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Sunday, February 3, 2013

15 tips for toy-free play

A toy-free play scenario

Look, Mum- no toys! 
I wasn't feeling at all well when I walked into Centrelink. I was hoping that my paperwork would be processed quickly and I could get out of there and go home.

It wasn't to be, of course. It was lunchtime; the queues were long and the staffing was short. I sat down, resigned to a lengthy wait.

And then the entertainment started.

The two indigenous children were completely focussed on their game. The four-year-old stood right in the beam of the electronic door opener, oblivious to the clunk-clunk of the door opening and shutting behind him. He clasped his hands, raised them over his head, swung them over his shoulder and waited.

At the opposite end of the carpet, right in front of me, the two-year-old knew his role. He clapped his cupped hands together, drew his arm back. Delivered.

WHACK! The four-year-old's arms flew forwards, and he took off around the foyer, long hair flying. Skittered behind a pole and slid his feet forwards, landed triumphantly on his backside.

Meanwhile the two-year-old was racing forwards, arms in the air. His silent grin said it all. CAUGHT IT! You're OUT!

The two swapped roles then, and the impromptu baseball game continued. There was not a bat or a ball or a base in sight. The children were completely absorbed, completely silent other than the sound of their feet padding along the carpet.

Nobody told them to stop. They weren't bothering anyone, even when careering wildly round their imaginary diamond. I watched, hypnotised by their complete focus.

Their mother, waiting her turn at the counter in another corner, hardly glanced their way. She didn't feel a need to hand her children a phone or an iPad to entertain them. She didn't give them a colourful, branded toy to try to keep them quiet. She trusted them to entertain themselves, and they did.

They entertained me, too. And I applauded that mother silently for her good sense, and for her ability to trust her children to know how to play.

When the game of baseball finally ended, Mum handed one of them a torn envelope from the counter. That's all. The two of them explored that for some time, opening it out along its seams and trying to put it back together.

After a while, the younger child approached me and handed me the envelope. (Yes, naturally I'd been talking to them both as they played their game- I can't help myself!)

"Can you fold it up?" asked the older.

I extracted a little more information about what they wanted before folding the paper back into its envelope shape. That spurred a short game of 'Postman', with the letter being delivered, opened and 'read' several times.

We were still waiting. The queue inched forward.

When 'Postman' lost its charms, the children started trying to project the folded envelope through the air. My partner, chuckling beside me, couldn't help himself.

"Do you want a jet?" he asked, and when they nodded, quickly folded the paper into plane shape with a quick tutorial on how to throw it.

That absorbed the two children for another five minutes, until my name was called.

I'd forgotten I was feeling sick; I was grinning my head off. Those children had waited in a completely non-child-friendly environment for the best part of half an hour with absolutely no toys and hardly any adult input, and they'd entertained themselves completely happily.

Did they climb on the furniture? Yes, occasionally, to throw their jets from higher up. Nobody turned a hair. It wasn't a national disaster.

Did they fight? Yes, once, over whose turn it was to post the letter. Hair was pulled. There was a single yelp.

"Stop fighting," said Mum, and they did.

"Whose turn is it?" I asked when they looked to me, and they immediately sorted it out themselves.

Those two children knew how to play. They knew how to play regardless of where they were and what resources they had. There was not a single whine in half an hour.

Do you wish your kids could do that?


Before Happy Meals, didn't kids
collect shells?
So let's just recap this. Here we are in the welfare centre of town, watching two small children from financially disadvantaged backgrounds entertaining themselves happily and independently, without toys, for half an hour while their mother waits to be served.

SO. What was going right here, and how come we so often get it wrong when it comes to children's play? Why do we believe that children must be entertained all the time, lest they become some sort of nuisance? Why are we, who are so much better off than this impoverished mum, so quick to hand over the iPhone or to fill children's hands with cookies or toys when we have to wait in line?

Why are our houses full of plastic junk?

Why can't we trust our children to find a way to play without a pile of plastic junk?

What can we change, to help our children to play as independently as the two children in Centrelink?


Aunt Annie's hints to encourage toy-free, independent play

The first thing I'd note about what I saw in Centrelink is that at some stage in these two children's lives, an adult has taken the time to play a ball game with them and teach them the rules. Someone has run around outdoors with these kids and inculcated a love of a particular game.

