We’ve all been there. We present our kids with some exciting new toy and sit watching keenly as they rip away the paper, only for them to end up spending the day playing with the box. And yet there’s social and educational value in allowing children to make up their own fun. A 2011 study by Elena Smirnova  found that the more interactivity that is built into a toy, the less scope there is for children to play with it creatively. Self-expression and storyline play are lost. Think of them like movie trailers that give away too much of the plot.

Going Toy-less

The idea of encouraging toy-less play is not new. Twenty years ago, nurseries in Germany experimented with a project called Der Spielzeugfreie Kindergarten (‘the nursery without toys’). Confusion and boredom among the children quickly turned into imaginative play. The children began spontaneous construction projects, and even brought in materials from home to help complete them. The moral of the tale is a simple one: children don’t need toys to play. Educational approaches such as Waldorf and Montessori nurseries and schools devote time to uninterrupted imaginary play, and allow children the freedom to choose and explore activities in a carefully constructed environment free from the prescriptive appeal of toys.

Curiosity grows according to what it feeds on. The late educationalist John Holt believed that keeping a child’s curiosity well fed didn’t mean prescribing what or how to feed it. In his landmark book, How Children Learn, he argued for simply putting within a child’s reach the widest, most diverse array of good foods. Holt argued passionately that children love the world – that’s why they’re so good at learning about it. We should let them learn and grow through that love. 

Read more: These parenting tips will make your kid smarter

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should abandon toys entirely. Many toys for young children offer great developmental benefits and help the child to explore and interact with the world on their own terms. But the majority of toys for babies and toddlers are made to be played with in a very specific way. For instance, as a toddler, my son had a shape-sorter toy. It was brilliant – it lit up and played music to reward your efforts. I think I got more out of it than he did. But that toy had only one use. It couldn’t be repurposed, besides wedging other random toys and household objects into the holes. Meanwhile, some toys have the potential for open-ended uses, and as parents we can encourage our children to be as creative as possible. For example, growing up, my wife and I had very different experiences with Lego. I would follow the same pattern each time: open the thing, read how to make the thing, make the thing, play with the thing. In my wife’s home, there was just a big tub of Lego bricks from which anything could be made. No rules, no restrictions. 

How to encourage creative play in your little one

0 – 12 months

Use every day objects
Babies are innately curious – they don’t need expensive toys. Just give her the time and space to explore the world around her. What is she doing when she’s in her bassinet or Moses basket? What is there to stimulate her in her cot or the change station? I would often give my little boy one of his socks to play with while I was changing him. It sounds ludicrous, but he could pull it and stretch it and wave it around, and he found having it draped over his face absolutely hysterical!

Make the environment interesting
That doesn’t mean turning the nursery into a circus and bombarding her with round-the-clock stimuli. Use splashes of contrasting primary colours. Babies are interested in human faces, so have family portraits on display. Keep her crib in the centre of the room – rather than up against a wall – so she has a 360-degree view of the world around her.

Toddlers

Rearrange your book shelf
Children are never too young to be around books, so make their books visible. The glorious artwork is on the front cover, so why store their books sideways on? By shelving their books facing forwards, their books will be more appealing and more accessible.

Allow exploration
As toddlers become more independent, it can sometimes feel hard to provide the stimulation they need. Learn to stop worrying whether you’re ticking all those sensory boxes. She doesn’t need constant input from her senses of touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight and hearing. Simply provide an eclectic mixture of objects for her to handle. Think what’s in your vegetable drawer: ginger, baby carrots, tomatoes, coconuts. So many different shapes, weights and textures!

Don’t restrict too much
Let her handle the things she finds interesting. Be mindful of any risks and keep anything harmful out of reach. It’s easy to panic when a toddler gets hold of something like a piece of bubble wrap. Any choke hazard is a worry. But think about the sensory experiences she can get from it. A simple tactile object that folds and twists and pops!

Ultimately, it is a child’s internal desire to learn, rather than the pressure we put on them, that will motivate them to pursue new experiences. As the humanist geographer Yi-Fu Tuan  wrote, children “show a natural curiosity about the world, but this curiosity is easily repressed when adults fail to nurture it.” So, don’t underestimate the power of that box. To you or me, it’s just a box. But for the child sitting in it, that box is a clean slate for creativity. 

Read more: Raising expat kids: How to embrace their third culture

Creative-play toys

Here’s some playthings that will get their imaginations working…

Tegu Magnetic Building Blocks Set in Sunset, Dh165, Toybox.ae

Made from sustainable wood and crafted by workers who are paid a fair living wage in Central America, these beautiful magnetic blocks come with no instruction manual but are simply a canvas for your child’s imagination.

6 Play Scarves, Dh158, Desertcart.ae

From dress-up to dancing and tactile play, these brightly coloured scarves are ideal for open-ended, sensory play. Made from polyester, they are an affordable alternative to the popular Waldorf play silks.

Waldorf doll Max by Kathe Kruse, Dh468, Souq.com

The Waldorf philosophy by educationalist Rudolf Steiner advocates simple, pared-down toys made from natural materials, in order to stimulate the creativity of a child as much as possible. Simple dolls and action figures allow children to use their imagination, giving voices to the characters and unfolding a drama between them.   

Wobbel Board, Dh520-985, Ecosouk.me 

These Dutch designed beechwood curves are an open-ended toy that encourages children’s natural curiosity. Used as a balance board they build strength and co-ordination, but they can also be a slide, turtle shell, reading nook – the possibilities are endless.

Read more from Baby & Child magazine: 

Why rewarding your children could backfire 

How to Help Your Shy Child Make Friends 

Dubai’s 10 best parks for babies and toddlers