One of the great things about being a kid is having the time and imagination to build your own little world. With no raw materials at all, kids will at a certain age start playing "house"; throw in some canned goods and they play "store"; a book and a chalkboard and it's "school." With a few special props, there are even more worlds to create.
Start with shelter. A blank-slate cardboard playhouse (from Chasing Fireflies, $68) has a classic profile, and decorating is left entirely to the occupant. With crayons, markers or paint, kids can customize endlessly and engage in the time-honored suburban tradition of redecorating. The chimney can also be switched out for a cupola, to play school. Less expensive is the Makedo Find & Make Playhouse kit ($25), which, however, depends on you finding a monster-size box to start with.
Next, something to eat. Make it in the All-in-One Play Kitchen (GuideCraft, about $200) with fridge, range, microwave, sink - and, with an added note of reality, a dishwasher. As with real kitchens, there is not enough counter space.
There are many, many versions of toy food out there for kids to play-cook imaginary lunch and dinner, but Melissa and Doug's felt version ($20 for a 33-piece sandwich set) is a good one. We also love the sandwich shop set from Green Toys ($16), which allows a mix-and-match assemblage of a burger and a sandwich, with accompanying veggies. It comes with a sandwich shop order form that will let the kitchen double as a spot to play "hipster deli."
To that end, throw in some fine, "Dream of the '90s"-style fake facial hair. A set of "stylish mustaches" are to be had, as is a beefy inflatable beard (at Capitol Kids, $6). Next thing you know, they'll be pickling something.
There are homeowners who focus on the kitchen, and those who focus on the workshop. Those creatively inclined will appreciate the Red Toolbox that holds a set of six real, usable tools made for a child ($50). Further kits are available to create household projects that make the place more livable, like a birdfeeder or a basketball hoop.
Decorating the interior can be done with an extra-personal touch with Paint Your Own Lantern kits (from 4M, $13.25), which are based on stylish mid-century modern orbs but are infinitely personalizable.
The kids' own Etsy shop will not be far off after they start making beads with 4M's recycled paper bead kit ($10) or a Rainbow Loom Bracelet Making Kit ($15).
After artsy work, kick back with a pint-sized cowboy guitar (Schylling, $25) for mangling a few folk songs. Or snuggle up for a good read. In the vein of classic fairy tales and woodland quests is Colin Meloy's fey novel Wildwood ($9) and its new sequel, Under Wildwood ($17), set in a mythical woods outside Portland and good for reading aloud or new readers (recommended for ages 8 and up). Meloy, of the Decemberists, reads the audio CD ($38) of the latest installment himself, with characteristic aplomb.
And what home is complete without a pet? Melissa and Doug's supersized stuffed dogs come in a surprising variety of breeds, all looking pretty realistic - basset hound, black Lab, Jack Russell, husky - how to choose ($20-$60)? No need to get the Portuguese Water Dog (though there is one!); they're all hypoallergenic.
After lunch and various improvement projects, and certainly after the acquisition of a dog, all homes need a bit of a tidy-up. Will play broom sets (Schylling, $11) make cleanup fun? Well, at least you're trying to instill good habits.
Speaking of reality intruding, no play reality is complete today without a child-specific smartphone (Smooth Touch, $17; needs three AAA batteries), with modes that help build motor and language skills.
Once equipped with a phone, the kids'll need wheels. The younger ones can scoot around the neighborhood on a Wheelybug ($50) - safe, sit-on wheeled animals that come in tiger, bee, cow, pig, ladybug and mouse models for pre-toddlers and early walkers.
Once they're a little more adept with motor skills, have them hop in a futuristic-looking PlasmaCar ($70), which needs no batteries and has no finicky gears or electrical parts, but instead runs on other physical forces: inertia, centrifugal force and friction. If you can bend down that low, you can take it for a spin as well.
For kids who've graduated to real trikes or bikes (or any bicyclist in your life, actually), wrap the bike's frame with BikeGlow. It's a 10-foot long stretch of lit wire ($25, requires two AA batteries) flexible enough to wrap around parts of the bike, much in the way that rope Christmas lights are wrapped around trees this time of year. Safe, cool and festive.
Toys were spied at Capitol Kids, Playthings-Hilldale, Whoops And Co., Learning Express-West Towne, and online and most are widely available.