Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My "Good Toys" List for Christmas, or "LIFE" (Show & Tell)

So, I've been raising children for 20 years now, and still have another 20 to go.  My oldest is moving out December 1, but I have a newborn, and three others age six and under (and some in the middle there somewhere).

Necessary simplifying for good home management and upkeep has affected our home in all areas:  clothes, school, toys, knick-knacks, kitchen-stuffs, bathroom stuffs, etc.  This post is about how we manage the toys. What we have and why, and how we keep it under control.

We've had a basic toys list now for years that we stick to, replacing items in the same categories as needed, or adding different or new things in the same categories.  So, for my children, ages 7 months to 20 years, here are our basic BEST and time-tested toys and gifts, in case you need ideas for gifts, or how to simplify for yourself.

1. LEGOS.  Of course. The monstrous collection began 19 years ago with my first son when he was just 1 year old.  While paying for a 25-cent item at a yard sale, I saw, sitting by the seller, a giant cardboard box full to the brim with Legos, spilling over the top. I asked her how much she wanted for the whole box, quickly calculating in my head that it was $1200 worth of Legos, so she would probably ask for $40 or $50, but I was only going to offer $20.  She said, "I don't know... 50 cents?"  I said, calmly, "I'll take them. Here, I'm already buying this for 25 cents. You just keep the whole dollar."

As I left, she yelled after me, "Have fun picking them up!"  Haha.

At the moment, we have a ban on new Lego sets (maybe for the next few years at least). My oldest is moving out and taking his favorites with him (the Technic pieces and the architectural sets), and the rest are in two HUGE tubs in the boys room (four boys, ages 3, 5, 6, 9).  They are not old enough to keep sets together or even sort them as meticulously as my 20yo perfectionist did, so until they get their playing and sorting systems worked out, they all stay together in the bin, and they have a shelf for displaying temporary favorite creations, and they each have a shoe-box-sized bin for keeping their own "works in progress."

And for the record, I don't pick them up. My kids do. Every night.  I have never stepped on one, either. My oldest was a perfectionist and kept them perfectly tidy and sorted in different bins. My littles play with them all day, but every night they are picked up thoroughly before bedtime. This routine must pass inspection until it is second nature (they each pay me a quarter for each Lego I find left out, so I make 75 cents per Lego. They hate that. You could call it extortion. I call it effective teaching in cleaning thoroughly and working with dilligence).

The shared Lego Bins of the 4 younger boys  (above),  and what their  floor looks like by 10 a.m. every day (below--taken this morning at 10:00 a.m.).  No worries, though. Rules:  1) Legos must stay  in bedroom, and 2) Must be completely  put away before bedtime.They always are. 

2.  HOT WHEELS.  Other vehicle systems have not worked for us--not even Fisher Price, Play Mobile, Shake-N-Go, Busytown, or other car tracks.  Each boy has a small plastic Hot Wheels bin that must stay at or under 20 personal choice cars.  Often, when I am going to the store, they rush to find their wallets to grab 4 quarters or a tattered dollar bill from the tooth fairy (or any other creative collection of change totaling a dollar) to pick a new car. I love watching them assess cars for weight, aerodynamics, model, features, and wheel size.  They do a great job of remembering exactly whose cars are whose, so that has not been a problem!

We have two tracks, and love them both.

a.  The Hot Wheels Super 6 Lane Raceway. Which is now out of stock and no longer made. But you may be able to get a four-lane version of this.  This enables a perfectly fair race between 6 cars, the computer declaring the undisputable winner, with a cheering crowd noise.  I love when my boys rush home with new cars in their pockets to set it up and race the new cars against each other, and then against their older fastest ones.  This set folds up not very easily, but my 9yo can do it, and at first I thought it would not be sturdy, but all parts have held up for several years now, even with a 2yo learning to play with it not so gently.

b. Hot Wheels 10-in-1 Track Set  I got this set for $20 at Aldi (what a deal!)  The boys pick the track they want to build, then have so much fun seeing which cars do best on which set-up. The set stores away nicely in an under-bed storage bin. My job is to keep the bin full of giant packs of fresh Duracell size D batteries.
 Hot Wheels 10-in-1 Track Set

3. A Solid Set of Good Building Blocks.  We had the luck to inherit the ones my husband had as a boy, and his parents invested big bucks in it back then. This set can (and has--for a Bible lesson several times) build the Tower of Babel to the very ceiling, and then bury the kid it falls on.  They build forts, race tracks, houses for their animals, zoos, towers, and more.

