Yes, your children will (temporarily) hate you, and you may see a sudden spike in household insurgency, but take a firm and principled stand, declaring a moratorium on electronic toys and games—even the Wii. Unplug everything and refuse to replace the batteries, making sure that grandma and Aunt Sophie do not collude with the children. Save money, promote health and fitness, and restore genuine fun to its proper place on the family’s agenda, finding toys and games that build skills and cultivate vivid imaginations.
Frugal fitness fits all.
Do you own one of each kind of ball? Do your soccer ball, basketball, and all-purpose kickball-dodgeball have air in them? Do you own a softball or baseball and a couple of mitts? What about a bat? Do your children know how to use these implements of general mayhem? Did you know that your local sporting goods store sells top-of-the-line used sports equipment for pennies on the dollar? Do your children understand that any average street corner easily becomes a baseball diamond, a soccer pitch, or a basketball court; do they comprehend the incontrovertible fact that any patch of grass easily becomes a football field or gymnasium? Can your kids do somersaults and cartwheels? When was the last time your children came indoors covered with sweat and mud? When was the last time you came indoors covered with sweat and mud from something other than domestic drudgery?
A little upgrade goes a long way. Wheels are good. Rumor has it that wheels advanced civilization at least as much as the personal computer, and your family enjoys huge opportunities to test that hypothesis: ride bikes, roller skate, push scooters, or turn your sons into skater bois. Yes, wheeled goods have evolved a lot since the glory days of the Schwinn Varsity ten-speed, but bargains abound since kids abandoned the custom of playing outdoors.
Girl power guides gifted hands and minds.
Barbie is forever, but girls prefer learning, doing, and making over sophisticated accessorizing. Of course, every girl wants an iPad, an iPhone, and a new iPod, but when they return to the real world, girls show decided preference for art supplies—the messier the better, and they love Lego blocks and building kits. You need not spend money to satisfy this preference, though. You can find the original “Play-Dough” recipe and a million colorful and aromatic variations on line. Old newspaper in the presence of flour and water paste still becomes paper mache; and a giant roll of meat wrap from the restaurant supply store is the greatest art supply ever. You can find Lego blocks sold by the pound on e-Bay, and you will find literally millions of Lego and Duplo blocks at just about every yard sale, garage sale, and swap meet.
Although our second grade teachers reminded us, “Books are not toys,” they are way more fun than the average text message. They have plots and real drama, and all of the words are spelled correctly. A recent survey of American literacy confirmed what everyone always suspected: Nearly 70% of school-aged girls think recreational reading is important, and they do it at least three times every week; only two of every ten boys shares girls’ enthusiasm for books. Of course, the best-seller lists tell all, but girls remain loyal to their perennial favorites: the Lemony Snickett series, the Twilight saga, and Harry Potter still top girls’ lists of must-haves. To their everlasting credit, the vast majority of girls, regardless of their ages, say they prefer books to dolls—with the prominent exception of collectible American Girls dolls that complement series of books about heroic young women from different historical epochs. A quick look at the American Girls catalogue reveals just how spendy they are, but skilled and experienced collectors recommend patient, persistent e-Bay and Amazon shopping, pointing out that both the dolls and the books represent keepsakes and heirlooms.
Boys want to build and bash.
Boys’ play has one and only one fundamental rule: Bash something (or somebody) really hard. Think about ways to convert those primordial y-chromosome urges into useful skills. For example, start outfitting your sons with their own toolkits, starting with hammers, nails, and scrap 2×4’s from a construction site or the local home improvement retailer. Graduate to saws, drills, and small projects, slowly advancing to power tools as the boys become more proficient and dextrous. The big hardware and home improvement stores offer kids workshops every month; attend them. Also keep in mind that whatever works well for the boys works even better for the girls. Girls love hammers too.