You’ve bought your children a new toy and they must be over the moon! But then you find them playing with the cardboard box instead of the new toy housed within the said box! Maybe then you told them that next time you will just get them ‘a box!’? If you have done this before, and I definitely have before I made this discovery, then this is for you.
You see, Allah swt created our children with an innate desire to explore, create, discover, and imagine. This is the definition of a child’s play. But if you take a look at today’s toys, you’ll see that they sadly perform all the actual ‘playing’ for our children, so they don’t have to do any of the exploring, creating, discovering, or imagining. The last thing they need is a room full of noisy unpleasant-looking plastic junk that doesn’t encourage any form of actual ‘play’. In fact, the less toys and clutter they have, the more they can and will imagine because the child will be encouraged to create more games or ways of play with the same one toy. Compare this to the overstimulation and overwhelm caused by the sheer number of useless toys owned by most children. How can we expect our children to ‘play’ when the toys themselves have performed all the ‘playing’ for them. The bright-red fire engine flashes and blares its siren at the touch of a button, the firefighter barks out orders when placed in his seat, and the hose makes a whooshing noise when pressed. HOW is the child supposed to play with it? All that is left for him/her to do is to watch the performance put on by this fire engine!
This begs the question, what little then do our children need? What are the toys that encourage imagination and creativity and do not suppress them?
Enter OPEN-ENDED Toys!
What are open-ended toys and why are they good?
Simply put, open-ended toys are toys that encourage creativity, imagination, problem-solving, an element of challenge, and they can also be played with in more than one way. As you can probably tell, this excludes most of the toys in the toy shops but includes the cardboard box! The simplest example of an open-ended toy is dirt. Have you ever met a child that cannot think of a thousand ways to play with dirt? You can scoop it, smush it, mix it with water, dig it, make cakes with it, make paint with it, build cities with it, you name it and it can be done with dirt.
Now let’s look at a toy that is NOT an open-ended toy. This toy plastic cucumber is just that, a cucumber. It can never be anything else and most children will not imagine it to be anything else (this was a gift I fished out to take a picture of).
Now compare this to the case of wooden bricks. Bricks can be used for building, they can be used as pretend food, or even luggage for pretend travels on the guest bed as the aeroplane (all true stories). They can be used as multiples for maths, A brick can become the toy cucumber we spoke about just now, or the meat in a lamb stew, or you could make a salad out of the whole lot! (my kids love pretend cooking for the family!).
I want you now to close your eyes and imagine how many toys we’d need if it wasn’t for open-ended toys and a bucket of imagination? We’d need a cheap plastic piece for everything under the sun! But Alhamdulillah for imagination.
Now for the fun part! What open-ended toys shall I buy for my children other than wooden bricks?
In order to answer this question allow me to take you a step back. Remember my ‘dirt’ example? The best toys out there are nature finds; things that Allah has created in abundance that complement imagination, creativity, a wealth of sensory experience, and problem solving perfectly. Grab a basket and fill it with sea pebbles, a multitude of twigs, and washed avocado seeds. Leave this basket within their reach and watch as they first touch and examine the treasures within. Once they’re familiar with the textures they’ll start tinkering and making the different materials interact together. Then you’ll see the creativity come out. They’ll balance, build, cook, and create.
Right. What other open ended toys can I buy for them?
Lego. Lego is fantastic for developing so many skills. And babies as young as one find their duplo range easy enough to fix. But try and invest in a good open set so that they can create what they want, and stay away from the one-object sets because those, whilst good for developing fine-motor skills, do not promote creativity.
Other good open-ended toys include dolls houses (think of all the imaginary interactions and conversations), a basket of dressing up clothes (again, stay away from clothes that belong to a specific character and find instead general clothes), and toy kitchens.
Now toy kitchens are my favourite because the play opportunities are literally endless. And since we’re on the topic of toy kitchens I wanted to take you on a tour of the toy kitchen we have at home to show you how you can equip it to encourage creativity, and bring out the child’s imagination.
This is an Ikea kitchen that I’ll link below and It’s excellent in so many ways. Firstly, it’s plain in terms of colour (it’s due an upcycle but that’s for another day) and contrary to popular belief, children don’t need toys to be brightly coloured. They need calm and plain for their imagination and creativity to shine through. Think about it, don’t you need the same things too in order for you to achieve? Secondly, it doesn’t make any noise. The result? The child will imagine and make all the cooking and whisking and mixing noises. And thirdly (now this is my favourite), it’s very reasonably priced. Similar- looking durable wooden pastel kitchens can cost a bomb, but at €70, this one is a bargain.
As you can see, I have tried to equip the kitchen in a manner that encourages creativity and imagination, but let me tell you this, nothing I have put here has prepared me for how much a child can excel and create in a nurturing environment. My children are not geniuses in any way, but the environment plays a great role in fostering and developing creativity.
When we first got the kitchen, I made a conscious decision not to buy any toy food (save the wooden toaster). Instead, I filled the kitchen with loose bits that they can use for their cooking, mixing, and baking. We have jar of dices, another with domino pieces, and a third with homemade play dough. And these loose bits can be anything when pretend cooking. They can be pastas or curries or peanuts. Sausages, pies, or even pastry. We also have pine cones for decorating and cooking, wooden stackable rings, and a tub of pebbles that I couldn’t find when I was taking these pictures (located at a later date under the sofa). And as you can see, the combinations and cooking possibilities are limitless.
This chalk board is brilliant for writing prices or taking orders for when the kitchen becomes a cafe, or even as a tray when serving food!
This is a wedding cake (my kids love weddings) made with play dough and a big pine cone. The print was made using smaller pine cones, and I actually think that it’ll look beautiful on a real cake.
Now you might say, but my children don’t know how to play like this!
The thing is, playing is like everything else in life, you more you play, the better you’ll get at playing. And if you want children to do anything, always always model it first. Sit down and start playing, and trust me they’ll join in soon enough. Start creating and mixing and pouring and before you know it, you’ll have the whole troop down with you.
Secondly, screen time kills imagination and creativity. There is no nice way to put it.
Limit your kids’ screen time and you will see a world of difference in what they like and how they like to spend their time.
Lastly, how do you measure the success of a toy?
If you find your children going back to play with the same toy again and again in more than one way, then it is a good toy for all the right reasons. Similarly, any toy that doesn’t spark creativity is only adding clutter and mess and should not be there.
And as a parting rule, try to always choose quality over quantity. Remember, one good quality open-ended toy is worth 20 cheap plastic ones that will eventually all end up in the landfill anyway. So not only are you encouraging creativity through your conscious toy purchases, you’re also saving the environment! Win-win all around!
Stay safe my friends. Until next time!
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