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Lately I have been looking around the house at Charlie’s various toys and thinking about which ones have been really good buys. I don’t necessarily mean the cheapest toys, but rather the toys that have gotten the most use. Here’s a rundown of the top five toys (in no particular order) that have gone the distance, entertaining him as both a toddler and a preschooler:

Push toys. Charlie has been obsessed with the vacuum cleaner for a long, long time. When he was a baby and seemed to cry incessantly, Mark frequently would hold Charlie in one arm and vacuum with the other arm because somehow the combination of the noise of the vacuum and the movement of vacuuming was very soothing to Charlie. As he grew older, he wanted to help vacuum. So for Charlie’s second birthday, Mark bought him a little toy vacuum. Charlie adored it from the moment he opened it. At some point, maybe a year later, Charlie broke the vacuum, so we quickly went out and bought him another one because we knew he’d continue to love it. And, to this day, he does. Given how much he uses it, I only wish the toy vacuum actually sucked up dirt.  A second very successful push toy was a shopping cart that we gave Charlie shortly after he started walking. He doesn’t play with it as much now, but he loved that shopping cart for at least 18 months. Now he mostly uses it to store things in his room. And, for a really inexpensive push toy, Charlie has absolutely adored the recycling bins since he was about a year and a half. He loves to push them from the garage to the curb when it’s time for the recycling to be picked up each week, and then he pushes the empty bins back to the garage. Sometimes he’ll sit in the bin and asked to be pushed around the yard.

Ride-on toys. Charlie has a few toys he can ride and they’re all great. Two of them — a school bus and airplane — he’s had for about two years. Both of them play annoying music and have batteries that just won’t die, but Charlie loves them. Well over a year ago, we scored a fantastic tricycle for Charlie on Craigslist for $20. We had to drive about 30 miles to get it, but it was so worth it.

Though both the pull toys and ride-on toys tend to retail for considerably more money than the other items on my toddler-to-preschooler toys list, you can often find deals on them on Craigslist (like we did for Charlie’s tricycle) or watch for sales at the big toy stores. For an energetic child like Charlie, both of these types of “action” toys are really helpful to help expend some of that energy. And, as a testament to the appeal of these toys, they are always the first thing that other children play with when they come over to visit Charlie.

Playdough. Playing with playdough helps develop fine motor skills (all that kneading, rolling, and cutting), as well as early language skills (naming both colors as well as the cutter shapes like stars, trees, and cats). When Charlie was younger, the cat cut-out was by far his favorite and got a lot of use, but Lord help us when that thing would temporarily go missing. Now Charlie seldom uses the cut-out shapes. Instead, he “writes” his name making the letters out of the playdough. He also creates pictures, usually faces, and when he gets to the mouth, we talk about whether he is going to make a happy face or sad face by the way he makes the smile. It’s a nice, easy way to talk about emotions.

Sidewalk chalk. I don’t know exactly when we bought Charlie his first pack of sidewalk chalk, but it was probably the summer after he turned one. Initially, of course, he just used it to scribble, but even then he was developing fine motor skills. As Charlie learned to talk, he started demanding that we draw pictures for him — usually pictures of him. We went through a long phase of drawing pictures of Charlie; left to draw for himself, he’d still just scribble. Miraculously, one day he started drawing his own pictures of himself, and it was clear that he’d been studying how we drew the pictures so he could learn. He now carefully draws a head, then tells us how he needs to add eyes, a nose, and a smile. Then he’ll draw his body. Finally, he’ll often try to label his drawing by writing his name next to it (he’s really good at the C and H, but then it starts to break down from there).

An unexpected benefit of always having sidewalk chalk on our front porch is that it gives Charlie a chance to interact with other kids in the neighborhood. It turns out that sidewalk chalk is like a kid-magnet. All we have to do is start drawing and children seem to show up. It’s great.

ABC wooden blocks. These blocks are a classic multi-function toy, which makes them useful at several different developmental stages.  Mark bought wooden blocks for Charlie when he was about 18 months old.  Charlie’s interest at first was just to stack two blocks, one on top of the other.  As his fine motor skills improved, we played little games to see how many blocks he could stack. We encouraged early language development by naming the pictures on the blocks — cat, dog, flower, etc. Eventually, Charlie started building up the blocks and counting them. Then he made bridges out of the blocks for his trains to drive through. Now he’s learning to recognize letters so he looks through the blocks looking for the C-H-A-R-L-I-E and then arranging them just so. When we played with the blocks the other day, he decided to create a picture of himself (he’s a little obsessed with pictures of himself).  He rearranged the blocks into a face, and then found some things lying around the house he used to make the body.

It’s oddly comforting to me that most of the for-the-long-haul toys that made it onto my list aren’t very sophisticated; in fact, most of them are toys I played with as a child.

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