For well over a decade I’ve cared for children. I’ve been a Sitter, Nanny, Preschool Teacher, Sunday School Teacher, After-school educator, and most importantly, a Mommy. Over this vast time with many children all from a range of backgrounds and upbringing, I’ve learned it doesn’t take a whole lot of fancy, expensive toys to keep them engaged in play. And by play, I mean, creative, imaginative, engaging, exploratory play. For all those new parents or those looking at what to buy your young counterparts for birthdays or the holidays, here are my suggestions on toys to spark those creative days of play and stand the test of time without breaking the bank.
- A play kitchen with play foods and dishes. Whether it be homemade, store-bought, or a make-shift kitchen out of cardboard… your child will LOVE it! Girls AND boys. Our kitchen has been with us for a good amount of years now, and it’s STILL one of the main things all of my kids play with. All kids enjoy playing “house” and role play is an important aspect of growing up, providing them with a space to pretend is important.
Ours is from IKEA and has been loved for years – find it here.
- Tents and tunnels. These are great from crawler on up. I purchased a pop-up tunnel / tent combo when my oldest was just learning to crawl, and we’ve used it ever since. We have a version with two tent areas, which once again sparks the creative play when they grab sheets and blankets to turn it into a fort or castle, or however their imaginations lead them to create. We also now have a reading teepee that has also served as a prop for many other pretend play scenarios. You can find these for $15-$30 in discount stores like Ross and Marshall’s, as well as at Target, IKEA and Toys R Us and online at Amazon.com
- Building blocks. Duplo, LEGO, wooden blocks… you name it, kids will build with them. These can get pricey, so a good place to search is your local thrift stores, garage sales, or friends who have older children who have outgrown the building phase (which believe me isn’t until the teen years – even then most boys still enjoy it).
- Instruments. I can’t say it enough, kids enjoy making noise. Why not encourage them to make a joyful one? Sturdy wooden tambourines, jingle bells, toy xylophones, even plastic keyboards have always been a huge hit in our house and continue to be a fun way for the kids to make up fun songs and let out some energy dancing around.
- Dress-up clothing. I can’t say it enough, kids love to pretend. I always find when friends come over and see our trunk of dress-up clothing they go wild. Dress-up sparks their creative imagination and they can engage for long amounts of time pretending to be ship-wrecked pirates stranded on an island hunting for treasures or a magician with a fun act. We’ve had many impromptu performance and crazy dress-up dance parties with friends over. Once again, look in your local thrift stores for outfits or try to hit the after-Halloween costume clearance racks. I’ve scored $35+ costumes for $2.
- A train set. I don’t care how much you try to sway boys, they WILL go through a train phase. It’s inevitable, but you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for the fancy name-brand trains, (even if they insist on certain characters, look at thrift stores and Ross first for discounted ones). Don’t get me wrong, girls also love trains, and building the tracks, but the boys are just hard-wired to love them! During the holidays, and especially after I’ve scored great large sets at Target ranging from $80-$100 for around $20 – keep an eye out for holiday coupons and special promotions. IKEA also has a small “starter” set for around $10.
- Board games and a deck of cards. I know with so much technology and games literally at children’s fingertips, it’s still great to have games they can play together. When I worked at an after school program we would have major Mancala and Rummikub competitions and it was awesome. We love classics like Monopoly, Candyland, Jenga, Checkers, as well as Rummikub, Mancala and many more! My kids like to play “Go Fish” and “Snap” with a deck of cards too.