Sunday, November 16, 2008

Our (Long) Toy Story...

Michelle asked this question in comments:

Here is a completely unrelated question to your post but one we are pondering as Christmas approaches. When your children were young or with your grandchildren, what type of toys did you find most appropriate? Also, we are dealing with storage issues. We like simplicity and unclutteredness but yet want our children to be children. Just wondering what your thoughts are on toys and their storage. Thanks!

I like this question! And while I'm pretty sure you already have really great ideas about this yourself, Michelle, I did think it would be a lot of fun to put down what I think about children and toys, to write a list of toys I think make for healthy childhood play, and to share some of the ways we've dealt with how much should we own and how should we store it. So, Michelle, I realize this goes way beyond the scope of your question! :-)

When I make this kind of list, I'm always sure that I'm leaving out something really big. And, likely, I am, but here's what I came up with as I sat and wrote down what came to mind.

Our General Guidelines for Toy-Buying:

~Think classic and timeless. Classic toys, games, and tools are classic for a reason.

~Quality. Toys should be lovely and well-made. When money is an obstacle, I think it's best to save money for quality toys and to have fewer of them.

~Toys that aren't dependent on batteries or a power-source. We went with non-electric and non-electronic. Exceptions were cases where things were being built or created--like robots or technic legos or lighted cardboard dollhouses, or that sort of thing.

~Toys should encourage active play rather than providing mere passive entertainment.

~Buy open-ended toys (related to above) that encourage focus, attention, creativity, and imaginative play.

~Have few toys, or at least have few toys out at once. Keep things simple. Too many are overstimulating or overwhelming-- they don't get played with as much (or ever) or as well. They do not get the appreciation or respect they deserve. Too many toys make for gigantic, overwhelming messes. (Sometimes even a few toys make for gigantic, overwhelming messes! :-) But that's okay. When there are few things, it all cleans up easily enough!)

Wonderful Toys for Children:

Everyone knows that children are happy with simple things. A paper bag, a piece of Tupperware, a box, a big stick and some dirt or mud to poke it in, a tree to climb, one of Grandpa's hats, cushions and blankets from the couch. Honestly, I think a child could be happy with no toys at all, or very, very few of them. For sure, the imagination would be busy! But childhood toys have been around forever, and a proper number of well-chosen toys can help to make childhood healthy, fun, and full of wonderful possibilities.

These are the types of things both I and my kids played with as children. They're also the sorts of things my grandsons gravitate to so far. Whatever encourages good, focused, creativity and imaginative play is good:

~Books-- lots and lots of them.

~Little cars, trucks, planes, boats, etc.

~Brio trains.

~Constructing toys-- blocks, duplos, legos, Knex, Tinker Toys, erector sets, etc.

~Playmobil sets.

~Play kitchen stuff. Food, dishes, etc.

~Stuffed animals. Get what the kids like. Research show that adults tend to go for what's "cute," while children tend to like what's more realistic. Aaron and Melissa created whole worlds for their stuffed animals. This inspired a lot of really imaginative play (I could easily write a post just on this!).

~Little plastic animals-- dinosaurs, farm animals, jungle animals.

~A fun dressup bin with all sorts of things for both boys and girls. I want to add that I think it's much more magical for a child to create his own costumes from what is at hand rather than to own a head-to-toe, already entirely created, outfit. Some specific items-- like bonnets and hardhats, various types of dresses, etc., etc.-- are good, but there should be space for a child to imaginatively and creatively fill when playing dressup.


~Paperdolls (purchased or self-made).

~Age-appropriate, quality art supplies-- paper, pencils, color crayons, scissors, watercolor paints, colored pencils, glue, an unlimited number and variety of things, based on what the kids like to do.

~Quality, classic board games.

~Dolls and their paraphernalia-- doll clothes, blankets, stroller, cradle, etc.

~Trikes and bikes.

~A sturdy wagon.

~Various balls for indoors and out. We liked whiffle ball. Game equipment, if you wish (basketball, baseball, etc.)

~Rope, string, duct tape, cardboard...

