Gift Ideas That Encourage Free Play

I wish I could say that my children made simple gift requests this holiday season reflecting the spirit of the season – perhaps asking for a beautifully illustrated book and some simple wooden toys. My five-year-old punctured this vision last week announcing he would like his very own and “very new” iPad and every single Octonauts action figure and transportation device ever created. When I told him it might be a good idea to ask for one Octonaut, he sulked away and dramatically announced that if he couldn’t have them all he wouldn’t ask for any. Deep sigh.

Child playing with cardboard in free play

No one is immune to the “Gimmes” this time of year. For families celebrating gift-giving holidays, it can be tempting to chase your children’s growing lists. But before you scour the Internet for a miraculous Octonauts fire sale, it can be helpful to watch your children play. Which toys get tossed aside after a few days? Which sustain play over time?

For example, after declaring the upcoming holiday season a bust when it came to top shelf presents, my kindergartener son eventually perked up and went to the basement only to emerge proudly two hours later with an elaborate Lego creation that had something to do with both outer space and undersea exploration.

While the latest shiny gizmos are alluring to all of us, the magic of childhood is their imagination – making a whole world out of just about anything.

If your pocketbook can handle it, there is nothing wrong with wrapping up a toy or two even knowing it may be a passing interest. But if you would like the gift to last well into the new year, select a couple that encourage creativity, imagination and free play.

Here are some ideas:

  • Back to the basics. There is nothing wrong with good-old-fashioned blue painters tape, paint, and various cardboard tubes and boxes. (Think Caine’s Arcade!)
  • Open ended building toys. Examples include blocks, bricks, Duplos, Legos, K’nex, Magnatiles, etc… All are open-ended building toys where children are only limited by their own imaginations.
  • Art supplies.
  • Real toolbox. While the plastic play variety is great for the youngest among us, by Kindergarten and early elementary children are ready to practice with real tools! Include soft pine wood to get them started pounding nails and building things.
  • Fort kit. A blanket, buckets, pulleys, push-lights, and laundry clips make a great “fort kit.”
  • Climbers. Have a basement with a bit of extra room? Install a rope climber, triangular rope ladder, or cargo net wherever you have a little space. Put a mattress or gymnastic mat below.
  • Books. This might seem obvious, but the holidays are a great time to diversify your library.
  • Dress up clothes and props. Do you notice that your children are playing store? Doctor? Taking care of babies? A few props and simple costumes can help them draw out these story lines.
  • Community figures. With small characters like firefighters, parents, construction workers, postal carriers, office workers, children will play out scenarios and even draw in their latest action heroes.
  • Going high tech? Don’t forget the principles of play. Avoid “drill and practice” apps and games that operate on “smother mode.” Instead, look for creative tools that encourage exploration and play.