HALLIE EPHRON: After the excesses of Christmas, I'm happy to report that our one-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter was more interested in the giftwrap than actual toys. She's a great reminder of how sometimes the best toys are the simplest.
Her favorites: empty plastic water bottles; a pair of foam balls; a few old silk scarves; and a box for her baby doll to sleep in. My daughter is planning to bring a length of self-sticking painter's tape on the plane for her little one to play with, along with a few cherished books. There was no painter's tape when my kids were little.
While my daughter was here, I cut a length of string and showed her how to play cat's cradle and make a Jacob's ladder. I hadn't done it in decades and yet the muscle memory returned.
So what are the simplest of toys that you've enjoyed?
LUCY BURDETTE: I don't have any grandchildren to watch (yet), but this reminded me of a game my sister and I used to play for hours and hours. The family went to the New Jersey boardwalk every summer and spent our allowances on the charm machines. (Remember those? A big pile of little doodads and a claw that would drop onto the goodies and pick something up?)
Anyway, we loved getting these tiny china dolls--they were very plain with no faces or clothes. We'd bring them home and create families by picking a number out of a hat (# of kids in the family), then sexes for each doll, then the most fun of all--the names. Those we'd written on slips of paper from baby name books. I swear we spent hours on this...
HALLIE: That is SO charming, Lucy! No wonder you became a writer. Does your sister write, too?
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Fort. Or castle. Or sailing ship. First you get a couch, then you get some blankets. Drape the blankets over the couch, and get inside. Then you have to defend from the Indians (sorry, it was the 1950's) or the pirates, or BE a pirate, or be the trapped princess (which we insisted we were, anyway.) Flashlights and books were always welcome, as were girl scout cookies and the cat.
Also, battleships, where you make the number/letter grid, and have a battleship, a cruiser, a destroyer and a sub, and then you got ten salvos to sink the other person's ships.The grids were easy to draw, and we covered everything with them. But then, our cool Uncle Fred had a printing business, and he would make pads of them for us.How great is that?
Also, we'd play office. We'd get my step-father to bring home pens and legal pads, and those gold corporation stickers. and we'd dictate important letters.
Have a show! We'd have big musical extravaganzas, with petticoats
over our jeans, and we'd..oh, never mind.
RHYS BOWEN: My kids did all of the above, Hank. Especially shows, plays. Poor Dominic was always the prince with a towel pinned around his shoulders. When they were little a cardboard box was the best toy--big ones were houses and boats. Several small ones were a village.or cars on a highway. When I was a small child my favorite toy was my grandmother's button box. I'd make families of buttons, line them up in rows for a button school (I was a very strict school mistress) or find the chipped and cracked ones and put them in matchboxes for a hospital. The white ones were then the nurses and doctors. They were all given names and personalities.
The sad thing is that many children have lost the ability for creative play because modern toys do everything for them. I hate Lego sets that let you make what is on the box. My kids had Lego--just plain blocks with which they made castles and boats and cars.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: I did all those things. Card table and blanket forts. I played with my grandmother's button jar for hours. Both my parents worked at home so I played office. I didn't like dolls but my cousin and I (he's three months older) played for hours with little plastic action figures and bits of string. I was a great colorer, and, oh, I made card houses. Wonder if I can still do that?
My daughter played with lots of the same things. She had her own pots and pan cabinet in the kitchen. And played office. She had My Little Ponies that had families and stories more complicated than people in our books! No lack of imagination there!
Lucy, I love your charm story. Truly charming:-)
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Oh, Hank, I remember doing Battleship that way! My mother would draw grids and my sister and I would play it on long car rides. It actually startled me the first time I saw a physical gameboard with the little plastic ships - it seemed like just an unnecessary embellishment. Of course nowadays, they have a fancy electronic version with lights and sound effects. (The printable game is from kidspot.com.au.)
My simplest toy was probably a stick. As a girl, I loved to wander for hours outdoors, playing the hero in all sorts of imaginary adventures. A stick could be my walking staff, spear, sword, magic wand and divining rod. I would spin lengthy elaborate stories that would run for days and days - really, it's amazing I didn't wind up as a fantasy author. Being by myself was a positive advantage under those circumstances; I never had to explain my make-believe world or talk other kids into going along with my tale.
Second simplest toy? My mother's scrap box. My mom sewed a lot (and quite beautifully, too; she made prom dresses for both my sister and me) and would save all her scraps in a box. Then Barb and I could use the pieces of fabric for art projects, doll quilts (always abandoned after a single afternoon) and best of all, Barbie clothes. (The doll, not the sister.) Not sewing them, you understand - wrapping cloth around the fashionable forms and tying it off with rickrack. Since my Barbie dolls were also having fantastical adventures, Grecian gowns and makeshift medieval tunics were quite appropriate. GI Joe, the rugged hero, always wore a loincloth. :-)
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Wow, you guys have great memories! I remember a friend had an amazing costume box, and we would play pretend for hours and hours. (Probably good training for writing fiction!) And I remember all kinds of pretend play with the same friend (this was probably second grade?) and those Breyer horse figures. Anyone remember those? She was one of this horse-loving girls had a bazillion.
Right now the Kiddo is really into Dominos — not just playing, but also making elaborate set ups and knock downs. I'm fine with it as long as he cleans it up when he's done! : )
HALLIE: So what have we left out? Forts in the woods? Mud pies? Share the simplest pleasures of childhood.