Simply Play Time Part 1: Toys for Free Play

As parents, we want to teach our little ones what we can, and there is no shortage of toys available for that purpose. Never huge fans of electronic, or direct-teaching toys, we have stocked up on way too many wooden, creative toys. They are all very nice, but when they are so piled up, the Bean won’t play with any of them! On the boat last summer, there was room for Beanie to have one dish tub full of toys. Other than that, she used the facilities the marina had to offer: the pool, the playground, the grass, etc.

The success we had there led to us pare down the toys in our house. The result: a Bean who plays with her toys much more! We also sorted her toys into free play activities and guided play. For example, if she has access to her Melissa and Doug beads at all times, she will scatter them throughout her room, rather than using them. Thus, the beads are on the shelf in her closet, unless an adult gets them down and uses them with her.

So, today I will share some of the toys for free play that have worked best with our little Bean. I try to have activities available for her in the following areas: pretend play, imitative play, fine motor, gross motor, sensory, creative, and music. She also has her books available, so that she can look at them on her own. Remember, the Bean is 3 1/2 years old, even though kids don’t seem to outgrow the low-tech toys nearly as quickly!

Some of the Bean’s picks:

daddy doll

We’ll start out with the most mainstream toys, which do happen to be her favorite. The Bean would spend all day playing with her Fisher Price Loving Family dolls if we let her. They’re sturdy, even though the paint does come off it you use them in the bath too much. Beanie loves dolls this size, and this brand seems to be the only one that includes male dolls. So Loving Family daddy is also Strawberry Shortcake’s daddy. This toy would cover fine motor and pretend play.

toy piano

The Bean’s day would not be complete without real musical instruments. A lot of the toy instruments are cheesy, so we try to find more durable instruments for her to use. We have an old school toy piano, refinished, that used to be Rob’s. To see the Bean playing it when she was younger, click here. We also have a real xylophone (from Ebay), a recorder, and a harmonica. These toys satisfy her need for musical play and auditory sensory play.


The Bean loves drawing, and, being the perfectionist that she is, she loves being able to erase easily. She has worn out two Magna Doodles so far. She will spend hours drawing lions, elephants, kitties, and, of course, Mommy and Daddy. This is creative and fine motor play.


We thought the Bean had outgrown her Radio Flyer horse, but then we caught her sneaking into the storage room to use it! It’s hard to find gross motor activities to do indoors, but this is a good one. It’s also a good sensory toy. Obviously this toy doesn’t come with us to the boat!


Certain activities should definitely be encouraged. Whenever Rob or I are cleaning the house, out comes the Bean with her toy vacuum cleaner (from Playgo Ltd). And when her best friend comes to visit, the first thing they do is get out the play cleaning equipment! One of them takes the vacuum, one takes the broom, or somebody uses the wooden duck on a handle! Go figure! This toy uses both gross motor and imitative play.

duck on a stick

Which brings me to the duck on a stick. Every kid needs one. It’s great large motor and pretend play!

I would love to have more hand made toys in this category, but we’ve mainly found well-made mass-produced toys. We have more wooden, less corporate toys in our next category, toys for guided play.

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