It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Non-toy playthings

When my eldest was three, she had a “doctor box”. I’m not quite sure how it earned that name, but that’s what it was.

The doctor box was in fact a shoe box, filled with … oh, this and that. A lot of it came from the kitchen: plastic measuring cups and spoons, a funnel or two, a mesh strainer. There was often a (carefully washed) pill-bottle or two in there. (Maybe that’s where the name came from?) Fabric scraps, a belt buckle, a handful of jigsaw puzzle pieces, a couple of polished rocks, a feather. You get the idea. It was just a collection of interesting stuff. Interesting to a three-year-old, at any rate.

The contents of the box were not static. Some things were returned to their orginal spots, or used in crafts, or just lost somewhere. Other things were put in.

Whatever its contents, the doctor box was the favourite plaything for months and months. I could take it on car trips or trips to the doctor (maybe that explains the name?) or anywhere there’d be an otherwise boring downtime, knowing that the wonders of the doctor box would keep her happily occupied for as long as necessary.

Sometimes she was a doctor (name?), sometimes she was a chef, sometimes she was a fireman. (Not “fighter”. She was a fireman.) Sometimes the items in the box had personas and characters: they tended to squabble amongst themselves a lot, the strainers and the feather and the rocks. A lot of chatter, a lot of imagination, a lot of very happy hours were passed with the doctor box.

It was the best money I never spent.

I take a similar approach to the daycare. People often assume that, as a daycare home, I must be overrun with toys. It’s true, I have more toys stored in my dining room than the average mother of teens and a twenty-something! But I’m quite, quite sure I have far fewer toys kicking around than many (most?) homes with only one toddler. In part, that’s simply practicality: I have a small house. I do not want piles of multi-coloured clutter toys littering my home. I do not want them, but, even more to the point, children do not need them.

Children do not need great mounds of toys. I am convinced that children with shelves and closets and cupboards full of toys are poorer at amusing themselves, and more in need of distraction, than children accustomed to fewer toys. Just because they have fewer toys does not mean they play less! They just play differently. One might argue, more creatively, using more imagination.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s discovered the glories of the non-toy. I know I’m not because the writers and commenters over at Unclutterer have come up with a lovely long list of toy alternatives. Don’t stop with the post. The commenters have a ton of good ideas!

One might note that a significant number of these non-toy playthings look to the adult eyes like work: sorting socks, making cookies, straightening the fringe on the carpet. Not to the child! With these kinds of activities, the children’s play is not something remote and unconnected with the Real Life of the household, but is, instead, part of it. This sort of children’s play models adult behaviour, helps children feel part of the family, gives them real, productive tasks in which to take pride. It builds self-esteem.

It is we adults who have decided that “play” is by definition frivolous, with no agenda but the activity itself. For children, play is how they make sense of the world around them. Everything and anything is play fodder: colouring, singing, sorting socks, putting dirty dishes in the sink (non-breakable, at this age!), blocks, puzzles, washing the car, counting to ten, sweeping up the dried leaves that fell off their leaf belts. Play is not frivolous, it is practicing life.

Life. Work, recreation, even conflict. It’s all fodder for play.

My, I’ve wandered from my original idea… All right, given that we needn’t feel guilty for “only” baking with our kids and “only” letting them help with chores, rather than playing with them; given that you can choose not to spend a heap of money on a mound of toys… Given all that, how does this manifest in your home? What are some non-toy playthings or activities that your child particularly enjoys?

October 9, 2008 - Posted by | crafts, daycare, Developmental stuff, socializing | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Oh, I would much rather cook with my little boy than help play trains, as he would otherwise insist; and judging by the appearance of him with his stool in the kitchen every time I start to chop something up, so would he.

    Because trains, they are only so interesting… And cooking, it is a life skill!

