Toys That Encourage Open-ended Play

Painting as Open Play for a Child

In open play, a child’s imagination guides use. Simple, open-ended toys can be much more than one thing to any kid. A child’s early education involves play, imitating adults’ actions around them and exploring their surroundings—including their toy box.

Single-purpose toys with pre-determined limitations and outcomes keep a child busy, but they do not engage the child in creating their own worlds.

Open-ended play means a child has freedom to create their own rules within the environment and transform all objects as their become part of experience. Toys in an open-ended environment are simple enough to have many uses—any use the child can imagine. Yes, blocks can be used to build or they can be food. Yes, play silks can be wings or they can be baby doll blankets. Yes, a doll can be a baby or a doll can be an audience.

Open play encourages abstract thinking and active creativity and problem solving. The characteristics a child brings to this world are given free reign. Children also learn as social and emotional skills are needed, meeting each challenge as it arises. They develop fluency in the ideas and materials of their world.

As parents, we—Nature Mom and I both—have made the way clear for our children to create their own play spaces by giving them simple, natural toys that can be transformed in play. To help you do the same as a parent, in the bynature.ca store, we make every effort to support open play with the children’s products we carry.

Dress up Toys

Silk reversible cape for a child

Silk cape

An overflowing dress-up box enables a child’s self transformation. Simple pieces can be worn many ways.

Building sets

Maple wood blocks toy

Colored maple wooden blocks

With blocks and building sets, you can choose cubes or shapes; stackers, magnetic blocks, or no connection at all; beautiful colors, story blocks, or just simple, beautiful wood without embellishment.

Dolls

Waldorf doll big friend

Waldorf Doll

The dolls a child needs as a baby, a squeezing bonding doll, differ from the dolls a child needs as they begin to imitate life. Choose dolls as well as the doll baby carriers and diapers that encourage your older child to take care of their baby doll.

Musical Instruments

Wooden musical instruments

Wooden musical instruments rhythm set

Music and rhythm instruments give a child the power to create a variety of sounds. Children are delighted when they discover this power.

Art Supplies

Glob natural paints for kids

Natural paints

Natural ingredients, particularly the colors, in the art supplies distinguish the bynature.ca collection.

More on Open-ended Play

Why Choose Natural Toys

Natural wooden marble run toy

 

You anticipate toy shopping soon—as do I. I just want to give you a few reasons to look for toys made from natural materials like wool, cotton, wood, and rubber.

The Negative Reasons to Choose Natural Toys

Choose toys made from natural materials because they aren’t made from plastic. It isn’t just that plastic is unsustainable, being made from oil and gas that are in limited supply. Plastics, especially soft plastics, can be health hazards.

With the passage of the CPSIA in the U.S., six plastic softeners (phthalates) were banned in children’s products that could be used for eating or sleeping because of the risk that a young child will suck on the products. These plastic softeners were’t banned in every product, though, and they can still pose a hazard through off-gassing. You know that new plastic smell? That is the toxic off-gassing, the hormone disruptors that can cause developmental problems for children (as well as high rates of miscarriages among women and erectile dysfunction among men).

You are less likely to find some of the worst chemicals in children’s toys now, but that doesn’t mean all plastic toys are safe. Avoid soft, vinyl plastics (phthalates) and polycarbonates (Bisphenol A or BPA).

The U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) is still warning against toys made with PVC plastic. Even they are recommending that parents “choose unpainted wooden or cloth toys instead.”

For more details on the reasons to avoid plastics in toys, see “Why No Soft Plastics.”

For sustainability and for health, just avoid plastic toys. Choose natural toys instead.

The Positive Reasons to Choose Natural Toys

Natural materials are sustainable. They grow in nature, and they can grow again after they are harvested to make your child’s toys. That is what is meant by renewable materials (in contrast to petrochemicals used to make plastic, which do not replace themselves—or, more accurately, only replace themselves over millions of years).

  • Cotton grows as a protective fiber (a boll) around seeds in a cotton plant in a field
  • Hemp is grown as the stem of a hemp plant in a field
  • Wool is the hair of a sheep, sheared annually
  • Silk is the coccoon of a silkworm
  • Rubber is the milk of a rubber tree
  • Wood, of course, is the body of a tree

Natural materials generally require less processing before they can be used to make toys. Pick up a stick, it’s already a toy. Sheer a sheep, and you just have to wash the oils out of the wool in order to use it for stuffing. The milk of a rubber tree coagulates easily into the kind of rubber we know as Sophie the Giraffe or a rubber duck. Natural materials are renewable in the long term but they are also lower impact in their processing in the short term.

