We recently had the annual hard rubbish collection at our place, which made me realise exactly how much expensive plastic rubbish my kids have. It’s also stuff that they don’t use very much. Their hands-on, made-up play entertains and occupies them in a way no shiny new toy has ever done. This understanding has underpinned the creation of our ‘Brilliant Boxes’; we’ve tried to tap into the joy kids get out of real, hands on play and learning, combining some structured activities with as much open-ended and creative work as possible.
So, I’m about to make you feel a whole lot better about not spending a fortune on your kids! Here’s a list of the cheap things my kids love:
One night, trying to get the kids to settle into bed, my husband put a ratty old cycling sock on his hand and ‘Sockman’ told bedtime stories to the kids. Sounds simple, right? It is still, two years later, their absolute favourite bedtime ritual. So much so, that we keep ‘Sockman’ as a reward. I actually tried to fancy Sockman up: I got a new sock, sewed felt spikes onto the back and glued on googly eyes. The kids refused to use him. They just wanted manky-old-cycling-sock-Sockman. They’ve got their own rules about Sockman – it’s like the talking stick; whoever has it, gets to tell the story. It’s turned into a whole progressive storytelling tool for us. Who knew?
My husband was on solo kid duty for a few days last school holidays, while I was working. They were all going a bit winter-school-holiday-stir-crazy, so he packed a backpack and told them they were going on an adventure. He didn’t know how long they’d actually keep up, but they ended up walking over 10km. They walked down local streets they’d never been on before, navigated their way over a big ditch, stopped at a café for a hot chocolate, went over a pedestrian bridge (which seems to have been the highlight), saw where their dad used to play junior footy, then when they got a bit tired, got on a bus and went to the nearest shopping centre to visit the pet shop and cuddle puppies. Got on another bus, getting off when they saw a park, and slowly made their way home. It was their best day of the entire school holidays and cost a bus fare and three hot chocolates. The only problem is that my husband set the bar pretty high at the start: now they want ‘adventures’ every weekend. However, there are worse things they could be asking for.
Given the night time closes in by 6pm, the kids love a pre-bedtime ‘night walk’. They get rugged up in dressing gowns, grab a torch and we take them for a walk around the block. We mainly just see possums and neighbourhood cats, but again, it’s all an adventure to them. Something about being outside in the cold and dark makes it exciting. If it’s a fine night, they get to count stars and make out the constellations, plus there’s always the possibility of seeing bats flying over.
Making stuff from boxes
Look: this one is a mixed bag for parents, because seriously, how many egg carton robots can you display? However, despite all of the off-the-shelf craft kits my kids have received, they still prefer sticking together a bunch of recycling (egg cartons, shoe boxes, silver foil, etc), painting it and explaining how it is really a Death Star replica or new model Barbie Campervan. My bit of advice here is: roll out a sheet of plastic first, so you don’t have to deal with all of the painting mess. We use those cheap, Ikea art smocks, too.
If you have little Harry Potter fans, you’ll appreciate this one. My kids have a cubby house that is, admittedly, a little derelict for much of the time due to the transfer of the entire sandpit contents into it. However, as far as my kids are concerned, the messier the better, as they use it to ‘make potions’. They get a bucket or pot from the backyard, then wander around the garden collecting anything interesting: leaves, flowers, dirt, sand, stones (and I’m not thinking about the more disgusting things), mix it with water and create ‘potions’. I know it doesn’t sound very exciting, but it can take them at least an hour of collecting, mixing and creating. Yep: ONE. HOUR. How awesome is that? The whole time they are making up stories and characters to explain why they’re making the potion, what it will do and where they’ll keep it. I’ve yet to find any shop-bought toy that encourages this kind of imaginative play.
Treasure maps, spies and detectives
My sister-in-law gave my kids an awesome home-made present a few years ago: a black box with a set of ‘clue cards’, occurrence book, pencil, magnifying glass, a list of mysteries to investigate, ink pad for taking fingerprints, dusting powder and brush, plus various sheets of paper and pencils for map-making and suspect sketching. The kids made up their own maps (using their own ‘treasures’ as the treasure) for their friends, then created whole stories around it in a kind of Tintin inspired adventure, complete with villains to battle and obstacles to overcome. This present was their favourite one for a long time.
Cubby houses and forts
Sometimes the endless indoor-fort-making in winter does drive me a little crazy, but a few sheets, blankets and teddy bears is a pretty good pay off for the kids playing happily together. After some Googling on this, I’m going to make them some fancy-pants-fort-kits this Christmas: with big sheets with long ties on the ends, torches, pegs or clamps and camping mugs, in a bag. There’s loads of variations on it, but I think they’ll get good use out of this in the backyard this summer.
Making the dough together is fun – the kids get to knead and play with it (and it only needs a couple of ingredients), but you can just make pizza toast, if you’re short on time. We just line up the ingredients along the bench and the kids can choose whatever they want. They pretty much always eat whatever they have made, too. This is also good when you have the kids’ friends coming over and you don’t know what they like to eat – this way they just pick what they like.
All of this makes sense, when you think back to your own childhood: what do you clearly remember enjoying? Apart from a couple of favourite toys, I don’t remember spending hours with new shiny toys or expensive ‘stuff’. My clearest and best memories are of the elaborate games we made up (there was one called ‘guards’ that I still don’t understand, as we added on more rules every week, until it was impossible for anyone new to ever join in), the cubby houses we built, the fairy gardens we created and the ‘adventures’ we had in the bush block next door. I think the best gift I can give my kids is the opportunity to create a childhood filled with these things, for themselves.
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