25. Toys for children: what do they really need?

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(read about the adventure here)

toys for children

Tip 25: Toys for children: what do they really need?


In tip 24, we spoke about the importance of free play. And of course, when we talk about play, the next obvious thing we need to consider is what the children play with. Toys for children…what do they REALLY need?

I’d like to share this little story by Susan Perrow about my son’s kindergarten when it began over 25 years ago…

“At first, there was no money for furniture and toys, but what did this matter? This determined young woman had been inspired by a conference where she had learnt that a ‘good toy for healthy child development should be 90% imagination and 10% toy’, so with 90% enthusiasm and 10% finances she thought, ‘I can do this’.  And she gathered baskets of shells and gumnuts, and seedpods and feathers and blocks of wood and cloths- cloths of all sizes: big ones to make cubbies, and small ones to knot into dolls and frogs, and rabbits and caterpillars, and medium-size ones to use for dress-ups and flags and many, many other creative purposes.  She never tired of watching how many ideas for play came from such simple materials”  

25. creative play

As someone who has been a mum for over 18 years, and who has travelled from one side of the toy equation to the other, with both boys and girls, I am firmly of the belief that LESS is truly MORE.

25. creative play2

The less my children, and the children I’ve taught, have had to play with, the MORE creative they have been with ordinary objects they find around them.  Pieces of wood have substituted for cakes and musical instruments and trucks and cash registers, and used to build fairy houses and pinball machines and cranes and animal farms and fences…   Stones and rocks have been used as money, and borders for rivers, and stepping stones, and lollies in shops and loads for the garbage man… Soil and dry dirt has been the basis for mud pies, ‘concrete’, fairy dust and ‘golden treasure’. Chairs have been turned into buses and cubby walls and climbing frames and castles and boats and balancing beams and hiding spots and steps… Sticks have become trees and knight’s swords and light sabres and fences and spoons to stir cakes and tent poles for doll homes and railway lines and bridges and…the list is never-ending.  The language accompanying the play is magnificent. The imagination wide open. Their creativity on fire.

Compare this to a metal logo-emblazoned car that can only be…a logo emblazoned car from that particular movie. Just have a listen to the stories that accompany THIS kind of play. In my experience, It’s almost always a word-for-word replay of the screenplay. Yes, they are developing wonderful memory but I wonder if there is much else?

toys for children

So, if we want to encourage the best kind of free play, where children are inspired, self-regulating and purposeful citizens of the world, then we must re-think the toys we surround them with.  Less of the commercially bought, logo-emblazoned kinds and MORE of the open-ended ‘things’ they can simply transform.  I say ‘things’ because the best kind of ‘toy’ is often not a ‘toy’ at all!  Seedpods, curtain rings, metre-squares of cord fabric, finger-knitted ropes, baskets of fallen leaves, flattened circles of clay, and origami paper might not be toys in a traditional sense but the best kind of play I’ve ever seen often involved these things.

And another bonus when we provide toys like this?  Spare cash in the bank for lots of other fun adventures WITH our children.

If there is one thing being frugal has taught me over the years, it is to understand how little children really need to be happy. All they really want is our attention and our time. Not expensive junk from the toy shop.

But of course, it’s all about balance. Just be sure to balance out your ‘toy buying’ sprees with creative thought on how you can encourage open-ended imaginative play with just one or two odd or quirky items found in the home, the local op-shop or in nature. Then the children will have access to the best of both worlds. A win-win for everyone.


I want you to do two things today.

1.  Take a good hard look at your children’s toys and how they play with them.  Then halve what is in their room, or on display. Put the things that are not used into a storage box and place that in their cupboard or in your storage area. Reducing the toys they have access to is a guaranteed jump-start to them being able to ‘see’ their things again and will spark new kinds of play.

2.  Write a substitute list.  Come up with at least 10-15 things you could sub into their play space to encourage imaginative play. It could be something from nature, something from a garage sale, something from the kitchen or the garage.

Action required:

Buy or repurpose a storage container into which you will stash their non-essential toys for a time.  Pack them in, and put this box away for a rainy day. Then write your list… can you now source some of these things?

Tip: The best way to encourage new kinds of play with new, unexpected ‘toys’ that may not look like a traditional toy is to use it in a story.  Showing your children a way to use something in a fashion they would not have expected will begin an avalanche of new ideas flowing for them.  Soon, you’ll have budding inventors on your hands.


Commit to the task by writing it down here in the comments below or in your 30 days of AWESOME journal. 


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