11 cheap (and free!) toys for young children

The price of toys these days is disheartening. They can also be loud, obnoxious, and cheaply-made. I stand firmly in the camp of having fewer, but high-quality toys than having a thousand pieces of plastic to trip over, pick up, and lose. Plus, the less toys “do,” the more creative your child can be with them – when the toy sings and tells you to push buttons, the child is robbed a bit of her imagination and freedom to find all sorts of ingenious ways to play with it.

Even though I’d much rather pay 30 dollars for a set of wooden blocks that will stay with us forever, creative toys don’t have to be expensive. In fact, some of them are downright free. Here are just a few we love around here:

1. Egg cartons.

They make great caterpillars, they’re good storage containers for little treasures found on walks, and they can become airline seats for little animal toys.

2. Chalk.

On sidewalks, on chalkboards, on driveways – endless fun, and it hoses right off.

3. Water and cups.

Our 3-year-old loves to “wash” dishes. Just give her a step stool in front of the sink and a few dishes – she’s lost in her own world.

4. Paper and safety scissors.

Old newspapers, expired coupons, and scrap paper – give some to your kiddo with a pair of safety scissors, and he’ll be engrossed for hours.

5. Dried beans or rice.

It’s fun to pour into bowls and cups of different sizes, and it’s a good sensory exercise. Sand works well, too.

5. Toilet paper or paper towel tubes.

They’re great telescopes for your budding pirate, you can cover the ends and pour some dried beans inside for a musical shaker, or you can sit them upright as bowling pins.

6. Old clean socks.

Roll them up into balls, or get some markers and wear them on your hand for classic sock puppets.

7. Washed out empty food containers.

My daughter loves to play kitchen, and she’s stocked with some of our empty syrup, ketchup, and dressing bottles. No need to buy a child-size version of the same plastic thing.

8. Balloons.

Indoor volleyball is fun for everyone.  And armed with a marker, they’re transformed into silly faces.

9. Books.

My absolute favorite. The child who doesn’t like to read is missing out on adventure, meeting new people, and traveling through time.  Be sure to stick with twaddle-free books.  If your child isn’t creazy about reading yet, Sara from On Simplicity wrote a great guest post with 30 ways to get your child ready to read.

10. Paper and crayons.

It’s a classic for a reason – give your child a blank canvas, and anticipate their creation. It’s a joy to watch their process.

11. A cardboard box.

You knew this one would be on the list, didn’t you? Every child loves a big, unused cardboard box to transform into a clubhouse, a fort, a time machine, and a tent. Hours of fun, indeed.

Using simple toys, or reusing basic items as playthings, is environmentally responsible, it’s a catalyst for creativity, and it’s incredibly inexpensive.

Now it’s your turn, and I know you have ideas – what are your cheap or free standbys? What enthralls your child for hours?
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This post was originally published on August 18, 2008.

51 Comments

  1. JanMary, N Ireland

    Several things that are a huge hit in our family

    Blowing bubbles – and using different kitchen utensils as the blowers

    Playing with ice cubes – especially if you have frozen small items inside (but not choking hazards!) like grapes, strawberries etc

    Straws – for blowing bubbles, table tennis balls, patterns in liquid

    JanMary, N Ireland´s last blog post…Top 10 places to visit on Causeway Coast of N Ireland

    • Mandi

      Another fun ice project is to freeze a treasure block.

      Take a big bowl, add a little water and some fun little toys and freeze. Pull it out, add some more water and some more toys and freeze again. Continue until you have a block full of frozen treasures and then give them tools (a bulb syringe, a toothbrush, some salt in a shaker) to try to get their treasures out. This one keeps them busy for hours too!

      Mandi´s last blog post…Surfin’ the Net: 4/5-4/11

      • Nicole

        I love the idea of the treasure block. Never thought of that one.

        We make homemade play dough, add food coloring and then often bake the shapes and voila! we have a new homemade ‘little people’ set. I shared this craft with Simple Kids a few weeks ago. It’s here: http://simplekids.net/showcase-day-2/

        Nicole´s last blog post…I Only Have Two Hands

  2. Mandi

    Great list!

    Now that the weather is finally starting to warm up, my girls are spending their afternoons outside playing, and we have yet to buy many outdoor toys because they just don’t seem to need them. Instead they have a few shovels and buckets for digging, collecting rocks & flowers, and carrying water to their “construction site.”

