Friday, May 7, 2010

The joy of infinite possibilities

The most coveted toy in our playroom right now isn’t even a toy. A sturdy 12- by 20-inch box has become a treasure chest, car ramp, boat, bathtub, baby cradle, hat, launch pad, slide, bridge, and stepstool, among many other things.

My children probably couldn’t tell you why they like the box as much as they do, but I can. A box is boundless, a plaything with infinite possibilities. It does what their imaginations want it to do. When they tire of playing pirates adrift in the high seas, they can stage a manger scene, complete with animals and shepherds. Later, they can flip it over and make it into a roof for their fort or put on a puppet show with it.

On the other hand, a toy fire engine in their playroom is finite. Though it is shiny red, has a realistic-sounding siren and flashing lights, and even a ladder, it has never been anything more than a truck. And most often, it sits on the shelf untouched, along with other similar toys.

Instead of toys, our children tend to gravitate toward materials, such as a hamper stuffed full of dress-up clothes. They pull out silly secondhand hats and ties, tutus and wings, wands and thrift-store capes, and dresses and robes. In the process, they become knights and princesses, dancers and dragons, circus performers and teachers.

Choosing materials over toys allows us and our children to do more with less. Materials are simpler and typically less expensive than traditional toys, and our children innately know what to do with them. With materials on hand, our kids aren’t camped out in front of the television or the computer. And perhaps best of all, materials are a boon for all parents who dread the perennial cry of “I’m bored.”

The best place to find materials for play is in your own home. I recently dumped out a $1 bag of dried kidney beans on the counter and handed my children bowls and small spoons and shovels. They played together (without fighting, oh wonder of wonders) for almost two hours—counting, sorting, pushing, and pouring those beans. I’ve also given my children buckets of water and paintbrushes so they could “paint” the back patio on a sunny afternoon. Sidewalk chalk, homemade bubbles, salt dough and a bag full of cookie cutters cost virtually nothing but make for hours of fun.

When we do buy materials, we choose them carefully. We keep a stack of paper on hand at all times and have invested in good-quality art supplies. We’ve asked for wooden blocks and train tracks for gifts and pick them up at rummage sales whenever we see them. Sturdy child-size rakes and trowels are perfect for working alongside us in the garden—and digging for worms.

The lesson of creatively doing more with less is good for adults, too. Take that bag of kidney beans, spend a few minutes looking for a recipe online, and you can come up with an affordable meal for your family. Rearrange your furniture–or simply move art, photos and plants from one room to another–and you’ll feel like you have a fresh new space. Go through your closet to create new outfits, or dress up your wardrobe with an inexpensive accessory like a new scarf.

When you take a fresh look at the materials around your house, you’ll find a world of possibilities for your children and yourself that stretch your imagination, not your wallet.

CCCS/ACCE –American Center for Credit Education
Carey Denman

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