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Think outside the box ... but play in it Inexpensive, simple toys powered by imagination can be best for your children and your budget

In the Flick household, the creative possibilities of pasta go beyond dinner.

Four-year-old Garrett and 2-year-old Abby often use uncooked, leftover elbow macaroni and spaghetti to make portraits on construction paper. The youngsters also string ziti on yarn to make bracelets and necklaces. Their pasta art and jewelry-making gives them hours of fun . . . for a couple of dollars.

"They love it," said Jolyn Patano Flick, the children's mother. "It is creative, cheap and a way to keep them busy."

Families don't have to spend a lot for worthwhile playtime, experts say. Children can have a blast without high-priced electronic toys. Inventive, inexpensive activities and toys could do the trick -- and even be better for them.

"A recession is a time to be creative," said Vickie F. Calderon, associate director of the Early Childhood Research Center at the University at Buffalo. "It's a time to consider options that are less costly, and that also applies to toys and playing."

Flick, a Cheektowaga mother of three, has been doing that. Her two youngest children also play "dress up," donning old clothes, and making the living room their runway for a fashion show. Cost: $0.

"It's hilarious and so much fun," Flick said.

Other parents have discovered the value of keeping their kids entertained and stimulated through low-tech and creative games and toys. Tina Veatch, a Hamburg mother of two, makes play dough with her 5-year-old and 3-year-old daughters. They mix flour, water, cream of tartar, oil and food coloring to make batches of play dough on the stove. Veatch uses ingredients she already has in her cupboards. "It's something my mother did with me," Veatch said. "My daughters love it. We roll out the dough and use cookie cutters and make shapes."

Calderon said parents not only save money by being creative at play time, they also enhance their children's development. Making play dough with kids is an opportunity to bond, and the play dough itself can be used to help children identify shapes and squeezing it can be a stress reliever, she said.

"Play is powerful," Calderon said. "It improves intellectual, cognitive, social and emotional growth."

Mirella Del Sorbo of Buffalo made up a simple game of tossing stones into grids or squares to help her 3-year-old nephew learn to count up to 10. "He enjoyed it because it was physically interactive and he didn't realize he was learning," she said. "We played for an hour and by the end of it, he could count to 10; you could see the difference."

And simplified games and activities allow youngsters to use their imaginations, Calderon added.

The cardboard box, a classic among toys that are not toys, is a hit with kids because it allows them to pretend. In fact, the cardboard box has been inducted in the National Toy Hall of Fame at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester.

"Kids enjoy playing with an empty box because it calls out their imagination and ingenuity," said Scott Eberle, vice president for interpretation for the museum. "To crayon in a design for a spaceship or cut a window for a castle makes kids impresarios of their own productions. We should never underestimate the power of pretending as instruction."

Flick's children are also fascinated with boxes. They use their mother's shoeboxes to make doll houses and other play items. Again, the cost is $0.

Maisha Drayton, a Buffalo mother of two, said tapping into a child's interest is important when looking for low-cost ways to entertain them at home.

"They'll stay interested in the activity longer if they are passionate about it," Drayton said. Her two boys, ages 5 and 11, enjoy drawing and dancing. So she and her husband often buy $1 notebooks from the Dollar Store. "They are always drawing, even in the car. Everywhere we go, they have their notebooks with them."

As for the dancing, "you can dance at anytime," she said. She visits Web sites that offer free music, like www.imeem.com and www.youtube.com, and lets them play while the entire family gets down for hours at a time.

The Drayton clan does own a couple of video game systems, but play with those is restricted to the weekends. Instead, their dance party occurs almost daily. "So that way, they are getting exercise and having a good time," Drayton said. "With the drawing, they get to use their imaginations, and with the dancing they're being creative and they're getting their cardio."

Parents find that the low-tech, cheap toys and games are often a hit.

"Kids might use a rescued refrigerator box as a sled, and it will last for one snowstorm and it might outlast the forlorn pre-scripted toy that is quickly relegated to the toy box," said Eberle, who is also the acquisitions editor of The American Journal of Play.

Eberle said inexpensive and engaging toys can be bought in good condition at yard sales. "A plastic truck is pretty much indestructible and might just require hosing off," he said. "A used bicycle might just need brightening up with a scouring pad or a bit of spray paint."

If toys and games are purchased, there are still savings.

"You can buy sidewalk chalk for a dollar or two and decorate the driveway. Checkers/chess sets, board included, can be had for a couple of dollars and the possible games you can play with these number in the quintillions," Eberle said. "Plus they invite kibitzing.

"A yo-yo that costs a dollar and a half might keep you learning tricks for years. You can buy a generic flying disc for $3 and you'll train your balance and your eye."

Eberle also has a book coming out later this month, "Classic Toys of the National Toy Hall of Fame," (Running Press) that discusses enduring popular "toys" such as The Cardboard Box and The Stick. And while he is not completely against electronic games (he says they are at least better than television), parents should not overlook the more complex benefits of simple toys.

"We inducted the jump rope into the National Toy Hall of Fame on the strength of the social and psychological benefits it yields for players, and the jump rope is about the lowest tech toy you can imagine," he said. "First, it has two ends, so it requires two to spin it and one to jump in the middle. Automatically it requires players to cooperate. Also it requires them to coordinate.

"The social skills that jumping rope require are even more complex than the physical talents that the game call up. Remember those funny rhymes that rope jumpers chant? 'Cinderella, dressed in yella / Went upstairs to kiss a fella. . .?' These ditties signaled both the rhythm and the tempo of the game. Rhymes like these made up a folklore of childhood." And it is possible they will be remembered long after a high score on the video game of the moment. Cost for one jump rope? About $5 to $10.

e-mail: esapong@buffnews.com

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