    Comment by Karen | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  2. There’s nothing my almost 3-year-old would rather do than wash dishes at the sink or help me cook. He also enjoys rolling out playdoh and cutting it into shapes with cookie cutters. And last weekend he helped my husband and I wash our sailboat. I haven’t bought a new toy (other than the occasional small matchbox car, which he loves) in months and months. Sort of dreading the onslaught of toys relatives will give at Christmas and his birthday…

    Cooking is a clear winner, and water-play will always be popular! We’ve always made our own playdough, and that’s another great non-toy activity — almost as good as cooking.

    Comment by Megan | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  3. Washing the car is great. He also likes to “fix” things with a little screwdriver (he’s very careful). But best of all is the special drawer we have in the kitchen. There are wooden spoons, an old manual egg beater, a turkey baster, plastic cookie cutters, tupperware… all kinds of good stuff. He sometimes “cooks” with it and sometimes creates a huge drum kit out of it. Best couple bucks at a yard sale I ever spent!

    Oh, that special box of kitchen stuff with which they can amuse themselves as you work in the kitchen, for those times when you really don’t want “help”, or when you’re doing something potentially hazardous. (“No, honey, you can’t pour out the boiling water.”) I think mothers have been doing this since the dawn of kitchens. Isn’t it fabulous? And don’t you just LOVE yard sales for this kind of thing??

    Comment by heels | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  4. I was a mad fan of housecleaning when I was little. We had hardwood floors, and nothing made me happier than being turned loose with a license to dustmop. I was also fond of being given a dustrag and dusting all the chair rungs.

    The proclivity stuck as I started to get older. When I was 10-12, I lived in an apartment with my mother and sister. When they were out, I would have cleaning binges, dusting not just around things but under and behind as well as the object themselves, and moving all the furniture for a good vacuuming. Needless to say, this was very popular with the others — who wouldn’t want to come home to find their living room suddenly and inexplicably spotless?

    It didn’t last. As I hit my teens, my mother wanted me to do those cleaning binges as she dictated and while she watched. It didn’t work. I only liked them when I was alone and in the mood.

    I’m like that, too: an ‘in-the-mood’ cleaner! Because I’m an adult, I do housework whether or not I’m in the mood, but when I’m in the mood, my, it’s just so much easier!

    Too bad your mother didn’t twig to this, and just leave for an extended shopping trip once every week or two. If you’re like me, being alone can put you in the mood!

    Comment by Helen | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  5. It’s a montessori belief that if you give kids real things to do or use, they won’t play with the toys. And I’m with Megan–dreading every year the onslaught of toys.

    The toys are coming, the toys are coming! Maybe this is another post topic. Next month, perhaps?

    Comment by Bridgett | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  6. My birthday present that I had begged for when I was 5 was a sewing basket. I still have it.

    It’s a round sewing basket of the kind you see in sewing stores, medium sized, with a good carrying handle and a pincushion surface top. Inside it had a pincushion stuck full of pins, spools of thread, a pack of needles, scissors. I added scraps of fabric I liked, ribbons, and whathaveyou. At first it was a toy, but over time became a tool as I joined 4H and entered dressmaking competitions. It’s still my sewing basket — I’ve never needed to get another one. I’ve had it for 34 years now.

    Oh, I love this story! I remember being fascinated by my grandmother’s sewing chest. She had one of those rectangular wooden affairs on legs which opened to a series of angled trays. I was intrigued by all the nooks and crannies, by the way everything had its own spot. I spent a lot of time rummaging about in there, always careful to leave everything just where I found it, or I’d not have been allowed in again!

    Comment by Helen | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  7. The work/play line was really at the root of why I stopped willingly doing much housework when I was a teen. I was still making play of it; when I cleaned the living room, it was an optimization game — how fast could I do a really thorough job? If I changed the order in this way or that, was it more efficient? What if I folded the dustrag this way rather than that?

    I wasn’t doing it to get nasty unpleasant work done; I was doing it as a big ol’ 3-d puzzle.

