Playing is a child's job, and toys are the tools of the trade. Classic self-powered toys are like open-ended test questions: they help children express themselves, work out their problems and learn about the world around them.
New high-tech toys are introduced every year, but nothing can replace good old-fashioned toys for real child's play.
"In a world full of loud, plastic, battery-operated, media-branded, one-dimensional toys with no imagination," Peter and Peggy Emmenegger's search for natural toys led them to create their own toy store. Their "technical" toys include high-quality building blocks and marble runs, like the natural beech wood ball track set (InquisitiveKid.com, $78) that puts little hands and minds in motion.
Blocks rock. The sturdy feel and tremendous versatility of traditional wooden blocks make them a perennial favorite with preschoolers. Classic wooden ABC blocks (PlaythingsToyStore.com, $29), for example, include all 26 letters in uppercase and lowercase and feature fun, hand-painted pictures on the other sides of the cubes.
Every preschooler's life should be filled with song. Singing and making music gives budding musicians a fun way to express themselves as they learn rhythm and social interaction skills with fellow "band mates." Children can use just about anything to make music: pots and pans, spoons, and even sticks and rocks.
Or take the next step with the Schoenhut Band in a Box One (Wayfair.com, $34), which includes six easy-to-play instruments: xylophone, jingle stick, triangle, castanets and kazoo. Band in a Box Two (Wayfair.com, $34) and Band in a Box Three (Wayfair.com, $29) will complete your child's ensemble!
Preschoolers are ripe for creative projects. They're ready to learn how to hold pencils and connect the dots, to use scissors and glue and to color within the lines! Create a space in your home for these art sessions and prepare to display those precious masterpieces.
To express herself creatively, your junior artist needs good tools! The Artist on the Go kit (BeginAgainToys.com, $25) is perfect for busy families. A natural cotton carry case features 10 soy crayons in a holster, two wooden pencils in a holder, five drawing stencils, a six-inch ruler, a recycled paper notepad and plenty of storage. Your child will proudly carry it everywhere she goes!
Some children have that one special lovey that goes with them everywhere, while other kids enjoy displaying their ever-growing collections on a bedroom shelf. Many new cuddly toys come with a computer code and an online life, but the luckiest ones live "real" lives.
If your child doesn't already have a favorite stuffed animal, then it may be time for Trouble. The tag on Trouble the Dog says it all: "Sit. Stay. Hug. No Batteries Required." This precious 18-inch plush is 100 percent handcrafted in the U.S. and comes with his very own house — to be colored and customized by your very own child! (TroubletheDog.net, $50)
Board games such as Candyland, Chutes and Ladders and Hi-Ho Cherry-O help kids learn to play together, follow rules, take turns, count and more.
Introduce a new board game — Thomas & Friends Birthday Surprise (Amazon.com, $8). Players race around the island of Sodor to try to match party favors found along the route. The player with the most matches wins.
Sometimes children just want to be alone. Give them a big cardboard box to turn into a house or simply hang a blanket between two chairs for an instant tent.
Or consider the Melissa and Doug Tottle turtle tent (BuyDig.com, $50) for a semi-permanent hideaway. Your child will enjoy her books and battery-free toys in her own private haven.
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