4. Real baby dolls with clothes, or, for boys, stuffed animals with clothes (such as Build-a-Bear).  I'm a little boy-heavy right now in the toy department. My daughter outgrew her dolls and passed them on. My boys have a maximum of 5 stuffed animals each, and a bin of cool outfits to dress them in, including Darth Vader, Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and Spiderman (from Build-a-Bear), or even crocheted "capes" they asked me to make on a whim. They have tons of fun playing with this. And when little girl cousins or friends visit, they are perfectly satisfied. Thrift stores are a great resource for Build-a-Bear outfits, because often the animals get donated with their outfits on. I buy the whole animal, often for less than a dollar, take the outfit off, then redonate the animal before I leave.

5.  Dress Up.  When my daughter was dress up age, 80's prom dresses from garage sales or thrift stores, when given a tuck at the shoulders and waists, made gorgeous floor-length princess gowns.  We also found prairie skirts, shawls, and aprons at thrift stores and made quick modifications to help them fit--but this way my daughter's dress-up morphed into putting on small plays with costumes by age 12.  She and I managed the costume department for our local children's theater for three years, too.

For my boys, their bin consists of ninja suits and masks, capes, belts, shields, swords, a Scooby-Doo costume, a puppy costume, cowboy hats, character masks, and various other super-hero pieces.  They use it every day, all day long.

6.  Kitchen and/or Tea Sets.  My daughter had tea sets. Now she is grown (15), and has a bistro table with two stools in her room, and a REAL tea set. There she has had many a cozy cup of tea, coffee, or hot chocolate with her friends, or her school work, or even a brother or two.

How cool is this  retro-chic bistro table (Big Lots) with a real  tea-set from Pier 1?

My boys prefer the play kitchen--but they outgrow it about age seven.  I still have seven years to go before we outgrow our $30 kitchen and its rotating collection of play food. They love planning and setting up feasts and picnics, and forcing any adults in range to pretend-eat their plastic creations.

This cute  little  kitchen  was $30 at  Target,  and covers all the  bases:  Fridge, oven, microwave, cupboard, sink with running  water  sounds, and stovetop with frying  and boiling sounds when you place something on a burner. Below:  our ever-changing  food collection, except the bread. Love that sponge  bread!     

7. Board Games.  Our long-term favorites are:  Super Scrabble, Clue, Monopoly, Rummy-O, Trouble (This Star Wars Version is our favorite), MouseTrap, Bananagrams, Apples to Apples, Scattergories, Mastermind, Battleship,  Stratego, and Telestrations.  We keep Chutes and Ladders and Candyland for the babes, but even the 3yo can play Trouble. We also have Uno, Spot It, and Farkle.  Every year we try to add a game or two to see if we find any new favorites. Last year we added the Farkle and the Spot-It. Instant hits.  This year, I'm thinking of trying Bible Outburst, Buzzword, and Math Dice, and looking into one called "Ticket to Ride" that I've been seeing recommended everywhere (over 1,600 5-star reviews on Amazon. Not bad!).

8.  Weapons.  My boys play every day with their collection of light sabers, swords, toy pistols, and/or nerf guns.  Heck, even I have been known to participate in some duels! The rule:  Swords only hit swords.  But since that is nearly impossible all the time with moving targets, if you get hit on the hand or anywhere else, don't complain to me, because I will say, "If you don't want to get hit, don't play."  I usually get a blank stare in return, and then the fighting resumes. By age 5, they toughen up and quit complaining.  When the 20-yo joins in with his younger brothers, it gets intense and very loud, and often feels like this old farmhouse will be shaken apart.  GOOD FUN!

The  "Arsenal"  shelf.
 9.  How-To-Draw Books.  We have about 15, and are always on the hunt for new ones.  This year I am looking for some Star Wars or Super Hero "How-To-Draw" Books. But we have all the basics:  Animals, birds, people, buildings, flowers, vehicles, cartoon faces, and more. We use them to illustrate our Bible and Science lessons. They use them to draw thank-you cards and pictures, or just draw for fun.  They use them to draw and illustrate their own books. We have nurtured a love for drawing, and they all just DO it, and I love, love, love their precious drawings!  Especially when a 3 or 4-year-old uses a how-to-draw book for the first time! Priceless!
Did  I say 15?  Looks  like  we  have 12. 
  My 9-year-old's  drawing from his Bible  journal this week, illustrating from  Matthew chapter 6 how God  feeds the sparrows  and clothes the flowers, so how will he not much more provide for you? He used two different drawing books,  and look at the bright, rich colors of  our colored pencils--I link to those below.