I have no idea what the rules were.
But all we needed was a ball, and a
stick of bamboo.
1. Get outdoors with your kids. 
If your kids are getting stroppy, take them outdoors and run around with them. You will ALL feel better. Go to the park, the beach, into the woods- anywhere outdoors where they have room to move and have their own space. You'll probably find them inventing their own toy-free games in no time.

2. Spend time with them. 
Be present when you play with your kids. Put the phone away. Talk to them. Ask them questions. Play toy-free games like hide and seek, chasings, What's The Time, Mr Wolf? or building cushion forts.

3. Play games with them, including games with rules. 
Don't assume kids are 'too young' for simple games or sports with rules. Start with the basics, and be flexible.

4. Be enthusiastic, and don't take things too seriously. 
Remember it's a game! Have fun. It doesn't matter who wins.

Build and decorate a sand castle
5. Build their play vocabulary by doing new things with them.
What toy-free games did you play as a child? Do that with your kids. Go climb a tree, or go fishing, or dig holes in the garden.

The second thing I'd note is that these children didn't have an expectation of being entertained AND their mother trusted them to play by themselves. Right from the start, they made their own fun. They found something to do, using their vivid imaginations. That game of baseball was real to them- you could see it in their eyes.

6. Stop entertaining your children.
Right from birth, you can stop worrying about keeping your child entertained. JUST STOP IT. Even a baby has plenty to occupy its mind, learning how its hands and feet work. The correct answer to "I'm bored" is "Are you?". Full stop. Don't make suggestions!

7. Trust them to find something to do.
Honestly, if you stop filling the gaps, they WILL find something to do. They need to explore the inside of their heads till they find something that interests them.

8. Provide opportunities, not answers.
If you listen and allow them to do what they want in their play if humanly possible, you are halfway there. Ask questions till you find out what they need to help them play; provide that opportunity if you can, as long as it doesn't involve a trip to the shops!

Acting out songs- fun, and toy-free.
9. Encourage imagination.
Be playful. Read books together, and refer to ideas out of those books. Pretend to be characters with them. Act out scenarios with them. Let them dress up in your old clothes.

10. Allow yourself to be silent.
Sometimes the best help you can give children who want to play is to butt out and be quiet. If in doubt, say nothing and WAIT.

The third thing I'd note is that there wasn't a toy in sight. The only 'plaything' offered to these kids was a torn envelope; otherwise they used their imaginations and, occasionally, the furniture.

See that? That's a TOY. It didn't
cost a cent. But kids will play
with found items for hours.
11. Stop buying toys- especially brightly coloured, character-themed and gender-specific ones.
I have seen miracles happen when I took children away from all the plastic fantastic and let them loose outdoors instead, with few or no toys. End the clutter. Take a trip to the op shop or the tip. Stop consuming.

(Note: since writing this post, I've added another with tips about how to stop buying this garbage and having it bought for your kids- you can find it HERE.)

Children love to play with real tools.

12. Offer household resources instead of toys.
Pots and pans and lids and wooden spoons are toys. (No, you don't need to buy a toddler a drum kit.) Writing equipment is a toy. A chair can be a toy. Think creatively, and don't be so precious about your household stuff. Kids love to play with real tools- you are SURROUNDED by appropriate toys.

That is not a sheet. That is the ocean.
13. Be flexible about how your kids use the furniture and household goods.
While your kids are young is no time to be auditioning for a House and Garden photo shoot. Let them make forts out of the cushions and play hide-and-seek under the table. Put away the precious stuff, and relax already!

Old mattress, repurposed as a gym mat

14. Recycle household rubbish as toys, including furniture and technological equipment.
An old CD player or phone and a screwdriver can keep an older child entertained for hours. Ask your kids if they'd like to play with things before you throw them out- you might be surprised. I'll say it again... children love to play with real tools and real household items.

A child who shows interest in making sounds
on the piano? Offer a step up.
15. Offer your support to play, rather than directing or ignoring it- help kids go to the next level of understanding.
If you see your kids' play going round and round in circles- if frustration is setting in- that's the time to step in and quietly offer a step up to the next level (like showing them how to make or throw a paper plane). Then quietly step back again while they master the skill. Offer yourself, not STUFF!

Well, there you are. Are you ready to declutter your house and trust your children to entertain themselves? Go on- try it!


  1. Thank you for this great blog! Children who are creative and with this I include creative in their imagination, will always find some way of occupying themselves. Sometimes they need to be bored for that creativity to be released ..and as you said, they don't need an electronic or plastic toy to replace that creativity!

