Toys That Encourage Thinking

100 Languages

I consider art mediums, materials, and toys to be resources for play. They are the props and tools that children can use to transform their ideas into something they can hold onto. In this tangible state, children can suppose, test, and re-evaluate their ideas.


Children do not need loads of toys for play, but open-ended ones can serve many purposes and are great for making ideas a reality.


Why I Offer Several Types of Open-ended Materials and Art Mediums

Our collection of open-ended materials and art mediums is varied because . . .

  1. Children’s skills are ever developing. Toys that can be used to represent something else (e.g., blocks, pine cones, rocks) as-is may be easier to use than toys that need transformation to represent something (such as dough, paper, and paint).
  2. Children have individual strengths and preferences. Regardless of age, a child may be more competent in one material than others, or simply prefer one to others.
  3. Some toys represent an idea better than others. Making a rainbow with pipe cleaners and Styrofoam may better represent a child’s idea of a rainbow  than a two-dimensional drawing.
  4. Different materials bring about different aspects of an idea. The following photographs depict just that. All the pictures are of Greysen’s image of our family. How she spoke of our family was influenced by the art medium, or toy, that she used to recreate us.


Greysen’s play is most frequently inspired by our family and the roles of its members. She plays out our everyday life, and sometimes things that are occurring in our lives, that she may not fully understand.


While drawing often brings her frustration, she has developed confidence in her ability to build.



Cones and cardboard tubes. This is my family.  Greysen describes us, “This is my dad. He is TALLEST tall.” Tubes and cones inspired play about where we walk, and our family was identified by our height relative to the height of the cone structures.



Dough. This is my family. Greysen describes us, “This is the mom and the dad, the kid and the sister.”  The dough representation of us was used laying flat and inspired play around our family sleeping.



Pine Cones. This is my family. The intricate peaks of a pine cone family were connected simply because they could be.



Dry Erase. This is my family. We are the lines. She is less than happy with this representation of us, and the play is abandoned.




Felt and scissors. This is my family. Also dissatisfied with our family in felt, Greysen leaves her play scene relatively soon after she created it.


Stacking cones or molding play dough into people gives her confidence in her ideas that she may not have had if she only had drawing tools at her disposal.


I expect that, eventually, as my children grow, that the materials they have experience with will become a reference library of sorts. That way,  when they have an idea they can choose the right tool/material to make it come alive.


Starting a Natural Collection



Starting a collection of natural materials sounds easy enough. Take a walk, pick up a few things . . .  I figured I’d have a buckets of things in no time. I didn’t realize that 95% of the time the treasures the girls gathered were rocks. Rocks are great, they just did not make for a varied collection.


In time, our collection has grown. Spring has been full of walks and hikes, so we have now have a modest tray of things we have found as well as things we have collected from our yard.


I wasn’t sure how to offer the materials at first. Since everything makes its way to the floor eventually, I decided  that’s where we should start.



Greysen took the tray to the building area immediately.


Since then, the girls have also used the natural materials exclusive of other toys, like this “den”.



In addition to the things the girls pick up, I now gather and save a few things for home. Our collection is small but growing. It may not be enviable but has inspired play around here and that’s all I can ask for.


Do you collect natural materials for your children to play with?  How did you grow your collection?


Thinking About Girlhood


At a Kid’s Health and Fitness Fair in our town this weekend, Greysen was literally stopped in her tracks by a trio of young female dancers that offered her an information card about their dance company. She stood after they left commenting on their dresses. Interest piqued, we watched their performance.



As we headed home, another group of dancers crossed our path and Greysen asked to stay and watch them. While we waited, 10 or so girls on roller skates and tween punkish attire rolled around together -the local girls roller derby team. We watched them until the ballet folklorico performers started.


I couldn’t help but wonder what Greysen was thinking and learning about girlhood while she watched. I started to think about my own daughters. Just  fleeting thoughts of the I-wonder-what-she-will-be-like kind.


I also thought about the girls we watched. Are the roller derby girls tough? Do the ballerinas have a useful knowledge of classical music? Each group was so different in dress and style I couldn’t help but focus on their differences and if those differences carried over into other parts of their lives.


After the last group had finished, I was struck by the commonality of the audiences during each performance. The people were different but the prideful parents grinning behind focused cameras were the same.


I’m not sure what Greysen was thinking as she watched these groups of girls but as I watched my daughters twirl and skip to the music in their own way and time, I felt connected to these strangers. We shared a love and admiration for our daughters. Whether they were dressed in classic tutus, ripped shorts, traditional/cultural dress or mismatched toddler play clothes was glaringly irrelevant. What I really care about has nothing to do with music knowledge or dance skills but rather with their sense of self. I hope they continue on as confident as they are now in whatever they chose to wear and in whatever ways they choose to be participants.

Sensory “Art” Group for Infants and Toddlers

Art Group_01


The Infant/Toddler Art Group is Back! Now that the weather is more predictable, I plan on hosting an art group each month.


This month instead art as usual, a friend had the inspired idea of a sensory “art” group. She provided most of the sensory bins but I brought a couple too.