    Another toy they love is Daddy’s tape measure. They walk around measuring everything!

    Mandi´s last blog post…Surfin’ the Net: 4/5-4/11

  3. Allegra

    I love all of these ideas! As my little one gets older it will be much fun to introduce all of these fun “toys” in to her play-world.

    Allegra´s last blog post…End of day

  4. steadymom.com

    My son loves some plastic “Mega-bloks” that we got as a free hand-me-down from someone whose children had outgrown them. Every day he transforms them into a new creation of some sort: today was a train, but we’ve seen garbage trucks, excavators, forts, cherry pickers, you name it.

    They are made of plastic, but still super creative. Some plastic IS okay!

    Jamie

    steadymom.com´s last blog post…what do you think?

    • Taylor at Household Management 101

      I second the vote on the Mega Blocks. We just recently got them out again for my youngest, and my older two would barely let her have any to play with, because they were also just having a great time with them. I like that they can all play together, even the toddler, and I don’t have to worry about her putting them in her mouth and choking like with some other toys the older ones play with that have small parts.

      Taylor at Household Management 101´s last blog post…Apr 13, Laundry Care Label: Decode Yours Easily And Accurately

  5. One Mom

    This is an oldie but a goodie. I keep a big box full of no longer used purses, shoes, beads, hats, costumes, etc, for dress-up and make believe playtime. My little granddaughters head straight for that box and spend hours making themselves into new characters.

    One Mom´s last blog post…A Sunday Afternoon with the Office of Homeland Security

  6. Aimee

    Homemade play dough keeps my little 3yo quiet and busy at the table for an hour at a time. The best ‘tools’ are found right in the kitchen: a Popsicle stick, a fork, rolling pin, and his favorite, the potato masher!

    Aimee´s last blog post…UtHC AFK

  7. Kirwin

    I was also going to say Playdoh. My kids use this a lot.

    My 3 year old likes coins. I’ve saved an old baking powder container, and I cut a slit in the plastic lid. Give your child a big pile of coins, and they will sit there for ages, inserting them one at a time.

    (I always wash her hands afterwards, though.)

    Kirwin´s last blog post…This isn’t working out…

  8. Traciatim

    Kirwin, why not stop worrying about it and clean the coins instead?

    Exactly how do you meet people reading books? What about online gaming communities for kids…. where they actually really do play with others. For kids who can’t read/type yet there are piles of online areas to play colouring, word, letter, or simply for fun games.

  9. jill

    Sticks. Did anyone mention stick yet? They are one of my boys’ favorties. My 4 year old has also amused himself for a long time with twist ties and also with a roll of masking tape.

    Balls and beanbags of various sizes are a hit around here, too.

    jill´s last blog post…Stash Sunday

  10. Tricia

    ooh these are great! a lot of these remind me of things we played with in my childhood.

    my brother and i also loved to “paint” things outside with a bucket of water and a paint brush. we would paint and repaint the garage door, steps, sidewalk, etc with the water for what seemed like forever!

    Tricia´s last blog post…My sweet chunk

  11. Tracey - Girls to Grow

    I think my girls have used all of these, except maybe the socks. My youngest always wants to know if I have something old that I’m planning to get rid of so that she can play with it before I do. This past weekend’s hit was our broom; they used it for sweeping and other “imaginative” purposes all over the yard! Great reminder that much pleasure comes from inexpensive items and their own creative minds.

    Tracey – Girls to Grow´s last blog post…Living Mannerly at Home

  12. Amanda @ Mommy's Idea Book

    My son amazes me at how long he can cut paper with a pair of scissors. That is a biggie here too. I also can give my kids a couple of plastic bowls and large plastic spoons from the kitchen, and they are as happy as can be pretending to cook all sorts of things.

    Amanda @ Mommy’s Idea Book´s last blog post…David Gets in Trouble by David Shannon

  13. Nikki

    Great list! We recently bought a new washer & dryer so I can vouch for number 11 – those huge empty boxes were the most exciting thing my kids had ever seen!

    Nikki´s last blog post…Dharma Initiative

  14. Marci

    I love this post! If one more well-meaning relative gives my kid a “toy”, there will be drama!! Those toys hold the the kids attention for about 10 minutes and then they just take up space. Give them paper, scissors, crayons, egg cartons, sticks….any day and they will stay engrossed for hours!

    I love the ice treasure block! Can’t wait to try that!

