Archives for the month of: December, 2011

 Ingredients: Toys you already own (dinosaurs, playmobile, play dough, cars / trains, arts & crafts leftovers, wrapping paper, throws, cushions, etc…) , all the time you can give, freedom to make mess and have fun for ages 0 – 90.

The Big Sell: Never mind new presents under the tree, the thing most kids want this Christmas is you, your inspiration and focus on play time as a family – so ransack the toy boxes and get busy!

Strategy: Clear a carpet space or table and use the toys most families usually have to create the MOTHER OF ALL FAMILY GAMES! Some ideas include:

Dino Valley

Transform a rug into a landscape using a shallow tray or bowl filled with warm water for a lake on a towel, cushions for hills covered in throws, sand or moon sand in a shallow tray for a desert, plasticine / play dough trees and all the dinosaur toys / play mobile people with jeep, to create Jurassic Park in your own living room.

Towering Inferno  (or any 70’s style disaster movie!)

Combine lego, drawbridge made from string/ wood off-cuts (see Ball of String blog post), playmobile, toy garage & other sundry buildings, and scrunched red tissue paper (for flames) left from presents to create a disaster movie better than any ITV3 re-run. The kids get to pick which Playmobile men play the Jeremy Irons / Sean Connery / Kurt Russell etc… baddies and goodies, perhaps employing your best attempt at impersonating the accents for a giggle? Make a bomb from a matchbox to be placed in a central spot that the goodies have to disable before the egg timer pings!

Constructions with Play Dough

I don’t know about you but I get terribly bored with repetitively making sausage shapes or using cut out shapes with Play dough. For a new approach, cut play dough into small brick shapes and build your own wall or castle. Combine with a toy crane with added play dough wrecking ball to knock down and re-build.

Or flatten long thin sausages of play dough to make networks of roads or train tracks round the dining room table. Combine with your Thomas the Tank Engine or Postman Pat toys to create village life – run play dough roads over folded tea towels to make bridges and cardboard rolls for tunnel, or even attempt a full rollercoaster – be as ambitious as possible!

The Verdict: This is the kind of play which provides unforgettable family memories – get relatives staying for the holidays involved too and everyone regresses into a united fantasy world. The games provide an antidote to the chocolate-fuelled, present overkill, post-Christmas blues that hit any time from Boxing Day onwards. Every year I promise not to buy the kids so much ‘stuff’ and every year I fall prey to the commercial tsunami, before realising too late that it’s these imaginative “let’s see how many toys we can use in one game” activities that really make us genuinely happy and bring us all together again.

Catchphrase: Run, run for your lives – T-Rex is coming from under the Christmas tree!!!

Left wanting more?

Struggling to get the kids to write thank you notes to generous relatives? Why not bump their heads together to write a bespoke Christmas thank you poem or song and email round a short recording of them in full recital to one and all?!


Ingredients: All the toys at your disposal, a doctors kit, stickers, and some adult enthusiasm to get stuck in!

The Big Sell: Hey, stop crying / fighting / shouting, there’s an emergency!


Picture my house every Saturday morning:

1)      Husband sets off to work bleary-eyed.

2)     Eldest son (an introvert), shattered after a week at school wants only to play on his own or one to one with me, too tired to think of any ideas for play

3)     Youngest son (an extrovert) is terribly excited that big brother is at home and prepares to provoke him using any method necessary (read hitting) to get his attention

4)     I look at my messy house and long for the kids to play nicely together so I return some order to the chaos by the time we reach Monday

5)     Result? World War 3! By 9.45am there have been several punch-ups, many threats of naughty steps and tears all round.

Normally I would throw them into the local park to run it off (I hear boys are like dogs and need a good walk) but with sniffles and exhaustion they refuse to step foot outside.

Time for PLAN B!  This is what I tried this weekend and whilst I’m sure it isn’t fool-proof, I’ve learnt a few comfort games over the past few years that always seem to help.

Toy Hospital.

You say: Oh my Goodness! There’s an emergency!

Son 1, go get loads of cuddly toys from your beds.

Son 2, help me find the Doctors kit.

To the hospital!! (which is the sofa)

(Start making the Nee Nar noise and get them to follow you conga-style to the living room.)

Quickly, line these toys up so they can be seen by you two – the Doctors. Hurry! They need our help!

Oh dear, this one has a tummy ache – can you give him some medicine?

This one has scraped his head – he needs an injection.

This one has broken his arm – help me make a sling.

Ah – this one just feels unloved and needs a cuddle.

Etc.. I would interject at certain points to introduce a new element of play. A particularly successful element was to introduce “Sticker-itis” (stick any small stickers all over them) – a horribly infectious disease which they spent ages spreading amongst the ward, table, floor… Soon they had improvised a stretcher that they were happily carrying between them, ferrying toys from the intensive ward to rehabilitation! Once that got boring, I introduced medical notes showing them how to draw graphs detailing their patient’s history, and asked them to complete their rounds.

The Verdict:

You can use many games to distract and focus kids when they are stuck in a negative rut. However, I think there are some unique elements here which help. First of all, the cause of the problem is not that you have naughty kids or that they hate each other – it’s that after a leave of absence, especially when they have experienced a great deal of adult-led structure in their ‘working week’ they can forget how to play naturally and creatively with the toys staring them in the face – this is frightening, frustrating and maddening for everyone involved. Their battle cries towards each other on a Saturday morning are actually cries for “Please show me how to play again – I’ve forgotten!”

The nice thing about toy hospital is that is comfortingly uses all their favourite toys, it places them in the position of being caring and responsible (but for a fun reason rather than to let Mummy do the washing up) and re-discovering improvisational play provides many avenues they can choose to go down, so whilst you may have sown the original seed they can choose to grow it into their own world.

I know it may seem the last thing a grown-up wants to do when they have 101 other mundane tasks waiting, but honestly once I’d set them up for 30 – 60 minutes they played nicely for the whole of the rest of the weekend! (I did all the housework and even dusted the cobwebs away ready for Christmas decorations and, believe me, that never usually happens!)

 They had re-learnt that which they had lost through an injection of enthusiasm, some adult role-modelling, and a game which brought them together as allies.

Ideas for your very own Doctors Kit: shops sell good basics like toy stethoscope, blood pressure pump, thermometer, etc.. but we have added real bandages and plasters, blunt scissors and pretend plastic scalpel, pipette, pot with spoon for pretend medicine, one of those plungers for dispensing medicine into baby’s mouths which we pretend is a needle, and of course red stickers for spots.

Catchphrase: Nurse? Scalpel! Swab! Biscuit! …

Left wanting more?

My second FAIL-SAFE for grumpy days is a real Teddy Bears Picnic. Tell the kids to prep by writing invites, laying a tablecloth on the floor, setting out small bowls, and bringing their cuddlies. You prepare many bowls with a variety of foods (both naughty and nice – on grumpy days you can make exceptions!) and ask the children to be ‘in charge’ of the teddies so that they get a good balance of food (not just the sweets) and share nicely. This can work if a child is a fussy eater and you are trying to teach them good table manners as it places the emphasis on them teaching other (naughtier) dinner guests. It’s amazing how exciting lunch can be on the floor with ten chatty teddies…