Playing at shops is by no means as popular an activity as it was ten years ago. This no doubt reflects the children’s impressions of real shopping which from their point of view can be a wearisome business of trailing round a large supermarket putting articles into a trolley. Added to this is a frustrating wait at the checkout with a mother made irritable by trying to unload purchases, keep an eye on what is being rung up on the till, put everything into a shopping bag and keep the children’s hands off the sweets. There are no interesting procedures to watch such as weighing out, counting out, no interesting smells from cheese, bacon, fruit, vegetables. Indeed there is very little of the ‘Have you got?’, ‘May I have?’, ‘Please and thank you’ or just the pleasant social atmosphere there used to be. It is well worth patronizing the specialist shop where goods can be seen and carefully chosen from a variety of shapes, sizes and types simply to let children see these procedures.

When children do wish to play shops most of the equipment they need is already there or can be improvised. Small children need no more than a low table, empty tins, boxes which have been carefully opened and re-sealed with Sellotape, a few paper bags and shopping baskets, and, if they ask for it, something to simulate money. Most children enjoy weighing as a separate activity, using sand and other natural materials. Perhaps a bowl of conkers and a set of scales could be incorporated into the shop while the game lasts. Older children need no more than this but may well desire such things as a cash register with a chute where the change comes out. There are toy cash registers to buy but they are not always as strong as they need to be. Use of them may be sporadic but tends to be heavy-handed. Some nursery groups were lucky and managed to beg real ones when shops re-equipped to cope with decimal coinage.

Useful improvisations are to use two chairs placed with their fronts together and a plank placed across to give a counter and sides or if a screen with a large window can be borrowed from another activity a table can be placed inside under the window. Often the best games develop when the four-year-olds arrange the space and equipment themselves. Occasionally one sees a most elaborate layout arranged like a supermarket with a chair for a turnstile and one child firmly sat with a till at the ‘ checkout’. Some groups of children will collect all the shoes or dres-sing-up clothes and have a shop in the dressing-up corner, others will collect toys to have a toy shop, whereas adults setting out a pretend shop tend to think only in terms of groceries.

The other activities which just about fit into this category are barbers’ shops and ladies’ hairdressers and these really are great favourites. The props need only be the obvious ones but this is the one place and time the scissors should not be sharp. For the child who is afraid of having his hair cut it can be quite valuable to give him the big toddler doll already suggested for the play house and let him pretend to cut its hair. For a child who is really distressed at the hairdressers it might well be worth making a special woolly wig for the doll so that he can really cut it. A quick way of making a wig which is only required for mutilating purposes is to place several one-foot lengths of nylon stocking inside each other. Place a tight rubber band far enough down the tube to make a’ hat’ large enough to fit the doll’s head and cut the rest of the tube into strips to make a pony tail which can be cut off by the ‘hairdresser’. If this is made reasonably carefully the long ‘hair’ can also be fastened up in hair rollers if there is no doll with long enough hair for this purpose or no willing child comes forward. Where children at home might be tempted to surreptitiously borrow a can of hair spray it is wise to put this out of reach together with any other aerosol can.

Another game which is enjoyed as a change is a mixture of post office and office. An old typewriter, old telephone, rubber stamps and an ink pad, scales to weigh parcels, paper clips, envelopes and paper, a few trading stamps and some kind of pillar box are needed. The need for a postman’s cap and a sack will follow on from this. Many children will never have seen a post box being emptied and a special outing at the right time for a collection need not take long or involve any great distance. One point which is only obvious when it is pointed out is that children rarely knows what goes on in a post office because the counters are always too high for this. It is worth lifting them up to have a look sometimes.

There are many conventional toys which furnish the tangible elements for imaginative play, provide a focus for it and sometimes spark it off. Some are scale models of real articles such as dolls, dolls’ houses and other equipment, or toy cars and other vehicles which allow children to carry out the roles they see adults playing. Others, such as puppets, may represent an imaginary friend or provide a mouthpiece for something the child would like to say but cannot or feels he should not. They are necessary for both the individual child and for nursery groups.

There are many manufacturers and many suppliers all of whom produce well-illustrated catalogues from which to choose. One is more likely to be restricted by lack of money than lack of choice although capable parents can often design and make something they like better than toys they could buy. Choosing toys for a nursery group is easier since the staff only have to consider what would fit in best with the equipment they already have. Parents also have to consider the wishes of their children and may often find themselves reluctantly paying far more than they intended for something they feel is not what they want to buy. How can one put a value on giving a child what he desperately desires? Even if the toy breaks or does not live up to the glamorous claims made for it just as one feared, or even warned, the disappointment of not receiving it can also do a great deal of lasting damage. This is by no means to imply that children should have everything they want when they want it but when a present is to be given anyway, as at birthdays and Christmas, the child’s heart may sometimes have to rule the parent’s head.