Look for toys in the hardware store, the market, even under the sink

When seeking toys for children, parents don't have to constantly trek off to the toy store. Special ``surprises'' can be found in lots of other places. ``Young children take delight in being able to use the real thing,'' says Karen Coleman, child development consultant with the Tompkins County Child Development and Day Care Council in New York State.

``Even by the age of three, many children know the difference between a pretend tool and one that's made to work. They want the one that's made to really do something,'' she explains.

So where does one shop for these ``real thing'' toys? In many of the same shops normally visited. The trick is to change your approach.

The next time you walk through the supermarket or hardware store, put your adult shopping list away and think only in terms of kids. What would fascinate them, teach them, keep them creatively occupied? You'll find yourself coming up with lots of educational items -- items that demand more of a child than the flick-a-switch-and-watch approach.

Check out the housewares, sewing, and garden departments of discount stores or the five and dime. Garage sales, pawnshops, and secondhand stores can also yield a bundle of fun items. And don't forget electronics and art supply houses, used bookstores, museum shops, wallpaper stores, and print shops where ``mistakes'' are often discarded.

You'll also be surprised how many items you can unearth in your basement, in kitchen cupboards, in the back of cluttered closets, or in the attic. A bit of repair work and a coat of paint can make an almost new ``real thing'' toy.

This type of toy search needs specific direction. So start off by pinpointing your child's likes and talents. Does your daughter like to build things, play outdoors, or help with dinner? Does your son enjoy drawing or digging in the dirt? Sort out children's preferences, then create an activity kit that coincides. Here are a few suggestions. Cooking/housekeeping/storekeeping

With these materials, a child can set up his own imaginary store, bake a make-believe cake, or toodle around town in a fantasy auto. This category generates play without a need of constant parental supervision.

Items: Large appliance boxes cut and painted to form houses and storefronts, cars, buses, or trains; buttons for play money or maybe some foreign currency that has little value; regular-sized items such as plastic dishes, dish pans, a rotary hand beater, and old bottles and cans with the labels left on. Crafts

With selected items, you can put together separate craft kits, parceling them out at various times during the year. Wait until the child has explored one kit to the fullest before offering another. Over a period of time, a youngster can create many art projects including drawings, paintings, designs for framing, collages, glued structures, mobiles, and note paper and wrapping paper. There should, however, always be a parent on hand to steer these activities.

Items: Blunt-nosed scissors, a drawing compass, ruler, eyedroppers for dribbling paint, the cardboard rolls from toilet tissue and paper towels, different sizes and colors of tape, including duct and electrical, toothpicks, ice-cream sticks, doilies, paper plates, glue, a variety of paper (construction, tissue, foil, tracing, and sample wallpaper books), some glitter, sponges, plastic foam meat trays, egg cartons, fabric scraps, drinking straws, shells, pebbles, and seeds. And naturally, the general run of crayons, chalk, paints, pencils, and the like. Gardening

Items: Shovel, trowel, rake, watering can, plastic pots and food containers, seeds, and a magnifying glass for examining seedlings as they sprout; string and sticks for staking. In autumn and winter, the gardening venture can be carried on indoors with clay pots, potting soil, and large jars with tight lids for terrariums. Woodworking

A caution here: the woodworking kit is for an older youngster, one who's ready to learn the proper use of hammer, screwdriver, and other tools. This kit definitely is not for a child who still stuffs things into his mouth. You should set up a special work area, too, so the nails, nuts, and bolts don't play havoc with your vacuum cleaner.

Items: Saw, hammer, large-headed screwdriver, pliers, wrenches, hand drill with several size bits, and pulleys. Scrap lumber, tapes, rope, string, large nuts and bolts, large-headed nails and screws. (It's often much easier for a youngster to hammer, drill, or screw if a small starter hole has first been made by an adult.) Electronics

Here's another area where parents should be on hand to share activities. Together, you and the youngster can study electrical circuits or use small motors to rotate homemade paper and wooden constructions.

Items: batteries, switches, bells, light bulbs, wire, electrical tape, and motors from discarded toys such as racing cars.

If a child is into tinkering with bits and pieces, you can provide him with broken items that are beyond repair -- such as battered clocks, radios, phonographs, and mechanical toys. He can take them apart and examine their workings.

No matter what age your child is, it's easy to come up with an activity kit that's tailored to both his interests and capabilities.

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