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The Best Toy Ever

It’s already started. The holiday toy catalogs are streaming in. They clutter my mailbox, countertops, coffee table, and recycling bin in exactly the same way those toymakers hope their plastic, battery-operated, small-parts-comprised, over-marketed seasonal must-haves will litter my countertops, coffee table, and carpet — will, in fact, blanket the very landscape of my life — for years to come.

And (sigh) they more than hope it. They know it. Because as heads-of-household, we parents crave order. As role models, we tout moderation. But as consumers — let’s face it — we want bling.

We’ve come to believe the holidays aren’t complete without one gift that is so shiny, so newer-than-new, so better-than-last-year’s-model that it looks like privilege itself. Privilege in a Pretty Red Ribbon.

So determined are we to see that priceless “lucky me” grin on our kids’ faces that we’ll cough up a day’s pay for a gizmo that responds to voice commands, a dolly that babbles in three languages, or even the super-deluxe 2009 version of some tchotchke our kids already have — and don’t even play with.

Is this really necessary?

Hoping for a good reason to not track down and shell out for this year’s most whizbang gewgaws, I asked some friends what toys their kids have really treasured over the years. Which have been the surprise favorites, the perennial Friday afternoon pastimes, the ones that have grown with them, ever evading the give-away pile?

The winners are surprisingly rudimentary. Not shockingly so — not a ball of twine or anything. But they’re simple toys that provide a palette for kids’ imaginations long after the blingy-toy batteries have corroded. Not the toys that “do stuff”; rather the ones you can do stuff to or with.

“My girls stay engaged the longest with toys that have the least amount of parts or pieces,” says one surprised mom whose young daughters have every art-and-craft tool imaginable, from erasable markers and glitter paints to scalloped scissors and stencils. “And what do you think they can’t get enough of? My plain white printer paper. They beg for it.”

Another friend raves about the no-frills wooden sword her son got one year. “This is a toy I never expected him to just love, but it was a favorite for years until it broke in half from overuse,” she says. “There was something special and original about that old wooden sword.”

My sons’ all-time favorites are things they can build: Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, Legos, and a marble maze they reconfigure each time they set it up — which is every time it rains. I’ve seen them hoot wildly upon opening a remote-control T. Rex robot — and then cast it aside to go assemble a well-worn jigsaw puzzle, or sit on the kitchen floor and fiddle with magnetic gears on the fridge door for an hour straight.

“I wonder if toys are not just so much clutter and junk that the kids truly could do without?” asks another mother of two. “My daughters do have toys, but they prefer to take my Tupperware containers and capture bugs in the back yard. They like to draw and put on dance performances.”

According to one mother of three boys, though, we may be missing the point. The key to household order and chipper children does lie in selecting the right toys, she says. But it doesn’t matter if you get them from a glossy catalog or a bargain bin.

It’s not about price; it’s about volume.

“The main thing my boys want to play with — always — is whatever the other one’s got,” she says, “from a paper clip on the floor to the newest Playmobil set.

“Anything will do,” she insists … “as long as there are three!”

Published inColumnsParenting

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