Creative toy play, part 1: building blocks

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I have such a love-hate relationship with toys. I love watching children deeply engrossed in play  - play is, after all, the work of childhood. But I have a hard time with clutter, anguish over missing pieces, dislike toys that are meant to be played only in one specific way, and most of all, loathe the commercialization that seems to pervade modern childhood. I also think that when there's too much going on – too many toys, too much stuff – children play less well, and less creatively, with what they do have.

To try to avoid this, over the years, we've worked on building a small collection of good toys.  Most of what the kids are drawn to over and over again are simple open-ended classics such as wooden blocks and toys for pretend play – dolls, animals, kitchen items, vehicles, and little Lego or Playmobil figures. 

Kapla blocks are quite pricey, but they have lasted us nearly a decade so far and have been used in so many different ways. B, age 10, made this pretty cool maze with kaplas and a couple of other smaller colored blocks. I like how he wrote "Start" at the entrance of the maze.


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Kaplas also become castles, like the one in the photo at the top of this post. The photo doesn't show this but the boys also cut up a bunch of felt to use in the castle as carpets and runners. Flags and banners are easy to make as well with a stick and a bit of glue and cloth.

Children love setting up scenes. In addition to building blocks, recyclables are useful too – this was made from a paper bag, paint, and milk cartons, plus origami for the boat. 

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I try to get the children to put their own creative stamp on their play by showing them how to make or design their own props to stretch their play with store-bought toys. A milk carton ship to take Lego figures on adventures far and wide. Clothing designed for a beloved bear. A cape for a little boy made of a simple scarf. An impressive sword made of cardboard and foil. Pretty paper flowers for a flower shop or garden. I think it's nice for children to learn that you can always make what you need rather than buying it! 

Getting your children started on a more creative path to play can be as simple as collecting a small fabric stash just for the children and their projects, collecting buttons, stones, sticks, and shells as well as empty baskets and boxes, having yarn and ribbon, elastic and tape on hand, and keeping a bunch of recyclables for your children to use. By doing this, you will find yourself, and your children, cultivating an ability to spot potential in the most mundane things. Treasures from trash!

In the next two posts of this three-part series I'll be showing you a few things you and your children can do with these raw materials. In the meantime, I'd love to know what your children's favorite playthings are.

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5 thoughts on “Creative toy play, part 1: building blocks

  1. MyKidsEatSquid

    Thanks for this series. I’m looking forward to reading more. Isn’t it just cool that kids favorite toys are often the simplest. My kids have created their own Littlest Petshop village with cardboard boxes, toilet paper rolls and more.

    Reply
  2. Jennifer Margulis

    I loved reading this, and looking at the pictures of your children’s creative play. My kids, like yours, really like open-ended toys. My son is way into Legos. We have some for the first time (it used to be he only played with them at friends’ houses). He also loves golf balls and he makes tracks for them out of wooden planks (scraps we got awhile back). My 10-month-old loves the golf balls too. Dress-up is another big one. But you don’t have to BUY anything. Just some scarfs and old clothes and they make themselves all sorts of outfits.

    Reply
  3. Alisa Bowman

    I love the maze. For some reason that never occurred to me. But we don’t really have enough blocks at the moment to pull one off. Still, my daughter would love that, so I think more blocks are in our future. I think the old fashioned toys — legos, blocks, markers, dough, paint– are really all kids ever need.

    Reply

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