Before you walk into a toy store…


Quite a few articles on the web (including our own) talk about the best, simple toys for babies. Janet Lansbury gives insights into the best and most engaging things for little babies, and even gives us a tour of their RIE space. Someone has asked us, however – what about toddlers? Surely, they enjoy different things as they grow older, they are in a different moment developmentally, and have different needs. What to do about play objects, or toys, for toddlers, without overwhelming them with gadgets, and remembering to keep them interested? What simple, open-ended toys can we offer our toddlers, who are now running, dancing, climbing, jumping and singing? We thought about this, then looked around our own play spaces, and here is what we have found…

One thing that stays the same

Yes, it’s true that as children grow their needs and urges change. But there is one thing that in our opinion stays the same – regardless of the age, children enjoy self-directed, self-initiated play, where they can engage with the objects of their choice in a way they find interesting. And while some toy manufacturers would have you buy a new toy for every moment in the life of your child, the truth is that the toys that were fun when he looked at them or banged them together to see what sound they make, will later on be fun to stack, build, construct, and then even give them names and have them walk and talk. Because their imagination and creativity knows no boundaries. Because, as Susan Linn from Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood says: ‘The best toy is 10% toy and 90% child’. And these are the toys which we have found most popular with our boys for… well over two years now!

‘In a market of numbing electronic glitz, the fact remains that simple, open-ended toys are still best. A toy should encourage the child to manipulate, interact or figure something out. When there is only one “right way” to play, or if toys try to “teach” routine academic skills, opportunities for experimentation and new discovery are limited. Common household objects such as tools, cooking utensils, and gadgets, provide great possibilities for creative problem solving and imaginative play. Nesting and stacking toys or objects, containers for dumping and pouring, art materials, and stringing and sorting different sizes of beads and buttons, for example, all require active handling by the child and teach about relationships: top, middle, bottom; small, big, bigger, biggest. Wooden unit blocks are all-time winners.’ (Jane Healey, “Your Child’s Growing Mind”)

Have you noticed the key words, that a number of child psychologists and play experts seem to be stuck on these days when it comes to talking about ‘toys’? Open-ended and simple. So, in practice, what does that mean?

Open-ended toys are those, which don’t have a set of instructions to go with them, and all they require is your child’s imagination. Pretty simple? We think so, but when you look around toy stores, it seems the exact opposite is true… Toys that {play music, sing, dance, jump, blink, have something jump out of them etc.} when you push a button are just one of the many examples. And as far as our kids engaging with them? Well, how many times can you keep pushing a button before you decide you want something better to do? Toddlers’ imagination knows no boundaries – they don’t need buttons to push, but they do need toys that are safe to explore in any way they want. Why is that such a big deal?

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves. (Carl Jung)

Our children deserve for us to allow them to develop that creative instinct. We believe that it is not on the ‘educational’ toys, or ones that come with a complex set of instructions that creative mind can thrive – creativity is not built by pushing buttons.

It is very important that the toys be safe for our kids to do whatever they want with them – otherwise you might end up with broken toys, or ones that are no fun to play with if you constantly have to monitor the play and the way the toys are handled.

One of our favourite childhood memories of my brother’s creativity is this: for some occasion he got a simple shape sorter – little blocks in different shapes and a box to go with it, with holes of different shapes. All made of nice but very soft wood. He looked at it for quite a long time, tried once or twice, then moved away. Not a minute later he showed back with a small toy hammer and hammered all of the blocks into the box through one hole, happily disregarding the shapes they were supposed to fit into. (Anna)

Unfortunately toy stores are not divided in the ‘educational’ and the ‘open-ended’ sections. In fact – some simple toys you don‘t find in these stores at all. So have a look through our small collection of examples and ideas:

Pieces of cotton cloth or other (safe) fabric

Both our boys have been playing with a variety of pieces of fabric for a while now.

Antek has a blanket he loves, that becomes a sleeping buddy, hide-and-seek cover, a tent, his best friend (now temporarily replaced by an imaginary green cat with no teeth), grass to plant trees on, parking lot for the cars… (Anna)

On weekends we sleep in the living room for several reasons. So when Leander wakes up he comes cuddling into our big sofabed. At some point he gets bored of cuddling or let‘s say wakes up and wants to be active. He goes and gets all sorts of cars that then drive around the bed, over us and under the bed sheets. Because these are no bed sheets. These are garages or tunnels. (Nadine)

Cups, bowls, baskets, empty containers etc.

