Friday 21 September 2012

The Benefits of Open-Ended Toys

~by Emi

With Christmas steaming closer and closer, it is natural for parents to start thinking about gifts for their children... and often wondering what presents other people will give! Stephen and I have had trouble in the past with getting some of our family to pay attention to what our parenting is all about, and what presents are wanted for our home.

We love toys that encourage the use of imagination!

Stephen and I are very much trying to move towards making the majority of Ru and Pixie's toys open-ended, and for some very good reasons.

Open-ended toys are SO inspirational. When Ru plays with them, his little creative mind is firing on all cylinders. One of my favourite photographs is this shot of him 'riding a motorbike'. His motorbike is an old Christmas tree box, and his steering wheel is a cardboard tube.

Children are simply imaginative little creatures, and we feel their toys should encourage that, and not dictate or think for them. Not only that, open-ended toys grow WITH the child, with little chance of them out-growing them. That carbard tube could be a drumstick tomorrow... It could be made into a rocket in a few months time... A sword to slay dragons... A musical instrument filled with rice... Endless possibilities. Problem-solving, cognitive learning, creativity and critical thinking are just some of the skills at work.

Natural toys also give space for 'downtime'. Simple toys allow children to naturally move from one activity to another gently. With loud, noisy, active toys, it is much harder to switch from playing with that to a more restful activity. This is important to us, because at this point in Ru's life, he's no longer needing a nap in the middle of the day, but definitely still needs a couple of 'chill-out' periods. A room filled with natural toys also has a vastly different energy, calmer, more aesthetically pleasing, all having a beneficial effect on a small child. Natural objects themselves have a positive psychological effect on humans. The weight and quality over a wooden rattle far outweighs a flimsy plastic one.

At this age, we also attempt to avoid over-stimulating Ru, which is not helped by a combination of blinking lights, automated movement and loud music or sounds. The website Hazelnut Kids also suggests that 'Pressing one button to make lights blink and sounds appear merely teaches a child simple cause and effect and passes up a wonderful opportunity to encourage more creative play on the child's part.'.

As well as all these points, studies have shown that certain plastics may negatively affect health, often due to the presence of phthalates. For instance, states that 'Some phthalates have been linked to cancer, kidney and liver damage, harm to developing reproductive organs, and premature breast development in baby girls. Inhaling these chemicals can also worsen asthma in children. Phthalates are not bonded to the plastic, but can migrate, or leach out.', definitely something to be taken into account considering a small child's love of 'mouthing' their toys!

And finally, wooden and bamboo toys are durable so they last longer than their plastic brothers and therefore there is less waste. It means *we* waste less money buying more toys, and hopefully Stephen and I will be able to get joy from seeing our grandchildren playing with the same toys their parents did. When the time does come to retire our toys, wood and bamboo are recyclable, replenishable resources so their disposal will be gentler to the environment.

As parents, we would much rather have a few, very high quality toys, than lots and lots of lower-quality ones, a point of view shared by Kim John Payne in his book Simplicity Parenting. If a child has masses of toys, he knows the price of all of them, and the value of nothing.

However, the downside to these high-quality toys is the price. You really do get what you pay for! Some of these toys are VERY expensive, and can seem hugely daunting to cash-strapped parents in these economic downs. We usually ask family and friends to contribute towards a bigger, more expensive gift for birthdays and Yule/Christmas. For Ru's birthdays, for example, we've gotten bunkbeds (3rd birthday), a wooden music centre (2nd birthday) and reuseable nappy sets (1st birthday). For Pixie's first birthday, we had family contribute towards a beautiful heirloom quality Haba wooden walker, an item that we've been coveting for a while, but at £110 retail price, we would never have been able to afford on our own.

By doing this, it means that not only are we getting to provide wonderfully made, high quality toys for Ru and Pixie, it also takes away any chance of family giving the noisy plastic tat that so many parents fear their house will be full of come Christmas time! It can also take the stress out of giving gifts for other relatives too. Ru and Pixie's great-grandmother, Nana Ralph, sends money for birthdays and Christmas, always telling us that she doesn't know what they'd like and for us to get them something that we know they will. On a side note, I was always told by my mother that giving money was 'cheating' and that if you *really* cared about someone, that you would find them a gift that they would love. It can still be difficult for me to request that family contribute towards a bigger gift because of this, but as Stephen reminds me, it means better quality toys for our children.

And let's not forget, the fantastic cardboard box! That old saying about how children prefer the box the toy came in, to the toy itself? Completely true. Try checking out the great book 'Not A Box' too, for masses of ideas for what to make from your box!

So, after all of this, I thought I'd share some of the open-ended toys that we have in our home currently.

Firstly, a LOT of art supplies! Some people will dispute that these are not really toys, but if you can't have fun with paint, then... well... that's kind of depressing. Ru loves nothing better than wet-on-wet painting. When he paints, it is simply for the love of blending colours and watching them bloom across a page. He hates when I try to 'direct' him with comments of 'Let's paint a rabbit, shall we?', preferring instead to do his own (messy) thing! I find he does best when I paint alongside him, enjoying my own artistic endeavours, rather than harassing him in his!

We also have a lovely wooden kitchen with some wooden and felt (and *gasp* some second-hand plastic) playfood. We often supplement play with the kitchen with our 'proper' crockery, cutlery and utensils, as well as silicon cupcake cases, decorations, dried beans and pulses and playdough!

We have a dolls house that we bought from a carboot, and I fell in love with! The man selling it had built it from a kit in the 60's for his daughter, and couldn't bear to see it not being used! Add in some lovely wooden furniture, and some Mama-made wooden gnomes and it quickly became one of the most played-with toys in our home. (And I know that Ava is particularly fond of her wooden dolls house too!) What is it that Littles love so much about playing with teeny, tiny people?!

