5 must-have ingredients for a magic, play-filled childhood

Give your child these things and they will be stimulated, entertained, and challenged in ways that a toy box will never match.

“Play is the highest form of research,” Albert Einstein said. Watch a child at play, and you’ll come to believe it quickly. Kids play with an intensity and enthusiasm that adults can only envy, and they do so in order to prepare themselves for the world.

When I think back to my own childhood, there were a few specific items that occupied most of my attention. These were not typical toys, not the sort you’d find in a toy box. Instead, they provided raw material for the play and imagination that influenced greatly the person I’ve become. These are the things that I think every child should have.

A map of the world—the bigger and more detailed, the better

My bedroom walls were plastered with maps dug out from old issues of National Geographic. The World hung above my bed and, since I went to bed at an early hour, I’d spend many sun-filled summer evenings mentally traveling to all the exotic places I could see on my map. That’s how I learned geography, memorizing capital cities, distant seas, and mountain ranges, and I’m certain it played a major role in fueling my desire to travel and see the same places I’ve imagined since childhood.

Loose building materials—and not the toy kind

Being the daughter of a home-builder, I was lucky to have unlimited access to scraps; and those scraps of plywood, corrugated steel, two-by-fours, nails, and leftover cinderblocks provided the basis for fabulous forts. Kids need sovereignty over their own fort-building, which is why the pre-packaged fort “kits” that so many parents spend a fortune on to install in the backyard will end up entertaining their kids far less than if they’d simply bought a truckload of construction odds-and-ends. Having access to loose materials allows the fort to change constantly, to evolve with a child’s needs, and to be dismantled for other, more fantastic structures.

A bicycle

Every kid needs a bicycle. It’s the first set of wheels, the first taste of speed and freedom. Growing up in the forest, my bicycle took me through old logging roads and snowmobile trails in the off-season, zipping through mud holes and over tree roots, past swamps with grazing moose, always trying to outrace the mosquitoes.

A bicycle means exercise, fresh air, and the ability to learn countless lessons – the lay of the land, local shortcuts, the limits of one’s neighborhood, physical endurance, how to do stunts, etc.

A piano (or other complex instrument)

When there’s a piano in the room, children will gravitate toward it, banging out raucous renditions of Chopsticks or Heart and Soul. Kids can’t resist the urge to make music, no matter how bad it sounds. Providing a piano (which is fairly easy to find for free) opens doors to musically-inclined children, inspiring them to try it, work at it, perfect a song. It creates an open invitation for trained pianists to sit down and play, or lead family sing-alongs, especially at holiday times. A piano brings music into the home, and that’s a wonderful thing.

A bookshelf (full of magic)

A bookshelf must be filled with books, of course, these magic devices that allow us to travel across time, space, and dimensions. In retrospect, I appreciate the effort my parents took to fill my bookshelf with classic Young Adult stories, the kind that can be read and re-read dozens of times and are encountered frequently throughout adulthood – books such as the Narnia series, the Little House books, Lord of the Rings, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Julie of the Wolves, Black Beauty, Robinson Crusoe, anything by L.M. Montgomery, Madeleine L’Engle, Roald Dahl, Charles Dickens, Judy Blume, etc.

Which “toys” made a difference in your life? Please share in the comments below.