If you're serious about raising creative, imaginative, problem solving kids, you need to focus on toys that are open ended and not prescribed by a toy developer. Thoughtful consideration about the quality of play can result in toys that provide the delicious opportunity for kids to use their own noggin' to develop stories, build structures, paint pictures, role play and problem solve. Toys that spoon feed a set start-to-finish experience rob kids of the chance to discover some very interesting side roads that can provide lessons and knowledge no one else could manufacture for them. Let's see here... In my opionion and my research, creative thinking is developed through 5 different types of activities.
Simple, basic building blocks is one gift you will probably hold on to throughout your child's life. For some reason they feel more valuable than most other toys. Children can build and pretend day after day with a good set of blocks. Three and four year olds fare better with the oversized blocks, their fine motor skills need more development before they can tackle the smaller pieces.These oversized blocks by Early Childhood Resources are available through Sears and other online sellers for as little as $138.00. Of course, these would be a breeze for woodworking mom, dad, grandma or grandpa to make. For the older child Lincoln Logs, and Tinker Toys provide hours of quiet or parallel play and valuable brain work for children. They range from $26.00-$36.00. I would steer away from the themed sets and stick with the basic elements. Remember, open-ended so the child can direct the activity.
2. Pretend: You can't go wrong with any gift that encourages pretend play. Imagining real life experiences, mimicking parents going about daily routines all help a child understand the world around them, how people interact with each other and how to get along together. Besides developing large and small motor skills, it's one of the best language developers. This is where you, as parents, are often required to get down and play dress up, Barbie, kitchen, or fireman with your child. That makes it a nice place to develop some very special parent child bonding. Here are some gift ideas to feed this creative hunger.
Costumes: Kids don't really need or want the fancy schmancy stuff. They're satisfied with a lot less than parents think. For a little boy, here's the Ultimate Boys Costume Roleplay Dressup Hat and Accessory Trunk. Pheww! Too bad, it's sold out. If I was you, I'd put together my own custom set of dress up clothes. Look at what's offered out there, make your own custom adjustments and do the leg work yourself to save money.
Girls tend to like to dress up like princesses (I mean what little girl doesn't dream of looking like Kate Middleton?). For $39.99, you can buy a bona fide princess costume from CreativeKidsStuff.com or, for the creative mom, get out the sewing machine and cut down that old ugly bridesmaid dress to let your daughter watch your creativity in action.
Kitchen, Restaurant, Store: There is not any play I can think of that provides as much all around learning as setting up, organizing, playing and mimicking the real life activities that go on in the kitchen, a restuarant or the grocery store. You can get some very clear insights into how your child sees you by watching and listening to them role play here. The kitchen set up is an all time favorite of girls and boys. OhDeeDoh has a tutorial on how to use Ikea components to build a play kitchen.
Or, you could break the bank and buy the Retro Pink Pottery Barn Kids kitchen ensemble starting at $250.
For the thriftily creative parents, try out this $12.00 plan at Fortytworoads' Etsy Shop that shows you how to construct a play kitchen made out of cardboard.
As for playing restaurant, this is easy. Use the basic kids little table and chairs, purchase a set of the fake food and plates, type up fake menus, laminate them and package it all up for your little pretender. They will love it. Oh, you could even make them a little waiter or waitress costume.
3. Arts and Crafts: When it comes to arts and crafts, there are only a few pieces of equipment that will provide as much service as a sturdy easel. Kids love standing in front of an easel to do their artwork. KidKraft makes the Deluxe Wooden Easel, available at Target for $151.99, but will last forever. Chalkboard, paper roll and paint cups all in one.If you already have the basic equipment, you can do spinoff themed gifts to refresh the classic equipment. You could give them a blank smock and fabric paint so they can create their own design. You could give them a new set of colored chalk, sparkles, sparkle glue, cut up fabric to make their own art collage. There is no limit to what you can put together.
A big new set of art supplies always is a huge hit. Again, often you can save money by putting your own set together. However, this 101 piece art set is only $21.99 through Amazon. You'd be hard pressed to beat that price. A DIY alternative could be to gather unusual materials and found objects and make your own packaging to give your young designer the opportunity to work with new and unusual materials like feathers, corks, fabric remnants, metal washers, string and so on.
And never discount the value of playing with good old fashioned Play Doh. It's another one of the all around perfect art materials. The muscles used in sculpting with Play Doh or clay are the same ones children will eventually use for writing. Here's a recipe to make your own DIY Non-Toxic Play Dough. When I taught preschool, we even added scents to our homemade play dough. In the Fall we added cinnamon, around the holidays, we added a pine scent, sometimes vanilla and sometime lavender. Simple, multi-sensory delight!
4. Music: Kids need music to round out their development. As we all know, kids who play musical instruments do better in math. Not to mention, it's delightful, a healthy discipline, and the perfect outlet for creativity and expression. Mini musical instruments are a dime a dozen. I like this Band in a Box I saw over on LandofNod.com. for $24.95. It's appropriate for ages 3 and up and will get them clanging and banging to their heart's content. It includes:
" triangle, tambourine, rhythm sticks, cymbals, clapper and maracas to soothe your savage beasts"
For an 'old school' version of Guitar Hero, I like this Discovery Microphone Stand and Guitar for a meager $28.00. Again, another role playing activity as well as incorporating music into it. If you're not springing for a Wii or Guitar Hero, this is good alternative for the younger child, say 4-7.
5. Books and Puzzles: I'll leave this one to you. You can hardly go wrong giving those gifts.
Oh and I almost forgot the sheer joy of tents, forts, and tunnels.
If there's only one thing a child can do with a toy, they're going to be over it in a short time. Basic elements they can work with, think about, talk about, pretend with, are the ones they will return to over and over again. Ask yourself if it's a tool for many different creative types of play. If yes, then you're good. Once they've got that creative circuitry established, that thinking should hold them in good stead as they're continually bombarded by good and bad technology.