Provide open-ended toys
In the last post we took the first step in creating an environment for play - clearing out space for the magic to happen. Today I want to look at what toys your child is playing with.
As a general rule, the more simple the toy the more it will be used for creative play. A toy with less definition and functionality has more possibility. It’s open-ended and therefore a perfect prop for the imagination.
The most open-ended toys are treasures collected on outdoor adventures. Little baskets of acorns, stones, chestnuts (buckeyes), pinecones, seashells, and so on, will be played with time and time again. Wooden blocks of various sizes and shapes and cloths in many different sizes and colors are in this category as well. Blocks are used for building and setting up scenes, but also become many different things in play (could be a loaf of bread, a brick of gold, a train car, an iron….). Cloths are used for constructing forts and dressing up, but also are transformed into useful play props (temporary bags, cake frosting, lakes and rivers, doll clothing and blankets….).
A basket of handwork materials and scraps leftover from your own crafting is fantastic for spontaneous toy-making. Rags and handkerchiefs are easily made into dolls, and yarn can be quickly fingerknitted into ropes (which of course are very useful for young sailors, dog-walkers, lion-tamers and tent-builders!). Basic art supplies and items from the recycle bin are fantastic for constructing play props which are needed on the fly. Honestly, I feel really limited in this department, but it’s my children who show me how to do it! My girls have made all kinds of amazing things (barns, dolls, cities, houses, families) from cardboard boxes, paper, scotch tape (lots of scotch tape), scissors, markers, pinecones, rocks, and fabric scraps. In these cases, it was the process of making the toy that was the play.
Often parents who are new to Waldorf get caught up in the idea that they will need to spend a lot of money to provide beautiful playthings. But I really encourage you to look at the quality of your child’s play before you look at the quality of your child’s toys. I do recommend getting rid of toys that are encouraging limited, stilted, or character-driven play. But I don’t necessarily recommend filling in the blanks with replacement toys. Your children don’t need a lot of toys. And their toys don’t need to all come from a Waldorf catalog.
I’m not going to vilify plastic toys on this blog, and there are several that I think are great. Just because a toy is made of wood doesn’t mean it’s open-ended! And the reverse is also true - there are open-ended plastic toys. There are other benefits to playing with natural materials though - wood, silk, cotton, and wool are warm, beautiful, and soothing to the senses in a way that plastic just is not. So when it’s possible I look for play props that are both open-ended and made of natural materials.
Children who are used to exercising their imaginations will turn anything into a toy. They’ll take something which supposedly has a specific use, like board game pieces, a flower pot, a duplo block, a candlestick, or a winter sled, and use it for something entirely different. A child who knows how to play can play with anything.
So when you’re setting up a playspace for your preschooler, just keep a few things in mind: Simple toys, as open-ended as possible, and not too many.
Oh, and the very best open-ended “toy” for children? The great outdoors. (True story.)
How to provide open-ended toys for your child:
1. Go outside. A lot. And notice how well your child plays with very few props at all.
2. Collect wonderful treasures from outside. Little collections of rocks, polished river stones, acorns, chestnuts (buckeyes), pinecones, seashells, and so on are wonderful for inspiring play.
3. Look for toys that are less defined and more open to being used in many ways.
4. Have fun setting up a playspace for your child! Have a positive intention of inspiring creative play and please don’t feel that your home needs to look like a Waldorf catalog before you are doing it “right.”
Does your child collect treasures from outside? What are your favorite open-ended toys? What does your child play with the most?