10.  Playdough. We have a good basic set with molds, cookie cutters, rollers, and a press-toy.  I replace the dough once a year. We play with it once a month on a rainy day.  Then it goes away until next time.  They all love it. Below is the set we have stuck with that covers all the  basics  (after  you  add  your own  preferred cookie cutters): molds, grow the puppy's hair  or tongue, a  crank/cutter that  makes  dog food  bits and   other shapes,  etc.    

11. Books. Books. Books.  We keep a children's book basket of our favorites, and rotate through other recommendations. Some stay, some go. But it has to fit in the basket. (We get others from the library).  Starting at age 10 (or, "I definitely like to read chapter books all by  myself now all the time age"), a child gets their own bookshelf to keep their personal collection.  They start with classic age-appropriate books, and gradually hand them down and move on up to their final, grown-up, personal collection.  So, starter books are the Chronicles of Narnia, Little House on the Prairie, Beverly Cleary, Charlotte's Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, Magic Treehouse, Boxcar Children, Encyclopedia Brown, etc.  Then they move on to Trixie Belden, Alex Rider, Ralph Moody, easier Lamplighter books, and Elsie Dinsmore.  Then they move on to their permanent book collection of favorites. My oldest child's shelf has his favorite Lamplighter books (Ishmael, Self-Raised, The Hidden Hand, The Lost Clue, That Printer of Udell's, and several more), the Ralph Moody series, and his favorite Spiritual/Doctrinal basics (Tozer, "Imitation of Christ," Fenelon, etc.), as well as a few other individualized preferences.  My daughter (15) has her favorite Lamplighter books (some of them duplicates of her brother's, but they will be hers for life), The Elsie Dinsmore Series, The Little House Series, Chronicles of Narnia, Alex Rider series, Trixie Belden Series (collected one at a time from, one of our favorite sites), The Lord of the Rings (one of her favorites right now), and a sprinkling of other gems. She keeps the classics on her Kindle Fire (Little Women, A Little Princess, Shakespeare, Austen, Sherlock Holmes, etc.).  But the Kindle Fire is now broken, and also was used more for multi-media and social networking than reading. I will address that next.

The children's  book  basket,  contains our time-tested  favorites: Dr. Seuss,  Goodnight  Moon,  Fairy  Tales,  Seals on Wheels,  Never Tease  a Weasel, Rotten Ralph, and more.

Teen  daughter's personal  permanent book  collection.  Her shelf  also  houses  her personal collection  of meaningful gifts  from friends  and  souvenirs.It's a happy little place!

Grown  boy's permanent  book  collection, going  with  him  when  he  moves out next week.

This year for Christmas I am considering getting the older two a Kindle PaperWhite, which is very practical for reading and has no other multi-media distractions. Through Amazon, any books I own or purchase for my Kindle can be downloaded to any Kindle purchased on my account. I'm thinking of loading one up for each older child with back-ups of their favorites, plus anything I think will be helpful for ease of future reading at their fingertips.  It's a great Christmas and "moving-out" (sob) present for my oldest.

12.  PUZZLES.  My 3yo LOVES puzzles. They all enjoy them. We keep about one dozen quality wood puzzles from 12-48 pieces, three beautiful Melissa and Doug floor puzzles (one 24-piece, one 48, one 100) then rotate through owning a few bigger ones for everyone to do together.

Duct  tape  on the boxes  helps immensely  for puzzles  AND games.  They just don't make boxes like they used to!

13. Art supplies.  Our favorites:  The classroom pack of Prang colored pencils--rich colors that blend beautifully.  Lakeshore Learning "People  Colored"  pencils are  a  must  (top center slot of next photo), Crayola markers, bought by the dozen when sets go  on sale for $1.  A set of oil pastels for each child.  Sketchbooks. A big box of white paper.  And my daughter bought her own charcoal sketching pencil set when she was old enough.  Five colors of acrylic paint for painting (red, blue, yellow, black, and white).  We blend our own colors beautifully (markers, colored pencils, and paint),  and know how to paint wonderful things thanks to Barry Stebbing's 3-day art class.(If there's a class in your area, GO. If not, host one.)   We also have a scrap paper bin of card stock and fancy papers for card-making or scrapbooking or collaging, or whatever. Glue. Scissors. And that's it.

