Thrifty Thursday: Simple Ideas for Creative Play

I invited my friend and fellow blogger, Jen Lee, to be a guest poster for this week’s Thrifty Thursday tip.  I chose Jen because I really admire her parenting style, and the way in which she teaches her girls (Amelia & Lucy) to love the world around them.  A couple of years ago, Jen & her husband moved their family from the suburbs of Denver to live the urban life in New York.

Jen is an amazing artist and is fostering her girls’ creativity with everyday life. 

Thanks so much Jen for putting this one together, great photos and all!!



Simple Ideas for Creative Play

Children are easier to entertain than marketers would like us to believe.  Still, it can be a challenge to think of creative ways to play with them, since there aren’t any commercials or glossy magazine spreads feeding us inspiration about How to Play with What You Have.  In my mothering, I’ve been learning how my own creative places can be satisfied through creative play with my children, and I’ve watched how easily they can become engaged and how long they can focus when they are making something or experiencing something with their senses.  Here are a few of our favorite ways to play.

1. Let them play with something that’s traditionally “for grown-ups only”. 
My youngest daughter and I played for an entire morning once with the balls of yarn from my knitting basket.  She piled them up into towers, laid on them like pillows.  We played catch.  I marveled at how long I’d kept them “off-limits”.  Real measuring cups and spoons and kitchen utensils are favorite bath toys, and also fun to play with in one side of the sink while I wash dishes in the other.  (Off-topic:  I knew I was getting some serious mommy moves when I routinely put my second baby in one half of my kitchen sink for a bath while washing dishes in the other half.)  Children love interacting with the things in our world, especially things they see us using as tools for our work or our hobbies.

2. Sensory play rocks.  Water and sand are magic ingredients for childhood play, but indoors we like to keep water play in the bathroom or the kitchen and I try to keep sand outside completely.  One good indoor option is fabric shapes you can cut with pinking shears so they don’t fray.  This can be a good use for your scrap bag, or old clothes or sheets.  Our fabric shapes get used as baby blankets or set decorations for little people and anything in between.   Babies love to just feel the different textures.  Dry beans are another good indoor alternative to the sensory pleasures of sand.  Bean bags were a fun part of my childhood, and one of the biggest hits at Christmas when I made my youngest a set.  Older kids who are past the choking stage love using dry beans in their dump trucks (which is what we did growing up), or in their own cooking play (a way my girls taught me).  Sometimes we take a mix of different beans and sort them by kind.

3. Create projects you can add to over time.  The Bear House is a good example of this in our family.  Amelia learned to sew with a project where two pieces of felt were cut out in the shape of a bear and dots were drawn around the edge of one side with a permanent marker.   She used a large, not-too-sharp needle and thread and sewed it together by coming up from behind near a dot and repeating.  She stuffed it when it was almost through, then sewed the last bit and decorated the bear with a permanent marker.  It has a face, a belly button, and “those dots on your chest that everybody has”. 

The whole way home after sewing the bear, she listed about 200 accessories she would make for her bear.  It needed a wardrobe, it needed a house with a toilet.  That was in January.  The bears (she made one for her sister, too) come out when we’re feeling restless.  When the weather’s bad.  When visitors are in town to help.  They have dresses and hats made of felt.  The only sewing that’s required is the level of sewing buttons.  We used a box to start their house, and made a bed out of felt and a toilet out of an old clear plastic container and a lid.

bear-house   bear-house-2

A friend helped my daughter build the most clever piece, an empty tea box with magnets on the front and the top with interchangeable surfaces.  It can be a dinner table or a sink or a stove and oven.  Recently we went to our hardware store to pick out patterned yards of contact paper for the floor and the walls.  The hardware store employees are now charting the progress of The Bear House with us.

When my girls see things for sale that they like, my first question is always, Could we make that ourselves?  If the answer is yes, then we’re always more satisfied and appreciative when we make our own fishing pole game or a true build-our-own-bear than when we consume something less inspired.  Instead of adding new toys, I’m constantly looking for ways we can enjoy the things we have even more.  It takes some effort to see your belongings and your time together in a new way.  Parenting can be a creative expression, and when it is, it invigorates our children and brings us deep pleasure, as well.

Jen Lee is a writer, poet and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY.  She is the author of Solstice: Stories of Light in the Dark and blogs at

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