With my daughter going on three, I’ve had a couple years to observe young kids playing with—and ignoring—all kinds of toys. I’ve noticed that toys with the brightest colors, the loudest noises, the most batteries, and the steepest price tags tend to be boring; push the button and listen to the horse go neigh. And … that’s it.
The American Academy of Pediatrics warns against falling prey to toys claiming to help a child reach a development milestone early (“Teach your child to read by age three!”) and insists toys need not be trendy or expensive. They also advise parents to avoid toys that “discourage children from using their imaginations.” But what exactly does that mean?
My pediatrician recommends toys designed for Montessori and Waldorf classrooms. They’re designed to foster the imagination, not do your child’s thinking and dreaming for her. Such toys can be pricey, but you can fill your child’s toy box with equally engaging toys by scouring thrift stores, consignment shops, dollar stores, Craigslist, and yard sales.
These ten toys have worked for my daughter and might just bring out your child’s innate imagination.
1. Blocks: Build a skyscraper, a ship, an airplane, or an entire city. Legos, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, and other blocks that fit together enable kids to build complex, detailed structures. Kids also love plain blocks, even the ones made from cardboard. Encourage your child to build from her imagination rather than attempting to replicate the picture on the box.
2. Play-Kitchen: The modern play-kitchen now has a microwave and may come with stainless steel appliances, but the idea remains the same. Kids like to imitate what they see their parents do every day. As in the grown-up world, a top-of-the line kitchen can be a budget buster. The bells and whistles are unnecessary. A basic model will do just fine.
3. Broom, Mop, and Dustpan: When possible, choose toys that let your child do what you do rather than just pretend. For example, Montessori toy suppliers sell pint-size brooms, mops, and dustpans that allow your child to clean alongside you. Your child may also enjoy real-life gardening tools.
4. Craft Box: Think gooey, messy, sticky, and colorful when stocking your child’s craft box. Depending on your child’s age, you might include markers, stickers, glue, tape, finger paints, old greeting cards, dried pasta, dried beans, and anything else that might make a fun, free-form art project.
5. Musical Instruments: You can make your own or buy a set and keep adding to it: cymbals, tambourines, maracas, chimes, drums, a keyboard, and a ukulele. Turn a paper towel tube, some kidney beans, and tape into an instrument. Two plastic plates filled with beans and glued together will make a fine tambourine.
6. Dress-Up Box: Assembling a dress-up box is a long-term endeavor. Start with discount stores, thrift shops, and your own closet. You can buy doctor’s scrubs, a firefighter hat, and other accessories. Give your child a lot of choices to avoid gender stereotypes. Place the box near a mirror and have a camera handy.
7. Puppets: Hand puppets, sock puppets, finger puppets—kids love to make puppets and play with them. You can make a puppet theater out of a cardboard box or create a makeshift theater by having your child crouch behind the couch.
8. Puzzles: Yes, you spend a lot of time taking apart the couch and looking for missing pieces. But puzzles are a cornerstone toy for encouraging creative thinking in a roundabout way. Even though there is a right way to put a puzzle together, doing so teaches children how things in life fit together. Most puzzles are flat, but you can also get three-dimensional puzzles and puzzles that can fit together more than one way.
9. Books: Well, obviously! What can I say to do justice to books and their impact on young children? Classics are a must, but don’t turn your nose up at silly books or seemingly ho-hum books—kids have their own ideas of ho-hum.
10. Balls: This is a toy box staple I underestimated until my kid came along. Now, I’m amazed how long she can play with a ball, how many things she can think of to do with a ball, and how sad she can get when a ball rolls too far under the couch for her to retrieve it.
I once planned to allow my child one lone well-stocked toy box. Having just a few toys would encourage her to be more creative, I thought. Now that I’m in the trenches, I see how easy it is for toys to pile up. We get a lot as gifts, and I buy her things on impulse, especially when she’s going through an everything-frog phase and I see a stuffed frog in the window of a toy store.
Despite all the toys she’s accumulated, I see how these basic, tried-and-true toys are selected over and over again. Toys that inspire creativity are far more useful to a child than a toy that only does one thing. The toy with the single, shrill chirping noise is quickly—and mercifully—forgotten. And if it isn’t, at least the battery will eventually die.