The work of a child is play. Through play, children explore their world, and much more. They practice social skills and stretch their imaginations through make-believe games, and learn basic laws of physics (like gravity, and cause and effect). The best kind of play, creative play, should stimulate a child's senses, intellect, and imagination. Does that mean a trip to the "educational" toy store? Not at all!
To encourage creative play, toys don't have to be elaborate or expensive. In fact, the best creative play toys are often the simplest. Simple toys allow for "open-ended" play, as they lend themselves to multiple purposes. By their very simplicity, they encourage the child to fill in the details with his or her imagination.
Here's a quick story to illustrate my point: I recently enjoyed a visit from a friend and her 2 year old son. At bath time, my friend realized that she'd forgotten to pack tub toys. No problem! A quick scan of my cupboards turned up a set of tin measuring cups and a shallow plastic soap dish. Suddenly, the bathtub was full of boats as the soap dish and tin cups bobbed in the water. Bath water, poured from the measuring cups, became a waterfall, that swamped and sank the soap dish, turning it into a submarine. At one point, my little guest tried wearing the measuring cups on his head, like little caps.
Among my favorite creative play toys are cardboard boxes. The larger, appliance-sized ones make wonderful play houses. They can be easily transformed from caves into castles, pirate ships, or fortresses. Children can decorate the walls of their cardboard constructions with crayons, chalk, or stickers. With adult help, they can cut out doors and windows.
Smaller cartons, the kind that are available in quantity an any liquor store, also offer lots of possibilities as creative play toys. Four of these, turned on their sides and stacked 2 high and wide, make a quick 4-room dollhouse for teddy bears and other toys. Stacked in a single column, they become a castle tower for teddy. Lined up on the floor, they might be a train. A single box can be a doll cradle, or maybe a boat.
There are also certain practical advantages of using boxes for creative play. Toys made of cardboard boxes can be quickly flattened and recycled when the play is done! The temporary nature of the cardboard constructions is part of their appeal. Since they're not available all the time, it's a special treat when they are.