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head with just a few words in the middle of that piece. Far too often children are given those devises/plastic toys/attention grabbers to stop them being a nuisance to the adults around them. The sad thing is though that the so-called nuisance making is usually children engaed in play that is teaching them about their surroundings. And by providing such attention grbbers (smart phones, tablets, coloured plastic crap [pardon me]) parents are likely to end up with their children being nuisances more often in order to receive their 'reward' for doing so.

  3. Thank you so much for your wisdom and wonderful suggestions. I am going to share with all my colleagues and families.

    1. That's a pleasure, Gari. Glad you found it useful.

  4. Thank you for this push I needed! We moved a few months ago and all the toys got unpacked in the playroom. It's been on my list for weeks to move at least half of them into storage , and now I think I will be moving 80% of them. My son barely plays with the majority anyway.

    1. Fabulous! Declutter your life, and your child's field of vision- it can make a huge difference in many areas of life. :)

  5. Aunt Annie! This is an awesome blog! Thanks for putting the perspective back into play:) Give the space, and they will create! I will share your thoughts and suggestions! Thanks! Katherine Collmer,

  6. Those kids are going to be fantastic problem solvers and creative thinkers! I love that you caught some kids engaged in some awesome free play. Thanks for sharing your story. :)

  7. Hi Annie- for this timely post. We're making a conscious effort to cut down screen time and we too have cut out a lot of the toys in our house. (partly due to an international move and we couldn't afford to ship everything!) Our Big Guy (3 y/o) entertains himself with only a soccer ball, a tricycle, sidewalk chalk, paints, pencils, blocks, books and a train set.

    Consciously cutting the TV down has worked wonders for us over the last week or so (it was getting a bit out of hand after my second son was born and we were admittedly using it as a bit of a babysitter while attending to the new baby) and our Big Guy is now back to initiating his own free play and has stopped asking for the TV to be put on. *phew*. It's amazing to see his imagination at work!

    I have a question for you though, now that our Little Guy is hitting 8 months and crawling everywhere that Big Guy goes, do you recommend any activities that both of them can do? I thought that blocks would be a good one, but LG just wants to tear everything down that BG builds and that makes BG really angry and he doesn't want to play with him. I really want BG to see that his little brother is fun and not just an annoying baby who seems to get in the way of his playing all the time!!


    1. It's not a particularly compatible set of ages, is it? At 8 months and three years they are not going to 'play together'- developmentally speaking, that's not a reasonable expectation. If you want to do activities with both of them, I can't go past baking. LG will love the feel of the ingredients, while BG will enjoy measuring and stirring and pouring. But don't expect anything but side-by-side play at their own levels!

      And of course if LG is on your lap while you read to BG, that can only be good.

      Try to get the whole 'happy families' paradigm out of your head. The more you urge Mr 3 to love the baby and play with him, the more he may resent the competition and the expectation. Just give them both lots of love, buy a playpen to put BG in while he plays with his blocks to keep LG from knocking them down, and you may even find BG passing blocks through the bars to LG once the pressure to please mummy comes off.

      I LOVE THAT YOU TURNED OFF THE TV!!!!! Well done!!!!

    2. Thanks. You're right, I can't really expect them to play 'together' yet. Although this morning LG was having fun chasing BG around on the floor!
      Baking is a great idea! It is something I try to do with BG every week, but I hadn't really thought about including LG in that.

      Thanks again. Please keep up this awesome blog!

  8. Great read! Thanks for the hints here! Very impressive and helpful suggestions to encouraging kids become toy free and independent play. Excellent share!!!

  9. Such a good article. These tips are so helpful to KIDS. I found one more site related to kids articles. Please learn more about your KIDS here

  10. So many great ideas here for creative play, thanks so much. Was just throwing out many plastic broken toys at a friend's house over the weekend - they just do not last and do not allow for lateral thinking

  11. Now this is in actual fact cooperative. It’s very openhanded of you to share this with us.

  12. I think it is important for kids to learn how to use their imagination. These are some great tips. Implementing rules is also healthy too! I will use this next time I stay home with the kids.

  13. Great story and ideas to share with my staff. Entertaining children is becoming a big issue in the areas I work in with double income and time poor households the children are coming from.

  14. This is a great artical that's ! Thanks for sharing.
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  15. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated and extremely broad for me. I’m looking forward to your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!
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