    That was the problem as I got to be a teen; my mother wanted me to do Serious Hard Work and not enjoy it, but feel the pain and drudgery since that’s what it was to her. I preferred not to do it at all. I had the exact same problem in math classes in high school, where if left alone with a textbook and allowed to play, I would amuse myself endlessly solving problems and learning new stuff, which I would then teach to the other kids. I had some bad teachers who insisted on stopping that — math had to be Serious Hard Work with Long Pointless Lectures and Fear and Loathing. Ugh.

    To this day, I do my most efficient housework when I make a game of it. I have a timer. I set it for the shortest amount of time I think I can do a set task, and then play beat the clock. Works for me — and it’s just an adult form of play, is all.

    Hard Work can be rewarding. It’s the equating “work” with “joyless” that is the problem.

    Comment by Helen | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  8. Funny how often the grown-ups have spoiled the play! I remember happily sweeping up the dining room as a child – only to have my father instruct me in the “proper” way to hold the broom. I never swept w/o complaining about it again – at least not in my parents’ house. Hope I can remember this with my own children.

    It’s not that you can never correct or guide your children’s attempts at housework, but if the child is playing at sweeping, corrections done in the spirit of play will be more welcome. And of course, some kids like the attention of a parent’s guidance, though I’m sure that’s also dependent on the parent’s attitude.

    Make a pile of dust and see which way sweeps it up faster, or in fewer strokes. If you hold the pan this way? If you hold the broom that way? Do it as mutual exploration rather than pontificating, and it can be fun for both.

    Comment by Sarah | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  9. I always have boxes stashed away so on rainy days I take them out, the kids love them. They go from being cars to trains or boats and the list goes on. The simple little things seem to bring out the wildest imagination and the most fun.

    Boxes are the best for open-ended play! Smaller ones can be blocks or purses or cars or puppies. Boxes big enough to climb into get to be trains or houses or tunnels or mountains. So much fun to watch the kids go!

    Comment by Marie | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  10. MY kids love pillows and blankets.

    they become boats, paths, stepping stones, tents, beds in unusual places…

    And the cushions from the furniture too. Same reason.

    And paper bags.

    Doesn’t everyone have memories of making “forts” from blankets draped over furniture? It doesn’t stop with little ones, either. I know of teens who do this!

    Comment by carrien (she laughs at the days) | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  11. Oh, and we’ve started giving the Boy junk. Real appliances and stuff to take apart and put back together, if he can. He knows he’s not ever allowed to plug them in he love opening them up and figuring out what things are for.

    Gee, that sounds like something I’d like to do! It’s certainly what my son (19) does with computers…

    Comment by carrien (she laughs at the days) | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  12. Oooo, and a friend of mine said that the best present he and his brothers ever got as kids was a big box of random mixed springs.

    Many years of Rube-Goldberg devices followed.

    “Many years of Rube-Goldberg devices followed.” LOL

    I’m reminded of old-style hardware stores, with their bins full of Interesting Bits. Don’t they just make your mind reel with the possibilities??

    Comment by Helen | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  13. My favourite toy was the classic cardboard box. That refrigerator box was a house, a spaceship, a school, a magic time machine…and I coloured on it with crayons to suite my needs.

    I also liked picking the “pretty” rocks out of the driveway gravel and pretending they were treasure (which they were until Mum found the dozen egg cartons housing these little gems under the bed and returned them to the wild).

    I did have a teddy bear though – I still love that bear, he was my best friend as a kid (and didn’t mind if I rolled over his head at night).

    “and returned them to the wild”… LOL I can just picture a mother (me, say) stumbling across a dozen dust-ball coated egg cartons under her child’s bed… You’d be a little nervous, opening that first one!

    Comment by rambleicious | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  14. we have lots of toys and dumpling doesnt play with any of them, he talks to me all the time or swings on the rope swing in the garden or reads, I only keep the toys for the other kids!

