Let's say Jane and Mary are both totally into a hobby. Say, hiking. And let's say that Jane is what I would call a "gearhead" and Mary is not. Let's further assert that Jane and Mary actually hike about the same number of miles, gaining about the same amount of total elevation, in approximately the same region of the country, over about the same number of outings. From every perspective but one, Jane and Mary are indistinguishable as "hikers" in terms of actually "hiking". But Jane is the kind of person who carefully researches different footwear options, including different sock choices. She has opinions (strong ones) about which ones are appropriate under which situations, and at some point, she took a strong dislike to synthetic fabrics (probably after seeing the "after" photos of a piece of technical clothing exposed to the open flame of a very tiny camp stove) and has a real liking for Merino wool and a deep and abiding love for a certain clothing line whose name starts with "I". Jane may love or hate walking sticks. Depending on whether Jane and Mary are day hikers or overnighters or through hikers, Jane may know an unreal amount about exactly how much certain tents weigh, and has probably cut down her closed cell foam pad to 3/4s length.
Anyway. Jane is a "gearhead". Being a gearhead isn't good or bad. It just is. Mary is not a "gearhead", and she probably has a fine time hiking, too, altho I, personally, would prefer to get hike recommendations from Jane, because she'll be able to answer my detailed questions about the difficulty of the hike and what equipment I should bring. Because I'm a gearhead, too.
I recently realized that I'm even more of a parenting gearhead than I realized. Anyone who dug through my parenting articles on my website may be a little surprised to learn this. Let's just say, when I found out that a lot of houses have small children and don't have art boxes, I figured it out.
Here are the gearheady things that we own, that it might not occur to other parents of 1-2 preschoolers to own, but which might help you survive a snow day, Christmas vacation, being sick at home together, etc.
(1) The Art Box: In our house, the art box is a plastic bin. This is because whenever we have a whole lot of small items that are related to each other, we put them in a plastic bin. There are other, arguably better, more aesthetic choices, possibly more functional. The first Art Box was a Crayola bucket-like bin, but it deteriorated and it was too small.
An art box should contain: crayons, markers, paper, construction paper, scissors, glue stick, stickers, paints, paint brushes, dots (daubers, bingo thingies, whatever) and over time it may evolve into a scrapbooking kit. Broken crayons, dry markers/paints/dots/glue stick should all be thrown away and replaced. There should be a secondary location somewhere in the house (basement, attic, closet, etc.) where you store replacements. The art box itself should be stored wherever art is usually committed: near the easel, if one exists, otherwise somewhere near the kitchen table or wherever.
(2) The bookshelf: In our house, it's "bookshelves". But there should be children's books, and they should be accessible to the children. I have friends that wishlisted a fabric sling book storage thing to make cleanup easier for a pre-k-er. Brilliant. If your kids are too destructive to be allowed access to the picture books, store them up high, and store the board/fabric/whatever books down low.
(3) The doll house: In our house, the dollhouse is from Plan Toys, as are the accessories. I was looking for something gender neutral, because it was a present initially for my son, but expected to be used by both children. There are plastic options (Fisher Price has some amazing stuff for really little kids) and there are more explicitly boy-y options (spaceships, fire stations, etc. that are themed as same but have all the basic doll house accessories).
(4) The rebounder: many families get by just letting the kids jump on the bed and/or the couch, but our son was destroying furniture also many of our mattresses are foam and/or futon-style and thus not really fun for jumping. We got a Needak with a 300 pound weight limit, so adults can jump if they want to. It's small, thus discouraging use by multiples. Needak makes a folder, which we got for travel.
(5) Potatoheads: I'm a little embarrassed about this one. It started out innocently enough. One of T.'s caregiver's gave him a Potatohead suitcase with head and basic clothes in it. And Disney has this thing where it's a flat rate for all you can cram in a box, which makes an awesome souvenir from DLR or DW. Unfortunately, we keep going to Disney, and as a result, we have a substantial plastic bin (yeah, one of those) full of potatoheads and accessories. There are _6_ heads in it. Someone very sweet gave one of the kits a basic head for Xmas. It's nice, and it's a great place to start, but you should probably have a minimum of 1 head per kid, plus 1 for the adult providing supervision. 6 is probably overkill.
(6) The horse: If you can afford and are inclined, by all means get a real one. We are not inclined, altho we do take the kids to ride on other people's horses. The first horse was an extremely ancient wooden glider rocker from the nanny's grandfather (old friend of the family). The current horse is a Radio Flyer Liberty, IIRC.
(7) The teaset: This was an accident. I was buying Little Tikes play kitchen and workbench from the consignment shop and got a ton of accessories, including a Disney teaset. It is an unbelievably cheap (and not in a good way) set, but it is the basis of an incredible amount of pretend play. In a family of spectrum-y people, this is somewhat amazing.
(8) The play food: Ditto.
(9) The table and chairs: We got something from Svan that's all Scandinavian modern. If I could convince my son to move it out of his room and into the playroom, I would, but he is currently objecting. Try to find one with an adult weight limit and at least one "chair" with no back, so you can sit at the table, too.
(10) The easel: Gift from one of R.'s sisters. It lives in T.'s room, and it has seen way more use than I ever would have expected. Paper roll in the middle, blackboard paint on one side, dry-erase on the other.
(11) The slide: Our current slide is part of an utterly ridiculous indoor playset from Cedarworks. Our previous slide was a folding plastic thing from Little Tikes. The original idea was to support some gross motor stuff through ugly New England weather, and at the time, we didn't have enough living space to get a Little Tikes playset. When we moved and had a dining room, I sort of engaged in overkill. The plastic option really is the smart one.
(12) Balls: And possibly things like a basketball hoop, but definitely balls. Ideally, at least some of the balls should be so insubstantial you can throw them at the child's head (right in the face, hitting them in the eye) and they'll just think it's hilariously funny. Because sooner or later, that is going to happen.
(13) Musical instruments you are okay with the kids using: a grand piano only for adults is awesome, but probably does not satisfy this criteria (altho if it does, I envy your children). We have a really ridiculous looking cat-themed electronic keyboard, for example, along with a kazoo, a wooden train whistle (replacing the much better sounding but unfortunately more breakable than I had realized plastic one from Storyland), a xaphoon, two small xylophones, innumerable drums (one plastic and electronic, the rest not), a Mozart Music Cube, innumerable plastic maracas like things, an elderly but functional piano. Somewhere around here there was a crappy harmonica. I wish I could find it because I can currently only play the good harmonica when T. isn't around, since he wants to play it, too, and I'm not prepared to share.
As a person who had music lessons as a child and can sometimes read music, I am a huge believer in just letting people noodle around in an undirected way. As long as the instruments aren't too loud, and aren't horribly out of key, most noodling is kind of cool sounding, certainly better than a truly atrocious rendition of a "official" song.
I'll stop at a baker's dozen, at least for now. It's worth noting that this is _truly_ a pre-k edition; if your kid is still immediately mouthing everything, almost none of this is a good idea.
PS: Finger puppets. Puppets. Slinkies. A play parachute. A collapsible tunnel. Wooden blocks. Legos...
ETA: OMG! I forgot playdoh! How could I forget playdoh? Our lives would end without playdoh.
PPS: jigsaw puzzles.