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Now that the holiday season is basically upon us, I know a lot of parents and family members of young kids are starting to think about holiday gifts. And while the temptation is high to buy the latest and greatest buzzing, beeping, “interactive” toys, I think it’s much better to go the opposite way, with what might be considered old-fashioned toys that allow for less structured play.
If you think about it, those electronic toys can pretty much only be played with one way. When kids ask the question “what does it do?” instead of “what do I do with it?” it’s probably not the best choice.
Or as the childhood education advocate Magda Gerber put it “active toys make passive children.”
The girl has a couple of little toy “computers,” and she runs through the games or the songs every now and then, but it’s pretty much five minutes and she’s on to the next thing. Not so great if you need more time to get supper on the table or to do a little work while your child plays quietly and independently.
So what does she play with over and over for long periods of time? What gets her creative juices flowing, boosts her language skills and inspires critical thinking? The answers are simpler than you might think.
We have so many blocks our block area is overrun. There are alphabet blocks, plain wooden blocks, colored wooden blocks, blocks she has painted, plastic Mega Blocks and Legos. (Not all of these are in one place in the house, but a lot of them are.) We have tree blocks. We have random wooden pieces that she uses like blocks. We have big cardboard blocks for building towers up to the ceiling.
The great thing about all these things — except for some of the Legos — is that there are no instructions on how to do it or what you’re supposed to build. You can make a tower, knock it over and build it again. You can make a castle or a house for a peg doll or anything else you want.
Dress Up Clothes
Not every kids loves dress up, but mine does. She has a bin under her bed of purchased and collected dresses, fireman gear, doctor outfits and funny hats. There’s a box of accessories like necklaces, rings and crowns. In the closet there’s another box full of more hats and things, as well as play scarves that become capes, tails and veils.
She has grown up dresses I bought at a rummage sale and cut down to fit her a little better. And she has random stuff she’s scavenged from around the house.
There’s dress up time in our house at least once a week. It’s messy and chaotic and she wants to play Elsa and Anna more than I’d like (and I haven’t even given her the dress up clothes for that one yet) but I know she loves it.
Note: boys like dress up, too! There are lots of “boy friendly” dress up options from Melissa and Doug, for example, including a fireman, construction worker and chef. You can also just collect funny hats and random clothes and see what happens if you’re not sure that’s something your kid will like.
Probably the best tools for open-ended play that we use all the time in our house are art supplies. We have a full-fledged art area upstairs where paint is allowed, and the girl just got a desk for her bedroom so she can color in there (she has paper, markers, crayons, colored pencils, scissors and glue sticks in there, so nothing too messy).
The good news is that although you can go crazy with buying supplies, there are really only a few basic things you need to get started making art at home, and none of them have to be very expensive. It’s good to keep them all together in a place that’s easily accessible for your child (so long as they are old enough to use them responsibly).
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The Benefits of Open-Ended Play
- These are “toys” that grow with kids as big, chunky block towers give way to intricate Lego constructions, princesses become doctors and art goes from a crayon scribble to indentifiable shapes, confident brush strokes and found object sculptures and inventions.
- The play is different every time, encouraging creativity.
- It’s easy to talk to kids about what they’re doing, which boosts language skills.
- You can work with them, which inspires teamwork, or alongside them, which shows them grownups like to play and be creative, too.
- Kids can use these items alone or with friends, boosting cooperative play.
Need help choosing toys for your kids or other children in your life? Check out this advice from Better Beginnings (PDF).
What open ended, non-toy kind of toys do your kids love? I’d love to add to my list!