I’m sitting on my patio trying to reclaim one of probably hundreds of trains of thoughts, a train of thought that, like most, left the metaphorical thought station but quickly derailed following a cry of “Mama!” My children are actually occupied — engaged in some sort of dramatic reenactment of Moana, that involves lots of yelling and shouting but, thankfully, no demands for me. It’s a rare treat for all of us. I get a chance to think complete thoughts, and my kids get to experience the joy of being deeply engaged in their play.
The inspiration for their play on this afternoon was blissfully easy. Inspired by reading posts online about what early childhood professionals call “loose parts” (or what most adults would simply call “junk”), I purchased a hodgepodge of things at the local thrift store for my kids to play with in the yard: bowls, colanders, big spoons and tongs, some scrubby brushes and tongs, baskets with handles. I spent around $20 – $30 for the whole cart of stuff. “For my kids,” I told the cashier, aware that the pile I had accumulated in my cart gave the impression that I should be featured on an upcoming episode of Hoarders.
My kids, meanwhile, exclaimed with delight as they “discovered” these new treasures in the backyard. They squealed with joy to discover secondhand baskets and scrubbing sponges. They quickly donned two-dollar reading glasses and a cheap pendant necklace as they made up their elaborate Moana-turned-bakery-turned-restaurant game.
Like most kids, mine definitely know their way around an iPad. They’ve never known a world where any show they want to see isn’t available on demand and always in my pocket, ready to be watched on my phone. Yet at the same time that they enjoy and consume all that technology has to offer, the items that have brought them the most fun and creative play at four years old have rarely been very fancy. A basket of walnuts, a discarded swingset swing, the handlebars of a broken tricycle that became “lasers”. Buckets of mud and sticks became a birthday cake with candles.
As a mom, I want to see my kids engaged in play for both their benefit and my own. For them, their imaginative play helps them develop socially as they negotiate, plan, and create the rules for their game; play helps them develop emotionally as they experiment with different characters and roles; play helps them prepare for future reading by allowing objects to represent other objects in the same way that letters and words will represent sounds and ideas.
For me, however, the benefits aren’t necessarily so meaningful — or maybe they are, when considering my mental health! Providing my kids with “junk” for their play buys me some time. Time to complete work around the house, fold a load of laundry (or dump it in a basket to fold later), time to read a chapter of a book or drink a cup of coffee in relative peace.
Even when I squander this time by watching them play instead of taking a few minutes for myself, it gives me the opportunity to see my children for who they are and who they are becoming — creative and clever little individuals exploring and making sense of their world. The few dollars spent on thrift store “junk” are well worth it!
Some ideas for cheap and easy “toys”:
- Bowls (my kids have a love for metal bowls in particular, often used as hats)
- “Fancy” serving trays
- Cups of all sizes
- Cheap jewelry
- Old electronics (keyboards, telephones with actual buttons)
- Silicone baking molds
- Potato masher