization of toys.
Play materials facilitate children's play activities. When children play at home, they initiate most of play sequences. When they play imaginatively, parental encouragement and availability of toys may be crucial (Goldstein, 1994). As an integral vehicle for play, toys have a substantial impact on children's interests and themes in play. A number of studies have claimed the effects of play materials on children's development within the first five years of life. Especially, the availability and the variety of stimulant materials are positively related to children's cognitive, linguistic, and social development as well as creativity and imagination. According to Bradly's (1986) study, parents who provided their infants with a variety of toys were more likely to be involved in the activities with their infants and were more likely to vocalize to them. The results of the comprehensive study by Barnard, Bee, and Hammond (1984), showed that the availability of play materials early in life at home was significantly correlated with children's intellectual competence. Children tend to select various toys and play with them, spontaneously and appropriately. Not all the play materials, however, influence child's development positively. Surprisingly, there was a rise in estimated toy-related injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms from 140,700 in 1996 to 191,000 in 2000 (CPSC, 2001).
What is an appropriate toy for young children? Can parents facilitate their children' development and learning with toys? In Toys as Culture, Sutton-Smith (1986) gave a historical account of the attitudes toward toys over the centuries: from the toys as bond, obligation, solitariness, and consolation in family; toys as technology; toys as education; and to toys as market. In 1880's, rapid expansion of toy industries has brought great changes in value on toys and emphasized the importance of toys in children's appropriate development. …