It’s that time of year when toy retailers’ websites list the hottest holiday toys. And parents feel pressured to buy them because, well, they’re this season’s must-haves.

This morning, as I trolled the lists of the big retailers in search of the perfect Christmas gifts for my kids, I noticed the very same items appearing again and again in the lists of different retailers: Let’s Rock Elmo, Figit Friends, Xbox Kinectimals, and a LeapPad Learning Tablet.

Now I’m sure that these are all very fun toys. But there is a strange common feature among all of them. Guess what it is. They are all, er, toys. Well, yes, that’s obvious. Try again. They all need batteries. You’re getting warmer. Give up? They are all pretty darn expensive!

How did this happen that a bunch of high-priced toys made it to the top of our Christmas lists, especially in such tough economic times? It’s because our kids (and we parents) have been duped by marketers into thinking that the more a toy costs, the better it must be. I can buy a bag of two hundred mixed Lego blocks on eBay for about ten bucks. But if these very same pieces are predesigned to form themselves into a medieval castle with a fire breathing dragon that comes in a package that shows off these finished models, the price increases tenfold. Want to guess which option my eight-year-old wants for Christmas?

Well, I’m here to stop this madness. I’ve come up with my own list of Christmas toy must-haves. Each toy on my list is affordable, appropriate for a wide range of ages, and better than the usual overpriced toys on the retailers’ lists. Read on. I’ll tell you all about my toys, why they’re superior, and I’ll save you a bunch of money along the way.

5. Sock

This versatile toy is available from almost any bedroom dresser. If you’re in a pinch, you can usually find a used one in the bottom of your hamper crumpled in the cuffs of your old jeans. Sock comes in just about any color, but most are white, black, and sometimes brown. Unless you’ve found yours in Grandma’s drawers—then it’s likely lavender. The most popular model is fluffy and knee-highed, without any holes in the toes.

The most common use of Sock is to fashion it into a puppet. My kids use Sock with optional accessories Felt, Yarn, and Googly Eyes to craft Sock puppets that look nothing like real animals. I’ve also seen Sock used as a purse for dressup, a beanbag for tossing, a tube top for Barbie, a potholder for mudpie baking sheets, a grass sock pet for little brother, and a beer can koozie for dad.

Now you might think that your kids would be sorely disappointed if they found Grandpa’s old stockings in a box Christmas morning rather than a Space Wars star racer, sky trooper action figure, light-up laser shooter, and electro-droid. But Sock has a built-in flexibility to it that these highly structured toys do not. A Sock puppet can be a beauty queen in the morning, a secret agent by lunch, the tooth fairy for nap time, and a crotchety old man before bed. All it takes is a little imagination. But that sky trooper action figure with the light-up laser shooter on Toy Mart’s most-wanted list—it’s tough for children to turn that into anything but a sky trooper action figure with a light-up laser shooter.

Simple toys, like Sock, give play a fluid, improvised quality that encourages children to think creatively and develops their inventiveness and problem solving skills. Toys that come with predetermined scripts, like a Space Wars play set, impose a readymade story on children’s play and leave little or no room for imagination and inventiveness. Like it or not, if your daughter is playing with a doll that talks, a convertible that revs up, and a playhouse that tells her what’s for dinner, who’s at the front door, and when the baby needs a nap, there’s little room left for her to start her own conversation, make fun car sounds, or script her own story with the other dolls in her toy box.

If simple toys, like Sock, develop important skills like creativity and problem solving, then why is it almost impossible to find one in the toy aisles?   Only because retailers have no economic reason to do so. They’ll make much more money off of a ninety-dollar robot dog that barks and begs and chews fake bones than a sock-in-a-box that does absolutely nothing.

4. Mud

Mud is not high atop many parents’ lists of must-have toys for their children. But it should be. It’s great for piling up, jumping into, squishing in your fists, and smearing on your friends. It can be used to make pottery, war party face paint, exfoliating body shampoo, and pies. It is best to keep Mud outdoors and get the optional accessories Soap and Hose.

Why is Mud a must-have? Because pretend play with less structured objects—like Mud— coerces children into stretching their linguistic and cognitive legs much more than play with highly structured objects—like a Cook-and-Learn Kitchen Set.  How do I know? Well, if your daughter is playing pastry shop with a plate of plastic cookies it’s easy for her to ask her playmate if he’d prefer “peanut butter or chocolate chip.” However, if she is in the backyard fashioning mud pies, simply asking, “Peanut butter or chocolate chip?” won’t cut it when she offers her friend two handfuls of soppy dirt. She has to figure out how to communicate about something that’s not really there and exists only in her mind. She has to provide the right contextual cues to get her playmate to buy into the game. But this isn’t the case with scripted or structured toys, like the Stun-and-Go Laser Gun or the Pretty Princess Pony Barn because the context and even the story line is already there.

3. Ball

Worried that knees and feelings might get bruised, my kids’ elementary school has banned the holy trinity of recess: chase, tag, and dodge ball. Can you believe it? They’ve even prohibited running. And teachers hand out Balls like controlled substances. This is exactly why every kid should find Ball under the tree Christmas morning—it is a must-have toy that has gotten a bad rap.

You can find Balls in most garages, sheds, or mudrooms. They’re also available at organizing sports events—though if you get yours there, they’ll try to get your kids to join the team, which is not the best use of Balls.

