And without further ado, here are Numbers Six, Seven, and Eight on the Scalliwag Toys Top Ten list —
6. Puppets. From finger puppets to complex stage puppets, these give your child the ability to move outside his own head, so to speak, and create an alter ego — literally, another self.
Parents can nurture creativity by making puppet production part of the experience; small paper lunch bags can be given faces with markers, crayons, or stickers and used as simple puppets. Inexpensive tube socks (especially those kind of furry ones that you can buy in the dollar stores) make super hand puppets; the facial features are easily made using bits of felt, stick-on googly eyes, or buttons, and the faces themselves can be very expressive (just think of Shari Lewis’s Lambchop).
Let’s check the category against our three criteria for great toys: first, are puppets interactive? Sure – puppets (well, except for Horror Puppets like Chuckie, I guess) need children to give them life. The child and the puppet form a team. Second, do puppets foster creativity? Yes, in the making and in the using. Who can put a puppet on his or her hand and not start a conversation with it? Third, is puppet play open-ended? Yes, puppet play is a kind of theatre, after all, and that theatrical and dramatic imagination can lead to all kinds of adventures.
I think that these qualities — dramatic possibility, interactivity, and creativity — are also possessed by a puppet sub-set, namely, stuffed animals. After all, what are stuffies but puppets without a sleeve, and lucky enough to find themselves with entire bodies? Any parent who has peeked around a corner to see his little boy solemnly teaching his stuffed rabbit to “read”, or who good-naturedly sets a place at the dining table for his daughter’s teddy bear (“She needs her supper too!”) has acknowledged the power of drama and imagination, and the role that puppets fill.
7. Dress-up clothes, or costumes, are the companion-piece to puppets. Costumes allow children to become the stars in their dramas (one of my children confided in me that she liked to assign our family dog all the non-speaking roles in her plays, because “he never complained”.) Sure, costumes may not be strictly necessary to drama, but anyone who has ever attended a play built around the ideas of No Costumes and No Sets, or Shakespeare’s Hamlet with all the characters dressed as police officers or something, may agree that some props and costumes add more to the event than others. It’s easier to feel like a pirate when you are dressed like a pirate!
Dress-up clothes need not all be specially purchased. In fact, I think that children understand the difference between costumes that are purchased, and real — usually adult — clothing that is worn as costume, and sometimes the repurposed adult clothing is far superior. It is authentic, for one thing (even if it doesn’t really fit), and the real thing adds a level of verisimilitude to play that store-bought costuming just doesn’t manage.
Of course, not every kind of costume can be created from Mummy and Daddy’s old clothes (unless Mummy and Daddy live more exciting lives than we did, and have their own cast-off suits of steel armour or diamond tiaras), and so sometimes judiciously-purchased foam swords or shiny “chain-mail” capes can put a marvelous cap on imaginative dramatic play.
8. Dolls. Dolls are humanoid stuffed animals, really (or stuffed animals may
be anthropomorphised animals, but whatever), and fulfill many of the same roles. The fact that they resemble us more closely, that they are identifiably copies of people, means that they are often preferred for role-play (Mommy and baby, for example — and note that here I’m mainly talking about baby dolls, not fashion dolls such as Barbie). Dolls give parents the opportunity to watch their children model nurturing behaviours, and to reinforce good behaviours on a more patient subject, as in the potty-training methods that use drink-and-wet dollies.
Next time, I’ll discuss the final two items (I’ll bet you thought we’d never get there!) on the Scalliwag Toys Top Ten List: Play-Doh® and activity books.