'I realised I needed to loosen up!' - 4 ways watching a four year old play with toys has changed my life

This is how hanging out with my four-year-old nephew and playing with toys has impacted the way I look at the world - and I'm sure parents can relate

(Image credit: Future)

I don't want to sound dramatic, but watching my four-year-old nephew Max play with toys has changed my life.

As I write about everything from the best kids toys of 2024 to early Prime Day toy deals, I get to test a lot of toys. I tend to look at them quite analytically to see how they work, the benefits they offer kids, and ultimately if they are worth your money. But I recognise that as a fully-fledged grown-up, I am not the target audience for these toys. That means I regularly rope in my four-year-old-nephew Max to get his opinion too.

Not only does that mean I get to spend some lovely quality time with the sweetest, most hilarious boy on the planet, and get some work done at the same time, but I also get major cool aunt points for having a steady supply of brilliant toys ready to test out with him (we've tried out loads of fun toys, from slime to Beast Labs). As we started testing toys together, I'd assumed that we might make some core memories and have loads of fun, but I hadn't quite realised the deeper, more meaningful impact it would have on me as an adult. This is what I've learned.

  • Instructions are more like guidelines. I can hardly remember a time when I didn't read the instructions before using something for the first time. I want to use it properly, as intended, and with the best results. When Max and I test toys together, we follow the instructions to a tee so we can test effectively. But after that, Max gets some free reign to just play however he wants to play. To start with, I found myself getting a bit twitchy - he wasn't playing with it like the instructions said, and I even found myself trying to correct him. When on earth had I become so rigid? And it was in that moment that I realised I needed to loosen up! Max was having a great time, making up his own rules, and using his imagination to great effect. And isn't that the point of toys?
  • There are no limits when it comes to creativity. I reviewed a mini Dyson toy with Max, and I loved how much he loved having his own replica vacuum cleaner so he could copy what he'd seen grown ups do around the house. But after playing with that for a while, in Max's world, the Dyson morphed into a monster that was chasing us around the room, then it was a wall we had to jump over. Next it became some kind of hobby horse, and a walking stick, and even a sword. Max's imagination was not confined by any preconceived notion, and in that moment, I felt genuinely inspired to be more Max. I now make an concerted effort to not only look at something for what it is, but also what it could be. And there's something so freeing about tapping into that creativity, and I want to do it more.
  • Friends are simple. I was at a park with Max watching him play with a couple of other children of a similar age. At one point he came over for a drink, and told me he was having so much fun with his new friends. I asked what their names were, and he said he didn't know, but they were his friends. Lots of adult relationships and interactions can be so complicated, but this was an absolute reminder, that sometimes when you boil it down, they can be so simple.
  • The enthusiasm is boundless. Max and I play with toys is relatively small doses, which means it's really easy for us to have loads of fun before either of us become tired and emotional. But Max's boundless energy and enthusiasm is hard to keep up with as an adult. While parents undoubtedly know this already, it's made me all the more determined to spend more time playing with toys with Max to give his parents a well-deserved break.

For more advice on playing with toys with your kids, experts explain why it's ok if you hate playing with your kid. We also share the types of play all kids need for their development, and how to tell if your child has a balanced play diet.

Consumer Writer & Money Editor, GoodtoKnow

Sarah is GoodtoKnow’s Consumer Writer & Money Editor - which means she writes about everything from this year's top toys and the newest toy releases, to discounts on days out and childcare costs. Sarah is passionate about helping mums save money wherever they can - whether that's spending wisely on the right toys and kidswear or keeping on top of the latest news around child benefit, the motherhood penalty. A writer, journalist and editor with more than 15 years' experience, Sarah is all about the latest toy trends and is always on the look out for toys for her nephew or Goddaughters so that she remains one of their favourite grown ups. When not writing about money or best buys, Sarah can be found hanging out with her rockstar dog Pepsi, getting opinionated about a movie or learning British Sign Language.