SmartMom: Open-Ended Play. Photo by Nicole Gerulat

The Art of Open-Ended Play: How to Shop for Toys

Photo by Nicole Gerulat for MerMag Blog

You’ve got a playroom.  A trunk full of toys in your living room. From the toy you trip on during your walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night to the mesh bag of plastic sea creatures that take up three quarters of your bathtub, there is proof of your motherhood in every corner of your home.

In your child’s extensive toy collection, which ones are the best for inspiring creativity and open ended play? How can you prevent your little one form getting bored with their toys?

In moments of frustration (or when you step on a lego) it can be tempting to indiscriminately purge your toddler’s extravagant toy collection. But before you pull out the garbage bags, take a look at these tips for shopping for the best toys for your little one.

Think quality. It’s easy to get caught up in your child’s opinions in a toy store. For this reason, I suggest toy shopping without your little toy enthusiast. After all, you know their interests and their developmental age. Companies package their toys in a way that appeals to eager children with a hold on their parents’ wallets. However, you’re the informed consumer in this equation. You know quality; you know which toys are worthwhile investments, and you know which toys are bound to end up buried in a tub of dog food.

Here are some brands I highly recommend, showcasing toys that encourage cognitive engagement and open-ended play:

  • Melissa & Doug. This is my absolute favorite brand of toys. These days you can find them almost anywhere. I’ve spotted them at Whole Foods and even at T.J.Maxx on occasion. I love their Stacking Train Toddler Toy– it’s a toy that you’ll hang onto for your grandkids. Also, their Pattern Blocks and Boards are great for encouraging geometric understanding.
  • Blabla. These toys are plush, precious, and the perfect alternative to piles of stuffed animals. These finger puppets are great for encouraging your child’s narrative and language skills. How about hosting a mini theater performance with these guys?
  • Hearthsong. These toys are developmentally appropriate and well-built. Mail is always fun, especially this time of year. The Holgate Mail Truck would be the perfect addition to your Valentine’s Day. Perhaps write some Valentines and deliver them to friends and family in this truck? This toy encourages both pre-literacy and fine motor skills.

Host a Toy Exchange.  Especially in the dead of winter, hosting a toy exchange is a great excuse to gather your mom friends while also providing them with some new toys. Here’s how to make it work.

Before the exchange, ask each mother to gather a set of toys (cleaned and sanitized), in a sturdy bag.  Reusable grocery bags from Whole Foods work wonderfully. When your friends arrive at your house, encourage each mom to label their own toys using permanent markers. Attach a tag to each bag, each one receiving a different number. Also, prepare a basket containing matching numbered slips of paper. Each mom then draws a number from the basket and takes home the corresponding bag of ‘new’ toys.

Of course, you might want to prepare some lemonade and cookies (or wine spritzers and cheese), because after that toy exchange, those mamas are going to want to chat. And those children are going to want to play! Repeat each month, returning the old toys and bringing a new bag to exchange. You’ll be surprised how ‘new’ your old toys will feel when they eventually find their way back into your bag.

Create a ‘Rainy Day’ Toy Bin. Perhaps you’re left flying solo in this venture of motherhood. For you, a toy exchange is unlikely, as your friends are either kid-free or sending theirs off to college.  For now, try this tip for making old toys ‘new’:

Collect toys from around the house that seem uninteresting to your child. Perhaps it’s a collection of blocks that your child hasn’t touched in awhile, or a doll house that has become more of clothes rack than a play piece. Place these toys in a plastic bin labeled “Rainy Day”, and store it away in a closet that’s out of sight from your child. Then, when the day warrants a new toy or activity, you won’t even need to leave the home. Your child will be delighted with their ‘new’ toy, or be thrilled to see their old toy back again. Either way, it’s a win for Mom.

When purchasing new toys (or assessing your toy inventory at home), ask yourself, “Does this toy allow my child to be in control of their play?  Or does this toy tell my child how to play?” Keep toys that engage your child and also encourage them to plan their play.  Your children should manipulate toys and materials in such a way that they can be creative. Open-ended play encourages cognitive development, language skills, and creativity. And with a bag of old ‘new’ toys, a bin for rainy days, and the wonderful mind of a toddler, you child will be engaged for days.  And don’t forget to check out the SmartMom Pinboard for more great toy ideas!

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About Melissa Elchison

Melissa Elchison is currently pursuing her clinical fellowship as a speech and language pathologist. Previously, she studied education and was an early childhood researcher at The Ohio State University and University of Cincinnati. She enjoys barre classes, traveling with her husband, and trying new recipes.