~Not essential by any means, but very nice is a child-sized table and chairs. One for indoors. One for out. Children can sit at big tables, of course, but our kids used their tables constantly. I kept one in the kitchen for years, and they'd often choose to draw, color, or play there while I cooked and cleaned. We'd all visit. It was nice. And they loved eating lunch outside on their little plastic picnic table.

~As kids get a bit older, they need real tools and equipment for creating and building things from wood, for sewing, crocheting, knitting, needlework, baking and cooking, and on and on and on. They can use your tools or have their own, quality tools. (Our girls had their own sewing and handwork kits and supplies; Aaron had a Dremel, a soldering iron, and lots of other stuff; and the girls built things from wood, too.)

Storage, Some of Our Rules, and a Few Observations about Toys and Play:

~Keep sets of things in attractive boxes, baskets, or bins. I'd go for a pretty, pleasing aesthetic for storage rather than cutesy. Cutesy gets dated and needs replacing, a classic aesthetic doesn't. It doesn't look as cluttery, either. Neither does it overstimulate. And it looks nice when pulled into the living room. (I did a bit of "cutesy" for a while, so I'm talking from experience, but, of course, it's all a matter of your own taste and desire.)

~We tried always to have shelves set up in the bedrooms for books and toys, but sometimes we used closet space for this.

~When put away, toys and games should be easy to see and identify, easy to reach, and easy to pull out for play. Otherwise they'll be neglected. Out of sight, out of mind. Not at hand, not in hand.

~Too many toys to choose from at once can render a child passive. Keep the selection streamlined (especially for little ones). Box some toys to store temporarily, and swap them out with other toys occasionally, based on what's being ignored. Or just get rid of what is not of really good quality or does not inspire healthy, imaginative play. Fewer, well-loved toys really are better, I think.

~Some stuff was in our living room. Duplos were kept in an antique wooden box on the floor. The Brio trains were in the living room, too (but they went back and forth from there to the bedroom). Art supplies were in a particular cupboard in the living room, and there were rules for using them when the kids were young (a vinyl tablecloth was always on the table when art supplies were out, and the supplies were always used at the table). But they were allowed to be used at almost any time!

~The kids were allowed to bring bins of toys from their bedrooms into the living room (or other areas) of the house at any time. Wherever we were, they were allowed to play there.

~Melissa had (has) a three-story Victorian Playmobil dollhouse. For birthdays or Christmas, we'd often add a room of furniture to her collection. She was required to play with this nicely and to care well for it (this wasn't an issue, actually; by now the kids treated their toys respectfully or they knew they'd be taken away). The dollhouse was always out, on its own table. It was pretty.

~That's another thing. Quality toys are quite attractive. Having them strung around temporarily is not the same as same as having strung about a million little, plasticky cheap things that no one really cares about in the long run.

~Toys should be treated with respect and care or they will be put away for a while (no playing with toys that are mistreated). No throwing.

~While we're at it, no screaming or yelling or overwildness in the house (go outside for that kind of play, yes, even in the rain). But I do believe in kids being able to move and jump and run and bounce and skip and climb and squeal and laugh and sing and shriek occasionally and play boisterously and energetically. They should be able to tear all over the place, to get dirty, to just plain be kids who play hard.

~No touching (ever) the toys or things of others without their permission.

~No dumping everything from all of the bins or baskets. That's not play. But dumping what is being played with is fine.

~Creative play does not mean out of control play, but neither does it mean postcard perfect, sweet and orderly, always clean and quiet, play. Creative play does get messy and energetic. But it should be joyful, not overwrought.

~Mess. Yes. Creative play can get messy. I approved, applauded, encouraged, even joined fort-making in the living room (with blankets and pillows and all kinds of toys); lining up the dining room chairs to play bus; creating hospitals, stores, libraries, etcs; and all sorts of fun and messy kinds of play.

~The mess must be cleaned up, but not too soon. There needs to be time and freedom for healthy play. Childhood is short. It's a really wonderful thing to watch and enjoy the exuberant, joyful, creative and imaginative play of children. And it's so good for them. They'll remember it, too.

~My kids always went to bed with toys put away and rooms clean. But big, unfinished play or construction projects were allowed to remain out. The living areas, though, were always cleaned of all play mess at night. And ongoing or unfinished play projects were simply moved elsewhere when they were temporarily abandoned.