    Marci´s last blog post…Menu Plan Monday- April 13, 2009

  15. Angie @ The Creative Mama

    Great article, I completely agree… lately our four year old has been really into cotton balls 🙂 He pulls them apart and creates silly shapes, counts them, and as he says “does his work”. He is also a big fan of the TP roll!

    Angie @ The Creative Mama´s last blog post…my six dollar treat.

  16. Alicia Christian

    Wow! So many things I do and so many new ideas too! What I haven’t seen yet is bowling using a fabric or nerf ball and empty water bottles. The kids don’t seem to mind setting them back up. Also a similar game with a softer ball and open paper bags. The kids have to try to roll the ball into the bag.
    Don’t forget a tent city with sheets!
    Also, I let my kids draw on the windows with dry erase markers. They enjoy wiping it off with window cleaner too, so less clean up for me. And young children only need 1-3 colors, so you don’t need an expensive set of markers either.

    Alicia Christian´s last blog post…Spring Inspiration Station

  17. lvlc @ From Mom To Mom

    I am sorry but I differ with your title… It should be called… The top preferred toys by kids! lol I mean… put a Christmas present to a kid and they enjoy more the box than the expensive toy! hahaha

    lvlc @ From Mom To Mom´s last blog post…How Green I am…

  18. Megan@SortaCrunchy

    So many of my favorites have been mentioned! My oldest can entertain herself with some dry pinto beans for a long time. Her current favorite is pretending to plant and water them in the bathroom sink. She’s also used a big bag of them like indoor sand – scooping and arranging and piling. Kind of tricky if you have little ones in the “must put in mouth” stage, but for preschool age and a little older – LOTS of cheap, cheap fun!

    Megan@SortaCrunchy´s last blog post…As He Leads Us: On Marriage and S-E-X

  19. Charlotte

    We play with all of these! Also–dirt, mud, the hose, etc. And, there are several free pod-casts online of audiobooks/audiostories.

    This past week my kids were at my parents’ house for a few days & I was able to “de-clutter” their rooms. I got rid of a lot of “real” toys. Since returning Friday night the only thing they’ve noticed missing was the stack of de-constructed/shredded cardboard boxes. I reassured them that we would have more sooner or later…

    Charlotte´s last blog post…Day 1 (2009)

  20. prasti

    we many of the inexpensive/free standbys listed on the post already. love the balloon idea…would’ve never thought of that. dish soap and water in a bowl has been fun, along w/ play-doh (store bought or home-made). books are a big hit, and we have a couple of read-a-long lps (found @ garage sales/thrift stores) that has kept my daughter busy. throwing on some dance music and finding scrap fabric/ribbon to dance w/ has also been a hit.

    prasti´s last blog post…victory

  21. Nicky

    My girls could spend hours outside with a spray bottle of water or a bucket of water and a paint brush. All of which come from the $ store

  22. Melanie K.

    What I have discovered in the last three months …. whatever old toys I bring out for my new baby is exactly what his older brothers want too! LOL! {Even if they hated the same toy when they were his age.

  23. Leslie

    While my son’s favorite playthings aren’t technically free, they tend to be household items we bought to use as intended and which double as toys – free for our purposes! He loves to hold, chew and otherwise play with silicon bakeware; he’ll spend an hour packing and unpacking baskets of cds and DVDs; unloading a basket of laundry; separating a nesting stack of plastic bowls or containers.

    Leslie´s last blog post…

  24. Lindsay

    Shaving cream is a huge hit, too. I put it right on a plastic top table and let the kids squish it to their hearts content. Hiding toys in it or making roads in it is fun, too. I actually did this when I taught VBS – and the 3 year olds loved it! It can get kinda messy, but cleans up easily.

  25. Krista

    I was recently at a program where each child got a roll of toilet paper and got to unravel it and rip it apart. Then a tray with water was added to the scene. When the TP is dipped into the water it makes “clean mud” – a fun sensory activity – especially outdoors!

    Krista´s last blog post…Happy Easter!

  26. laurie

    It seems there are basic toys that have stood the test of time, through generations, and they are the toys that get played with in our house…. not all of them are free – but our kids play with these toys so regularly and for so long at a time, they are great. My son plays trains constantly and my daughter plays with dollhouse dolls. Then they play together with the two (the people go to see the trains go by). All day long. But they also love to color, play kitchen, and dig outside, pull weeds, pretend to plant the garden, play in the sandbox, find bugs for the chickens, and go on walks. We blow bubbles outside and in the bathtub.

