Families That Play Together Grow Together: Part Four – Toys for the Holidays That Inspire Interactive Play in Families

Now that you know the benefits of play, and how to play with your child you may be asking:

So what do we play with?

I know it can be tough to find that gift that everyone in the family will enjoy playing together and will entice you to put away your tech-gadgets for a few hours. Using my experience, knowledge and expertise gained from years of playing with kids I provide you with several great toys and games to give your kids and your family for the holidays this year. These toys and games were selected from my list of favourites for their ability to encourage more interactive family playtime.
There are many different types of play and toys, each with its own benefits and learning skills. The toys I will be focusing on are pretend play toys, building toys, and turn-taking games. For more information on different toy categories, and their benefits, please read these sources:

NAEYC.org – Why This Toy?


10 (Non-Tech) Holiday Gift Ideas to Promote Kids’ Language, Learning

How did I choose the toys I am about to present?

I’ve played with them, or something like them, on many occasions. I, and the kids I’ve played with, have had lots of fun playing with toys like these repeatedly over the past 2 decades (or more…uh-hmmm). Most of the toys are open-ended, meaning that there are endless ways of playing with them. They are very safe (for the respective age groups). They are easy to find in stores and online. They have great ratings and are highly recommended. Most importantly they are simple, basic, and non-tech. According to NAEYC.org and their article “What the Research Says: Impact of Specific Toys on Play” open-ended, basic toys are the types of toys that have the greatest success and benefits for children:

“one trend that is emerging from our studies can serve as a guide to families as they choose toys: Basic is better. The highest-scoring toys so far have been quite simple: hardwood blocks, a set of wooden vehicles and road signs, and classic wooden construction toys. These toys are relatively open-ended, so children can use them in multiple ways. Also, they have all been around for a long time. There may be a reason these toys have been enjoyed by children over the generations! Simple, classic toys would be our recommendation for families.”

I do most of my shopping online these days, so for this task I did the same. I found most of these toys and games at Indigo.ca, but you may also find them at MasterMind Toys, Toys R Us, Walmart or Amazon (click toy photo to link to store site). Other great resource for classic toys (including some that are discontinued) are ValueVillage, The BargainShop, and Giant Tiger. Some of the toys I mention are basic toys that don’t have a specific store link, but they are tried and true toys that I always enjoy playing with kids and lend to very rewarding play experiences.

I have categorized the toys by age-group; 3 and under, 4 to 6 years, and 7 and older. I will also mention one or two games which have been good for our family of pre-teens and teens. With each toy or game, I will provide the description, then I will describe how I use the toy or game, giving specific tips and ideas for you to try. One more tip – forget about gender biases, girls play with trucks and boys play with dolls, if they are given the freedom to do so.

Here is my Christmas List…

3 years and under

1. Baby dolls with dressing and feeding toys

ToysRUs.ca – “Your child can have plenty of fun taking care of twin 14″ dolls with the You & Me Twin Deluxe Set, which comes with a variety of accessories. Your tot can give the twins lunch with juice from the bottles and set crackers on the food trays. Toy keys, blocks and a plastic teddy bear provide plenty of imaginative play time. The dollies coordinate in pink- and blue-colored outfits with polka-dot and chevron patterns, and your little one can change them into matching shirts for even more fun.”

This group of toys is a staple for every child of this age group and may even last into the all of the next stages. You can find dolls, doll clothes, toy food and dishes in any store that sells toys, including sometimes dollar stores.

Tips and tricks:

Following your child’s lead is key with this toy. Make sure you have more than one doll and several items of clothing, food and dishes. Also a few bathing and grooming toys would be great to include (e.g. soap, shampoo, hairbrush, toothbrush…). If your child is age two and under or has not started speaking in sentences, play parallel to them using the imitate, interpret, and comment strategy. Observe your child – e.g. watch as they feed the baby a bottle, then narrate what is happening – “your baby is thirsty, she is drinking her bottle”. After you may pick up your baby and imitate your child’s action, saying – “my baby is thirsty too, she is drinking her bottle so fast!”

If your child is closer to age three and over and speaking in sentences you may engage in more role-playing games. This feels very similar to saying lines in a play or playing improv – e.g. child: “it’s okay baby, don’t cry, daddy will be home soon”, parent: “I’m home! What’s wrong with baby?” child: “she missed you daddy” parent: “oh come here baby. I missed you too. It’s okay. Shhhhh.” It is essential that your child initiates and you focus on responding appropriately and enthusiastically.


