Playing in a Grapat Free-Play Box
Focus. Do you ever wish your kids had more of it? That they would concentrate more fully on the activity in front of them, rather than being constantly distracted by a million other little things? One answer is a play frame, and there is none more beautiful or practical than the Grapat free-play box. The marvellous One Hundred Toys were kind enough to send us one of these trays, so we could test it out for ourselves. Read on to see what we thought, and if it really did make a difference to our play…
The Toy Distraction
I love toys. Possibly, it’s true, even more than my kids. I try to make sure that (most) of the ones we buy are good quality and with an educational or developmental benefit. Yes, even the Peppa Pig ones. But when it comes to playing, more and more and more research is showing that having less toys around is actually better for our kids – they will play longer, with more use of their imagination and creativity, and exercising more social skills, the fewer toys available to them.
The Grapat Free-Play Box
The Grapat free-play box isn’t another toy; rather, it’s a tool to facilitate better and more satisfying play. As such, I think it’s fair to say that it’s one of those purchases that the grown-ups are always going to be more excited about than the kids – at least until the play starts!
Ours arrived charmingly wrapped in plain brown paper and string – not a plastic wrapper in sight. The only mark on the paper was a beautiful blue stamp of the rings of a tree trunk, hinting at what was inside, and a little tag saying simply ‘Felic Joc!’ – essentially ‘Happy Playing’ in Catalan.
It feels almost bizarre these days to get a toy in such plain wrappings. There are no bright logos or pictures of grinning kids to show yours how the toy should be played with, and no instructions or suggestions either. But it’s also really liberating. There’s no right or wrong way to use this, and so it forces both kids and parents to think more carefully about what goes inside and what kind of play these might lead to.
Once we’d ripped off the wrapping paper (and, yes, I’ll admit we did cut out the log image to keep!), we discovered inside a large, shallow tray beautifully made out of beech wood and stamped with lovely images to evoke the four elements.
My favourites are the feathers for air, but they are all gorgeous – flames for fire, that also look vaguely like clouds for the water-raindrops; and the rings of a tree trunk for earth (the same image stamped on the wrapping paper). Simple yet evocative, these images can be incorporated into play and act as imaginative prompts, yet are subtle enough not to be distracting.
And that’s all you get. A (beautifully made, simply but charmingly decorated) wooden tray. It’s lovely to look at and has great proportions, but there are no bells, whistles, rainbows or lights with this. It’s really up to you and the kids to make it something more.
The magic box
The funny thing is, though, that you hardly need to do anything at all. As soon as you put toys into the Grapat free-play box, it is instantly transformed. It becomes a frame that says to the kids ‘look inside, ignore outside’. It becomes a mini-playground where the kids are in control, free to set up play any way they want – a space they own. And it becomes a little world that has reassuringly defined limits – it can be moved if necessary so it won’t be hoovered over or accidentally trodden on, and they can make as much ‘mess’ within its borders as they want.
I found it really amazing how something as simple as setting up play within this box has helped improve the kids’ concentration, merely by giving them defined space for their play. My two – and our guest baby tester – have played much longer and with greater attention when using it.
When I cunningly threw in a few unloved bits to see what would happen,the kids also played happily with those toys they haven’t looked at twice before. I’ve also found – much to my ever-lasting joy – that they’ve been much happier to tidy up after themselves too. I’m guessing perhaps that with a limited area to tidy away, it’s less daunting for them than when toys are strewn all over the place – it certainly is for me!
All this has been understood by teachers for a very long time. Montessori educators, for example, use trays to contain and define the activities that the children in their settings work on, and this approach has spread to many mainstream education establishments too. It makes perfect sense to bring this idea of contained and framed play-space into the home, where, let’s face it, there are likely to be just as many distractions around.
There is no limit to the ways in which the Grapat free-play box can be used, so here are just a few of the ways we use ours, to get you started.
Those tall-but-not-too-tall sides are the perfect height to contain materials like sand, rice or pasta, though I must admit I’d be worried about using anything dyed in there, as I’d worry about colour transferring to the wood. On the other hand, I can see that would probably just add to the beauty. Once the newness has worn off, I’m willing to bet there’ll be some coloured rice, dyed pasta or – gasp – bright play dough finding its way inside our box.
For now though, we’ve stuck to all natural materials. Bright green and yellow split peas were not only colourful, they also felt wonderful too. Our guest-baby absolutely adored sitting at the side of the box and just running her fingers through them. A few simple extras kept her busy for ages – just some peg dolls (you might guess from the expert paint job – courtesy of my youngest – that these are not Grapat Nins!), pine cones and pebbles. All equalling one happy baby!
Small World Play
While older children love a bit of sensory play too, I find that to hold my guys attention it helps to incorporate it into a play set-up that’s just a little more involved. Those same yellow and green dried peas become a grassy meadow and sandy beach just by adding a strip of foil for a river and a boatful of toy mice.
Again, the key here is not to swamp the play with too many toys, accessories, or details. A character or two, or a vehicle, or prop is great for building a story around, but they don’t need much more than that. Most kids will happily take it from there, bringing in anything extra as the play requires.
Building and Constructing
The Grapat free-play box is also absolutely perfect for building inside, as its smooth, solid base is perfectly flat. Wooden blocks are an obvious choice, but it works brilliantly for any type of construction play (*cough* Lego… *cough*), as any little bits are prevented from wandering by those high sides.
The box is also a great size for more than one child to play at (or in!) at a time, so is a lovely way to introduce co-operative play. Mind you, my two are quite competitive builders. Building together rather than in the vicinity of each other is something we’re still working on!
Pattern-making and Puzzles
As well as building, my guys also love pattern making. We use all sorts of random things for this, mostly just things gathered from around the house. We’ve used everything from curtain rings to dried beans and pasta, but the kids’ favourite is a bit of pirate treasure. The Grapat free-play box makes a perfect frame for laying out a pattern, and I’ve noticed this is something my youngest especially will come back to time and time again. Something we’ve yet to try in this box is drawing patterns and letter shapes in sand. I have a feeling that will be a popular one!
The box is also great for doing puzzles in – especially as the kids graduate onto more complicated ones. Lots of room for laying out the pieces but those sides keep anything from getting lost. In fact, that’s true for any kind of play in the Grapat free-play box – containment really is a wonderful thing.
There must be a million other things that can be done with or in the Grapat free-play box. These few categories probably cover the basics, but it also depends on what toys or bits you use with it. I’d love to know what else you use yours for, so drop me a line in the comments!
We were very grateful to receive this Grapat free play box from One Hundred Toys for the purpose of this review. All opinions in the review are our own. If you’re looking to buy an open-end toy or a play frame like the one reviewed here, check out One Hundred Toys Grapat’ selection to see the full range of Grapat toys they stock.
One Hundred Toys is an online toyshop, based in the UK. Their ethos is to provide a carefully curated collection of the one hundred essential toys, games and DIY things-to-do that will engage and delight your child. The website also includes lots of free activity ideas and a great blog, so check them out at www.onehundredtoys.com.
Looking for more great toy and play ideas for your kids? Take a look at some of the other reviews we’ve done for One Hundred Toys.