Stephen is VERY fond of Ru's wooden traintrack (a mixture of new and second/third/fourth hand Brio style) and on occasion, spends more time playing with it than Ru does!

I really love the handmade wooden stable (another carboot find!) and the wooden farm (second hand from a work colleague) along with all the cute little animals! We have some awfully crappy plastic animals, I will admit, usually because Ru has an obsession with a particular story character and simply *NEEDS* a dolphin or whatever, and we simply can't afford one of the Sleich or Ostheimer ones that I really love. We are very slowly trying to replace the plastic animals with better quality plastic, (like the Sleich for example) and wooden ones like the brilliant Ostheimer.

Add in a wooden garage for cars, a treasure basket of objects for heuristic, sensory play for Pixie as well as a whole bundle of playsilks, and we're pretty much set!

Playsilks? Ah yes, these are one of the best examples of open-ended play toys, they truly are. Usually around a meter square, these ethereal, light pieces of fabric are limited only by your imagination. It is wonderful to see how different children utilise them. Pixie loves playing peekaboo, and hiding things under them to 'reveal' them a few seconds later - accompanied by surprised faces and shocked sounds from Mama and Daddy, of course!
Ru loves to have them knotted and then placed around his neck as superhero capes and dragon/bird/fairy wings and use them as fields/grass and lakes/rivers for our small world play with the dolls house, farm and animals.

We also use them on our seasons table in suitable colours (reds, orange and yellow for autumn, anyone?), and of course, don't forget that they can be doll slings and blankets, they're perfect for picnics AND they're easy for Littles to wash in warm, soapy water when they get grubby (also tying in valuable real-world skills. It's always good for children to help with the daily activities of them home, perhaps washing their silks and putting them out to dry whilst you do laundry?)

Where can you find these awesome toys though? My first response would be ETSY, every time. There are so many wonderful sellers on there, many of whom are work-at-home parents, and it's always good to support them, right?

The Early Learning Centre sells Sleich plastic animals, which are a reasonable alternative to the more expensive Ostheimer.

Secondhand, pre-loved toys may not be brand-new, but if well-made, will have lasted through previous owners and will last through your Littles playing with them! Carboot sales are also amazing places to grab a bargain (we've claimed a wooden stable and dolls house, as well as a vintage wooden rocking horse!), but admittedly, these finds can be few and far between.

Obviously, the internet is a fantastic place too! Let's not forget Ebay either, we've managed to pick up extra track for the trainset very cheaply on there.

It's always worth asking friends, both in real life and online if they have any toys they'd be willing to sell or swap. I find my favourite forum always has parents selling wonderful, pre-loved books and toys (incidentally, this is how we came to own Pixie's wooden walker!).
There are several companies who share our ideals that you can find online...

Hazelnut Kids donates 1% of their sales to land conservancies, and have one tree planted for every product that they sell.

Myriad UK sells only products that are made by people paid a fair wage for their skills, working in clean and safe environments, including a range of dolls from a single mothers' cooperative in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Green Toys uses high-density polyethylene (or HDPE) made from recycled milk containers as the primary material for making their toys, considered one of the safest, cleanest plastics around.

These benefits are simply too good to dismiss, and definitely too good to deprive Pixie and Ru of!

Emi, x

"Teach children what to think and you limit them to your ideas.
Teach children how to think and their ideas are unlimited."
Sandra Parks

(In fact, if you fancy some playsilks of your very own, head on over to my MamaPixie Etsy store, and use the code 'CBNSEP' to get a 10% discount off your order!)


  1. We love playsilks in our house. Our boys adore them.

  2. This has come at just the right time! My eldest is asking for a dolls house and we wanted something a bit different and quite open ended, after this post I have looked on Etsy and have just found the most perfect house. Now I just have to convince my husband it is worth the money. :)

  3. Definitely get where you're coming from with this. I've said to Ron for a while that wooden toys feel to me, to be the way forward and from personal and recent experience, I don't want my children to grow up with so many toys they don't know the meaning of them. Love the etsy ideas. :)

  4. I am currently thinking of replacing some plastic stuff with better quality wooden toys, but how do you explain to a 3 year old why you are taking away some toys they love?

    1. Hi Liz! If they do truly love something, then we'd let them keep them!

      We have, I'll admit, on occasion discreetly whipped something away when it's not been played with for a few days. For example, someone gave Ru a stack of really low quality racing cars which he ADORED but they just kept breaking (little sharp bits too!). We simply put them out of sight in one of the toy cupboards for a week. He didn't ask for them, so we got rid. He did ask a couple of months later, but we explained they were broken and so we'd gotten rid of them. He was a little grumpy about it, which we acknowledged and then distracted him with baking!

      We do have the added bonus that we rotate Ru's toys anyway so he doesn't get bored of them!

      If you're not sure whether they'd miss it, maybe try popping it away in a cupboard and see if they ask for it? If they don't miss it, you know it wasn't that cherished! Failing that, wait till Christmas or a birthday and then hope they don't notice amongst the new ones!

      Other than that, I really would suggest Kim John Payne's book 'Simplicity Parenting'. It is truly wonderful and has a whole chapter on how to make the process of weeding out the less favourable toys much easier.

      Let us know how it goes, perhaps we can interview you and find out how you got started and what you found it to be like?

      Emi, x

  5. Hi Emi
    Most of DDs toys are stuff we are happy with the quality of. It's just the odd present that she gets bought that doesn't fit in with our ethics or lifestyle. I have decided to let her keep all her dolls as she loves them and plays with them all in turn. Other stuff I have put away as you suggested. A few bits at a time and if she hasn't noticed by her birthday at the end of next month they will go to charity shop.