The Best Toys...

“The best toys focus on what the child can do, rather than what the toys can do.”


Growing up, I desperately wanted a battery-powered kiddie Jeep.  The answer was no.  No freakin’ way!  Besides the obvious reason that they cost upward of $300, my parents likely had a better reason.  There was nothing to learn from a battery-powered Jeep.

Instead, we had a backyard with a makeshift tree fort.  We had a banana-seat bike that we tricked out with spokey-dokeys and playing cards clothes-pinned to the tires.  We had a costume bin and a ton of art supplies, but, looking back, there were very few toys that “did stuff”.  Our favorites and our best memories were from times that we created our own fun.

Spokey Dokeys

Spokey Dokeys

Anyone who knows me well as a camp professional knows I am adamantly against camp novelties, like blobs and go-karts.  In my opinion, if you want to have a fun ride on something, go to Cedar Point.  If you want to make lifelong friends, stretch your imagination and make memories, go to camp.  We cheapen the depth and meaning of the experiences we give our camp kids when our brochures focus on shiny new water toys instead of the good, important stuff of camp.

These reflections come to mind from an article I stumbled across on social media last night by Jenn Choi, entitled “Parents are Buying their Kids all the Wrong Toys.”  Ms. Choi makes some important points that relate directly to camp:

“For a product to be an effective learning tool, the child has to be able to use it to make inquiries and attempt to answer them.”

Take sticks for example.  Sticks are the ultimate learning tool!  And we have so many of them at camp.  For stick forts.  For drawing.  For fighting off zombies.  For making dreamcatchers and gods-eyes.  For fairy gardens.  The inquiry with a stick is constant, and the answers infinite.  As long as they’re not directed toward another child’s eye, let the kids play with sticks!  I bet my bottom dollar that any kid can make more memories with an unlimited supply of sticks than with a $300 baby Jeep.

Stickfort styles

Stickfort styles

“Parents’ play, too, must change.  For starters, they need to get on the floor…we need to get involved and stay involved.  We have to play with them.”

We always say the best counselors are the ones that are on the floor (ground) with the kids—they’re not the one giving instructions while lounging on a top bunk or from a lawnchair on the sidelines.  They’re the ones who are physically immersed in the mess and the chaos, who send the message that the kids’ interests and experiences are their top priority.  I believe that this is rarer and rarer as screens distract us from face-to-face communication and play, especially between adults and kids.  They yearn for it.

2014 Camp AGQ Head Female Counselor Flora Hay is an expert at this.

2014 Camp AGQ Head Female Counselor Flora Hay is an expert at this.

“If children stop playing with an item, parents pay think that the failure lies with the toy.  Really, no one is at fault.  Perhaps the child is just not feeling inspired…When I see that my children are ignoring their open-ended toys, I just start playing with them by myself…The inspiration returns, without any cajoling or direction.”

The best counselors also inspire.  This is not difficult, but it takes some extra confidence and gusto.  If a counselor believes that you can have fun at arts and crafts with no other supplies than brown paint, you better believe that you can.  Admin staff should demonstrate this contagious enthusiasm and show novice counselors how simple it is to inspire kids (and themselves) if you just believe!

What are some times that you have seen camp staff or kids make something out of nothing at camp?  What, in your opinion, are the best camp toys?

PS- Jack and Laura from GoCamp.Pro/Camp Stomping Ground/Camping Coast to Coast have mastered this concept through Makerspace--check out Laura's blog article here.