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Have you ever wondered why those big play kitchens, cars and big plastic dinosaurs seem to stand unused a few weeks after Christmas? 

And yet, your little one seems to find interest in everything they’re not supposed to be playing with: kitchen drawers, plastic bags…permanent markers! Whyyyyyy?

That’s actually science. 

There’s a region in our brain specially designed to respond to novel stimuli. (That is, new things in our environment.)

Whenever we sense these things, the brain reacts to novelty by releasing dopamine, which motivates us to go searching for a reward. (Thrifting, anyone?)

That’s why novel things in a child’s environment–Amazon boxes, dad’s flashlight, or a fresh roll of tape—are so intriguing.  

Novelty invites exploration–the very thing we want to activate when we invite our kids to play.

Instead of large, single-use toys, I recommend stocking up on some investment toy sets and open-ended play materials. (Our favorite gifts to give our kids are toy sets that can be added to each year on Christmas or for birthdays.)

Below is a list of the toys and open-ended play materials that are frequently used in our home. 

They’re novel in that they can be re-arranged and played with in endless ways.

Some can be purchased at thrift stores (ooh I see dopamine in your future!)  For those that can’t be easily thrifted, I left links for you!

Toys Worth Investing In

Open-Ended Materials

For Water Play

For Constructive/Imaginative Play

For Art/Creative Play

For Sensory Play


For years we have LOVED our toy cabinet with removable bins.  It’s great for keeping toy sets organized instead of mixed together at the bottom of a big toy box.  Mine are way more likely to play when everything is all separated into those inviting little bins. (Ours is the Ikea Trofast system, but if a trip to IKEA isn’t in the cards, this one looks nearly identical!)

Little ones can pull the bins in and out themselves and it makes clean-up super straightforward.   It also looks nice as it hides all the visual clutter (thank youuuuu).  I think we have owned a few renditions for about ten years now.

For our arts and crafts supplies we also have two of these lightweight carts with removable plastic drawers.  This one with wider drawers, and this one with lots of small ones. (By the way, these are also great for storing Legos!)

Grab a few of these, open the box, and leave them “laying around” and see what happens!

If you’re wondering exactly how to these materials, I wrote a guide just for you. In my ebook Thirty Days of Play  I show you how you can make independent play totally irresistible to your preschoolers and toddlers.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it is when your littles know how to keep themselves entertained throughout the day. It makes homeschooling so much easier….and it pays off big when play starts to shift into self-directed learning!

If practical action steps are what you need, this guide also has thirty days of irresistible play prompts for toddlers, preschoolers and early learners.  They’re low-prep, old-fashioned fun. (I reeeeeally don’t like to do hours of activity prep just to turn around and find an enormous mess to clean up.)  Find it here!

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If your’e looking for a great list of books for your preschooler or toddler, check out this blog post.