In a kids' entertainment world of expensive game systems and disposable plastic toys, there is an alternative: Make something. Play with it.
The do-it-yourself trend, which embraces projects in electronics, engineering and crafts, dovetails nicely with the perennially popular, mainly girl-driven activity of decorating. An abundance of room-decorating games appears online; Girlsgogames.com has at least 30 games in which a bare space - a witch's house, say, or a Chinese palace or a baby nursery - can be revamped.
Making or redecorating an actual dollhouse in the real, not virtual, world isn't as easy as clicking on colors and furniture; it takes time, creativity, and patience. The reward? It actually exists.
My girls' dollhouse, a $5 yard sale find, has four tall rooms and an attic. Currently, the store-bought Barbie furniture mingles with repainted wooden furniture and sits on rugs made from origami paper and fabric scraps. The walls are covered with contact paper or scrapbook paper or, in one case, white printer paper. That wall is a "doodle wall," my 8-year-old recently proclaimed, demonstrating its use. "I wish I lived in this house," she added.
The house has fulfilled many fantasies: It has contained traditional bedrooms and living rooms, boutiques and cafes, playgrounds and kennels, depending on the current interest of the decorator. We sit down with whatever paper and fabric we have around, occasionally raiding the magazine rack or the bag of outgrown clothing. I can participate without directing; I just take a room. I have my own bathroom renovation dreams.
Angela Holton of Larchmont, N.Y., also got a dollhouse started and watched her daughter run with it. They wanted a bed; she and her 5-year-old made one from some cardboard packing material. A scrap of fabric became a blanket; finally they needed a pillow and thought of cotton balls. Each idea led to the next.
"I was teaching my kids to look at objects and think of different ways they can be used," says Holton. "It was like found art."
Her daughter quickly began spotting objects around the house that could be repurposed.
Making furniture and decorating rooms can be a very "green" project. FamilyFun magazine regularly shows easy-to-make dollhouses out of recycled boxes and furniture out of egg cartons.
Decorating a dollhouse "helps kids to be creative, resourceful and make things with their hands, which are skills that are so important in this digital era especially," says FamilyFun Editor-in-Chief Ann Hallock. Her 8-year-old daughter made a pine-branch Christmas tree for the dollhouse, complete with ornaments and tiny presents. "She did it all herself, and couldn't have been prouder of how it came out."
Sometimes the results are not as pleasing: There was some ill-fated shelving in our dollhouse, made from folded printer paper and tape. It never stayed up or held anything. Eventually, it was scrapped for two drawers from a kid's cardboard jewelry box that were emptied and stacked on their sides.
That creative process "allows children to develop skills involving math, problem solving and fine motor development," says Laura Sedlock, educational director at a Manhattan preschool. And they do so "in a context that is creative, meaningful and integrally related to play - elements that are increasingly absent from structured academic environments."
Adds FamilyFun's Hallock: "With school art programs being cut and less time in the curriculum for open-ended thinking, many moms are especially looking for projects and ideas that can help encourage these skills at home. So anytime we run a project that makes it easy for kids to be creative and make things with their hands, we get a big response."
Witness the magazine's popular dollhouse-decorating contest. Entries have included a pool table with balls, a baby nursery and a haunted dollhouse. Also notable were the low-tech representations of high-tech accessories: miniature laptops, televisions, "even a tiny iPod on the nightstand to listen to music at night," Hallock said.
Of course, the TV can actually flicker. A simple wiring kit purchased online or at a craft shop can help draw a dollhouse-averse kid into the family project, or introduce circuitry in a context where kids can see real possibilities.
Introducing electronics to girls was the aim of "Roominate," a product created by three women who majored in math, engineering and science. They wanted to inspire girls in technology, and came up with a dollhouse kit that includes simple wooden pieces to construct a room and some furniture - and the circuitry to wire the room, so lamps can light.
There are many blogs and websites out there to inspire ideas; here are a few: