Christmas is coming.
My mom used to say this to me whenever I begged for a toy. It was sort of a non-promise that I might get what I was asking for as a Christmas present…or not.
Now on the other side of that, I know how frustrating it is to be surrounded by toys — seas of toys that are thrown around and never actually played with. I know why parents are constantly trying to find better ways to organize toys, get rid of “extra” toys, and minimize the toys that come into the home in the first place. I swore I’d never be one of those moms. I’d keep the toys to a minimum and select them carefully and we’d never have a problem.
Nearly five years later and we’ve struggled as much as every other family with the masses of toys. What we have learned, however, is which toys seem to be the most valuable over time (at least for the younger set). We hope to move soon, and part of what we’ll be doing is getting rid of a lot of toys that are not-so-useful and slowly acquiring toys that we feel will really add to our collection in a positive way. I’ve done lots of research on what is really played with and what is really most helpful, at least in my home. Hopefully this at least gives you a good starting place!
Kids have lots of needs. They need to be safely “wild” (climbing, running, jumping), they need quiet time, they need to play “pretend” games. They need to touch and explore different textures. My major goal is to provide a wide range of toys so they can safely explore and meet all their needs.
Toys also need to be long-lasting. I don’t want anything that’s going to break tomorrow. My kids are far too rough on things to waste money on something they can break easily. It has to go through several kids, too.
Finally, it needs to somehow stimulate their imagination. Toys with “one trick” are not going to last in our home. They have to be open-ended as much as possible.
A Climbing Structure
My kids get wild, and we can’t always get outside, especially in the winter. We can’t go out somewhere everyday, either. They need a safe place inside to climb that doesn’t involve my furniture! We have a Little Tikes plastic play set that they can climb on, hide under, and slide down. They sometimes like to make a pile of blankets at the bottom of the slide and jump off. Other times they cover it in blankets and pretend it’s a fort and they’re hiding from dragons.
Once we get to a new home, we’ll also add a sturdy, large wooden swing set and climbing structure outside, so that any day it’s not raining or really cold they can go out and play there. They do better with the room to run outside when possible!
Kids like to be creative, and part of that means they like to “play pretend” and take on different personas. Some kids like to dress up to be like mom or dad; others like to dress up as a particular profession (think fireman, police man, etc.) and still others like to dress up as fairy tale characters. A host of dress-up options allows kids to slip into a new role and create fun, imaginative games. If you don’t want to buy or can’t afford official “dress up” clothes, check out old costumes at consignment stores or on clearance post-Halloween, or look into “play silks” that your children can turn into just about anything (clothing and otherwise!).
Kids usually love to cook, and many enjoy helping Mommy or Daddy in the kitchen. The big kitchen’s not always the safest place to be, though. While kids can help measure, dump, and stir in bowls, they can’t use knives, the oven, or the stove — at least not when they’re small. A toy kitchen with accessories is a great solution. Kids can be in their kitchens, “cooking” their play food, using their play dishes, and serving at a small table. Mine even like to take blocks and felt squares and pretend that these items are “food” if they don’t have the appropriate pretend item. These are pretty fun for most kids up until age 5 – 7, at which point they’re starting to get old enough to do a little more in the real kitchen anyway. Look into solid wooden play items, like Melissa and Doug, KidKraft, and Small World Toys, which are not easily broken and will last through several kids.
Modeling Clay/Dough and Art Supplies
Kids enjoy using their hands and being artistic. A modeling clay or “dough” can help them to create shapes, objects, and more. It’s also good for their fine motor skills to learn to roll, pat, and shape. They can use utensils like dull knives (there are plastic ones with no actual blade made for this, or they can borrow safe butter knives from mom) to cut the dough into shapes.
Other art supplies are also great for kids’ creativity — paints, paper, crayons, glue, glitter, pipe cleaners, felt, scissors, and so on. Let them create whatever they want, with no plan and no direction. You never know what they’ll come up with!
