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Christmas Play The Magic

Magical Underwhelm: The gift of “Less and Not Yet”

‘Ramshackle Thrift’ is the term I use to describe our unique play decor. By the end of this piece you’ll get it 🙂

It’s a tricky one. The goal of Christmas wonderment, the perfect smorgasbord of gifts under the tree, trying to be frugal all the while rounding up the most meaningful, play-worthy gifts.

If you believe in ‘capital P’ lost-at-sea deep Play…you’re in this to foster their imagination. You’re looking for gifts that cultivate capacity.

To this aim, I have found ‘real things’ to be superior to their plastic counterparts. I’ve got dozens of ideas for you here from over a dozen of our own Christmas mornings.

If you’re into magical, simple, meaningful gifts that foster imagination and nostalgia for years and years… on!

The truth is that widening our kids’ capacity for deep play requires some creative restraint. We all know — holding back isn’t easy. We want to give them the world….but ultimately we know that too much stuff has the exact opposite effect.

As guardian of the threshold of their expectations, we are the ones with the power to slow the deluge of entitlement. 

This is the foundation. 

The very capacity for rapturous creative Play begins in the epicentre of “Less and Not Yet.”

If you can own those 4 words — “less and not yet” — you can say no to the cellphones on the Christmas list.  Not this year honey!  You can say no to excess, because you have the long game in mind. 

Waiting is a gift. 

Making do with little is what allows robust imagination and even gratitude itself to flourish.

That is why I ask myself at every turn — how can I slow it all down and stretch out the savouring of each….little….thing? 

I give a certain kind of Less. 

Little things, special things, beautiful things….all with big play value.

Brand new, still-in-the-wrapper merchandise is overrated compared with handmade, thrift store, kijiji, and antique mall treasures wrapped up in plush fabric and tied with real silk ribbons!  

I like to begin with the classics. 

Authentic doll clothes, wooden blocks, a real antique toolbox filled with ropes and pulleys, an enchanting sewing kit with real wooden spools (bonus points if it was previously owned by an actual old lady!) 

A picnic basket with assorted secondhand dishes, faux wood fruit, and perhaps an ornate candelabra (can’t get that at toys’r’us!). Bonus points if they can unscrew and reassemble the parts 🙂 

How about….glass jars filled with ‘loose parts’ for the play kitchen — vintage buttons, marbles, beads, pieces of lace, seashells, and walnuts!  Retro kitchen utensils that have had previous lives. Homemade (tumeric or cinnamon) playdough to go with it….

This assortment of wooden stuff was my 1.5 year old’s entire Christmas haul one year (and we still use it all!)

He’s now 7, but the foundation of open-ended, simple, natural play things shaped a real fortitude in him. This kid is massively spacious inside and can occupy himself with balls of lint to this day!

The marvellous thing about Loose Parts is that they can be used again and again in different ways, each time enhancing the creative repertoire of the child. 

As I explore the shelves of antique and thrift shops I look at every single item through “the eyes of Play.” 

I think like a child.

I feel into the objects, with my imagination. I touch everything to test for playability. For instance —

If I had an extra $80 to spend this Christmas I’d be all over this wild TV antenna! Immediately I see space stations and inventions….oh so much fun! But it’s the tactile sensations — the ultra-satisfying and hearty feel of the knob as it changes channels….gives me goosebumps!

Old things offer irreplaceable sensations, from before the world was so swipe-happy and voice command activated.

This phone I got my daughter 6 years ago has been one of the hottest play items in the house. No one can resist it 🙂

Antique malls are full of these old beaters — FANTASTIC for play in the snow or sand. These old potato ricers? The best playdoh accessory ever!

This gorgeous orange unit came cheap from the Antique Mall and it has been the centerpiece of our play kitchen for 8 years!

Divergent, open-ended thinking will see that a bookshelf or some old crates are a doll’s dreamhouse! 

Oh my gosh, never buy a real “dollhouse.” They are too confining and will soon end up being the ‘dust bunny dreamhouse.’

Pre-fab dollhouses are the perfect example of a narrow, rigid, pre-defined plaything; which limits imagination.

Alternatively, invest in the little things. Our ever-growing collection of wee furnishings has been used in hundreds of sprawling, open-concept set ups over the years!

