What toys do children need?

Parents often discover Waldorf through a toy catalog.  “Waldorf” toys are made of natural materials (wood, wool, silk, cloth), they are pleasing to the senses and thoughtfully crafted, they support creative and open-ended play - they are beautiful.  And surrounding our children and ourselves with beauty is important.  But you don’t need any toys at all to do that.

Our modern culture is materialistic through and through, and this applies even to many of us who are making parenting choices that are way outside of the mainstream.  It’s entirely possible to trade tacky, ugly, overstimulating stuff with beautiful, handmade, open-ended stuff....and still have too much stuff!

Children don’t need a lot in order to exercise their creative play muscles.  I would say there are very few essentials - lots of time in nature, one special doll to bond with, and access to a handful of materials that can be transformed through the imagination to become props for imitating adult work, recreating stories they have heard, and inventing their own wonderful games.  Children are uniquely gifted at taking objects and imagining them as other things.  And they need to exercise that gift, because it’s laying a cognitive foundation.  They are building fluid intelligence when they transform objects in their imaginations - an intelligence which is creative, malleable, social, and fantastic for solving problems.

Ok, so what should that handful of materials be?  It can be silks, blocks, a play kitchen with a tea set and play food, and a balance board - these are wonderful!  It can also be baskets of pine cones, rocks, acorns, seashells - really, these are even better.

Do you remember what Laura and Mary Ingalls played with in early childhood?  They had a swing and a few broken cups and saucers to play with under a big oak tree.  They each had a doll (Laura’s doll was a corncob wrapped in a handkerchief until around age 5 she got a rag doll for Christmas!).  They played with the squashes in the attic all winter long.

My 3-year-old currently loves to play with strings and rubber bands.  She attaches them to make long ropes, to connect things, to make leashes, to make pulls for “sleds.”  The sleds are often empty boxes, a small picnic cooler, or an overturned child-size chair - also sometimes our actual winter sled comes inside for this game.  Her beloved toy animals love to ride in the sleds, and usually there is quite an odd assortment of other things from around the house too.

Does this sound familiar to you?  You can’t buy this kind of game in a box!

It isn’t about buying expensive “Waldorf” toys but rather about recognizing which toys and materials are conducive to healthy play and which are not.  Rather than keeping track of what toys you have, I would watch your child.  The goal is an active fantasy life and that amazing childlike ability to immerse oneself in a dream world in which picnic coolers are sleds - to play!

Now it's your turn!

What does healthy play look like at your house? I would love to hear all about it in the comments below!