Why not? Because organized sports Ball play is organized, supervised, and officiated by us. We form the teams, schedule the games, make the rules, coach from the sidelines, call the fouls, and decide whether Ball was in or out. This is surely good fun and there’s much to be gained.

But a better use of Ball happens when you remove the adults and leave children to their own devices. Why? Because then children invent their own games, negotiate their own rules, pick their own teams, enforce their own policies, and make their own choices. These sorts of experiences are important for kids to have because they encourage cooperation, build social problem solving skills, and develop conversational abilities. For these sorts of competencies to take off, the Ball play must be initiated by children themselves, not shaped by the soccer coach or directed by the gym teacher. Such capabilities, referred to together as emotional intelligence, are essential for a successful adult social life. And the development of these skills is not so easily achieved when children’s most frequent social play is done in organized tee Ball lessons or pee wee football camp.

2. Pebbles

Pebbles come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Most are reasonability priced, so your children can build up a good sized collection without putting too much of a hole in your pocket. If you’re looking to splurge, there are a number of high-end models available—your gemstones and jewels. These pricy models are shiny and neatly translucent. Most kids do just fine with the classic rock version and enjoy trading with their friends. My kids have amassed an impressive collection simply by exploring their own backyard.

Retailers should but often don’t market Pebbles as an “educational” toy that “promotes brain growth.” This is probably because Pebbles would be tough to spot sitting on the same shelf as the brightly colored and battery powered lot of usual educational toys. Even if Pebbles were packaged in a jazzy box, you still might not be persuaded to buy it because it looks so inferior next to the sophisticated frogs that talk, books that play games, magnets that recite the ABCs, handheld computers that let kids play online, and bicycles that control the television set. Surely a talking frog promotes neural growth much more effectively than a pile of small rocks.

This is exactly what you might think until I tell you that there has never been a single study showing that any “educational” toy is better for children’s brain than Pebbles. Nor will there likely ever be. The reason is that most of the high-tech “educational” toys turn children into passive learners. Sure they market themselves as “interactive,” but no toy could ever teach children about the real world as well as interacting with the real world can. It’s almost silly to think that children can learn about the real world by burying their faces in a handheld electronic learning system or a plastic miniature table with buttons and lights. It is critical for children to engage in the real world—to observe it, touch it, and manipulate it—to learn about it.

Of course a learning laptop can help your child memorize addition equations. But if you want to make math interactive and quantity meaningful, go out in the backyard with her and play around with her Pebbles. Ask her to sort them by color, dole out equal portions, or make a pile of 2+3.

1. Backdoor

Backdoor is the most expensive item on my list. It is available at most home improvement stores. If you’re on a tight budget, you might find a Backdoor in your house if you know where to look. I discovered one in my kitchen. My Backdoor is a big sliding glass model, so it wasn’t too hard to find once I started looking. Here are a couple of hints if you want to search for a Backdoor in your home: it usually is hanging on an outer wall and in the winter its general location can be narrowed down by moving towards a chilling draft.

You remember Backdoor? When we were kids our mothers pushed us out of Backdoor the minute we came home from school. We stayed there until it got dark out, we dropped from exhaustion, or someone took the Ball home. Backdoor was the gateway to a special place where we used our outdoor voices, played hide-and-seek, blew dandelion tufts, skipped stones across creeks, dove in leaf piles, hurled snowballs, caught fireflies, built makeshift forts, created imaginary worlds, and got away with all kinds of stuff that we couldn’t have gotten away with indoors. It was pure kid heaven.

Many kids today have never even seen a Backdoor, especially those who spend a lot of time playing with Screen. In recent years Screen has grown in popularity because it is the only toy that enables kids to ride in virtual spaceships, play a pickup football game with avatars, design and build a simulated city, and tame liquid-crystal-displayed wild animals. Many kids use Screen in combination with Couch and Potato Chips, which adds to its appeal.

Want to guess with which toy—Backdoor or Screen—makes children more likely to tackle something new, take a risk, or create their own worlds? Or which toy leads to real play with real friends? In my view, a round of Super Mario Brothers is not play. Attaching painted toilet paper roll horns to your headband, getting down on all fours in the backyard, and roaring like a parent-eating two-headed rabid monster, is play. Pushing joystick buttons to make an Italian plumber bounce off mushrooms while you recline on the Barcalounger is not.

So that’s my list of holiday must-haves. Hopefully I’ve not only saved you money but convinced you that there’s really no good reason for you to stay up till the wee hours on Christmas Eve putting together doll houses that would perplex Albert Einstein. Volumes of scientific evidence demonstrate that free play with flexible and fluid toys is the key to healthful development of children’s bodies and brains. Children don’t need special equipment for this. When children rely on themselves to play—improvising props, making up story lines, inventing imaginary worlds—they are developing the social-cognitive skills that most boxed toys can’t.

Published On: November 6, 2015

Gabrielle Principe

Gabrielle Principe

Gabrielle Principe is Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at the College of Charleston. She received her Ph.D. in developmental psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and later completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell University. Her research has been federally funded by the National Institutes of Health and she has published her research in numerous scientific journals including Psychological Science, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, and Cognition and Development. She has a lifelong fascination with the implications of evolutionary ideas on cognitive development and a serious interest in translating the latest scientific research about human development into information that parents and teachers can use to better rear and educate children. She is the author of Your Brain on Childhood: The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Ballparks, Family Rooms, and the Minivan (Prometheus, 2011)..

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