In the age of iPhones, 10 free toys to keep your kids entertained

kid Fisher-Price is launching iPhone applications for preschoolers, which shouldn't surprise anyone with an iPhone and a restless child. After all, not every kid reads the New York Times.

While the apps are only 99 cents or $1.99, an iPhone is expensive to run for a year. So in WalletPop's mission to save consumers money, we thought it would be fun to come up with a list of free toys to keep your children entertained, and to explore the benefits of low-tech toys vs. instant electronic gratification.
Not that iPhones and such technology are bad for a child, but too much of a good thing and not enough parental involvement ("Here junior, play with this iPhone app while dad takes a nap.") can lead to speech being delayed, obesity and other problems later in childhood, said Heather Wittenberg, a clinical psychologist who specializes in young children and has a parenting blog. Creative play and an involved parent are the foundation to everything else a child will learn, such as non-verbal gesturing and understanding the environment, Wittenberg said.

"It's more work to be thoughtful as a parent. It's more work to get your kids to be creative," Wittenberg said in a telephone interview with WalletPop.

Slapping an iPhone into a child's hands while at a busy restaurant is easy, but so is grabbing a handful of napkins, she said. There's a time and a place for technology, she said, but there are no quick fixes for learning how to think and be creative.

There's a reason that the simple cardboard box is in the National Toy Hall of Fame. Every parent has seen it: As soon as a big box is opened and whatever comes out of it is studied for a few minutes, the empty box becomes a vehicle for make-believe and real fun.

Old-fashioned toys such as Legos and building blocks that have more than one use foster creativity, Wittenberg said. Generic looking dolls -- not Barbie dolls -- can be used in multiple roles, she said.

Amy Sharp, who makes and sells handmade toys in Columbus, Ohio, said her children, ages 3 and 5, sometimes get to play with her cellphone, but she only uses it as a last resort. Children get bored easily, so she always carries a pack of playing cards with her. There's plenty of time for technology to come later in their lives, she said.

"I just don't believe in giving my kids technology until later in life," Sharp said.

The difficulty of introducing children too early to technology, Wittenberg said, is that in homes where kids have every gadget known to mankind at their fingertips, they expect that instant gratification later in life. It's best to keep that childhood innocence among toys alive for a little longer than preschool if possible.

"The kid doesn't know from an iPhone," Wittenberg said. "They're not going to know what they're missing."

To keep them from missing an iPhone, here are 10 free toys to keep small children entertained. Some may take some work on the parent's part, but most won't:
  1. Cardboard box.
  2. Cup of ice. Ideal to ask for at a restaurant.
  3. Paper. Tear it up, fold it, create something, like an airplane.
  4. Empty paper cups, lids, straws, napkins. Build something at the restaurant table.
  5. Pen and paper. Many restaurants offer free paper and crayons.
  6. Bubble wrap. Not ideal for a public outing, but popping the bubbles at home is fun.
  7. Chairs and a big blanket. Create a fort in the living room.
  8. Stick. Another National Toy Hall of Fame inductee. Recommended outside with supervision, but still free fun.
  9. Deck of cards. While not exactly free, the initial investment is small, or you probably have a spare deck around the house.
  10. Conversation. Talking with a child to keep them entertained. What a concept.
Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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