    We had a tire swing in our garden. It was great fun, because the three of us (I have one brother and one sister) managed to find a way so that all three of us could swing at the same time. We bashed off the trees on either side from time to time, but what’s a few bruises when you’re having so much fun??

    Comment by jenny uk | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  15. My 20 month old son loves to do anything Daddy is doing, whether that’s doing the dishes, using a screw driver, hammering a nail or pulling out weeds, whatever Daddy is doing is the MOST FUN! Also, he loves to vacuum. Plug it in, turn it on, compact the hose down to the shortest length and he will happily vacuum the floor for half an hour.

    My lot are the same way with snow shovels in the winter. Now, if only you could get them to be methodical about it. I’ll bet, after half an hour of vacuuming, you have a floor with one or two VERY clean spots, and the rest just… normal!

    Comment by Tammy | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  16. Ohh, and being outside. We can be outside for hours at a time with nothing more than a handful of rocks and a couple of sticks.

    Isn’t it fun, the absolute absorption you see in a toddler with a stick, a few rocks, and a puddle?

    Comment by Tammy | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  17. OK – I have to weigh in on this one. The best was when I was raking fall leaves with my son “Darcy” a graduate of this wonderful home was helping me. He was having so much fun playing with the paper leaf bag I was not able to fill it. It was a warm fall day and didn’t he fall asleep in the bag with his feet hanging out the end. One of those moments you’ll hang onto for ever.

    Cindy! I just love it when you let me know you’re still reading! This is too totally funny — and totally Darcy, too. So sweet. I can just picture it… his little shoes hanging out the end of the bag. Hee. Are there pictures? I’d love to see one, if there are!

    Comment by Cindy C - "Darcy'sMom" | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  18. Books of wallpaper samples and any cardboard box I could find made great doll houses.

    Wallpaper samples! I’d forgotten about those!

    Comment by jwg | October 10, 2008 | Reply

  19. Packing styrofoam was my favorite. Take some markers and design a house,park,library,whatever.

    Comment by Holly (meep) | October 10, 2008 | Reply

  20. […] The play’s the thing — especially when it does the dishes Remember how I was saying that for small children, everything is play? […]

    Pingback by The play’s the thing — especially when it does the dishes « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | October 14, 2008 | Reply

  21. My three year old loves housework, too 🙂 Vacuuming, making beds, cleaning up her toys at the end of the day, ‘watching’ her little brother, doing laundry, raking leaves, grocery shopping, unloading the dishwasher, shoveling snow, helping with the cooking, and everything else that comes up. She helped put her bunk beds together and a couple of weekends ago she helped me bake a cake, using the mixer and everything (with me holding on of course). She pretty much wants to do whatever needs to be done and she’ll often say she’s bored of playing with her toys 🙂

    I’m also with everyone who said they are scared of all the xmas toys – when Sophs was little, she’d forgotten all about them by the time we got back home from my in-laws, so we could easily give them away (the crappy ones, anyway). Now that she remembers what she has and what she gets, it’s a bit more difficult and she’s likely to put up a fight. But we’ve recently gotten her into donating stuff away – and she’s totally into it now.

    It started with us getting rid off the old baby clothing, and she came to the shelter with us to drop it off (helped carry some of the boxes, too). Of course, she had a lot of questions – and explaining the purpose of a womens’ shelter to a three year old without freaking her out is not easy, so we just said that some people didn’t have enough clothing and they could use our stuff that had gotten too small for her and her brother.

    She was so impressed with the whole thing that she helped me sort out some of her toys and put them into boxes once we got home, also to give to the shelter. And she now tells me when something is too small or she doesn’t need a toy any more and asks me if we can give it to the shelter, too. Makes me proud 🙂

    Comment by smashedpea | October 15, 2008 | Reply

  22. Just had to send this old mo-wo classic on this one.

    Comment by mo-wo | October 21, 2008 | Reply

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