Simple toys and materials foster independent and creative play for kids. As parents, we might be surprised how liberating it feels to skip the fancy toys and allow our children to explore their own imaginations.
It’s pretty amazing what our kids will dream up and explore when we give them a blank slate to create.
Recently, I attempted to do some weeding in our front yard before being quickly distracted by a request to throw batting practice for my boys. I obliged and left my gloves, trowel and a couple of buckets near the front walkway. Our day progressed after baseball with smoothies, some cooking, and hockey on the back patio (all in a day’s work for a mom of two sports-obsessed boys).
Earlier during our day, we saw professional landscapers working on some flower beds near the grocery store. J informed me he wanted to be “a professional weeder” when he grows up. I wholeheartedly encouraged his enthusiasm. Inspired by this observation, they decided to use the dirt to “plant flowers and cover our sidewalk in concrete.” (Were the photos not obvious enough?)
The boys took a crack at “being workers” and picked up the gardening tools I had left out. While I was inside finishing up some things, they got to work on a new project they dreamed up.
I came out to see what they were doing and found them dumping dirt from one of our planters (in which we had yet to plant anything) all over our sidewalk. I told them not to do it and they said, “but we are just cementing the sidewalk.” I reconsidered and thought “eh, they’re playing peacefully together and not hurting anyone or anything”, so I let them continue.
On days when I’m home with the boys, we typically plan one activity for the day (which may be as simple as a trip to the grocery store). But I like to leave them plenty of time to play on their own.
Although we don’t have any specific rules against it, my kids rarely watch TV or movies. I’m not an avid fan of television, so we don’t turn it on often. They don’t really know what is on TV and, consequently, never ask to watch anything.
Instead, they stay busy playing sports, building with Legos, coloring, and exploring whatever happens to be around the house… like the dirt in our planters. As my boys get old enough to direct their own play, I’ve been impressed with how creative and imaginative kids can be when offered a handful of simple materials, tools, and basic toys. They have far more fun, play much longer together, and have far fewer fights with simple toys like Legos, blocks, crayons, dirt and shovels than any of the fancier toys they’ve received over the years.
Simple Toys and Materials
As a parent, I’ve found it helpful to provide my kids with these toys or materials, leaving them out and available for play. Children won’t often ask for these things if they are packed up in boxes or closets. But when left alone while the materials are available, they’ll dig in and tap into their own creativity to create an interesting world around themselves.
Oversee Without Watching
If M and I are in the same room as the boys or engaging with them directly, they’re far less likely to really explore their imaginations. They rely on us to direct play. If we leave them to their own devices, however, while still keeping a watchful eye from afar, their creative juices really start to flow.
From our kitchen, I can see into our playroom as well as our driveway and front yard. Even if the tasks I’m completing in the kitchen aren’t urgent, I often send them out to play and let them know I will be out to join them in a bit when I am done with whatever task I have in front of me. Of course I check on them regularly, especially because they are young. But without me, they immerse themselves in their creative world so much more deeply than when I hang around.
For me (and for many parents, I suspect), knowing that our children play better and more creatively when we aren’t fully engaged offers a refreshing permission to occasionally be less interactive. We don’t have to be sitting right next to our children playing with the latest and greatest toys every moment we are together.
A lot of parents are maxed out from all the demands of work, family, and life in general. Not feeling obliged to always engage with our children when we are together and knowing that we are promoting creative growth and development by leaving them to play on their own feels liberating (at least for me).
Encourage the Adventure and Imagination
A few times during their play, the boys came inside to share with me about their work. They told me all about their project pouring concrete on the sidewalk and the new flowers they were planting.
At one point, T came to me and we had the following exchange:
T: I was thinking we could get nice black or gray clothes, like workers, and then a belt with tools in them and stuff. And we could have walkie talkies and have a thing in our ear. That way, J and I could talk to each other. Like, if he was in Florida and I was in New York. You know what walkie talkies are, right?
T: Isn’t that a good idea?
Me: Great idea.
T: Ok. (And back to work he went)
I love seeing their little imaginations run wild. Not to mention, they seem to play together so much better when the play is free and creative. This project wrangled their attention for over an hour. No complaints from me about that.
Proud Of Their Achievements
I decided to take a few photos and T said, “Can you send these to Dad? No. Send them to everyone we know. Even some of the neighbors. This is cool, right?”
Then he continued to ask if I would come back and take more photos when they were finished. I needed to send out the finished product, of course. So… I did!
At the end, the boys came back inside for dinner and T said “Mom, our job was really fun!” They were so proud of their work, and I was glad I didn’t put the kibosh on something a little messy but so harmless.
We agreed the project could remain as long as the weather allowed it (or until the party we’re having in a couple weeks.. whichever comes first).
Less Really Is More
I feel a bit like a broken record (and I’m not perfect at executing because it’s easier said than done), but less really is more. It’s cliche and trendy but for good reason.
With respect to toys for our children, having fewer toys opens doors for our children to use their imaginations and develop their creativity with the tools and resources on hand. They have amazing capacity to explore and create, and as parents, it’s our responsibility to provide a blank space in which they can do that.
Now go offer your kiddos some stickers, markers, Legos, dirt, shovels, hula hoops or whatever materials you have on hand. You might be surprised what they dream up!