Available tools included various sorts of containers and spoons.



Tools?  Why hands  . . .



and feet, of course!



Aside from the moon sand, sand, waterbeads and rice bins pictured above, there were also bins of corn/wheat mix (hen scratch), whole corn kernel, natural materials and a water bin (not pictured).




This is my friend’s enviable collection of rocks, shells, driftwood, and a lone feather.


This was a collaborative effort so there were more sensory bins than I would have offered were I to host this one alone. If you are considering hosting a playgroup like this it would be just as wonderful on a smaller scale. Despite the many choices, the children did not seem overwhelmed. I think that having the freedom to choose which bins to play with and being able to at them for as long as they wanted was key to making this a playful event.

Small but Helpful Hands



Knowing that Greysen is in the “why?” stage, I did a quick search on the farm that we would be visiting with friends. I quickly learned the names of the animals we would see, and memorized a few key facts, so that I could carry on a conversation with her should she be interested.


We set out to the farm, thinking that I was fully prepared to respond to potential questions.




Unexpectedly, the questions never came.




What Greysen wanted was not answers, but connection.


She and her sister spent their time on the farm feeding the animals, gathering hay from the bales, and bravely holding carrots up to the horses. They didn’t learn anything about fainting goats or Navajo-Churro sheep that day, but maybe they learned something about themselves.


I was reminded that anyone, including little ones, is capable of helping others, some much larger than themselves.



Parents to Admire




Occasionally, I read stories about a parent who comes across some other parent in a moment of desperation. They grab our attention by their yelling, shaming, or general parenting breakdowns.


What about all of those other parent moments? Ever catch a stranger just being an awesome parent?


I’m mostly surrounded by parents of children the same age as my own, so when I am around parents of older children I tend to watch closely.


The Tale of a Great Mom

My moms group hosted a guest speaker recently. This centered woman came to speak to us about her homeschooling experiences, and thus had her brood of three children all under the age of 7 in tow.


After nearly 45 minutes of entertaining themselves with a few reminders and play suggestions from their mom, the children had had their fill of being confined in this room with only one ball among them.


Their mom, aware of their declining ability to play without guidance, was answering questions and finishing up her points when her youngest came up to her, upset and complaining about his brother, and angrily made a half-hearted attempt to hit her.


Without hesitation, she abandoned her speaking duties and turned away from the group, giving her full attention to her son.  From my unique vantage point, I could see and hear her say,


“Come here, give me a hug.”


There were no stern looks and squinted eyes in response to his anger, nor was there any hint of irritation at taking her away from her purpose at the meeting.


He, for his part, refused. He flailed and got louder, but she simply repeated herself. Again, he declined.


There before me stood two people. An angry, emotionally exhausted child, and a multi-tasking yet focused parent – a mom confident that she could reconnect with her son. She could have demanded he behave, solve it himself, or reject his feelings all together. But she didn’t.


Instead, she asked again. It was in the third ask – as earnest at the first – that her son leaned in and hugged her. She picked him up for the remainder of her talk.


At the end of the meeting, she also:

  • checked in with each of her children
  • told them the plan for what has happening next (i.e., “we are going to eat lunch,” etc.)
  • made a plan to speak to one child outside “in the sunshine” (I can only assume about the jumping on the table and confrontation with his younger brother).


And while I think I have a better sense of what the homeschooling process involves – for at least one family- I have a VERY good sense of what a loving parent of three under pressure can look like.


There are many parents in our lives whom I admire, and I wonder how often they are acknowledged for responding to their children, well  . . . as they should, with the kindness-offering connection and hope in a time of upset. So, while saying “thank you” sounds a bit corny, I’d like to say to the parent who waits contentedly while his child takes what can feel like 20 minutes to make a seemingly simple decision, to the parent who helps her child wipe up the accidentally spilled water on her lap, and all other parents like these, I appreciate you for the parent you are and the model you are to me.

The First Three Years of Art


What do Reggio Emilia art experiences look like in the first three years?


When I first started learning about Reggio Emilia’s approach, most of the project work I was reading about and had seen occured with preschool-aged children.  I had a hard time finding examples of what infant and toddler play with art materials looked like. Eventually, working in a Reggio Emilia inspired infant/toddler program, I saw first hand that which I guess I already knew.


While some toddlers tell stories and find ways to communicate their ideas, art mediums are largely used for exploratory purposes in the first three years. That is to say, through play, discoveries are made.


Children are invited to play with a variety of art mediums and open-ended materials over time.  As the children become more familiar with the medium/material, the invitation to play may become more complex. Something as simple as adding water to the play can deepen children’s understanding of what they are playing with. Paper, for example, transforms when wet, or clay – something solid enough to climb on when dry – drips and softens.



Over multiple experiences, children will learn lots about a specific material’s properties, from its limitations to its possibilities.




By playing with art mediums and other open-ended materials, children are archiving information gained through play. In time, children will have a reference library of sorts, built through experiences, that they can use to both create and share their ideas.