Give Barbie some space to breathe! Let her have the whole closet!

Give unique accessories from the thrift store — nothing that actually says “Barbie” on the box!

Here, simple fabric pieces inspire Barbie to run a dress shop. (oh look, it’s that sewing kit again, now it is part of the seamstress’ workshop!)

Two years ago Santa managed to deliver this entire bookshelf/dollhouse through the patio door, complete with bubblebath and swing set, antique mirror, and clothing rack!

And why buy plastic dollfood when you can give FIMO clay, for your child to make their own darling pastries?

Resourcefulness and imagination are modelled by this mentality: “Anything can be anything!” Outside-of-the-box parents pry the lid off their kids’ worldview.

An old steamer trunk could be filled with dry rice or beans; add some funnels, ice cream scoops, tubes, and gems to find.  

“Eyes of wonder” that see the potential in every object — that is the foundation of deep, imaginative play.

Toys that are too narrow and specialized take that entire dimension away….(and usually cost 5 times as much!)

Raise a child with open-ended “loose parts” and they see the world this way. It’s called resourcefulness, down deep in the bones. Example — who knew frisbees make THE BEST sleds? The best!!

I encourage you to start seeing the world through “eyes of play” — get experimental with play materials and awaken hidden possibilities. It will make you a better parent because it sparks your own inner child and creative joy. Guaranteed!

The idea of “less and not yet” is just about being conscious and intentional. It means saying no to automatic consumerism, maximizing open-ended and unique gifts that will supply their imaginations year round, and adding a little sparkle of ‘magical underwhelm’ so they feel absolutely privileged to be getting such custom things straight from Santa’s incredibly old and dated workshop! Presentation goes a long way — velvet fabric wrapping, or little mugs of hot chocolate from Mrs. Claus.

They will Believe.

More Gift ideas…

Ideally, do your Christmas shopping during garage sale season! Wooden train = $5.

You can never have too many silks, or sheer curtains. Pure enchantment!

One of the most difficult thresholds to limit — keeping it down to ‘one special doll’ or teddy bear. These days, nearly impossible!! In the olden days? It was the very essence of that winnie-the-pooh bond, the life-long friendship that comes with single-teddy devotion.

The weightiness of real wood, the craftsmanship….

Hand-made needle-felted toys…

Beautiful old encyclopedias that double as magic spell books, building blocks, and pavement for roads!

This old cheque printing machine is one of the biggest hits when kids come to play. Again, it’s the satisfying ‘cha-chink’ sound that plastic can never replicate!

The ‘laundry line’ theme. A total classic. Little cloth diapers, handkerchiefs, or doll clothes (or preemie baby clothes) and a package of clothespins! You can even create a miniature doll scene version in a basket!

A box of scrap wood with a carpenter’s pencil, child-size hammer, sandpaper, and pouch of shiny new nails evoke open-ended possibility and at the same time invoke identity — “you are a builder.” 

Or a beautiful apron — “how delightful it is to serve.”

A parasol — transports them to a time of whimsy and elegance. 

Old-fashioned items carry the essence and depth and values of another world and way of life.

These treasures have evaded the garbage dump for a lifetime or two precisely because they embody usefulness, beauty, and quality. 

The message to the child is — “cherish me.”  And our planet, already suffocating with too much stuff, thanks you for instilling that message in the next generation.

If you love this whole idea of rich, old-fashioned Play you will adore the children’s book I have written called “A Whole Other Magic.” It is a beautifully illustrated lyrical tale, inviting kids to come away and play. Grab a gorgeous, shimmering, hardcover copy on Amazon to go along with the other treasures you’re giving!

You can listen to me doing a fire-side storytelling and see more of the enchanting artwork here!




  • Gwen

    Lovely post. I was transported back to my childhood – most things were secondhand but they were fascinating and were used time and again. We had space and spent much of our time in a fantasy world. Thank you

  • Gypsy Johnnie Grae

    I like the valuable info you provide in your articles. I’ll bookmark your blog and check again here regularly. I am quite certain I’ll learn plenty of new stuff right here! Good luck for the next! Gypsy Johnnie Grae

    • Gigi Jobb

      Thank you so much!

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