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Must-Have Toys for Creative Play

November 21, 2010

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The other night I delivered the play kitchen that my daughters have (mostly) outgrown to my friend for her young children.  My friend and I were then talking about some “must-have” toys for toddlers and preschoolers. I thought the list we generated during this conversation would make a timely article since we are about to head into a heavy toy buying season and it continues the theme of the last post “What Makes a Great Toy?”

Keep in mind that these are just suggestions and any toys you choose for your child should be selected based on your own knowledge of your child’s skills, interests, and developmental abilities. I recommend these particular toys because in my experience with my own children and with children I have seen for play therapy, these toys are particularly good at eliciting creative, imaginative play with opportunities to explore many aspects of social and emotional life. Sometimes in our high pressured world parents can over-focus on providing children with toys and materials that enhance academic skills and can neglect the very important skill of learning to pretend. While there are many interesting electronic toys available for young children, in my opinion the toys listed below do a much better job of engaging children in pretend play. Further, children are often engaged in play for longer periods of time when using these types of toys.

Pretend food and kitchen items: Children love to “cook” and “serve” the adults in their lives. Additionally, playing with toy food often provides an opportunity to work through some “food issues” for some children.

Baby dolls: Dolls allow children to act out both nurturing and aggressive feelings and behaviors in a safe way.

Doctor set: By playing the roles of doctor and/or patient, children can act out their experiences with medical interventions. This can be particularly useful for children who have had difficult experiences related to medical interventions.

Play-doh or clay: Children can really benefit from making their own creations in a tactile way, and many children find this type of activity to be very calming.

Art materials: Having art materials available inspires creative expression.

Building toys (e.g., Lego, Duplo, blocks, etc.): In addition to developing fine motor skills, building toys give you a wonderful window on children’s creativity when you witness the types of buildings and creations they can make on their own.

Dress up clothes: Both boys and girls love to dress up and try on new roles during the preschool years.

Pretend tools: Banging pretend nails with a pretend hammer is a great, safe way to express aggression. Plus these toys also offer the opportunity to role-play and to “build.”

Pretend school materials: While there are some sets you can purchase, often playing school does not require much more than paper and pencil.

Animal figures: In particular, sets that include adult and baby animals offer a great opportunity for children to enact family dynamics in a creative, non-threatening way.

Cars and trucks: Granted, I’ve seen cars and trucks used in non-imaginative ways when they are just pushed around or “raced”, but I have also seen great creativity and pretend play using these materials.

Having materials and toys available that enhance creative play is an important first step. The next steps involve your interactions with your child and these materials. Young children may need direct parental involvement in their play at first. Parents can provide guidance and modeling for creative play. Over time, as children develop play skills, their play is more likely to take place with siblings and/or peers.

Parents can best positively influence the quality of their child’s play by following the child’s lead. I recommend that parents observe, let the children lead, and don’t over-direct the play. If parents feel comfortable taking on pretend roles themselves, children love it. Some examples that offer kids a great opportunity for growth and learning are: pretending to “cry” when getting a shot, “refusing” pretend food when offered, and “getting in trouble” at “school.”

What has been your experience with pretend play with your kids? Are there other toys that you’d add to the list?


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