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Below you’ll find my favorite toys to promote creative thinking.
But why should you bother? While often minimized, creativity is a crucial soft skill that can help children throughout their lives. As explained by childhood expert Meghan Fitzgerald, creativity is “the ability to both imagine original ideas or solutions to problems and actually do what needs to be done to make them happen.” This ability needs to be learned. And to learn it, children need the opportunity to practice thinking creatively.
In fact, a study completed by LinkedIn in 2019 found that the most sought-after soft skill for professionals was (you guessed it): creativity! Creative employees are flexible thinkers who can problem solve. Somehow, though, it’s often written off as insignificant– an extra. However, this just isn’t the case. We need to give our children the opportunity to play creatively.
So, how do I know if a toy promotes creativity?
Less is definitely more, in this case. Toys that are open-ended give children plenty of opportunities to utilize their imaginations and problem solve. These toys do not require batteries or have flashy buttons– they are simple toys that children can use in different ways.
Best toys to promote creativity
Creativity through Dramatic Play
While at first, dramatic play (sometimes called “dress up”) may not seem like much, it actually provides young children with the opportunity to practice many life skills.
As explained by Sarah Baldwin, a Waldorf teacher, there are so many benefits to dramatic play, including strengthening memory building, problem solving, empathy, and creative thinking.
Stepping into the gear of another person is a great way to expand a kid’s world. Melissa and Doug has a line of dramatic play clothes that is durable, machine-washable, and doesn’t come with a bunch of props that will inevitably end up under your couch. Plus, they are generously sized and can be used for many years by many children. They have a wide range of options that allow children to step into the roles of community helpers such as chef, veterinarian, doctor, firefighter, or astronaut.
Play scarves are one of the most open-ended toys on the market. Children can use their imagination to turn them into anything– picnic blankets, superhero capes, flags, carriers for their toys, sleds, decorations, trains. The possibilities are endless.
This set by Simply Sweet Fabric is less expensive than the line through Sarah’s Silks but also high quality. We’ve used them in outdoor play and they wash beautifully.
These beautiful items from Sarah’s Silks can provide many starting points for creative play!
Creativity through arts & crafts
Admittedly, these are as much for the parents as they are for the kids. When my son’s got a smock on, I am able to let the mess go much more easily. “Sure, you can try to dump that whole bottle of glue out yourself!” or “Yup, let’s try this acrylic paint” slide out of my mouth much faster when he’s got his smock on. Plus for kids, it can make the arts and crafts time extra special.
If you’re looking for one you can customize, these cute ones are available in many prints. It is beautifully made and machine washable.
Think yarn, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, colorful glue, construction paper, and pom poms. Providing children with open-ended materials to use as they see fit can be a powerful learning experience for children, one that they can take with them throughout their life– all the way into adulthood. We can provide them with tools now that allow them to utilize their own brains.
I was lucky enough to teach at an early education center that centered around the Reggio Emilia model. Their philosophy is that art work should be made by the children themselves. That makes sense, doesn’t it? But in many places, adults prepare materials that are pre-designed and even pre-cut to look a certain way. Then, children are expected to glue said materials in a predetermined way so that the final product looks, well, perfect. That kind of activity doesn’t promote free thought or creativity– and really just ends up being adults gluing things for kids, so there’s basically no learning going on either. The Compass School dubs these activities “copy cat artwork,” which sums it up pretty well.
Sure, we all need to learn to follow directions, but isn’t that better done in other areas of life? Open-ended, nondescript arts and crafts supplies can lead to some amazing works of art.
Kid safety scissors. These are a great stepping stone to sharp scissors. These have a little plastic yellow piece that’s meant to make them easier to use. I didn’t find it was very durable, but even without it, these scissors are sharp enough to cut construction paper, but not much else. That’s exactly what I was looking for in our intro pair.
Paint. Let’s embrace the beautiful mess that comes from painting! For young children, painting is a complete sensory experience, and also allows them to experiment with color mixing and cause and effect.
Building toys such as LEGOS, wooden blocks, and Lincoln Logs give children the opportunity to create with their hands. They get the opportunity to strengthen their fine motor skills, cognitive thinking, and creativity. For more information on how to support creative engineering thinking, check out this comprehensive post.
Creative Music & Movement
Exploring musical instruments is a natural way for children to practice rhythm, sound, volume, and communication. There are many many instrument sets on the market that are battery operated, but I stay as far away from those as I can. Instruments that children need to move and play themselves are so much more valuable than sets where they push a button to hear music. Basic instrument sets can be great for children to play with independently or collaborate with siblings, friends, caregivers, or parents.
Creative Outdoor Toys
Playing outdoors allows children to use all of their senses while using their imaginations! It allows them to move their bodies in creative ways. Toys such as playhouses, sidewalk chalk, and mud kitchens can help support creative play in your own backyard.
For more information on the best outdoor toys for kids, check out this comprehensive post.
Watching your child grow into a creative thinker right in front of your eyes can be as magical for you as it is for them. I want my son to feel confident in his creativity– to embrace it, seek it out, and use it to tackle whatever the world throws at him. Promoting creative play is my way of telling him “let’s think out side the box.”
There are only a few years where our kiddos will permit us to rope them into (adorable) family costumes, so we have to take advantage of that while we can. There are an infinite number of costumes on the market for kids, but many of them need to be hand washed.
Raise your hand if you’ve got time to hand wash costumes.
There are some wonderful doctor toys for kids on the market now that can help you bring a doctor’s office right into your home. These toys can help children gain some control by allowing them to take a step into the driver’s seat, so to speak. Plus, they can practice empathy and creativity as well.