Oh wow, we could go on for ever with these magical objects.

First they were things to touch, feel, taste, bang.
To learn about where your hand ends and another object begins.
Then two identical ones came together. It was useful to have three or four to explore that relationship.
Now they are an endless joy by serving as containers for anything that fits in.
You can pour water in and out of them.
You can wear one on your head like a hat.
You can make ‘coffee’ that you don’t like (it tastes like acorns most days), but Mom and Dad are sure happy to get some!
You can cook in them.
You can hide things under them (hard to later remember where these things have gone sometimes).

Is there anything you can’t do with them, really?

Cardboard boxes or any container big enough to climb into

You can climb into and out of it.
You can drive around with it or even fly.
You can sit inside and cars drive along the edge of it.
You can hide and relax if things get too much.
If they‘ve got holes (like laundry baskets) you can count them, put your fingers through and explore what else fits through – or doesn‘t.
Cars can drive into this ‘garage’.
You can hide stuff in it. And forget about it.
You can learn about balancing your body against another object.
You can explore how far, how much, how strongly…

C‘mon – think about it! The list is endless!

Also – apparently they are great for preschoolers, some of whom prefer them to ‘regular toys’:

Sticks, stones, chestnuts, acorns – whatever else you found on that walk

Not only are they excellent items for collecting, lining up, putting in and taking out, rolling, cooking with… they also hold powerful memories, and can be amazing and inspiring beginnings for your family storytelling: ‘Remember when we were in the forest last week and …’

Is there really any more explanation needed?


If you don‘t do the obvious with them – you can still stuff them into a bag and carry them along.

And of course – blocks

Blocks are for building.
And lining.
And sorting.
And collecting.
For sitting on them.
For walking on them.
Jumping off them.
For learning about maths and spatial relationships.
For finding out about balance on things other than your own body.
For learning about constructing and deconstructing.
For exploring gravity.
You name it.

And then there is the stuff you just have. Just never considered to be toys…

Pots and pans
Lids – all kinds and sizes

Wooden spoons, spatulas etc.
Coasters, placemats
Egg cartons, tissue boxes
Toilet paper/kitchen paper rolls
Wooden bracelets you no longer wear
Cleaning and tidying equipment (brooms, dustpans)
Your old scarves
Handbags, purses, wallets you no longer use 

These have been popular with our boys and are a never-ending source of new games, new ideas, and new discoveries. They are all objects you have around, and which are perfect for fulfilling all the developmental urges that occur during play. They also have been showing us progressive engagement of our boys with what is going on in the household – from wanting to inspect these fascinating object when they started being within reach, we are now looking at two young men, who at times want to be involved in cooking, cleaning and organizing!

The beauty of these seemingly simple play objects, is that they are in fact magical – they can be whatever your child wants them to be, and they can fill a number of developmental needs.

Their apparent simplicity promotes free play – free in the sense intended by Dr Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber, that is self-initiated, self-regulated, self-led. This is because with these open-ended objects the child does not need your help, explanation or guidance – if they invite you to join, that’s wonderful, but they do not have to rely on anyone to show them how to play, or make sure that nothing gets broken. And knowing that you can discover things that amaze yourself and others, is not only a cornerstone of creativity, but is also very empowering.

So there, before you walk into a toy store – stop and think how much marvellous play material you have around. Children don’t get bored with toys so easily – they might need some more time to come up with new ways of using them, but if the toy allows for many different ways of exploration, toddlers will grab this opportunity! And new ways of playing come up as they grow older.

What are some favourites in your house? What does your child love playing with?

Some more fantastic reading:

Lisa Sunbury talks about commercialization of childhood, a talk by Susan Linn of CCFC, and all things play:

Toy-free Kindergarten Project:





11 thoughts on “Before you walk into a toy store…

  1. Pingback: think ‘simple’ when shopping for children this holiday season. | Nakali Notes

  2. Can I put in a good word for the cardboard tube at the centre of wrapping paper rolls? My toddler _adores_ putting small wooden blocks in one end, listening to them slide along, and then seeing them drop out :-)

    • Hi Anelie,

      Oh this sounds wonderful! And how creative :-) It is also so nice to hear you enjoy observing him do that. Thanks for reading and joining the conversation!

  3. Pingback: Before you walk into a toy store… | Mamas in the Making – Toy Shops Online

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