I watched my children playing over the long weekend, and marveled at several things. First, the patience that the elder ones show towards the littler ones (who do not always reciprocate). Second, the way they all love telling stories. And finally, the number of activities that satisfy them all.

Our household boasts a range of ages now, and an attendant spread of interests and abilities. I have always sought quality over quantity when it comes to playthings, and just as the books we read are meant to nourish imagination and character, so also we have chosen toys that will encourage discovery, creativity, and a desire to improve rather than acquire. As time has passed, I have particularly appreciated activities that have grown with the children, and can accommodate everyone from toddler to teen.

In looking around at the happy wreckage yesterday evening, here are a few things I might suggest. It’s worth noting that these were acquired over years, and often with the help of family members who understood our standards and wanted to gift our children something wholesome. Every family will be a bit different, but these have all stood the test of time in our home – and that’s no easy feat.

  • Wooden blocks – ours have been colored on and used to prop open windows; but they’ve also been used to build castles, cathedrals, and bridges. It’s worth investing in hardwood blocks with a good variety of shapes and sizes, because these take a beating but they will keep everyone happy for hours and last for years. Children need to build their own world; someday they’ll be in charge of this one.
  • Dress-up chest – containing everything from my grandmother’s vintage handbags to thrift store finds to my own questionable fashion choices, this is usually the first thing visiting friends want to play with. We also have costumes pieces like knight helmets, uniforms, lab coats, and cowboy gear… because you never know what they’ll want to be this afternoon. (Etsy is great for this.) Inspire them to seek out new skills and ponder how their own labors might serve others someday.
  • Play silks – these large silk squares live in the dress-up chest and are wonderfully versatile. The silk is light and floaty, but very strong; ours have lasted for years. They’ve been requisitioned for everything from royal robes to doll swaddles to parachutes. Learning how to make anything out of almost nothing is almost a lost art, but children are naturals.
  • Art supplies – I’m not artsy so these aren’t fancy, and what I keep in stock varies according to the budget and how many people we have eating markers at any given point in time. But we always have at least a ream of plain white copy paper and a plastic shoebox-size tote full of Crayola crayons. It is fascinating to watch their work develop as they grow and fulfill that innate desire to make something beautiful.
  • LEGO Duplos – we’ve lost (or I’ve confiscated) Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, and more; but the Duplos are always around. Too big for little siblings to swallow, they’re fun for everybody to snap together. Even my older children still play with these (and when you fish them out from under the couch, they’re easy to rinse off and toss back in the bag). Like the blocks, these often make shelters and settings for the dolls and animals you’re about to meet; and therefore serve as backdrops to the most wonderful storytelling.
  • American Girl dolls – yes, I’m going to specify here: I have four girls, and I know. My older daughters have my old historical character dolls (from the ’90’s), and everybody has a Bitty Baby. The accessories have come and gone, but the dolls have endured tea parties, picnics, unintended dips in the pool, and mirroring Mama during those crucial first weeks home with a new sibling. Several times we have made use of the hospital service, sending much-loved dolls in for repairs. It’s affordable and teaches the children to mend rather than dispose and buy new; and it makes the initial cost well worth it. These are a magical way to explore friendship and basic respect for human dignity.
  • Schleich animals – these are a staple in farm country; every feed store has them. There are lots of these sturdy, realistic animal figures, and the children love to choose them. Farm play sets have come and gone, but a bag full of these makes everyone happy on a rainy day. The children will build barns out of blocks, and then tell one another stories featuring the assortment of zoo animals, farm animals, dragons, and who knows what else. As with the dolls, make-believe of this sort seems to develop empathy and kindness. (Except for the ram figure that was hit by the mower… but friends, I’m not kidding, it survived.)
  • Play food – we have a jumbled basket full of pots, pans, serving pieces, and pretend food made of wood, felt, and safe plastic. It’s fairly well-known that little kids love to identify and “cook” their food, but I’m surprised how much the older children still play with it. They make meals for their dolls and serve parties to one another. I do enjoy that vision of hospitality and camaraderie among them, however brief. Again, quality is worth the price, as these will last a long time.

If we can teach our children to love what is good through books, I think we can also instruct them through play. By giving them toys that engage the heart, mind, body, and soul; we can help them become the heroes they want to be.