One of my fantasies when I was a young mother was seeing my children playing in their playroom. I could see it so clearly in my mind's eye...two beautiful children fully absorbed in purposeful play. Yeah right. For a time, reality was the polar opposite of fantasy.
Then I met my friend Gina...
So don't raise your hands, but how many of you had similar thoughts or fantasies with a similar outcome? If you let me walk in to your children's playroom or bedroom, I'd be walking through piles of plastic toys that came from the fast food window, right? In addition I would step on a random plastic building brick, the eyes from Mr. Potato Head, at least five little metal cars and a battery.
The shelves are stacked with board games with the box top torn and balanced on top of the game pieces; there are several naked dolls with clothes and accessories wadded up in a cubby or bin or thrown on the floor. There's more, but you get the picture. Of course you do...it's your children's playroom.
There's another element to this: the children don't really play there, do they? This room or area is simply a repository of pieces of things that no longer work or are no longer entertaining. Every now and then you order them to go clean it up, but to no avail. You determine to clean it out yourself but the task is overwhelming so...well, you get it.
Thirty five years ago my children's playroom looked similar to this. The specific toys were different but the premise was the same. Then I met Gina. When Gina joined our home school support group she was expecting her seventh child. She had a calm and gentle demeanor, and her children were angels. There are a lot of ways that Gina shaped me as a Christian woman and mother, but let's just stick to today's subject.
Gina's home was always tidy and calm. She had the Harbor Home I dreamed of. One day she invited me and some other home schooling mamas to bring our children to come play at her house. She served coffee and cake to the grownups, apple juice and graham crackers to the children. The adult conversation, naturally, turned to children and eventually got around to toys. One of the other mamas asked Gina where all the toys were. Gina had six children and there were no toys strewn from one end of the house to another. That mama wanted to know where she had hidden them all.
Gina laughed and said good-naturedly, "We really don't have many. It seems funny, doesn't it? But we just don't have that many toys." We all agreed that it sounded funny, so she took us on a toy tour of her home. We started upstairs on the main level. There were two bedrooms for the children. There were three boys in one bedroom and three girls in another. Both bedrooms were tidy with beds made and each child's belongings/toys stowed neatly. She was right. There weren't many things.
We went to the finished basement playroom. This was the main area for indoor play. I felt a bit like the people in the "Willy Wonka" movie when they first saw the beautiful candy factory room. I just stood and stared at this absolutely plain 16x16 foot space. The tile floor was not special, and neither were the toys that were neatly displayed and ready for play.
This was not a picturesque show piece of a home that would now be featured on all the social media platforms. Their house was a small, modest home on a street with many like it. The playroom we were staring at was not impressive by any design standards. I want you to clearly understand that there was nothing extra or special about this room or this home. It was simple.
In this playroom was a very big doll house that had been made by Gina's mother a few years earlier. It was unpainted wood and filled with furniture that was of the proper scale and had a sizable family to live in it. There was also an enormous collection of wooden blocks. This collection had a huge assortment of sizes and shapes to build with. These had also been made by Gina's mother. There were a few doll beds and dolls, some large trucks, some puzzles and a low table with a few chairs. It was so inviting. The simplicity of it all was warm and welcoming. I fought the urge to begin playing with the perfectly crafted toys and well organized games.
In a moment, I understood. Quality over quantity. Toys that engaged the whole child. These are the toys that children will play with and cherish. There were no pieces of plastic that were part of children's fast food meals. There were no impossibly small and intricate parts of toys that were "sold separately". Every toy had play value. Each piece had a purpose and a place to be stowed.
In the decades that followed, my passion for early childhood development led me to gain a formal and serious education about children and play. As I studied and gained a degree in the field, I learned the phrase "open ended toys" or "open ended play". These phrases were born in university lab schools, but they always made me think of Gina and her playroom. She was the mama who understood what her children needed better than the PhDs did.
Here is what your typically developing children actually need in their playroom:
Toys that allow for a wide variety of play options. These are known as "open ended". Examples of these are: construction toys such as blocks, Legos, etc.
Carefully selected "small world play" options. This could be a doll house with a family, a small barn with animals or a child powered wooden train set.
Home play items such as dolls or a play kitchen. A home office for imaginary work play is a great addition. Add a phone and computer a desk and they're set.
Creative items such as paper, crayons, markers, etc. Keep it simple.
Outdoor play is essential for large motor skills. A sandbox with shovels and buckets, swings, balls, wheeled toys and a place to ride.
Your children need nothing more than these simple toys. In fact, less is more when it comes to toys. So channel your inner Gina, march into the playroom and literally empty it of every toy that does not meet the above definitions. Observe closely which toys your children play with appropriately and which they throw around the room. Then get rid of the ones you can.
Gina taught me so many things that I have carried with me for decades and today I am passing on the most practical of these lessons. A playroom that engages and invites your children to play. Simplify your children's lives and let them play.