In addition to sustainability, consider the sensory experience of natural materials. They feel warm, smell nice, and look soft. Natural materials feel good in the hands of a child. Read more about the sensory experience of natural materials in last week’s post “What Are Waldorf Toys?”

It’s tough for me to come up with rational reasons to choose natural toys because I usually just stop with “why wouldn’t I choose natural toys?” They are the obvious choice unless I’m buying into the nonsensical stories that mass marketing tells me about the superiority of plastic toys over nature.

But there are rational reasons: choose natural toys for the short-term and long-term good of the environment and because of the sensory experience your child will get with natural materials.

Choose Natural Toys

We know that most of our customers are deliberately seeking more natural ways of parenting. Choosing carefully when you buy toys that your child will play with every day is an important step in creating a natural environment for your family.

Read more about natural toys in “Toy Monday: Why Natural Toys.”

To buy natural toys, see our Holiday Gifts Guide at bynature.ca.

Wool Crafts with Kids: Weaving

Child weaving on a wooden loom

Kids love making things, exploring and transforming stuff with their hands. I like giving my children crafts with growth potential, so there is another step to take if they want it. Start with a small woven mat, and your child may want to keep weaving until you have a blanket, a wall hanging, and a whole set of mats.

Weaving, moving one thread up and down through another thread, can help a child learn basic mathematical skills, fine motor control, dexterity, and concentration. And, creating a beautiful product from quality materials builds self-confidence and gives your child a sense of accomplishment.

It’s lambing season. We’re celebrating by focusing on the wool that lambs and sheep give us. We often talk about wool as a useful fiber for cloth diapering, but we love wool for many other household uses. Wool feels good in the hands. As children develop their skills, we like knowing that they are doing so using natural fibers. If you would like to go back and try other crafts with your children, we’ve shared ideas for felting wool balls and spool knitting over the past couple of weeks.


Start with a Loom

You can build a simple tapestry loom with a frame and pegs at the top and bottom. You can make it any size and shape your materials allow. That might be a future project, though. For those just starting out, we sell a basic 12-peg wooden loom that both children and adults will enjoy using.

Need

  • Loom
  • Wool yarn
  • String for warp
  • Needle or shuttle

Wooden Weaving Loom Kit for a Child


How Weaving Works

Basic weaving has warp and weft. You use string up and down between the top and bottom pegs of the loom to create the warp. This provides the basic structure of your woven piece. You can weave so the warp is covered or so that it shows. The main yarn that gives your weaving color and weight is the weft. Weft means woven (weaved > wef-ed > weft). This is the thread or yarn that is woven through the strings of the warp.

The simplest way to start weaving is to use a needle. Using a fine point helps your child navigate up over one string and down under the next while the fine needle is small enough that they can easily see their progress as they weave.

At the end of each row, you can press down the yarn you’ve just woven through the strings (called beating the weft), or you can leave the fabric less dense and let the warp show. With a child, I like to create one piece by the simplest method then add a new technique for the next piece. I recommend starting with a looser woven piece. This is also much quicker to make, and an easy win can be motivation to put in more time for the next piece.

When your child is finished weaving on the basic loom, the piece should hold together when you take it off the pegs. You may need to push the weft around a bit to even out the rows.


How Many Doll Blankets Do You Need?

If your child comes to enjoy weaving, you may end up with a lot of doll blankets, purses, and coasters. As my children started producing more and more little pieces of work, I steered them toward using those small pieces to produce bigger pieces.

Make a Pillow. If your child weaves six pieces on the small wooden loom, each approximately 6.5″ x 10″ (depending on how tight they pull as they are weaving), you can sew those together to create one 20″ x 20″ piece, which is perfect for a throw pillow. If you either sew that piece to the front of an existing pillow or make a new pillow with some sturdy fabric on the back then fill it with a 20″ x 20″ pillow form, you have a beautiful object that you can use around the house. You give your child the experience of creating a complete object. What a great gift that would be for grandma. My family still uses pillows made by my children years ago. I love that constant reminder.