2. LEGO Duplo Tow Truck:

Amazon.ca – “A car has broken down in the road! Luckily a friendly mechanic is driving past in his Tow Truck. Hook the car onto the Tow Truck and drive it to the garage to be fixed. There are so many tools to use there. Put the car on the turntable and tighten everything up with the wrench. Then top up the fuel and the car is ready to go! Who can you find to tow next?”

Tips and tricks:

I love this toy because it’s a building toy and a pretend play toy in one. It allows for lots of interactive play because it comes with two vehicles and two people – one for the parent and one for the child. With LEGO Duplo toys you can add to this set with other sets that the whole family can play with together.

Spend time putting the pieces together with your child. Remember to follow their lead, the pieces do not need to go together like the instruction book says. Observe what your child does with the toy. If he starts driving the tow truck around, pick up the car and do the same thing. Imitate your child’s actions, sounds and words. Pretend your car has broken down…now what? Wait for your child to respond.

If you have more Duplo sets you can add more cars and people to the game. They don’t even have to be Duplo! Any toy cars and people will do. Make the toys available to your child, but allow them to make their own choices. Let them lead you into an adventure of crazy broken down cars for hours of family fun!

4 years – 6 years

3. Honey Bee Tree Game:

Indigo.ca – “Players choose their numbered flower trays and then pull leaves out of the honey tree, being careful not to wake the sleeping bees! If you pull out the wrong leaf or if your hand starts to shake, bees will come tumbling out. Once all the leaves are removed from the honey tree, or all the bees are awake and out of the tree, the player with the least amount of bees in his/her flower tray is the winner.”

Tips and tricks:

Perhaps you remember the game Kerplunk from your childhood? This game is a very fun version of the same game. It gets the prize for most popular game among my young therapy clients. It is still basic, but has very cute little bees in place of marbles, a honey tree in place of a plastic tube, and green plastic branches with leaves on the end in place of sticks. There are few rules and the game is simple to play. The biggest challenge is getting the bees to go back in the box – they always seem to want to fly away instead!

There is not much of my own spin that I can add to this game. It stands the test of time all on its own, game-play after game-play. You and your child will love playing with all the bees. They are pesky little fellows that seem to want to go anywhere but in the tree. Sometimes we had to guide them in by flying them through the air and buzzing so their friends would follow!

The most important thing to remember when playing this type of game with this age group is to show excitement and enthusiasm. Make a big deal every time a bee falls through the branches or a branch seems to wiggle all the bees around. Use the element of suspense and anticipation to the max and everyone will have a great time.

4. Quercetti Marble Run Transparent Set:

Indigo.ca – “A smaller, transparent Quercetti set – for fun you can clearly see!” This toy is so great for imaginative building and there is always the reward of dropping the marbles through your creation when you are done; and because this set is transparent, you can see where your marbles are going! It takes some problem-solving skills to make sure the marble goes to the right places in your design. The possibilities are endless with a marble run toy.

Tips and tricks:

Like the LEGO, you do not need to use the instructions to build your towers. Trial and error is a great learning strategy to use while you are trying to figure out how to put the pieces together so your marble will make it all the way down to the bottom. Avoid giving too many instructions, no matter how tempting it may be; sometimes the best towers come from the ashes of the greatest failures. Is this not a valuable lesson to teach your children for later in life?

You can build one tower cooperatively with your child (remember who is leading…) or have a competition and see who can build the tallest tower or the longest run or the fastest tower. Have races with the marbles once your towers are completed. Build bridges across furniture or slides that go from the coffee-table to the floor. Design a space-age town where the people ride inside the marbles like futuristic cars. Play whatever game your child wants with this toy. You will be amazed at what they can come up with themselves!

7 years and over

5. Roominate Amusement Park or K’Nex Roller Coaster

Indigo.ca – Roominate “Build a full amusement park with spinning rides galore! With more than 250 building pieces, thrill-seeking designers can build a Ferris wheel, spinning carousel, and much more! Don’t forget a ticket stand and tasty concessions for all the hungry visitors!”

K’Nex “Tick, Tock goes the coaster car on the Clock Work Roller Coaster Building Set, from K’NEX. The hour hand inspired, motorized coaster car lift sends the coaster car up the track and down a ride full of twists and turns. This set comes with 305 parts, primarily rods and connectors, to build a K’NEX thrill ride! And if you collect the Infinite Journey Roller Coaster Building Set and the Revolution Ferris Wheel building Set (sold separately), you can have a working amusement park right in your home! Recommended for builders ages 7+.”

Tips and Tricks:

Okay, so although I said in the beginning that gender biases do not matter, sometimes in order to get older girls to play with building toys you need to appeal to their “style”. Of course this does not apply to all girls!! My oldest daughter asked for the K’Nex version, but what I love about the Roominate toys is that they were create by two female engineers to attract girls to the science, technology, engineering and math fields of study (STEM) – so I must give them kudos for that!

