What makes a child happy? As any parent will tell you, the plastic toys that are hyped on television do have their place.

After all, who hasn't given in to the temptation of buying a toy as a quick fix in times of stress? But, in some cases, they can have a shorter life than the cardboard box they come in, which offers countless possibilities for imaginative play ranging from treasure chest to rowing boat to castle.

Move from toyshop to nursery and you will see that, while there is plenty of brightly-coloured plastic, much of it is in the form of construction toys or equipment for climbing, balancing or crawling through.

Look more closely and you will spot the range of toys used in "small world" play: Dolls and dollhouses, farmyard animals and such.

What all these offer is a wider range of options than some of the heavily promo-ted television tie-ins, where the activity is led by the TV storyline.

Change your focus from the toys to the places children gravitate to and more often than not you will find the biggest draw is what we could call play resources, which are often considerably cheaper than manufactured toys: A large sand pit with buckets, scoops, spoons and spades, perhaps a re-cycled butler's sink filled with water and with a supply of containers of different shapes, sizes and colours alongside.

Both offer scope for messy play and learning at the same time. Under the guidance of a childcare professional, the children can find out for themselves what floats and what doesn't, what happens when you empty a large pot of sand into a smaller one, what you call a three-dimensional circle or square.

Move on to another area of the nursery and you might see a less familiar sight: Heaps of everyday objects, including large cones, wooden spoons, tins (without sharp edges) of all shapes and sizes, different-sized chains, corks, ribbons and hair rollers.

These are used in what is called heuristic (exploratory) play, where one and two-year-olds are actively encouraged to do what we often try to prevent - reach out and grab the unfamiliar in order to find out more.

What happens is interesting for, unlike manufactured toys, there is no right or wrong way of playing.

The common element is intense concentration as you see each child doing something different but all refining the skills needed to take a chain and carefully trail it into a tin, stack tins, sort corks by size and fill a bucket with the smallest ones.

As impressive for parents, the play is extended when the time comes to clear away, for the children are often prompted to collect items of one sort and put them in the appropriate bag, then drag them off to where they are kept till next time.

None of this is to say expensive toys do not have their place but it does suggest that, before splashing out on one, you should first look at it very carefully through the eyes of your child.