Make a Blanket. If your child loves weaving even after you have plenty of pillows, move on to making blankets. My daughter kept making new projects until she found her level at the size of baby blankets. Just be open to using all of the little pieces of weaving in a bigger project of some kind.

Very Basic Weaving. Did you weave potholders as a child? I did. I learned weaving with cotton loops on a square potholder loom. The difference between the wooden peg loom and the potholder loom is in the weft. For potholders, single loops are the weft for each separate row; for the small tapestry loom, one continuous piece of yarn is your weft row after row. We carry the traditional potholder loom and extra cotton weaving loops because we think your child might enjoy basic weaving as a confidence-building experience.

More Advanced Weaving. If you have kids who like to experiment, and who doesn’t, increase the challenge as they learn weaving.

  • Weave with thread. Try doing the same kind of piece on a tiny loom.
  • Build a giant loom. See how big you can go. Weave a whole blanket all at once rather than creating a patchwork of smaller pieces.
  • Draw with yarn. Learn how to use the weft and the warp to create geometric shapes then organic shapes then images.
  • Learn about weaving. This would be a great opportunity to look at weaving in a museum or gallery. Read storybooks about weaving. I love Elsa Beskow’s Pelle’s New Suit, in which a young shepherd uses his lamb’s wool to have a new suit made, and Charles Blood’s The Goat in the Rug, which tells the story of Navajo weaving from a goat’s point of view. Both books tell stories that engage a child in process from animal through to the final product.

The more your child connects what they are learning with the world around them, the better. Weaving holds a world of such potential expression, whether they weave a story in tapestry or just make a potholder.

Wool Crafts with Kids: Felted Wool Balls

Mother sheep feeding lamb

Halfway between the first day of winter and the first day of spring is the traditional beginning of lambing season, though new sheep might actually be born anytime from December through May. To celebrate sheep, lambs, and the beautiful wool they give us, we are sharing several weeks of wool crafts you can do with your children.


Felted Wool Balls

DIY Felted Wool Balls

Wool Dryer Balls have become a very popular way to add natural scent and quicker drying agitation to machine drying cloth diapers, linens, or any clothing. You can easily make these dryer balls yourself the hard way, the easy way, or the super easy way.


Wool Balls the Hard Way

Actually, the hard way isn’t that hard. If you have seen felted wool figures and wished you could learn to do that, too, wool balls are a perfect way to start your wool felting adventure.

This method is certainly easy enough to do with children, though you may want to start with smaller wool beads.

Need:

  • Wool roving
  • Detergent
  • Hot water
  • Needle felting needles
  • Needle felt mat
  • Bowl
  • Towel

Wool roving comes in a big variety of beautiful colors. Some people use a lower quality wool for the center of the ball and save the colors for the outside of the ball where they will show.

Your first step is to wind the wool tight. Keep winding the roving around your ball quite tight, making an effort to keep it smooth and even. If you have made a Waldorf doll or other wool doll, you already know how to do this. When you have a ball of roving about as big as a grapefruit, you are ready to felt your dryer ball.

This is where the felting starts. You place your ball on the felting mat and start poking the ball with your felting needle. This forces the wool fibers through and around one another. You can do this by squeezing and rolling without the felting tools, but the felting won’t be as tight.

Once your ball is smooth and round, you begin felting in water. Dip the ball in a bowl of very hot water with a tiny bit of detergent, then roll the ball around in your hands. The scales on the individual fibers open in the hot water then close on other fibers as you roll the ball and it cools. The individual wool fibers hold on to one another, and you have a felted ball.

I call this the hard way, but it’s really very easy. It’s just that the other ways of making felt balls are even easier.

Felting supplies are available at craft stores.


Wool Balls the Easy Way

If you don’t want to buy felting tools, you can still felt large and small wool balls.

Need:

  • 100% wool yarn
  • tapestry needle
  • pantyhose
  • non-wool thread

Single ply wool yarn will work best, but you can use any all-wool yarn.

Start by winding the yarn around two fingers several times, then fold that yarn in half and use it as your core. Now, keep winding and keep it tight.

You don’t need to make this ball quite as big as the roving ball, though it will tighten up some. When the ball is just bigger than you want it to be, cut the yarn and use your tapestry needle to thread through the ball so it doesn’t unwind in the felting process.

