Natural Toys for Creative Play
by Dana Johnson, MSW
Think back for a moment to your childhood. What was your favorite thing to play? What did you pretend for hours on end? When parents are asked this question, almost without exception we discover that our favorite play scenarios were those we created out of our imaginations. We were mommies feeding babies, superheroes with a towel-turned-cape, explorers of our backyards. Grandparents often say they played with what little play materials they had. A simple cloth was a baby blanket, a parachute flyer, and a costume all in one.
Today’s children have toys far more detailed and sophisticated. However, a growing number of psychologists and child development specialists are advocating for a return to the “natural” play of yesteryear. Why? Because it requires imagination.
In this age of high-tech toys, children frequently push a button and are entertained by watching play happen, not by actively creating it themselves. The toys construction determines how it will be played with. The natural play that is thought to be more appropriate encourages children to create a play scenario out of their own imagination. Play materials are unstructured so the child must creatively “complete” the toy. Play materials are also multi-purpose, meaning that one toy can be turned into lots of different things. For example, blocks made of tree branches can be used to create unique structures not possible with traditional square blocks. Cloths and silks can be turned into capes, aprons, and rivers. Dolls with simple features allow the child to decide if the baby is laughing, crying or sleeping.
Recent research is supporting this more natural approach to play. There is some evidence that children who play with open-ended toys are better at solving divergent problems (problems where there is more than one answer). These children were shown to think beyond the objects in what we call “out-of-the-box” thinking.1
Many parents who practice natural or holistic parenting are taking the lead in bringing back this type of play to childhood. More and more parents are seeing the value of and true developmental need for free creative play. Many parents are now choosing unstructured toys made of natural materials over battery-operated plastic toys. And with new books such as Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, many parents are questioning the push for early academics and are enrolling their children in play-based preschools.
So, again, think about your favorite memories of playing as a child. Who were you? What did you become? The imagination that transformed you into someone else or into another place has proven again to truly be a cornerstone of childhood. It seems that although we have the technology to create high-tech toys, it’s the natural play with natural play things that truly inspires the magic that is childhood.
About the Authors
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, PhD & Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, PhD, Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. (Rodale, 2003)
Dana Johnson, MSW is a former children’s mental health therapist. She owns Three Sisters Toys specializing in natural, open-ended and Waldorf-inspired toys for children.
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