My four-year-old daughter has a beautiful wooden dollhouse that she got for Christmas last year. She plays with the dolls and furniture inside, but what has been most fascinating are the home upgrades she’s added using… trash. A junk-mail catalogue clipping has become the TV. Some old bottle caps are now a backyard obstacle course. A sponge is the jumping castle. A handful of shredded tissues is part of a car wash. She runs around, opening junk drawers (yes, we have plural) and exclaiming, “Oh! This can be the swimming pool! This can be a seesaw! This can be the elevator!”
Wait, why do we buy toys again?
In order to come up with imaginative ideas and solutions to problems, research shows that kids need free, unstructured time — not worksheets, not back-to-back extracurriculars, not Netflix (sorry). They also need some simple materials to play with. In her memoir What The Grown-Ups Were Doing: An Odyssey Through 1950s Suburbia, Michele Hanson writes about what those objects looked like in the days before helicopter parents and digital devices:
So what did “play” mean back then? There was barely any telly, no mobiles, iPhones or iPlayers, no internet, computer games, PlayStations and no pop stars. We had only the simplest of equipment: Jacks, marbles, skipping-ropes, bats, balls and bicycles.
Most of the time, my friends and I made our own games up: Making perfume from rose petals, brewing ginger beer, holding snail races, picking blackberries, making dens in the woods.
We played by the river bank, fishing for sticklebacks and newts, climbed trees and cycled everywhere. …
This must all sound so primitive to today’s young. How would they cope with just two channels of black-and-white telly for only a couple of hours a day? And just the one rotary-dial telephone in the hall?
So how did we manage?
I don’t want to sound a show-off here, but we used our imaginations. We had to. There wasn’t anything much else around.
Today, items for creative play might include LEGO bricks, Magna-Tiles, art supplies and dress-up costumes. But it can also be handy to have some items that might seem like junk, the stuff Marie Kondo would judge you for. As most parents learn after buying their child an expensive toy, the cardboard box it came in can provide hours of entertainment. A hodgepodge of miscellaneous objects can do the same — string, rice scoopers, aluminium foil, masking tape, the colourful little caps on applesauce pouches (we have a jar full of them), egg cartons, toilet paper rolls, and emptied shampoo bottles can all be repurposed in countless new ways. Blogger Joanna Goddard of Cup of Jo writes that her toddler son discovered the “joy of playing with tampons”:
There was something about how they shoot out like rockets and then expand in water, kind of like these magic sponges, that he found enthralling. Now, when he’s been well behaved, I’ll sometimes say, “OK, as a special treat, you get to play with a tampon.”
If you want to move outdoors, early childhood educator Tom Hobson explains how to turn your backyard into a junk paradise for young kids. While filling your property with old tyres, chains, shipping pallets and galvanised steel garbage cans might not be for everyone, you can’t deny how fun it would be for a preschooler.
The best part about playing with loose parts is that there’s no real end. While kids can master a video game or figure out a puzzle, these pieces of “junk” offer infinite variations, allowing them them create a new story every single time.
Welcome to Retro Week, where we’ll be firing up the flux capacitor and bringing you 1950s know-how on everything from casserole-making to fallout-shelter-building to the joys of letting kids relax and play with trash.