At this point, you could do the wet felting above, but this is the easy version, so we’re just going to drop the balls in pantyhose. Put the first ball in the toe, then tie the pantyhose tight with thread. Drop in the next, tie off, and so on until you have a continuous sausage of wool balls.

Now, wash on hot and dry on hot. Just throw the balls in with a load of towels. Once they are dry, cut the threads and free the dryer balls.


Wool Balls the Easiest Way

Even young children can make felt balls, but it helps to keep the project short.

Need:

We have a colourful wool ball kit that takes about 10 minutes to make. The short cut is to use a tennis ball as the center, wrapping the wool roving around the tennis ball. Then, wet felt and squeeze to create a colorful toy for child or pet.

This kit would make a great party craft.


Keep Going!

Vary Size. Adapt any of these methods to make smaller balls for wool beads, doll heads, or other small items. Remember to keep them larger than your small children could swallow.

Add Colour. Dye your own wool or experiment with colors you can buy.

Change Shape. Felting can be used to create flat fabrics or very elaborate sculptures

Once you see how easy it is to create your own felted wool toys, you’ll be hooked.

Image © Paulselway | Dreamstime.com

Every Kid Needs Puzzles & Games

Mosaic wooden puzzle gift for child

Puzzles and games are essential for every kid as holiday gifts. Where to find a game that doesn’t encourage competition and bad feelings, though?

Growing up in my family, every person had to receive at least one puzzle for the holidays. As I grew older and more smart alecky, I gave my mother puzzles with thousands of pieces, or glowing pieces, or same on both sides, or some other nearly impossible puzzle. She still worked her way through every one. Now that my mother is gone, I still need to give my mother-in-law and my children puzzles. They drive me crazy, but everyone else loves them. I realize more over time that putting together a puzzle is a meditative activity, and it has always been one of those essential holiday activities in my family.

If you find that your children need that quiet time during a busy holiday season, consider encouraging down time with a puzzle. Also, if they see you doing a more difficult puzzle, they will get more and more curious until they take over. That’s my experience, anyway!

Another of those essentials for my family both growing up and now with my children is board games or card games. My children love playing my old games, and we still add several new games a year to our game closet. Over the holidays, we give small gifts over several days, and one day is always a game for the whole family. Since there are no other gifts to distract us, we have a family game day.

There are a lot of classic games available, but I find that my children become more competitive when they see the opportunity to win. That isn’t really the feel I’m going for with family game day, so we favor the cooperative games. At bynature.ca, we carry a lot of cooperative games and puzzles to fit your family’s interests.


Puzzles for Children


Port Side Pirates Puzzle

Port Side Pirate Puzzle for Children

Looking for an interlocking puzzle? Set sail with these two puzzles based on the Port Side Pirates sing-along book. The 12-piece puzzle shows the pirate crew discovering a treasure chest ashore the tropical island. The 24-piece puzzle shows the pirate crew sailing the high seas aboard their ship. The two puzzles allow for a range of difficulty included all in one box.
Age: 3+


Wooden Mosaic Puzzle

Rainbow mosaic wooden puzzle

If you are looking for a puzzle that will last longer than an interlocking puzzle that is used a few times, try our high quality wooden mosaics. Our large puzzle has 192 colorful triangle an trapezoid-shaped pieces. Arrange them in the bamboo tray or go rogue and put the rainbow of colors together any way that suits you. Includes a travel and storage bag.
Age: 3+


Cooperative Family Games


Elves and Ogres

Ogres and Elves cooperative game for kids

The Royal Elf Family is coming to visit their Mountain Kingdom. They want the Elves (players) to fill their treasure chests with the different gems they mine. Ogres, however, have heard about the visit and plan to grab all the valuables for themselves. Work together to get Royals & Ogres alike to share the goodies. The game requires lots of tricky teamwork, increasing in difficulty with rules for 3 games based on age (ages 5-7, ages 7-12 & ages 12+).
Ages: 5+


Snowstorm

Snowstorm cooperative game for kids

When a winter storm hits the city, the players help out residents by completing their tasks. The weather is constantly changing so players must keep on top of errands by paying attention to weather reports and moving through snow and ice with cars and service trucks. The game is different every time you play.
Ages: 5+