The Undiscovered Obvious
Free your mind of preconceptions of what toys should look like; think of how children play. Then head for the nearest supermarket, an old-fashioned five and dime (if you're lucky enough to find one; otherwise, try a craft or discount store), or even the hardware store.
At the Supermarket
How about a big plastic turkey baster, a set of cups and funnels, or a flower-watering can for bathtub play? How about a flat plastic covered container with enough crayons to fill it to the brim? (Crayons never fit back in their own boxes properly, do they?)
Food coloring, which hardly anyone uses for cooking anymore, is fine for paintings. Squirt blobs on a moistened paper plate (the high rim contains the liquid better than flat paper) for a marbleized design. Or dip accordion-folded paper towels or tissue paper into puddles of color (buy a muffin tin!) for dip-dyed abstractions.
The butcher will sell you one or two dozen styrofoam trays which, when combined with shoelaces, needle and thread, yarn, scissors, felt-tipped markers or tempera paints, can be used for many activities. If you punch holes in a tray, a young child can thread shoelaces through it. An older child can cut random shapes to string into a necklace. The pieces can be colored first with felt-tipped markers; cuts of paper straws could be interspersed.
Scratch a drawing into the tray, brush over it with tempera, press paper on it, and voila! A substitute for linoleum-block printing. Or paint directly on the tray with tempera; the rim is a ready-made frame.
Pasta tubes or wheels (in fact, any shape with a hole) can be threaded onto yarn to become a necklace. Older children can stitch the shapes into crewel embroideries. Add paint, and the shapes can be colored before use; add glue, and the pieces can be pasted onto flat backgrounds (those styrofoam trays, for instance) or can be assembled into three-dimensional constructions.
At the 5 & 10 or Discount Store
If you want traditional toys, card games like Go Fish, Authors, and Old Maid are good bets. So are little puzzles with balls to maneuver through mazes, or ball-and-cord puzzles in which the parts must be separated from each other. And don't overlook such classics as Monopoly, Parcheesi, chess, checkers, and dominoes.
At the yarn counter you'll find small squares and circles of plastic mesh; several of these, together with varied colors of yarn and a blunt plastic needle, allow a child to explore needlepoint without the frustration and stereotypes imposed by typical kits.
Copious quantities of simple items, particularly when combined with appropriate go-togethers, are synergistic. Try a couple of pounds of clay, plus a rolling pin, cookie cutters, and texture-producing items like a strainer, grater, and potato-masher. Or assemble several packs of construction paper, plus scissors and a hole-puncher; maybe add paste and a scrapbook.
Squares of felt can be combined either with yarn and needle for stitchery, with scissors and glue for collages, or with dried beans (back at the supermarket) to make beanbags.
A yard or more of plain white vinyl is the basis of a playmat for floor play. Add permanent-color markers so a child can paint a cityscape or landscape on which cars, trucks, planes, trains, play people, and animals can move. Contact paper could also be used to represent roads, grassland, train tracks, and other features of the terrain.
From the business supply section you can assemble the props for "let's play office": saleschecks, carbon paper, date-stamper, file cards, file folders, stapler, Scotch tape, colored rubber bands, pens and pencils, all packed in a cardboard file drawer or a large expansion envelope.
Drawing materials include compasses, templates (circles, squares, French
curves), or rolls of adding-machine paper (great for comic strips!). Other
stationery items are stickers (dinosaurs, animals, flowers, and many other
themes), self-adhesive labels (circles, squares, and rectangles in day-glow
colors), rub-on letters, marking pens, crayons, and pads of newsprint,
colored or lined paper.
At the Hardware Store
Real tools, small in size and light in weight, but nevertheless real, give better results than toy tools. A claw hammer, screwdriver, some large-headed nails and screws, and assorted sizes of balsa wood will get a 3- or 4-year old off to a fine start. Older children would also welcome a cross-cut saw, hand drill and bits, sandpaper, a carpenter's folding rule, and a tool box; maybe even add some paints and brushes.
A small rectangle of pegboard, plus some colored shoelaces, will make a fine lacing toy.
Half a yard of contact paper in every solid color can be the basis of a make-your-own "colorforms" set. Cut free-form shapes, or use the grid on back as a guide for cutting geometrics; a large piece of white or black contact paper (either left plain, or with a background scene drawn with marking pens) is the base on which to apply the shapes.
A combination padlock is a universal favorite among children.
Ruth B. Roufberg, a longtime friend of Parents' Choice, serves as our Senior Toy Editor. Mrs. Roufberg is a highly respected authority on children's toys, games and puzzles. Her articles appear in parenting publications nationwide.