Tools. At times, it is all about the tools. Think about it: you need a sponge to clean that dish. I need a computer to do my job. You need a lawn mower to cut the grass. For that work, you need tools. Well, as I've been old over and over again, play is the work of childhood. So, be sure your kids have the proper tools to do their work.
-- Blocks. Plain or in colors, those pieces of wood in various sizes are perfect to foster constructive play on their own or during a playdate or with you.
-- Dolls or stuffed friends and clothes for them. This helps for pretend play, working out emotions, and creating a world in which they can take on different roles. A dollhouse is also a great to have- - you can even make your own out of old boxes and tape. Stock it with plastic furniture and enough dolls or toys to represent people in your family.
-- Play "every day" items. A cubby full of plastic food and pretend dishes. A mini toolbox with pint-sized hammer and screwdriver. A plastic cash register. All of these encourage them to explore their world on their terms, with them in control -- a priceless and safe opportunity to step outside their comfort zone.
-- Dress-up clothes. Beyond just princess dresses, think about different hats like a fireman or chef hat, as well as a doctor's kit. Old play jewelry and glasses with the lenses popped out can be a part of this stash.
-- Art stuff. Crayons, finger-paint, Playdoh, safety scissors, glue, crafts (like beads and the like) for older preschoolers. From fine motors skills to creative muscles, so much is stretched when kids create through art.
-- Something to make music. Don't go buy a drum set for your three-year-old, but have a few items they can use to knock out some tunes. A harmonica, maracas, a recorder, a mini piano, even old tupperware and kitchen spoons can be used.
-- Something to be physical. A bag of balls, a jump rope, a hula-hoop...all of these little things are essential to get those little bodies moving.
-- Games. Basic bingo or Hi-Ho Cheerio -- all things that involve problem solving and set up a safe environment to explore competition and how to be a good winner and loser.
What else is on your "must-have" toy list?