A couple of months ago we were at the giant impersonal toy box and I was intrigued with an electronic “game.” It was “interactive,” not in the sense that it would fetch a stick (like our dogs do) or help dig for worms (like Trish does) or dress in hells for a tea party. But kids push a button, the electronic voice “tells” the kid to push a certain letter, and the kid does it. Or it’ll say, “what comes after ‘B’?” and the kid’s supposed to know it’s not “D.”

I think it also included simple math (wait, that’s an oxymoron).

I thought this was a great idea. Ella could play with it in the car and by the time we’d driven to Kentucky and back she’d be ready to start her novel, or physics.

Alas, this was again one of those times when I was projecting my wants and needs onto my kid. It is I who, at times, needs reminding what comes after “T” … it’s not “V.”

Fortunately, I read an article somewhere about a study (naturally) claiming kids do better without electronic, animatronic. They need imaginative play. (Who doesn’t?! There’s this store in NY on upper Broadway, or maybe Amsterdam, around 75th, that has all these imaginative-play toys for adults….) Kids don’t need humanistic toys, they need humans.

Luckily for me, I hadn’t yet forked out 30 bucks for electronics. Ella’s been sending signals lately that she’s a low-tech kid. And, for now, that’s just fine with me.

One new game — which is almost free, except for the tax on my brain — is build-a-story. Ella wants to hear a story, so I’ll ask for some key elements. “What’s it about?” I’ll ask. “What’s the dragon’s name? Who’s the protagonist? Where’s the conflict?”

This has turned into a fun car game. I’ll start with the “One day, So-and-so the dinosaur, who was ___” and Ella says, “very happy!” or “blue!” “was going to the ____” and Ella will say, “grocery store!” And we go on like that until the dragon saves the city by learning how to tie her shoes and everyone lives happily ever after, or until I’m carsick.

Lately, she’s expanded these games. Last week we all rode to the parade in our dining room chairs (which must be English, because Trish, sitting on the right-hand side, drove) and waved at Santa and the reindeer and whistled along with the band. It was fun! And CHEAP!

This past weekend Ella invented a little clubhouse for herself (regardless of the fact that I bought a Dora tent at a garage sale for $5, sure it would be a big hit). In our bedroom there’s an alcove with a set of windows and a small sofa. There’s a space about two-feet wide between the sofa and the wall. Ella has been using one side of the sofa as her own little time-out hole. She has a pillow there and that’s where we find her when she doesn’t want to take a bath. But the other end is a little harder to see. It’s against the inside wall, and a dresser and a TV sit on that wall, so it’s a little more secluded.

Ella calls it her home. She’s thrown several cushions in there and has topped it off with our exercise ball for the roof. Ella likes to take us there to read books and take millisecond naps. Of course, she wants Trish and I to visit. Often. So I fold up my knees and bend my head. It’s really quite comfy. It looks a little like a make-shift homeless shelter, and that worries me a little, that she’ll develop a taste for cardboard decor.

Oh, and we found a really cheap flying machine! Ella lies down on a backpack, her belly on the backpack’s pad so the straps are facing up. I grab the straps and voila! She’s like Mary Martin, flying through the house! Ella loves it! Even though she doesn’t know who Mary Martin was.

With this kind of ingenuity, who needs a giant impersonal toy box store?

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