14. Magnets.  Boys. love. magnets.  We have a great kit that comes with tons of different magnets and a book to set up different projects and experiments. But they also love to just play with them.

15.  Nesting Toys.  For the babes.  Nesting buckets, cups, bowls, or dolls.  Everyone enjoys them. Below are the four sets we have owned for years.

Miniland Giantte Stacking Cups
Nesting Buckets.

Fisher-Price Brilliant Basics Stack & Roll Cups
Nesting  Bowls--also make nesting balls. Very  fun set!

Nesting  Sock  Monkeys.
Discovery Toys nesting cups.

16. Small plastic animal collection.  We have one bin of these that can be added to or swapped out.  But this bin started when my oldest was a baby, and 20 years later, still going strong with many of the same animals in it. They love sorting them, setting them up in zoos or jungles or "battles," and playing with them in all sorts of ways.

These also double as our bath toys--keeps  them clean, too!   Some of these are nearly 20 years old now!

17.  Outdoor toys/sports equipment. Bikes, scooters, jump ropes, a soccer ball, a basketball and hoop, a trampoline, two good kites, a skateboard (as my boys grow, I'm sure we will get more of these), baseball bats/balls/gloves, a football, golf clubs and golf balls, water guns, orange cones, a volleyball and net, badminton, and even tennis rackets and balls, and Bubbles, and a Slip-n-Slide.  All good, healthy play.  We make sure these things are high quality and buy them ONCE, and they last.  We replace as needed.  The littles start by inheriting the 3-wheeled scooter, and when they are ready, get a 2-wheeled scooter for a present. They start on the same training-wheel bike, then they practice on the same small 2-wheeler, and when they are ready, they get their own new bike.  As a teen, they may choose to swap it out for a mountain bike (my daughter did, but my grown son kept his dirt bike--it was made to fit kids through adults).  We are attempting to move to Florida, in which the trampoline will be replaced by an in-ground pool, and we will gain things like sand toys, boogie boards, surf boards, and kayaks.

18. One large gaming system (Wii) and one hand-held gaming system (iPod). NOT ONE PER CHILD.  One for the whole family.  My kids take 30-minute turns on each, weekdays only.  No weekend play.  It is easy to add a new game or app for a little gift.

19. Musical Instruments. We have one nice upright piano that was my mother's and then mine. At age 16, my oldest got his own full-size electric piano. He is taking it with him when he moves out next week.  My daughter will probably get her own at some point (but I know she's hoping for a baby grand. Good thing you cannot hear me laughing, because I really would do anything to get her one).  She also has a guitar (handed down from her older brother, but he will probably buy his own), and a violin.  My 6-yo has a Yamaha electric drum set--he asked for it. But we bought him the real-deal to nurture his interest, as well as inspire all the kids.

20. Small Toy Basket:  What a little treasure trove for a quiet night of family play!  Two awesome wooden tops, a sliding "15" puzzle, a light-up hand-held microscope, a slinky, a wooden kaleidescope, a coupla nice decks of cards, and some pocket games:  Uno, Spot-It, Farkle, Scrabble "Slam" and a set of jacks (kids love to play jacks. Try it).  It's easy to add a little thing to this basket, or swap something out that doesn't get any attention.

21.  Pattern Blocks.  My kids do "Pictionary" type contests (build a robot, a flower, a house, an animal, a butterfly, etc.), or sometimes work together to build one colossal pattern with every block. They build pattern after pattern. And sometimes the boys build mini forts and play a game where they take turns rolling marbles to knock each other's down, the longest one standing wins.

22.  "Temporary Toy Bin."  Each little boy has a nice lidded ottoman box for their personal toys. Gifts they receive from relatives or friends, happy meal  toys, or favorite things they purchase with their own money, maybe something that looks like  fun to try from  a  dollar store, thrift store, or yard sale.  An RC car, an action figure, and miscellaneous--anything that doesn't fit in with our permanent basic toys listed above. These bins are never fuller than just a few toys on the bottom, and they clean them out and rotate the toys regularly. This is a way to manage the toys that "appear" outside our set system, and keep them in a place that routinely gets checked and cleaned out.

A  peek inside the  5yo's bin: favorite happy meal toys, two beloved "Speed Racer" cars, a catapult, a pin-art  toy, and a  baby fox.   These  bins rarely get fuller than this. 

Okay.  My  mini-book  is  now done. "All  the Toys  You Need For  7  Children."

Merry Christmas!

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