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Friday, February 15, 2013

Plastic-fantastic-free gift shopping for kids

Last time I blogged, I was on my high horse about ridding your house of the plastic fantastic and encouraging your kids to play independently. You can find that post here if you missed it.

Are we having fun yet?...
But hey, this is the real world! Kids have birthdays, Christmas (or your own personal gift-giving festival day, according to your faith) comes around...

....and that's when stressed-out, busy mums and dads get overwhelmed. Oh *expletive*, the birthday party's tomorrow... or this afternoon, heaven help me!... (Well do I remember that awful moment, from my days as a working mum with an equally tired child in tow!!)

That's the moment when they grab the first vaguely appropriate piece of junk they can find on the supermarket or toy shop shelves. Or, in many cases, inappropriate piece of junk.

So I thought it would be only fair, after that last post of mine, to talk about some possibilities for junk-free present shopping.

Presents that encourage outdoor play

A toy that encourages kids to get outside, run around, use their muscles and develop hand-eye, gross motor or fine motor co-ordination is almost never a mistake. Do make a call and check with parents that some of these are appropriate for their family culture and environment, though.

Balls of any shape and size are always going over fences or being punctured by the dog and needing replacement. Check what ball games the child enjoys.

Game sets- cricket, boules, T-ball, badminton, volleyball, indoor 'soft' alley bowling for families with a hallway, even lawn bowls- encourage families to interact.

Blow-up punching bags- the sort you put sand or water in the bottom of, so they bounce up again- can be a hoot, and they help very active or frustrated kids channel aggression away from hitting other children or throwing things. (These can be particularly helpful with children who are enmeshed in a family crisis such as divorce or illness- things that are out of the child's control.)

Skipping ropes, especially longer ones that encourage children to team up and take turns, seem to be unusual enough these days to spark up children's curiosity. (NB: Always supervise skipping games to ensure ropes don't end up being used inappropriately- actively teach safety considerations.)

Real tools for gardening, including seeds and seedlings of edible plants or beautiful flowers, can encourage good eating habits and a sense of beauty, as well as being great fun and giving the child a sense of 'ownership' of the outdoors.

Presents that encourage creativity

There are two main 'big hints' I want to give you here.

One: OPEN-ENDED toys encourage creativity. The less defined the purpose of the present is, the more it encourages creative thought.

Two: CHILDREN LOVE REAL TOOLS. Never buy plastic fantastic when you could buy the real thing instead.

Small open-ended building kits, such as Legos (avoid the gender specific ones, please!) which start as an exercise in following instructions and then eventually become something other than what's on the box, make great gifts.

Balsa wood dinosaur, insect and aeroplane kits can fit in with a child's interests, as can plastic model boats and planes to build and paint. The 'creative' part is not so much in the construction- that's more a fine motor skill builder and a lesson in multi-step direction following- as in the decoration, so supply paints as well if they're not part of the kit.

Don't assume that a girl won't enjoy constructing something like this, either. I used to be horribly jealous of all the building kits given to my brother.

Craft kits- jewellery making, gift card making, anything at all that provides the materials and tools but preferably doesn't give a blueprint for exactly what the end product should look like- can entrance a child for hours.

Again, don't assume that a boy won't enjoy that sort of present.

An inexpensive digital camera - and I'm not talking about one slathered with Disney princesses or Spiderman- is a wonderful present for a child. I've found this a particularly useful gift for children with special needs, such as autism. Looking through a camera lens is often far less threatening than looking a person in the eye.

Cookware, and I'm talking about real tools. Children adore having their own real stuff for baking. A wise friend of mine, knowing that my boy LOVED cooking, gave him a set of small Victorinox kitchen knives before he was even in his teens. I don't remember him ever cutting himself, and he treasured them with a passion- I suspect he still does today. At times when she had less money to throw around, she'd contribute smaller items like a garlic peeler or mortar and pestle, which were received with almost equal joy.

The wild animal prints were a big hit.
From the op shop!
Dress-ups don't have to be purchased from a toy shop. Go to an op shop (thrift shop), or check out your own wardrobe for fun items you don't use any more. My mother's cousin's old cocktail dress was a gift I enjoyed for many, many years, and you KNOW how kids love 'real' handbags and shoes.

Hide-outs such as tents, or do-it-yourself kits made from op shop-purchased lace curtains with big bulldog clips or string ties to secure them to trees or tables or doorknobs, can provide hours of fantasy play.

How the kids loved Mr Crocodile...
Puppets are something that every child needs to own. Sometimes a puppet will tell you something that the child can't let out through their own lips... and sometimes it is better to act out a conflict with a puppet than to put a child 'on the spot'. (NB: I have purchased quite a few mint condition puppets from op shops, much more cheaply than the new price!)

Add-ons for existing open-ended collections can extend play in new directions. An extra few pieces of wooden Brio train set were always welcome gifts for my son.

Presents that encourage intellectual growth

(NB: With all these presents, it's a good idea to be sure not just of the target child's chronological age but of their mental age. My gifted child was doing jigsaws, playing board games and reading books many years above the suggested appropriate age level, so know your child- or purchase a voucher instead.)

Books are another sure-fire, non-junk present. Always subtly take along the receipt in your bag, in case the book is a double-up and needs to be changed- or get a book voucher instead, and let the shopping trip be part of the extended joy.

