With Christmas fast approaching now is the time to stop and think about the gifts we will buy for our children and why. For many of us the commercialism of the Christmas season and the pressure from children, marketing companies and even extended family to give particular gifts can turn what should be a beautiful and special time of year, into a time that is uncomfortable and stressful. We can help to ease some of this tension by thinking about what type of gifts we would like our children to receive and why. Once we have this worked out we need to clearly express this to other family members. Thinking about this now is also beneficial to us as parents, because even though we may know what we do and don’t like, often if we leave shopping to the last minute, we end up over purchasing and buying things we wouldn’t have considered buying if we had taken the time to plan ahead. The first thing we need to consider is what we feel makes a good toy, a toy that is suited to the age of the child and also our own philosophies. Sometimes we don’t know exactly why we have an aversion to a particular toy, but there is probably a good reason for it. We need to listen to our inner feeling without being influenced by what marketing companies and well meaning family tell us our child ‘should’ have. Just because it is the norm and ‘everyone else has it’, doesn’t mean that it is what is best for your child. As parents we usually know what we do and don’t want in our life and in the lives of our children, and we shouldn’t feel guilty about trying to protect this. I have always felt that I would prefer my children to have fewer toys of higher quality, rather than a lot of cheap, throw away, plastic toys. When we give our children beautiful toys that we ourselves have a respect and appreciation for, we are passing that feeling on to our child. We naturally want to care for the toy, place it somewhere visible, neatly displayed on a shelf or in a small basket, rather than throwing it into the bottom of the toy box or back of the cupboard to be lost amongst chaos. When we care for a toy in this way, our child will learn to love and care for it in the same way. They will develop an appreciation for beautiful, natural things, and they will truly cherish the gifts they receive. We can speak to our child about the source of the toy, where it came from, the materials used, and the skill of the craftsperson that made it. The most valuable toys we can give a child are those that we have made for our child with our own hands. A gift made and given in this way has a very special quality and this will be recognised by the child. However, when making gifts is not an option, there is no need to resort to mass produced, toxic, lifeless plastics – there are many talented local toy makers in Australia, and so many European family businesses that have been handcrafting wooden toys of exceptional quality and beauty for generations. Along with considering the physical quality of a toy, we also need to consider its play quality. How many different uses does it have? Does it dictate the play to the child, or is the child free to play with it in any way they choose? Toys that are open-ended are open to a variety of uses limited only by the imagination of the child. The simpler the toy, the more potential it has to become other things in play. Toys that are both well made and open ended have the ability to grow alongside your child and become part of their play in various ways throughout their childhood. A great example of this is the wooden rainbow ‘puzzles’ often seen in Steiner kindergartens. We have one of these at home and I love to see the way my two sons use it in their play. Initially my two year old would simply lay out the pieces from end to end – the result was a beautiful, colourful, curving line stretching across the floor. Now, as he approaches the age of three, I see him beginning to include the rainbow in more imaginative play – perhaps using the arches as a fence for an animal, a tunnel for a small truck, or a mountain for a horse to cross. My six year can be found using a single arch as a seesaw for a small doll or a frame for a small house – but mostly he can be found creating beautiful arrangements with the pieces – perhaps stacking them and balancing them into a tower of arches, or creating colourful patterns and shapes flat on the table. Neither of them play with this toy every day, but it is something that both of them can enjoy in so many different ways for many, many years – and when not in use, it is a beautiful wooden rainbow sitting on a low cupboard in our living room, ready to be played with at any moment. Other elements of a toy worth considering are the environmental impact of the toy, and the conditions under which it was made. We will feel more proud and comfortable giving a toy that we know was made by workers who were paid fair wages. If we know that our purchase comes from a sustainable resource and has minimal impact on the environment, we are giving our child a positive message through our gift, and when they are of the age to understand we can even explain why we made this choice. Once we know what type of toys we are happy for our child to receive we need a way of getting this message across to other family members that will be buying gifts for our child. Some Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles are happy to buy what they know you want your child to have, others insist on buying what they know you would never buy for your child yourself. This is different in every family and I know that for some it can be a very sensitive issue. I think the most important thing in all cases is not to take away the ability of the giver to choose. Gift giving is very personal and if we tell people exactly which gift to buy, they are missing out on the joy of selecting something for that child on their own. The best way to do this without having to compromise your own ideals is to go to a favourite shop or online store that shares your philosophies. You can then have a thorough look at what is on offer and make a list of all the things that you know your child would love, and you know you would be happy for them to receive. Pass this list around the family with prices and details of where the items can be purchased. This way they can choose for themselves what they would like to give your child, and you both know it will be a gift that you are happy to have in your home. With a little planning there is no need to become overwhelmed by the approach of the Christmas season. All our children need in a toy is simplicity, beauty and the ability to play freely without the constraints of adult concepts and thinking. By giving our child toys that support the growth of their imagination we are preserving the true beauty of childhood – and this is the most important and valuable gift that any child can receive.