Imagination is the best toy

Walk into your average toy store, and the thing you notice almost immediately is the noise. There are toys that talk. Toys that sing. Toys that beep and chirp and make all sorts of other indescribable sounds. And many of these toys will bring joy to the children who receive them.

But how long will that joy last? And will these toys help stimulate creative, imaginative play?

That’s a question many parents today ask themselves when shopping for toys for their children. 

In an era where many toys have an electronic component, and where kids are being introduced to touch-screen devices at earlier and earlier ages, are there still toys that can entertain kids by letting them do some of the work?

There are. 

And Adrienne Appell, a toy-trend expert for the Toy Industry Association, said toys that allow kids to use their creativity is one of the major trends in the industry. 

“We’re seeing a lot more products that are allowing kids to create and to play the way that they want to,” Appell said. “No parent wants to spend money on something that’s done in 10 minutes and is at the bottom of the toy chest. So, to be able to have a product that is teaching new skills, immersing a kid in creativity and getting them excited about play, that’s what it’s really all about.”

Some of the foundational toys of creative play have been around forever and continue to be popular, such as building blocks and arts and crafts sets, Appell said. 

LEGOs are as popular as ever. And even though the company has gravitated toward movie tie-ins and pre-conceived models, kids can still use LEGO blocks to come up with whatever fantastical creations they can imagine. (That was the whole theme of The LEGO Movie, after all.)

The magic of cardboard

But there are also newer toy companies manufacturing toys that put kids in charge. 

St. Paul-based Play from Scratch is one. In fact, one of the first products the company sold — its World Famous Box of Boxes — was the essence of simple: A box containing cardboard boxes, tubes and paper that kids could use to create whatever they wanted. Today, the company offers One Giant Box (a refrigerator-size box) for $29.99. Its online sales pitch reads: “Save $799.99 when you buy the box alone, instead of with a refrigerator in it!”

Today the company is more focused on its YOXO Kits, which contain interlocking cardboard pieces in the shape of Ys, Os and Xs. Some come with directions to create specific things, such as the Flye (pictured, left), a giant dragonfly, Doon, a dune buggy, and Orig, a robot. 

As with LEGOs, kids can fashion the pieces into anything they can imagine. They can also attach the links to materials from around the house (like cereal boxes and paper towel rolls) to create entirely different objects. 

Play from Scratch of St. Paul offers a variety of YOXO building kits.

Photo by Tricia Heagle

‘Raw-materials’ play

Play from Scratch founder Jeff Nelson said the idea for the company came from a present he received when he was 8 years old — a cardboard box filled with tape, string and wire. 

“I remember opening that up, and it was like, ‘This is the best gift I’ve ever gotten in my whole life!’” Nelson said.

It was a gift that motivated him as both a parent and toymaker.

“And, then, I found myself as a dad really frustrated with the toys that were showing up on the doorstep,” Nelson said. “They were plastic, they were junk, they were completely anti-creative toys where you press a button and the toy does all of the creative work for you — and it made me recall that gift that I got when I was 8.”

That’s why Play from Scratch is focused on what Nelson calls raw-materials play: “Give kids raw materials and let them invent their toys.”

Child-powered toys

Another company in the creative-toy market is BeginAgain Toys, based in Colorado. 

BeginAgain produces and sells art kits, role-play toys, puzzles and educational games. The company’s goal is to inspire kids through storytelling, creativity and adventure. 

None of their products make noise or use batteries. For founder and president Chris Clemmer, the reason is simple: “We really believe that kids are the true noisemakers. They are all the energy you need for play.” 

Clemmer is a longtime toymaker who’s invented “a bunch” of toys that use batteries. But he doesn’t believe the world needs any more. He believes that — in an age where kids are more digitally hard-wired than ever — there’s a desire to get back to the basics. 

“There’s a movement out there for parents to really detach and unplug and bring in these analog-type toys that are really all about the child creating and becoming that noise or that story or that voice of the toy,” he said.

