I have five kids, but at times, I certainly don’t have five times the budget for them. This doesn’t mean that I’m negligent, but I’ve quickly learned throughout the years that spending money on kids has a risky return. Take toys, for instance. The hot toys this year will certainly not be the hot thing next year. If paying $70 for a robotic dinosaur this Christmas seems like a good idea, consider what your kids spend most of their time doing. If you can truly envision them spending hours upon hours with a toy that does all the work for them, you (with a few exceptions) are in denial, have a freaky kid, or don’t know much about your kid at all.
Studies and practical life experience have taught me that “open-ended” toys are truly where it’s at. While I have four little boys who consider themselves to be best friends, even when they play alone, it’s important to pick a good toy. Surprisingly, their favorite toys are super-affordable and don’t usually come from the toy shelf at our big box store. Here are their top picks (in no particular order):
No, my boys don’t play “tea party.” They could if they wanted to (I have no qualms with it), but what they really like to do with my plastic plates, pots, pans, and wire wisks is play restaurant. Then, when they are done, they build robots. When super-bored (and my patience is at maximum capacity), they do a rendition of “Rock Band” with my stainless steel pans. Because these “toys” are new to them (I only get them out on special occasions), durable, and require no batteries, they keep the kids busy for hours. I also keep a set of “play only” kitchen equipment for use in the bath tub, sand box, or when playing in the pool.
There are some very impressive lines of kids tools out there today, designed to fit little hands and be more sturdy for the under 12 crowd. I have found that the boys want what Daddy is using, however, and we have stop by a cheap place like the Dollar Store for a small hammer, measuring tape, a few wrenches, and a screwdriver. If you’re concerned about smaller kids getting hurt, just skip the hammer, and be certain that you keep an eye while they are playing. (Explain the rules, as well: no disassembling without permission and nothing in the light sockets.) Even if you don’t give them nails or anything to really work, they have a blast measuring, turning screws that you’ve preset into some wood boards, or “helping” with real work around the house. Girls love this activity, too!
I’m not suggesting that you let your kid lug around their own mini bottle of bleach, but I am keen on getting kids into the habit of helping around the house. Cleaning a room isn’t usually fun for kids, but having their own small broom or hand-held vacuum does make for some exciting play (and can get them trained for light duties later on.) Things that my boys get excited about include: dusting with a feather duster (top down, of course), washing plastic dishes in the sink with their own soap-dispensing sponge wand, using a non-toxic disposable wipe to clean up messes from the table or floor. Get them their own tote or caddy and watch the interest grow.
If you give a kid a jar or bucket, then tell them to collect “treasures” from the yard, you will almost always be surprised at what they come back with. Right now, I am currently housing a box of rocks, two jars of moldy dandelion blooms, and what I think is the dried up remains of a toad or frog. While you definitely don’t have to go as far as to harbor dead things in your home (and I don’t recommend it), trinkets like stones, sticks, beautiful leaves, and flowers can teach your child about the natural world and keep them busy. It is amazing to me that it’s not just a one-and-done process, either. They collect, store, and often revisit their treasures with pride. Looking over what they have found time and time again is also part of the play.
While you likely won’t get away with putting a bunch of sticks in your kid’s stocking this holiday, there is room in their life (and closet) for some out-of-the box, affordable alternatives to another gaming system. The younger your child is, the better chance you have at them embracing some of the more abstract playthings the world has to offer. Be there to encourage, give them time to explore, and you’ll find that the best toys in life are free – or almost, anyway.