A Recipe for Sensory Play


We’ve had some warm days here in California. All other plans have been put on hold so that we can spend some time by the river.  Our only agenda was to have an adventure. Okay, and maybe enjoy some sensory play.


Natural things like water, mud, sand, and flowers in limitless amounts. Only hands, feet, and curiosity to drive the play.





Supporting Morning Farewells


Like so many things in our lives, our daily “Have a good, fun, day!” routines with Mike have changed as the girls do.


Young children may be ready to say good-bye one day and may hold on tight to you the next.  Even within healthy attachments and positive environments, children may feel ready to play and see you later or want you to read one more book before you go.  Not only are you saying good-bye to your child, but often there is a change in their context which may contribute to how they feel about saying good-bye.


As infants, I would hold the girls if they were upset to say good-bye to Mike. Now, as a toddler, Moon is capable of moving the child-sized furniture around. She regularly moves one of the chairs over to the window to climb up and watch him leave. Mike waves good-bye to the girls from his car before he drives away every morning, regardless of whether we are waiting there or not  . . . just in case.


Moon likes to linger a bit after he drives off. She’ll call out things she sees, typically dogs and birds, but may comment on other exciting things that happen outside our front door. She hasn’t shown signs of distress or unhappiness, but I  began to wonder if she needed support since her ques are usually subtle.


Support for Transitions. By support, I don’t mean guidance or a lot of explanation. She understands this process and seems to be getting along well. Maybe I was just beginning to question my own busyness in the morning, and wanted to be sure that I wasn’t missing anything.


  • Be Present. On the days she stays at the window after Mike has left, I spend a minute or so standing by her.  I may comment that I will miss dad for the day, or I may not. Mostly, I just want to share a moment with her and follow her lead. Sometimes my presence goes unnoticed, and sometimes she reaches for me – I would not have known that she sometimes needs a hug had I not taken just those few minutes to check in with her.


  • Representational Toys. I added these recently gifted gnomes and one of our wooden peg people to the window sill to give her an opportunity to process any feelings she may have about saying goodbye. She uses them most days, “walking” them along the sill, leaning them into each other for a quick kiss. I can’t be certain that they represent her feelings about Mike leaving, but the toys are there should she want them for that purpose.



In the Reggio Emilia tradition, I’ve been trying to think of additional ways that the environment can support this transition. Something simple, something portable. Perhaps a photograph of Mike and the girls on the shelf next to this window?








Encouraging Play


I can’t think of a parent that doesn’t want their child to play. We know that play is, quite simply, good for kids.


Infants play spontaneously without encouragement, and sometimes despite of many distractions. As they age, our expectations of them tend to change. We encourage them, with the best of intentions, to be more intentional, and we provide opportunities to learn through play.


What happens to children’s intrinsic motivation to  play when they are always provided with play prompts?  Play dates, parks with play structures, and art invitations are all a part of my children’s play, but only a part of it.


How do my plans interrupt or prevent my children’s developing play ideas?


In my more absent-minded or ambitious days, an idea as simple as letting children play can easily fall by the wayside – a victim of my good intentions and life’s obligations.


I’ve developed a few habits that have helped keep unstructured play time a part of our lives.


Schedule Unstructured Time Even life in a small town can be filled quickly with social appointments,  from park dates to running errands. I protect our stay-at-home days, which are typically Mondays and/or Fridays. We may go for a short walk around our neighborhood, but we spend most of our morning at home and do not schedule play dates with friends or go to the park (even though both are places where free play can happen). As my daughters are 3 years and 1 year old, we are lucky that there really are no obligations that we can not schedule to our convenience. I realize a whole day is not easy to come by, especially as children age, but some time each week in these early years contributes to the development of the habit of play.



Have Toys Available that Encourage Independent Play and Let Children Move them as Needed. Open-ended play can be messy. My daughters move furniture and blankets all over the house, lining up all of our chairs to become train cars, and blankets to become beds, blocking the main artery of our home. Designating a space such as a child’s room, bed, or closet (even where play scenes can be left and revisited without changing the flow of the whole house) is one way to let independent play develop.


Be a Willing Play Partner. It seems like right before I end my cleaning routine – say, finishing the dishes – my daughter brings me some variety of empty mugs, forks, and rocks, and asks me to “eat” with her. I have never regretted putting those chores aside and playing instead. She does not ask for my participation frequently (that is where my other daughter, Moon, comes in), so when she does we can always come to some agreement about when that can happen. It is not always right away, but when I say I will do something, I follow through.


Let Children Take the Lead. Infants and toddlers who have sustained the ability to play independently may not need a partner, so holding back may ultimately be more encouraging of play than jumping in.


Play Outside. Nature provides infinite chances to play. We love parks, but have recently been spending more time outside playing in spaces that the girls can run on, hide in, climb over, discover, and marvel at. Heading to the beach? Leave the sand toys at home. Toys can be fun to bring along, but how about leaving all of those things behind so that children can create their own games.


How do you keep play a top priority in your everyday lives?