By Laurel Bongiorno, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Laurel Bongiorno is director of the master’s degree program in early childhood education at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. She is working on a book on the value of play in early childhood development.

(CNN) – Parents want to buy the best toys for their children – the educational toys that will make them grow faster, read earlier and solve math problems faster.

Toy manufacturers often market high-priced toys that play by themselves (no child needed!), are connected to movies and television shows (no imagination needed!) or have just one purpose in mind. Once played with, they go in the closet.

On this last weekend before the Christmas gift-giving commences, parents should go back to basics when toy shopping for their young children from birth to age 8. Children are complex people who need holistic opportunities for development, learning, health and happiness.

Blocks, dramatic play clothes, art supplies, messy play opportunities, books and games are the stuff they need for the holidays. And, parents don’t have to break the bank to afford them. The local dollar stores and thrift stores have many of these materials.

Consider a 4-year-old building a highway with the blocks. She sorts, sequences, maps, plans, predicts, estimates, counts and compares. The 7-year-old might create bridges and ramps, using basic physics concepts. Blocks are open-ended materials that the children don’t tire of and retire to the closet when they are done. Parents can add to block-building fun by supplying play props such as cars, dinosaurs, animals and many other options. Math isn’t the only benefit derived from blocks; children use their small motor skills, build their vocabulary, play cooperatively with others and gain self-control and patience.

Dramatic play obviously builds imagination and develops social skills, but it also promotes physical development as children button, tie and snap clothing and costumes. It also reinforces math skills when children count money, set menu prices and make change in the pretend store. It promotes reading and writing as children develop their own props including signs for a car wash, menus for a restaurant and books for their house. Buy scarves, shoes, hats and make pretend props such as cash registers out of cardboard boxes.

Art supplies provide fun, creative and open-ended play opportunities that allow children to feel successful at any age. Rather than buying kits with lots of directions and samples of the end product, buy paint, markers, paper, paintbrushes, toothbrushes, feathers, yarn, glue, bits of paper and gather interesting materials from around the house to add in such as potato mashers and other interesting objects for painting and printing. Encourage children to explore the materials and make whatever they want. It’s about the experience, not the end product. Kids learn to solve problems, use creativity, identify and mix colors, sort, sequence, count, match, build self-esteem, extend their attention spans and develop motor control.

Art can also provide relief from stress and anxiety, a needed opportunity for many children who keep a tight time schedule each day.

“Messy play,” or what educators call “sensory play,” involves, for example, toys for play in water and sand. You can make playdough, ooblick (cornstarch and water) and other doughs.

Let the children play with finger paint, shaving cream, snow and do their own science mixing activities with materials such as baking soda and vinegar, leading them on the road to science inquiry and discovery, a major educational opportunity with these types of materials. In addition to science, children can help measure the ingredients to make these materials, using their math skills.

They develop their motor skills and play productively with others, too.

Don’t forget to provide books and games. And be involved in this one. Children learn through relationships, so give the time for bonding and developing solid, positive relationships with your children. Read together. Read fun books with a good story line and interesting characters. Read picture books, and add in chapter books when they are ready.

Reading together provides opportunities for social and emotional development, language and literacy development and expands vocabulary and knowledge. One fun outcome is watching your child develop a sense of humor at about age 5. What an exciting time!

Play games together, and notice the self-control it takes to wait for a turn, to follow someone else’s rules. You’ll know when your child is ready; playing games should be fun. Notice the skills needed depending on the game. They may require counting, one-to-one correspondence, color matching and even multiplication, problem-solving and developing strategies. They also may require that you adapt the game so the children can hold fewer cards, follow fewer instructions or have no winner or loser (play until everyone is out of cards, for example.)

So you don’t have to go broke buying toys for the holidays. They will love these toys more, and they will remember them in later years, especially if you play along.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Laurel Bongiorno.