Ah, play! We never really grow too old to play; we just play at different things, don’t we? While most of us are endeavoring to train up our children to understand what it means to work hard, we recognize the value of playtime and creative downtime at any age.

Our little people spend the bulk of their time at play, and that’s as it should be. We can incorporate more purposeful learning into their days in covert ways that mask as play, but the truth is, they learn and enjoy a lot simply by playing.

In the Western world, our kids are inundated with toy choices, but that means there are as many terrible toys as there are good ones. I’m not getting philosophical or talking toy morality; I just mean that there’s a whole lot of plastic junk out there.  

Would it be helpful to know which toys have endured five boys and three girls over nineteen years in our home? Obviously, the best toys here won’t be the best toys for everyone, but there are some things we’ve considered as we’ve purchased toys:

1. How long will this toy last?

Have you ever gone into a boutique toy store and marveled at the price on the European organic birch train set that sells for $1,200? I wonder, “Who can buy these things?” However, that’s probably the last train set you would ever buy. I can’t shell out $1,200 for a train set, but I have picked up a well-made car or doll as a bit of a splurge, and invariably those are the toys that are still around. They might look like they’ve endured a war, but they are well loved and enjoyed by many.

I want to know that a toy is constructed well and will be worth the investment. The tiny Waldorf doll I purchased for our youngest daughter was a splurge, but her love for that dolly is legendary in our home.

2. How many ways can this toy be played with?

Some toys have multiple uses. A set of well-made wooden blocks can become virtually anything, and our set of CitiBlocs has been used to build simple houses, train tracks, pretend food, cargo for the back of trucks, and reproductions of the Eiffel Tower.

LEGO bricks are good for this too. If your kids are like mine, LEGO bricks have a play value that reaches far beyond the sets they come in. I used to get frustrated with my boys’ propensity to build a set once and then never again, but the creativity factor is worth the mess every time they dump those pieces all over the floor.

Basic costume pieces such as bandanas, scarves, belts, hats, T-shirts, cropped pants, and vests can be used in many ways as well. My kids are far more creative than I am; a bandana has been a pirate hat, a granny scarf, a gypsy sash, and a beggar’s bag. It is simply delightful to see what kids come up with when you give them a box of assorted costume-type things.

3. How many kids will want to play with this toy?

When I think about keeping toys around for our grandkids, the number-one factor I consider is whether or not a toy will have “universal appeal.” If I’m going to store it, I want to know that many kids will continue to enjoy it.

For us, the toys with the most use among the age spectrum have been CitiBlocs, LEGO bricks, the Wii, board games, bikes, costumes, skateboards, and BRIO trains. It’s great to see my adult son take the time to build a killer train set for the 4-year-old, and although that’s not what he’d choose to spend an hour doing for himself, he actually enjoys building something great for the little guys.

The CitiBlocs have the same appeal. I recently saw my 13-year-old, 11-year-old, 10-year-old, and 7-year-old get hold of the blocks, and suddenly a town emerged out of the identically shaped and sized pieces. Turrets and fences, moats and balconies were constructed. Arguments over who had more blocks ensued until the oldest said, “Ummm, we’re arguing over blocks.”