It is a happy talent to know how to play.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
As we drift from spring to summer I’m seeing a TON of (plastic, expensive) toys advertised for summer play.
Maverick and I were talking about the best things to play with outdoors, and ultimately decided that the best toys are the ones that don’t come with instructions (for putting together or for playing with). We put together this list of five toys that kids of any age will find entertaining, and some suggestions for their play use, although kids won’t need ’em. They’re open-ended for physical and/or creative play, they’re highly portable, and they’re equally enjoyable for littles, not-so-littles and adults to play with together.
The best part? You could conceivably buy every item on this list for a total cost of, I don’t know, 30 bucks at most. In my humble opinion, these 5 things assembled into a big box would be the bestest gift set for a kid’s birthday. Or a just-because gift for the kid-at-heart.
The Only 5 Toys Any Kid Really Needs
(some minor cheating involved)
I recommend the kickball: you know, those rubber playground balls. They make THE most satisfying thwap sound when you kick or catch them. Play traditional kickball, dodgeball, wallball, soccer, basketball (keep in mind that a goal or a net can easily be approximated with pails, baskets, or just chalk-drawn lines. There is NO need to buy those for at-home use).
The tennis ball is another option. If you’re lucky enough to have a dog that will fetch for you, we’re talking hours of easy entertainment. When I was a kid, I would happily toss a tennis ball against the side of the house for forever, catching after the first bounce (and I’m glorying in the memory of the sound as I type this: boom, bounce, catch. Boom, bounce, catch). A tennis ball is probably also a better idea for a toddler just starting to throw and catch. And, of course, you can pull together a makeshift round of baseball, golf, croquet or tennis using some sticks or branches (or in the case of croquet, flamingos).
Ball play doesn’t just keep children moving; it builds mind-body coordination and naturally lends to understanding of simple physics and geometry. Introduce a ball to a group of kids with nothing else to do and you’ll see creative teamwork and active communication as they decide on a game and flesh out what the rules are; social skill-building as they challenge and debate what’s “out” and what’s fair.
2. A Rope to Jump
Honestly, I recommend two, for double-dutch or just so you can jump along with your child. Jumping rope is AWESOME cardio and the impact helps build bone density. It also makes kids more body aware and coordinated, which will help out in any other sport or athletic endeavor. The imaginative possibilities for a length of rope are great: a jump rope can be put to use as a tightrope or lion-tamer’s whip, as Tarzan’s primary mode of transport, for designating goals for ball play or “safe” zones for tag, for tying bad guys to tree trunks.
The rope pictured is an eco-model, 100% U.S.-made cotton rope (7 feet long and adjustable) and 100% recycled plastic handles. For a refresher on the rhymes we used to chant on the schoolyard (which build memorization, rhythm and speech skills!), try Anna Banana: 101 Jump Rope Rhymes; prices on used copies start at a penny.
The frisbee is probably my favorite toy. As it is subject to the whims of any winds passing by it’s an equal-opportunity for cardio (meaning that no matter how talented you are at flinging and jumping, you’re probably still going to have to run after the thing). I could pass a frisbee back and forth for a good long time before I got bored, but frisbee baseball or frisbee golf are great semi-organized games for kids of all ages to play together— the relative skill set is pretty much irrelevant. In terms of imaginative play, the frisbee doubles as home plate, a dinner plate or a hat to balance on your head 🙂
The frisbee pictured is an “EcoSaucer” made from recycled milk containers & grocery bags, and the packaging is recyclable. We have this one and I think it cost us five bucks.
Even an old sheet would do, but I would spring for something like this one, which is lightweight, water-resistant and folds into its own case with handles. (Also comes in a bunch of colors.) It’s a tent, a picnic blanket, a cape, a tablecloth, a cloak of invisibility, a wedding veil, a set of wings, a parachute, a raft… you get the idea. The sky’s the limit as long as it’s theirs and they don’t have to worry about getting it dirty or messing it up.
5. A Deck of Cards
Sometimes, a kid’s gotta rest. Sometimes it rains. You can play cards by yourself or with friend(s); you can play a game you both know, or teach/learn a new game, or make one up. The really talented can build a house of cards (I do not fall into that category, but my husband does).
We jump to the notion that cards are boring, but I think I’m probably not alone when I say I have very specific childhood memories attached to the tactile feel of a playing card, and to the sound of a sharp shuffle. In any case, we have a lot of possible educational benefits here: memorization, development of small motor skills, basic math concepts & patterns, quick decision making, anticipatory decision making, statistics, not to mention the opportunities to learn to read body language, to focus, and to just plain sit still for periods of time.
The set pictured is an eco-edition printed on sustainable forest papers, with starch-based laminating and vegetable-based inks. Both deck and case are fully recyclable. It sells for about four bucks.
BONUS: Don’t forget about the big box.
No, I’m not kidding. I think this would make a great gift set for ANYONE, but especially kids of a certain age if packaged in a big ol’ box. Go to an appliance store and ask for something massive. Seriously. Think how much fun that kid will have in his clubhouse/ spaceship/ cave/ castle/ secret hideout/ whatever (and then it can be folded and used as a sled on a grassy slope).
In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior.
In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.
-Lev Vygotsky (Russian psychologist)
Children learn by playing, and what they learn most is who they are and what they are capable of. We do them a disservice when we provide them with toys that are too solitary, too narrow in purpose, or too complicated. Or even with just too many. Keep it simple and open-ended, add plenty of free time and room to roam, and join in when you can… recapture some of those joys of childhood for yourself, and let your kids teach you a new game while you’re at it. Get out in the sunshine and play!
Now, there were some serious contenders that didn’t make the final cut (for instance, a bike, since it’s not technically something you “play” with), so maybe I’ll write those up as a “booster pack” sort of post.
But first I’ll ask you: what toys would you include in your “Top Five Must-Have Toys of Childhood?“