Batteries not included: The best basic toys

If you're tired of toys that make endless noise and have headache-inducing flashing lights, or if you want your toy budget to stretch far, buy basic toys. This article offers seven playroom-tested, mom-approved simple toys for kids.

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  • When shopping with my children, I try to steer clear of the toy section. My daughters always call out, "Wait, wait, Mom!" as I careen by, distracting them with promises of really cool light bulbs just around the corner. In my opinion, some of the toys offered today are garish, loud and even inappropriate. No, I'm not against all toys, but I prefer the basics over commercialized, trendy toys that eat up batteries and discourage imaginative play. Wondering which toys have earned space in my playroom? Here are my top seven basic toys for kids.

  • 1. Wooden blocks

  • Twelve years ago, I bought a set of colorful wooden blocks. That set still gets used to make castles and houses, tall towers and even a zoo. I've added a few other small sets over the years, but the basic block set is sufficient. Blocks teach dexterity and patience, as well as allow children to create and be imaginative. Wooden blocks last for years and are hard to lose. One of our favorite games to play with toddlers is tower building. Small children love to build towers taller than they are and then knock them down, of course.

  • 2. Puzzles

  • Puzzles are timeless. Toddlers begin with chunky puzzles with grips on each piece. Preschoolers can do puzzles set in a frame. Grade-schoolers learn patience and hand-eye coordination as they put together more difficult puzzles with smaller pieces. Our family enjoys doing difficult puzzles together, particularly during vacation times. We’ve even done a few 3D puzzles.

  • 3. Musical instruments

  • I can't count the number of parades I've seen through my house over the years. Toddlers with tambourines can be grating on the ears, but watching them march on their short legs is adorable. Musical instruments can entertain children of all ages, even infants. Just find a good pair of earplugs.

  • 4. Dress ups

  • Our dress up bin has been a favorite for all the children for many years. It started with cast-off Halloween costumes and funny hats and has grown to include shoes, jewelry and accessories that fit a variety of children. When kids dress up, they can become anyone they want to be. Dressing up takes imagining to a new level. For example, when my son was 4, he spent several hours of his day dressed up as a dog named Woofie. Now, I have princesses and ninjas visit on a regular basis. Kids put on plays and pageants, and even make movies, and Mom and Dad get to watch.

  • 5. Balls

  • Balls are a great basic toy. Babies can roll them, toddlers can throw them and big kids can juggle them. I've always had an assortment of balls in my house. Softer ones stay inside, and sports balls are for outside. Balls with texture are especially pleasing to infants and toddlers. Catching and throwing is a fantastic game that teaches coordination.

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  • 6. Crayons and paper

  • Each of my children has gone through a coloring phase. Coloring is a universal kid activity. It can also be fun and rather relaxing for grown-ups. Keeping crayons and paper on hand is smart. Lately, I've been buying small boxes of metallic and glitter crayons to liven up our box of crayons. Coloring boxes are inexpensive and so is scratch paper. Keep both on hand for instant art.

  • 7. Play food and dishes

  • With play food and dishes, kids can play many make- believe games. From picnics to restaurants, setting up meals and pretending to cook, play food is worth having. My children set up a restaurant, write their own menus and invite me to dine. Encourage your kids to do the same. You'll enjoy some culinary delights never imagined in a "real" restaurant, like French fry and strawberry salad.

  • Flashy toys are cool and have their place, but the basics are the ones that stick around through the garage sale clean outs. Help your kids enjoy playtime with the best basic toys. You can feel good about telling them to "go play."

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Amy M. Peterson, a former high school English teacher, currently lives in Oregon with her husband and four children. She spends her days writing, reading, exercising and trying to get her family to eat more vegetables.

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