How To Play With Your Toddler, Part One – Ten Ways to Foster Imaginative and Pretend Play.

Today, I wanted to share a little bit about what I’ve learned about toddler play since putting Waldorf education ideas into practice. These ideas should be particularly helpful if you want to help spark growth in your little one’s imaginative and pretend play!

As many of you may know, Waldorf education emphasizes child-led play (i.e. you provide the toys/resources but then take a step back and let them choose what to play with and how to play with it), play with natural materials such as wood, and play with toys that are open-ended. On the most open-ended side of the spectrum are items such as nature materials, blocks and play scarves: these can be used to imagine and create just about anything. On the least open-ended side of the spectrum are toys that have a specific function, such as dolls and dollhouses; but in Waldorf even these toys are open-ended to a degree because they still leave a lot to the imagination. Waldorf dolls, for instance, often have just eyes and a dot for the mouth, so that the child can project whatever emotion they want onto the doll. Dollhouses can be unpainted and modular (i.e. come apart) so that they can be constructed in different ways and imagined differently depending on the day and the story a child is telling.

To sum up, the essence of Waldorf play (in my opinion) is providing toys and resources that allow children to project their imaginations and develop their own worlds and stories.

Now, there is no ‘best’ kind of play in terms of how a child should be playing, but I have noticed that certain activities and toys seem to foster a high degree of imaginative play in my daughter, Etty, who is nearly two.

Specifically, they allow her to create worlds and tell stories!

So below I share ten of the most successful toys and activities to foster this kind of play in your own toddler – play that is imaginative and open-ended – and my thoughts on each.

  1. Pair play items with stories.

We read a lot of books in our house, but I also tell stories orally using whatever props or toys are handy. Etty has a modular dollhouse (see pictures below) that has been our number one toy for a while now. It is perfect for telling stories such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears (I substitute peg dolls for bears!) or Jack and the Beanstalk. Of course, you can also make up your own. Etty asks for these stories to be acted out all the time, then goes to town creating her own versions. Other great storytelling toys are finger puppets. Which brings me to….

2. Puppets!

My daughter’s fascination with puppets began at an early age, and she’s still pretty obsessed. The great thing about puppets is that children love to talk to them, far more than they like to talk to adults! So when my daughter creates little scenes, worlds or stories with her toys she really loves to ‘tell’ her puppets all about them, and/or include them in the story. Her puppets are her friends, and she is more open with them than she is with me (I’m sure on some level she knows the puppets ARE me!). So I also crack out the puppets when she’s particularly upset – she just seems to be able to express herself more easily with them.

3. An inside environment: modular dollhouse and peg dolls.

I was lucky enough to snag our modular dollhouse at Costplus Worldmarket over Christmas for just seventeen bucks. They’re not that easy to come by, but Manhattan Toys (Mio line) sells a nice one on Amazon, and you also see them on Etsy. As you can tell from the picture, the dollhouse is fairly simple and plain, and comes apart so you can construct the house any way you like and use the separate pieces to create other inside environments such as a tent (one triangle piece) or a skyscraper (stack all pieces). We even use one of the piece’s sloping sides as a slide for when the dolls go to the ‘park.’

Accompanying the dollhouse is a bunch of peg dolls and animals. Some I painted myself, some came with the dollhouse. She really enjoys moving them about and taking them on adventures.

Modular dollhouse!
Fun playing restaurants!

4. An outside natural environment: trees, water, grass etc.

You have your inside environment now, but of course kids want to take the action outside too! My favorite outdoors ‘nature’ set is by Manhattan Toys (Mio line) – the woodland set. It consists of three large blocks painted with trees on one side and flowers/vines on the other, a stream, two beanbag trees, a beanbag fox and skunk, and some little mini-blocks (not pictured). Along with other wooden trees and animals and a green ‘grass’ play scarf these items can be arranged and rearranged to create almost any outdoor play scene. The only limit is imagination!

5. An outside man-made environment: buildings, town etc.

We just purchased a Melissa and Doug town set which looks perfect for creating villages, towns and cities. You can also simply take plain wooden blocks and draw little doors and windows on them.

6. Modes of transportation.

How to transport peg dolls from indoors to outdoors? My daughter loves her wooden bus from Melissa and Doug, but any interactive wooden vehicle will do. Of course, wooden trains are a favorite too.

7. Play kitchen and play food. Lots. Of. It.

Another must-have toddler item for sparking imaginative play is a toy kitchen and play food. Etty loves to set up picnics and organize the cupboards of her kitchen. She loves to feed her puppets too! Our wooden kitchen is by Hape, and the play food (all wooden) is from various companies such as Hape, Plan Toys, and Melissa and Doug. I also needle-felted some veggies and fruit for her. She has a little plastic shopping cart by Battat toys that she enjoys for pretend shopping.

8. Stuffies and dollies!

Of course, stuffed animals and dolls are beloved by toddlers, and can be included in many kinds of pretend play. My daughter likes to take her doll to the ‘market’ and have picnics with her stuffies. Funny thing, you can’t predict which stuffies your child will get attached to. I’ve bought really nice expensive ones that have been passed over in favor of cheap ones that I simply can’t see the appeal of! So keep a wide range available and out to play with and over time you can ‘hide’ the ones she’s less attached to.

9. Blocks

Blocks are the ultimate open-ended toy. Waldorf blocks are often made of natural tree slices and pieces (I love the ones by Treemagination on Etsy) and we have one of those that we bought for Etty’s birthday (post to come!) but there are also a ton of commercial block sets out there that support imaginative play. I might do a whole post just on blocks, because there are a ridiculous number of options, but our current favorite blocks are the magnetic Tegu ones. Being magnetized, they’re easier for a toddler to build. However – they are NOT cheap – we were lucky to be gifted a set. Plain wooden blocks have not piqued our daughter’s interest much but she is partial to the ones with snazzy colors and unique shapes. Plan Toys, Petit Collage, Hape, and Melissa and Doug all do a nice variety of block sets that move beyond squares and rectangles to world-creating shapes: gardens, ocean environments, palaces etc. Let me know if you’d like a post just on blocks – we have a few different block sets and I’m happy to provide some thoughts on each.

10. Silk play-scarves.

Silk play-scarves are incredibly versatile. The most renowned are by the company Sarah’s Silks but there are cheaper versions on Amazon, too. We have one green one (see pic below) and one rainbow colored one. Large ones can be used to create outside environments, but also for dress-up play. You can dance with them, use them as blankets for dolls – a truly multi-purpose pretend-play toy!

Well, that’s it! I hope you feel inspired to seek out ways to incorporate more open-ended toys and story-telling into your play time. I’d love to hear how it goes in the comments below! My next post, part two, will be on ways to encourage independent play. Hope to see you there. 🙂