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Different types of toys can support imaginative play in different ways. Toys that are in some way undefined, such as a block of wood or a block of modeling clay, invite the child to engage with them and make whatever she or he wants out of them. Many art supplies, and building blocks of various types fit this category of imaginative play toys. Other examples are Erector Sets and K’NEX®, which can be used as desired by the child.
A second category of toys are more defined and create specific opportunities for children to engage in imaginative play in more particular ways. Whereas with one set of wooden blocks, you might build a castle, a cabin, a luxury liner, or a spaceship, with Legos®, for example, some pieces are linked to a specific environment — a South Seas Island, a pirate ship, a launch pad, a castle, or Sherwood Forest. This type of toy provides support for imaginative play in a certain genre or environment by giving the child settings, props, and characters to work with. It’s similar to a movie set, on which any number of stories can be enacted. Finger puppets or hand puppets and a puppet theater have a similar role.
If children feel that they can set the instructions aside and build their own creations, or allow Robin Hood to ride on the space ship, then other interesting stories can come alive in their imaginative play. The fact is that part of what makes a toy good for imaginative play is for the child to feel able to appropriate them from their designed use to an alternative use — as long is it’s safe. So, for example, a set of stilts designed to help build the child’s coordination could, from the child’s standpoint, make him or her into a giant. A deck of cards sold to help children learn to distinguish patterns and use the skills of comparing and contrasting could become a designer house of cards.
Dress-up clothes are also a good stock item for imaginative play. Animal noses, scarves, neckties, and hats from different professions are all useful. Old Halloween costumes can find a home with the dress-up clothes. People who sew can find sewing patterns to add to the collection, providing particular items to suit a child’s special interests.
I loved coloring books! I could color the clothes whatever I wanted to, or I could make the sky blue or cloudy. When I was in high school, my club drew numbers and had gag gifts for Christmas. I drew my number and opened my gift. It was a brand new box of 64 crayons and an alphabet coloring book. I was tickled!
The Fischer Price playsets used to be wonderful too. I had the little schoolhouse and it was so wonderful. I taught school all day long. A friend had the barn set and we herded cows all day. We weren't worried about gender roles or any such thing then. We just played and had a fine time.
I always thought Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs were great for imaginative play. Tinkertoys could be anything: a house, a bridge, a spaceship, or an Olympic gymnastics course for my Barbie dolls!
Lincoln Logs might be a fort, a house, a cabin in the woods, a mansion -- anything we wanted them to be.
I also liked modeling clay and similar items like Play Doh. There was no end to what you could make! Sidewalk chalk is good too, although we were known to use rocks or chunks of red clay on the patio for drawing.
You really want something that gives a child freedom to create without too many rules.
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