Either of these toys are great for learning about physics, math, design and building. You made need to refer to the instructions at first for these sets because they are quite a bit more complicated at this level (at least for me they are!). They are the kind of toys that may take a few days to complete – so perfect for the week after New Year’s Day when all the kids are getting bored!

Like the marble run game – once you become familiar with how the pieces all work together – you can use your imagination and start designing new and innovative structures with your kids. Again, trial and error is an important strategy to learn, as well as persistence, patience, and starting over when the entire design fails!!

You want to let your child be the project manager here. Let them make their own mistakes. Talk things through and help them problem solve, but refrain from giving them the answers to the challenges they will run into. Avoid too much frustration though, because you do not want it to be so difficult that they are no longer having fun. It is a fine balance between giving support and allowing them to be independent. With this type of toy, asking questions may work more to your advantage because it will help move your child forward when they get stuck while you encourage them to think it through. It is fun when you both get stuck on what to do next, because your child can watch how you solve a problem too, and you become real partners in figuring it out!

6. Pop-It-Up Food Truck Tent

Indigo.ca – “Your kids will love to play with the wonderful Indigo exclusive Pop-it-Up Food Truck. It comes with a unique canopy on the side of the truck and a front window with netting that promote imaginative play. The food truck also has an opening in the roof so kids can stand up straight in the car. The 100%polyester tent is easy to set up and easy to fold away into a compact carry-bag. Included are the tent with 1 door, a canopy, roof opening and front window with netting plus 4 poles. When assembled the food truck is 47.2 x 31.5 x31.5″.”

Tips and Tricks:

All right, I confess, this is the first time I’ve seen a pretend food-truck – and I think it is awesome!! Ignore the recommended age on the box because this is great for kids up to the tween years. No really, it is! It is a mistake to discourage kids from pretending when they get older. It should not stop after kindergarten! Just think, with this tent, you could be developing some real entrepreneurs in the family!

Now although this is the first time I have seen a food truck tent, it does not mean that I have not played pretend restaurant, food-stand, or lemonade stand with older children. The only difference was we had to “make” our venue. This is an excellent way to go as well, as it hones in on their creativity. This is where the refrigerator box comes in very handy – or should I say rocket ship/dog house/submarine box…

In any case, the point I want to make here is pretend with your kids! Pretending is so much fun, you can be anyone and do anything you want. Let your imaginations run wild.

Tweens and Teens

7. Apples to Apples

Indigo.ca – “This infamous wild card and party game provides instant fun for 4 to 10 players! It’s as easy as “comparing apples to apples”, too, just open the box, deal the cards and you’re ready to play! Select the card from your hand that you think best describes a card played by the judge. If the judge picks your card, you win that round. Don’t fret, as everyone gets a chance to be the judge! Each round is filled with surprising and outrageous comparisons from a wide range of people, places, things and events. Fast moving and stimulating, Apples to Apples® is perfect for any get-together with family and friends! The Party Box comes complete with 504 green and red cards; the green cards have 2 clues per card, the red cards have 1 clue per card.”

Tips and Tricks:

This is a simple game, not many rules, very little set-up, and can lead to hours of hilarity!! As a speech-language pathologist, word games like this are a gold-mine for increasing vocabulary and learning higher-level language skills, such as language ambiguity (double-meanings), figurative meanings vs literal meanings, innuendos, inferencing, word associations, etc, etc, etc… Playing this game is not only immensely fun, it is a brain-workout. Have fun watching your child’s “wheels-spin” as they try to come up with the most imaginative answers.

I have another confession to make…I had forgotten about this game and it was my 14-year-old daughter (turning 15 in January), who was sitting next to me reading my blog as I am writing it that said, “You need to tell them to get Apples to Apples”. So this is a recommendation coming straight from a teenager! If you have older kids this game is a must for your family!

What will you play this holiday season?

These are only a few examples of some of my favourites. I hope this post, as well as the others in my “Families That Play Together Grow Together” series have inspired you to go “no-tech” this holiday – at least for a few hours. It is not as difficult as you think (well maybe the fist time you tell them to put their gadgets down – be persistent!), but any effort that goes into getting the family to interact face-to-face with each other is well worth it when you are fully engaged with each other and can feel that magic moment happen.

Wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas: May you have many happy, playful, magical moments this holiday season!

Renée Laliberté

P.S. Enjoy a nostalgic chuckle with this infographic: The Most Popular Toys Since 1983

The Most Popular Toys Through the Decades
The Most Popular Toys Through the Decades Created By: Ebates

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