A good set of wooden blocks will last forever. Blocks should come in all different shapes and sizes, so that kids can build various structures. Most also enjoy knocking down the structures when they are done! There are endless ways that they can build and design houses, buildings, bridges, and more. This is good for fine and gross motor skills as well as imagination. Plus, a large set of blocks usually encourages “team” play — my kids enjoy taking turns adding blocks to their creation, and taking turns knocking it down when they’re finished. They’re also sturdy and unbreakable.
Stiff Foam Balls and Baskets
Kids like to throw. Is there really any kid who doesn’t go through a “throwing things” phase? Three-year-olds seem especially prone to this. (It now occurs to me that my oldest, almost 5, never really throws things now…but man a couple years ago she sure did! And my current 3-year-old sure does.) Rather than constantly chasing kids around saying “Stop throwing, you’re going to hurt someone!” why not give them something safe to throw? Stiff, sturdy foam balls can safely be thrown anywhere, even in the house, and they won’t break anything or hurt anyone. Provide some baskets along with them as a target for throwing into. This way if your children want to throw something, you can redirect them — “Let’s throw these instead!”
Dolls and Accessories
Many kids become curious about babies, especially if they have little brothers or sisters who are born into the family. Sometimes they really want to “help” but it is not always safe to practice on a real baby! Instead, dolls are a great substitute. Children (of both genders) can hold, feed, carry, etc. baby dolls, but if they are feeling sad or frustrated by a new sibling they can also safely take out their feelings on dolls (hitting them, throwing them down, carrying by one arm, etc.). Many children enjoy being “little mommies and daddies.” Some extra clothes and cloth diapers for baby, plus some small plastic dishes and spoons, bottles if you like, and possibly a seat or small bed and blankets are good accessories to go with dolls. Of course, they make play pens, strollers, walkers, slings, and all kinds of other “fancy” accessories but kids don’t necessarily need all of that. A few clothes and a blanket are nice. All of my children enjoy carrying baby dolls around from time to time.
As children get a bit older, their fine motor skills are refined and they’re interested in building more complicated structures. Legos are really nice at this point. Duplo-type Legos seem to be really good for the under 5 crowd, because they’re small enough to seem “real” (vs. the off-brand “Mega Blox” type) but they’re large enough that young children won’t be able to swallow them. As children get older, there are the very small blocks that even teens and adults use to build. My 3- and 4-year-olds love these but they only get pulled out when Daddy is around to play with them. They have Duplos available to them all the time and all of them enjoy building together. Kids can design some pretty neat things with these!
Trains and Cars
Many kids, especially boys, like “things that go.” Small children can have larger wooden cars, like from Melissa and Doug. Slightly older children can have wooden trains and train tracks so that they can build their own cities and tracks and drive their trains on this (this seems really good starting around age 3). Even older kids enjoy Matchbox cars and things of that nature. We’ve learned that the Matchbox cars actually fit on the wooden train tracks really well, so the kids have lots of opportunities to “drive” them in various places, on the tracks or off of them. Make sure if you have multiple kids that you have a lot of trains or cars, at least a couple per kid, so they don’t fight!
Bikes, Trikes, and Outdoor Exploration
Once kids are big enough to play outdoors, get them some outdoor toys! We have a “big wheel,” a tricycle, a lawn mower, a ride-in car (the kind you move with your feet, not the power kind), and various balls, buckets, shovels, and so on. Kids need a chance to ride bikes and play and most kids love to do this. Shovels and buckets and either a sand box or a dirt pile provide endless entertainment for many kids. There are also bubble mowers (which new walkers can push), wheel barrows, and more. Some kids enjoy bigger shovels, snow shovels, and rakes, so they can “help” with the yard work. There are gardening gloves for kids.
Really look for open-ended toys that challenge a child’s mind and hands. These are the toys that they will use long-term and enjoy!