Our son turned three this week. Much joy, much cake, many sweeties...even more toys! We have always aimed for a minimalist toy box, having thorough clear outs every few months as new things come in. What we do buy is usually second hand. An army of friends and relatives are on hand to express their love with the latest new novelty toys and games. Unfortunately, very little stands the test of time - lack of interest or initial over enthusiasm usually consigns many toys to the charity shop or dustbin. For this reason, we rarely buy toys ourselves, reserving that money for experiences.
As we are sorting the toy box yet again, we are deciding what to keep for his three month old sister. She has already been bought toys of her own, which she is currently showing zero interest in. But then why would she? She has many faces to learn to recognise and the antics of her parents, brother and pet cats to amuse her.
As I was finding space for all the new bits and pieces that came into our home this week, I noticed the set of stacking cups I had placed on the mantelpiece. We bought these from a charity shop when our son was just 6 months old. At first they were brightly coloured objects to look at and manipulate. Gradually he learnt to build the tower and to stack them inside each other once again. Then he used them to hide things under. Then to serve us pretend cups of tea. Then they became pretend hooves to clip-clop around the room. Just last week he had one of them in the bath to slop water and to rinse away the shampoo. These will be keepers for his sister.
The belief that children need dedicated plastic play props for every imaginative scenario - play kitchens, shops, stables, beauty salons and space ships - is not founded in evidence, but by advertising budgets running into the hundreds of millions. Pretend play is good, but then pretending is the fun of it, and rooms full of dedicated props distract from that.
Some things don't need to be pretend anyway - our son doesn' t pretend to sweep, I actually let him sweep with our dustpan and brush. We also bake together, he watches me cook and when he was younger he played with our actual pots and pans and utensils. Imagination can be left for the things we can't actually do - adventure on the high seas, for example. Getting out of doors, running around, exploring and collecting things is also essential to our children's - and our own - well being. It is free and costs the earth nothing.
There are a few things other than the cups that have stood the test of time, that are still being played with and will be kept for our daughter. A lot more will be given away. Occasionally I feel that we are being stingy (usually when I have been told as much by loved ones who are buying lavish toys). Resist that feeling at all costs, especially in the face of opposition. I have realised now that exposing my son to an endless stream of influences that suggest to him that his life is somehow lacking will only make him dissatisfied and me feel like a terrible parent. We avoid supermarkets and toy shops, we watch DVDs not television, so as to limit our exposure to advertising - and now we are beginning the task of explaining how precious our time, our money and our environment is - far too precious to waste on throw away possessions.The best gift we can give our children is the knowledge that happiness cannot be built on a rising mountain of possessions.
What toys have given you the best value for money? How do you pass on your material values to your children?