Clemmer calls this “slow play.” 

Creative play can be as simple as a child playing, undirected, with a cardboard box. That idea gave rise to a St. Paul toy company called Play from Scratch, which today sells a variety of cardboard toys, including a refridgerator-size cardboard box. Learn more at yoxo.com.

Opening up storytelling

Then there’s Tegu, a line of wooden blocks with magnets inside them. The idea behind the blocks is simple: Let kids build, create and imagine. 

And, yet, it’s an idea that mixes tradition with innovation. 

Founders Will and Chris Haughey, who had no background in the toy industry, discovered the tradition of wooden toymaking during a trip to Germany. They quickly became inspired to bring some of that tradition back to the U.S.

They began working with folks in the design school at Stanford University, where Chris Haughey studied engineering. 

That’s when they hit upon the magical power of magnets. 

And, when they began to observe children playing with toys in preschool and kindergarten, they realized toys were merely props for broader, storytelling narratives. 

“There was something kind of addictive and magical about the invisible force that magnets offer,” said Will Haughey, CFO and “Chief Blockhead” of Tegu. 

“And so we began to think: If we can create toys which help children find space for the purpose of storytelling — and we introduce magnets as the method of attachment — then we might be on to something,” he said.

Then, when the Haugheys started researching childhood development, they saw the benefits of open-ended, imaginative and self-directed play, too. 

“We’re all about the toys getting out of the way,” Will Haughey said. “And, really, what we want to do is create objects which serve as a catalyst for self-directed and imaginative discovery-like play.”

But you won’t see the Haugheys heavily marketing the educational value of their blocks. 

“Our intent is to let kids play on their terms, for the sake of play, not for the sake of learning,” Will Haughey said.

For parents concerned about the environment, the added bonus of the toys made by Play from Scratch, BeginAgain and Tegu is that they come from recyclable and renewable materials. 

Executive function, empathy

For Susan Linn, a psychiatrist and director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, creative play is the foundation of learning, creativity and constructive problem solving. 

“It’s the way children wrestle with life to make it meaningful. It’s how they learn executive-function skills, like how to initiate a task and how to bring it to completion,” she said. “It helps them learn empathy. It helps them manage their feelings. It’s the foundation of everything that is worthwhile about being a human.”

Linn believes toys that best stimulate creative play are 90 percent child and 10 percent toy. 

“The best toys just lie there until a child picks them up and transforms them into something, or uses them in a new way. The best toys can be used over and over again. And the best toys allow children huge amounts of freedom to decide how to use them,” Linn said. 

Tegu’s wooden blocks contain two important elements of magic that have always been a hit with kids: Magnets and simplicity — all part of the company’s mission is to inspire child-directed storytelling and unscripted exploratory play. 

 

Open-ended exploration

Happi Olson, marketing director for the local toy store chain Creative Kidstuff, agrees. 

She cites Bilibo, a Swiss-designed molded plastic dome that’s become a big seller in local stores, as a classic example. 

“Just give it to a child and they will show you what to do with it. It can be a bed for your baby, it can be used in the snow, it can be used in the sand; you can put the child in it and pull them around on the carpeting and give them a ride. They can sit on it as a stool,” Olson said. “But all of this is whatever the child wants the toy to be.”

Allowing a child to take a toy and use it for an entirely unexpected purpose is the epitome of creative play, Olson said. 

“A perfect example of that is my own child, who is 8. Markers are for coloring, right? Well, he’ll take his hundred-marker set and build a track for his cars on the floor. 

"So nothing is what it’s supposed to be for a child. It’s open ended.”

So whatever type of toys you buy for your children, whether they have electronic components or not, encourage them to find new ways to play with them. 

Encourage them to use the best toy they own — their imagination. 

Chris Dall is a freelance writer based in St. Louis Park. His favorite toys when he was growing up were LEGOs.