Imaginative Play, Natural Play.

This is a repost from 2009 that I think you will love. Enjoy!


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My aunt came for our family Christmas party when Sage was four. She gave him a Superman action figure with a plastic box that broke open when Superman threw it on the ground. A green plastic kryptonite chunk fell out of the middle upon impact. Sage opened the package and stared at the toy, turning it over in his hand.

"What is it?" he asked.

"What is it?!" she replied. "Its SUPERMAN! You take this thing and put it in his hands and push this button and he throws it and it breaks and…"

He stared at her. He wasn't trying to be rude. He just didn't get it.

My mom spoke up. "Sage doesn't know who Superman is. He lives in a land of gnomes and fairies."

"What do you mean he doesn't know who Superman is?!" she shouted. "Well its about time he learn!"


My mom was right. We do live in a land of gnomes and fairies. My children have grown up in a gentle world free of commercialism, marketing, and directed play. They play because it is fun and it feeds their souls, not to follow a preexisting script.


Our toys are mostly natural, made of materials that will return to the earth when their functional life is done. I like that. Wool, silk, cotton, and wood make up 90% of our playthings. And many of them have held the children's interest for years and will continue to do so far into the future.

High quality, open-ended toys can be expensive, yes. But the dollars spent on the farm animals above when Sage was two were dollars well spent by my estimation. So far they have enjoyed five years of play by Sage plus two years of play by Lupine – with no end in sight.

We've also scored plenty of second-hand treasures, both online (through Craigslist, Ebay, and barter groups) and at garage sales and have made many of our own using fabric, wood, and found objects. Even a simple basket of stones or acorns is a treasured toy – and is far more valuable (in play terms) than a box of plastic superheroes.


With no one else's stories to draw on our children are free to play out their own dramas. Sage can express his anger or fear through dragons and knights, while Lupine often makes sure no one is going to sleep alone in the farmhouse. (Babies and mamas must always stay together!)

Pete and I are conscious of staying out of their creative way while the children play. It is not our story that needs to be expressed, but theirs. So we strive to be present and playful but in a passive role, quietly allowing the children to take the lead.

Some of the children's favorite (open ended) toys include:

  • Ostheimer wooden farm animals
  • Conkers – baskets of acorns, chestnuts, stones and seashells
  • Handmade (by me) dolls
  • Wooden doll bed (second hand)
  • Wooden playstands (handmade by Pete and I)
  • Wooden cash register (second hand, amazingly)
  • Playsilks (many hand dyed by us – my simple tutorial is here)

20 thoughts on “Imaginative Play, Natural Play.

  1. Jenna says:

    Oh, that brought back the memory of my first child (now 11) as a toddler at a birthday party for another 3 year old and being quized by a well-meaning adult there…”who is this?” pointing to a gift bag featuring Elmo’s bright red face. My boy looked up at her totally clueless. We were a no TV household at the time (now we’re a “low” TV household, hehe). She looked at me so appologetically, as if he were “behind” somehow and she’d suddenly brought this to light. At the time it made me mad, now I just find it sadly funny.

  2. KC says:

    Oh my goodness, if I weren’t reading Simplicity Parenting with you I would have to buy up all those cute forest animals. Thanks for pointing us towards that wonderful website! I’ll keep it in mind for future birthdays.

  3. Cassandra says:

    I love your post…and I love your example. Rachel, you are walking the walk and I have all the respect in the world for you. Thanks for sharing with all of us…

  4. Lori says:

    Interesting isn’t it? As I sit and watch my children (7 years and 16 months old) play they seem to naturally gravitate towards the more open ended toys. Now that the weather is getting a bit nicer they are both enjoying digging in the garden as we prepare to plant and enjoying the rocks, leaves and sticks nature provides. It’s fun to be an observer and see what they like to play with rather than what I want them to play with.

  5. says:

    I’ve been looking for a play cash register for my daughter to go along with her kitchen and shopping cart… but yikes, $80-something on SALE?! I’ll have to hope for second-hand, too. I’ve also had play silks on my wish list for them for a while – great for dress-up, especially superhero capes, I’m guessing. Thanks for the info!

  6. Pam says:

    Thank you so much for (re)posting this! I love watching my 4 year old son play and how easily his 14 month old sister can still be a part of the fun with him. No issues of following a script or gender-specific toys, just creating a world of their own!

  7. Rachel Wolf says:

    We truly love them KC. They are among the few keepers that we will have forever. And since weve reduced the quantity of toys these are getting TONS of play.
    ~ Rachel

  8. Rachel Wolf says:

    Thats funny. Sage called Elmo red monster for years. My mom once referred to him as unsophisticated. I told her no, he is uncommercialized.

  9. Rachel Wolf says:

    Do they need a cash register? Or can they make one out of an old calculator and a shoebox? I bought my kids that $80 register at a yard sale and were passing it along to a friend in this purge. We simply dont need so many closed-ended toys, regardless of the quality.


  10. Rachel Wolf says:

    And the fewer toys you have the less distracted they will be by the loudness of things. They will gravitate more and more towards what is everywhere.

  11. Kara says:

    Love, love, love this. I love watching my children play and seeing what they can come up with. Realtives have told us our playroom looks “empty” and that our kids don’t have any “real toys.” But our playroom is filled with imagination and the kind of toys that don’t stop being interesting just because they run out of batteries! :o)

  12. Desiree says:

    Back a few months you mentioned you make dolls for your kids. I have looked at patterns and was wondering if in a future post you could talk more about the process and any pointers you may have. Just an idea…thanks so much

  13. Angela says:

    I love open play and remember doing so as a child. Now everything is so scripted. I try hard to keep commercialized stuff out of my house (excepting Thomas but even so my son’s adventures with him were his own-thank goodness). My kids don’t play with many toys but boy are they loathe to give up the stuff they don’t use. I am still trying to figure my way out of that one.

  14. Rachel Wolf says:

    Are you reading along with the Simplicity Parenting book club? Tomorrow Ill post the review of chapter 3 which is all about moving out the stuff. Ive let my kids keep the money from a garage sale and they love letting stuff go when we do it that way! Or I say we are making room for more treasures and magic and they go for it, too. Yes, down with the scripted play!


  15. Angela says:

    Oh yes I am reading along and enjoying it very much. I am a little gutless when it comes to getting rid of their stuff. Hmm I think I will try a reward system too. I have been telling them that we will be rotating things around and that seems to bring some comfort.
    I am so happy to have taken this route. I will use your words to about making room for more magic! Thanks! The scripted play really gets to me. Things are just so different now. In the 70s I remember having very very few commercial toys and more open-ended ones. Its amazing what has happened to the mainstream industry and culture.

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