Christmas Shopping with a PLAYFUL PURPOSE

As much as I am a “Thanksgiving advocate,” it is happening. All around us, Thanksgiving is being skipped over (not to mention poor Veteran’s Day!).  The stores all seemed decked out with holly by Halloween and I’ve even heard a few carols. I know Christmas is quickly approaching when I open my mailbox and 4-5 toy catalogs fall out daily. I’ve paid specific interest to the contents of those catalogs this year.  In preparation for 1-2-3 Just Play With Me arriving in January and doing a good bit of research to prepare for an early childhood conference we are speaking at in early 2012, we have read extensively about toys as tools for play and had some great conversations about what is available on the market today.  Here’s our verdict: It is not an easy task to find a “good toy” in large chain stores. There are some but they are the minority. What defines a “good toy” in our minds? One that can be used for several years in multiple ways. One that is durable, safe, and not overpriced. One that doesn’t “do it all” for your child.  In a recent article in Parents magazine, the founding director for the Alliance for Childhood, Joan Almon states, “A good toy is 95% child and 5% toy.” We couldn’t agree more.    

So for all you parents who have early holiday shopping giddiness, we challenge you to ask yourself the following questions when standing in that toy aisle:

– How many ways can I think of this toy being used?
– Will this toy promote language and social interaction for my child when playing with it?
-Can I creatively think of ways this toy can be used rather than it’s intended purpose?
– Is this toy age appropriate for my child now and will he/she still find it interesting in some way in 6 months to a year?
– Is the toy safe?

 Working in the homes of families with small children has many benefits, but one is that I see first hand which toys are played with time and time again and which are pushed to the corner. I often embarrass my husband and kids in the stores around this time of year because when we find ourselves standing next to parents or grandparents in the toy section, I can’t help either talking them into a toy or out of another!

The bad news is that you might have to search a bit harder for a great toy on your list for that special child in your life, but the good news is that often the toys that don’t “do it all” for your child, are more reasonable.  And being creative in your toy shopping can be quite fun.

Here’s some suggestions:
– Most children would love a trunk filled with dress up clothing (for boys and girls) from your closet or a thrift shop
– Consider taking the dollars you’d spend on a big toy and instead purchasing an art center for a child.  You can pick bins or shelves with baskets of art supplies (some purchased like paints and paper and some saved likes bottle caps or paper towel rolls),  or maybe an easel or dry erase or chalkboard for endless hours of creative artistic play
– Search for toys that can be used many ways.  When I was a child, my parent’s old calculator had to serve as a phone, calculator, computer, cash register, and space ship. We don’t need to provide a separate toy for separate functions.  Allowing children to translate their knowledge of an object or toy to a different purpose, builds problem solving and creative thinking skills.
– Don’t forget about music. I haven’t met a kid who doesn’t love a harmonica as a gift. They are very reasonable and unique.
– Give the time of you sharing an experience with a child. Tickets to a play or show, a museum, or aquarium alongside a special adult are a lasting treasure.
– Don’t forget physical toys. Winter keeps some of us indoors, but remember that kids need to move to learn and to behave! Jump ropes make excellent stocking suffers and can be used in a variety of ways. Every child should have a ball to play with.  Hula hoops are fun for toddlers and adults!
– Magic sets, puppet shows, or kid friendly cook books with some cooking supplies are not commonly advertised, but nice choices for cooperative play. 
– Dolls and blocks are probably our favorite “bang for your buck” toys because they can be used in so many ways for so many years. Both promote language, social, and motor play and require all kids and no batteries to operate!
– Look beyond the “regular stores.” You can often find deals online or unique items in smaller shops.

We wish you a happy shopping season and hope these tips are helpful.  You WILL always be your child’s favorite toy, so no matter what you choose, don’t forget to add your time and your attention on your list of gifts to give that special child in your life!

This shot of the my daughters’ first Christmas together makes me smile! I knew our oldest might put lots of things from the house inside her new shopping cart….I never thought the first would be her baby sister!                      
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