Jigsaws are another winner for kids who enjoy them.

Strategy board games and card games can be another big hit with slightly older children. You can get simple card games for younger children too, like Happy Families or Go Fish. These have the advantage of encouraging socialisation and family time.

How-to guides are another present that can centre on a child's interests- how to make a paper plane, fold origami, create tole work, play chess, do bush crafts such as making an outdoor shelter from branches, etc etc... these can be treasured parts of a child's library for many years.

A piggy bank with a donation of lots of your loose change inside encourages delayed gratification and teaches great life skills, as well as encouraging maths skills as child tries to work out how much he/she has been given and what they can spend it on.

Personal furnishings and accessories

(Hint: steer clear of branded character goods, eg Disney princesses and action heroes. That 'closes' the child's imagination regarding the function of the item and also affects the child's moods and behaviour when using that item.)

A special oversized cushion can be both comforting and fun. Small cushions in appealing colours and designs are also very popular, and can be used for dolls as well as kids.

A personal chair- whether a beanbag (avoid in houses with children under 3 years), beach chair with drink holder or a child-sized foam lounge- can be treasured for years and used for dolls and teddies when the child grows out of it.

Even a satin sheet from the op shop...
can be the sea! Or a tent... or... And the
rainbow scrap was much in demand.
Soft, cuddly, child-sized throws and material scraps of various sizes- I just visit the remnants bin at Spotlight and hem them up on my sewing machine- can provide quilts and tents for dolls, scenery for imaginative play (the sea, the sand, the rocks, the flower garden), cuddlies for nap time, symbols for moods (I had a volcanic red we used for anger, a sunny yellow for joy, and a cool blue for sadness in my preschool room, and the kids really got into it) or just a beloved mat for curling up on and dreaming. A whole rainbow of coloured, textured scraps can really excite a creatively-minded child.

Outings, interest and special need presents

Tickets for the child to accompany you or one of his parents to a live show, the zoo or another fun venue are lovely presents if you can afford them, and can provide weeks of excited conversation afterwards.

Camel ride, anyone?
A special outing with you, the giver, and your child to a cafe or restaurant, or to an outdoor  'adventure' of some kind can be both relieving for the parents and a memorable experience for the child.

An iTunes gift card has never, to my knowledge, been rejected by a teenager. It's a gift that keeps on giving and it doesn't matter if you double up or give the same thing many years in a row. Music is an important part of a teenager's growing sense of identity and can be very comforting for a confused, angry or sad child.

It doesn't have to be a puppy- sometimes
a fully grown animal is a better choice.
And go to pounds and refuges, not pet
shops please!
A companion animal can be a saving grace for a child who is having trouble with friendships.

NEVER BUY A CHILD A PET WITHOUT CONSULTING THE PARENTS. But do consider how an animal to care for, to love and be loved by, can transform a child's life.


Well, that's all very well when you're doing the buying. But how do we prevent well-meaning friends and relatives from cluttering our own homes up with the plastic fantastic twice a year?

Avoidance strategies

Think ahead!

When you write the invitations for the birthday party, consider inserting a short but subtly worded note which includes thoughtful gift suggestions and plenty of flexibility in price and gift style. Something like this.

"Here are some quick-fire gift ideas for (name) to help you avoid that ghastly gift-shopping experience!

"Children's book store voucher
iTunes card- (name) would love to expand his Wiggles music collection!
Piggy bank with 'donation' of your loose change inside
Anything to encourage outdoor play, craft or building
Interests: he enjoys cooking with real tools and cookbooks
Invitation to join you at a cafe, restaurant or other child-friendly outing (please, no fast food)
Tickets to a sporting event, music concert or movie (G-rated only please)
If you'd really like to buy (name) a toy, he currently collects Matchbox cars."

And there's no reason in the world that you can't prime people at Christmas, too. Discuss with your family and any Christmas Day guests what gifts would be most helpful and appropriate for your children- or even go gift-free for a year. Make it easy on people- perhaps you could have a year where everyone from outside the immediate family buys your children book vouchers only?

NB: discuss your change of gift-receiving plan with your children before the big day! We don't want any meltdowns! A mega-shopping excursion to the bookshop can be presented as something exciting to look forward to- you could even take the kids on a preselection trip, where they can look for what they'd like to purchase if they get enough vouchers.

You may find that having these open discussions well before the gift buying frenzy takes place helps to open up your own relationships with family members too, and makes that special day less stressful for everyone.

Be honest, but tactful, when talking to gift givers. Don't refer to failed presents from previous years- instead refer to what your child was really excited by and used over and over again.

Remind, gently, about any house rules (eg no junk/allergy producing food, no character-branded goods, no sexism, no screens, no PVC plastics, nothing that needs batteries, or whatever is your own particular bete noir). Always explain why you have decided that, with your emphasis on how it affects the child's behaviour or wellbeing (nobody really wants to damage your child, do they?).

Try not to go over the top- keep it short and sweet.

MINIMISE PREACHING YOUR PHILOSOPHY. "We believe" statements sound judgmental and patronising, and can inspire people to get back at you for making them feel bad by ignoring what you want! Concentrate on explaining your child's needs.


Well, that's about enough from me. What can you add to my list? What are some great, non-junky presents that your kids have just loved and that haven't driven you crazy?

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!