Having PLAY-DOH handy has always saved the day for Liz Weirshousky, mom of three in Bethesda, Md. When she hosts mixed-gender playdates at her house, her daughter uses it to create flowers while the boys make cars, but everyone is busy and happy.
Being creative isn't just for kids. Parents concerned about having the right things to entertain their child's opposite-sex friend also calls for creative thinking. Below are ideas from three experts who have a professional perspective on play: Ann Barbour, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of Early Childhood Education Charter College of Education, California State University, Los Angeles and Bobbi Conner, author of Unplugged Play: No Batteries. No Plugs. Pure Fun; and child development expert Michelle Seltzer, M.Ed, of Coral Springs, Florida.
Why gender-neutral? Yes, co-ed play, but the benefits go beyond that. "Gender neutral toys equalize children's opportunities to develop a wide range of concepts and skills," Dr. Barbour states. "They also help counteract some stereotypes that limit children's thinking about what and who they can and should be."
Here are our expert recommendations for the best gender-neutral toys that can help make play dates easier for kids, parents and nannies - and open kids' minds to a world of opportunities:
For sitters and crawlers
"Wagons and pull toys that can follow them when they crawl and carry themselves across the floor. These will develop motor skills as they require balance and visual-motor coordination," Seltzer explains.
Cause and effect come into play here, as babies may not have any expectations of the toy or action.
Though it may seem like kids today are growing up communicating via texts and tablets, the good old telephone remains a valuable tool in kids' language development and representational thinking. "Talking" on the phone with someone, they can learn phones are also tools that let them share information and get help. Studies have also shown it's an important tool in dramatic play.
- Duplo Blocks
These spark kids' imaginations and sense of creativity as they build their own structures or designs. They're also great for hand-eye coordination. And when building together, kids can learn about patience and sharing - and enjoy a sense of achievement when they look at their completed creations.
For the toddler set
Wooden Spoons and Other Household Items
"Toddlers love things they see their parents using, like plastic measuring cups," Dr. Barbour says. Often, the best toys might be found in your own kitchen cabinets. Parents have been turning to pots and pans and wooden spoons for generations. Just watch for frayed edges.
Another low cost (or free) option. Use a plastic laundry basket and assorted beanbags or balls to create tossing games. Just don't place the basket too close to anything breakable in case their throws miss the target!
- Ride-on Toys without Pedals
Propelling themselves with scooting feet, kids can improve their sense of balance, develop motor skills and strengthen parts of their body. It's great for supervised outdoor or indoor play.
For preschool pals
Great for fostering social skills and cooperative play and, can be a lesson in problem solving.
Many kids communicate more easily using puppets since they give kids a little extra confidence to express their feelings. For kids who may be shy, puppets can help them interact with others and increase communication as they work together to put on a show. They also foster speaking and listening skills.
Investing in (washable) crayons, markers, child-sized scissors and paper can stimulate kids' imaginations and help them develop their creativity, sense of craftsmanship, fine motor skills and much more.
Balls and Blocks
These encourage hand-eye coordination, timing, and sequencing. Plus, there's social involvement and sharing skills at play.
Pretend Play Supplies
Whether its dress up clothes, pots and pans, or cardboard boxes assembled to create a mini kitchen, a few items can allow your child's imagination run wild. Encourage pretending you're at a grocery store, restaurant, kitchen, barn, stage, or train station. Let your child lead the way.
- Music for Dancing
Dancing helps kids develop a wide range of gross and fine motor skills while promoting overall physical fitness. It also helps them develop coordination, flexibility, balance, agility, strength, and stamina. It's also a boost for mental health, increasing self-esteem and confidence and providing a chance to express emotions.
For kindergarten kids
"Some challenges will be learning the rules of the games, using verbal communication skills and seeing if each kid can sustain attention through game beyond just his or her turn," Seltzer says. "The adult will play a teaching role that involves some level of modeling, and offer reminders or suggest how to clarify a dispute, i.e. 'Let's look at the rules.' But children really can work out their differences, if adults do not interfere." "Of course, an adult should always intervene if there is a physical altercation or verbal bullying," Seltzer emphasizes.
"Kids five and six years old are a perfect age to work on some building projects with friends using things from Legos to shoe boxes. It's a wonderful way for kids to learn to collaborate," believes Conner. "Parents can provide a phrase before they begin, such as 'Use your words to work it out.' This sets expectations for the kids to figure out how to get along together while constructing." In a nutshell: Talk to one another if a problem comes up-and figure out a fair solution!
Indoor Fort Supplies
Old sheets, blankets and giant cushions are great for hanging over couches, dining room tables and chairs and hunkering underneath! Perhaps the fort represents a tent-and the children will collect safe "camping gear" like sleeping bags, snacks, a cardboard box to be the "camp stove" and real pots and pans for pretend campside cooking.
Butcher Block Paper
Perfect for giant drawing projects, use invisible tape to lightly tape the paper to the floor and get messy! Provide crayons or washable non-toxic markers and let them draw a giant painting or create roadways or a village for a pretend town of their own creation.
Interestingly, parents may recognize some of these popular items from their own childhoods. One more benefit? Look closely at the toys and things above, and you'll realize they all have something in common -- they are low-tech, offering everyone a break from our technology-heavy times.