This is the first of a three-part series that will examine the TRUE cost of toys in an effort to help you save money on those often expensive, all-important toy purchases. Don’t freak out, it’s easier than you think.
Part 2: Toys That Last
They’re two little words that punctuate the eardrums like a roll of warning thunder in the distance: “I’m bored.” You’ve bought hundreds of dollars worth of toys for your kids, you know they have active imaginations, and there’s always plenty to do outside, so why are they bored? We like to chalk it up to a number of excuses like laziness or even a case of attention deficit disorder. But what if the answer isn’t in their brain chemistry but in their toys?
Last week I talked about calculating the true cost of toys. The formula, as I mentioned, requires estimating the number of collective hours your child will likely play with a given toy before tossing it in the back of the closet for good. While it’s a very worthwhile formula, the nagging question that remains is how exactly you estimate, with any sort of accuracy, how well your kiddo will like that toy. That question can be answered by looking at “long-lasting play value.”
Long-lasting play value might sound a little jargony, but it’s incredibly simple. According to Philip Wrzesinski, a long-lasting toy must be interactive, open-ended and creative. These are all fairly self-explanatory criteria, but let’s go ahead and take a deeper look at each one, shall we?
To be interactive, a toy must rely on the child’s active participation to work. Pressing a button and watching the toy work is not active participation. Tickle Me Elmo, our classic bad toy example, requires nothing from your kiddo but a firm squeeze and a pair of eyes. To find good interactive toys think simply. A toy truck, for example, is just a block of metal until somebody decides to play with it, determining what it is and what it’s doing and why it does the things it does. It’s that emotional connection, that energy a child puts into a toy, that creates the unbreakable bond between the two.
Open-ended toys allow endless possibilities. Like interactive toys, they require active participation to work, but their extreme lack of specificity allows them to be building blocks to create something, or rather anything, that comes to mind. Some of the best building blocks are just that–building blocks. Wooden blocks are a terrific toy for younger kiddos because they can easily turn into skyscrapers, tunnels, mountains or bridges. The natural progression is to smaller building block toys like LEGOs that allow even more room for creativity. And speaking of creativity…
Let’s face it, some toys just don’t promote creativity. Toys that serve a specific, singular purpose, like that good ol’ Tickle Me Elmo, leave little to the imagination. Dolls, play sets and other make believe toys are shining examples of creative toys, promoting. and actually relying upon, the power of the creative mind. Play is the way kids work through issues like morals and social interactions, and imagination is the playground on which they operate. By giving them every opportunity to be creative, we’re actively helping them grow and develop.
Keeping in mind the criteria, it’s a no-brainer to pick out long-lasting toys over short-lived ones. Classic toys are classics for a reason: dolls, dollhouses, toy trains, building blocks, and LEGOs all promote creativity, interactivity and open-endedness, and will yield years of play. Relatively newer toys, like Spirograph, Playmobil and even the Potholder Loom, are safe bets as well, leaving room for plenty of time to play.
So you know that it’s important to find long-lasting toys and you know what long-lasting toys look like, but how do you know which long-lasting toys your kids will like? That answer is maybe the most obvious of all: observation.
Does your child like to play on a micro, hands-on level? Try small building block toys like LEGOs or Playmobil. Does your child like mobile toys that can zoom around the house? Try Bruder trucks or a classic wooden train. Does your child like to create large imaginary worlds with props and costumes? Try buying props and costumes, like plastic swords and different outfits. We can’t know what our kids will like unless we know what our kids are like.
Once you find the perfect toys for your kiddos, the challenge is to ensure they really and truly last. In next week’s final installment, Part 3: An Expandable Toy Universe, I’ll talk about how quality and expandability can make toys last entire childhoods, and even cross generations.