  27. Tori @ Thoughtfully Simple

    Rocks! Both my daughters (ages 2 and 8) LOVE rocks. They spend hours collecting, washing and inspecting rocks. My oldest even like to “sketch” the rock onto art paper. They love rocks!

    Tori @ Thoughtfully Simple´s last blog post…Best Gift for the BBQ Lover!

  28. Catherine

    For my 3 y.o. his favourites are scissors and tape – he spends ages making elaborate constructions or just taping on the floor (we have tiles, so no worries as long as it gets pulled up at end of the day).

  29. Casey

    Oh, I agree with all of the above. A large container of small dried noodles are also a great sensory toy. Bubbles are huge around our house, as are recycled juice bottles filled with colored water (and sometimes glitter or confetti). Tape over the cap and you have a great muscle building, sensory toy. My kids like to carry them, turn them over to watch the glitter, and have races carrying them. A sandbox can be a small investment that pays off for years and years after.

    Casey´s last blog post…Some Bunny

  30. Sarah @ BecomingSarah.co

    This could not be more true! Especially number eleven =) We stopped giving toys to the kids in our family in favor of putting money into college savings accounts for just this reason: they were entertained by everything and anything – and toys just seemed so unnecessary.

    Sarah @ BecomingSarah.co´s last blog post…Dignity gone.

  31. Sarah @ BecomingSarah.com

    This could not be more true! Especially number eleven =) We stopped giving toys to the kids in our family in favor of putting money into college savings accounts for just this reason: they were entertained by everything and anything – and toys just seemed so unnecessary.

    Sarah @ BecomingSarah.com´s last blog post…Dignity gone.

  32. Abby

    Great list! I just posted about Montessori-style treasure boxes for babies. It’s a simple idea. You just take a variety of natural and household objects, put them in an accessible basket, and let your baby explore.

    Abby´s last blog post…Thinking Outside the Toy Box

  33. Julie

    My kids love it when I pull out the shaving cream. I mix it with a little food coloring and let them paint with it. If it’s cold outside, they paint in the bathtub on the walls. If it’s hot, they I cover the top of their plastic picnic table with it and let them make patterns and designs with their fingers. Then when they’re done they just run through the sprinkler, and I hose off the table. Good clean fun. (Much cleaner than traditional finger paints!)

    Julie´s last blog post…Of Wallpaper and GOD

  34. Mandie

    We have a small bucket with a handle and a lid (think gallon ice cream bucket). We fill it with random little toys or blocks. Our daughter loves to empty it and refill it. We save it for trips to the doctor’s office (I don’t want her touching those germy toys) and airplane rides. Since it has a lid, we only have to keep track of one thing! We always have a book in there (or 2), stickers, and rotate out the other stuff so it is a surprise.

    Tip: If you are going on a trip, be sure to pack the bucket with toys you don’t mind losing or that you have a duplicate of. On our last trip, we packed our extra copy of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” board book. We met a little boy on the plane who appeared to be a refugee. We ended up giving him the book since we knew there was another copy at home!

    Mandie´s last blog post…Murphy’s Law

  35. Mandie

    A bucket of water and a paintbrush make for great “painting” of the sidewalk or house in the summertime!

    Mandie´s last blog post…Murphy’s Law

  36. jackie

    I clean out the empty containers from my own kitchen and give them to my kiddos for their kitchen. Their refrigerator and pantry area include not only the egg carton, but also (empty containers of) brownies, lemonade, baking powder, frosting containers, peanut butter jars, etc.

    The list goes on and on…and if someone steps on a box or it gets torn, we toss it and find something else to add! They love how authentic their ingredients feel!!

    jackie´s last blog post…he’s.risen

  37. Charlotte

    Jackie-we just started doing that a few weeks ago. I couldn’t believe we hadn’t done it sooner.

    Charlotte´s last blog post…Day 2 (2009)

  38. Luke

    We’ve used egg cartons in the past as seed starters. Just be sure to wash them thoroughly to prevent any risk of salmonella spreading. I also like to keep a few around to separate nuts, bolts and screws when you buy one of those put-it-together yourself pieces of furniture. I used to use muffin pans, but the wife never liked that idea! The kids have used them to hold walter color paint, etc. Egg cartons are very versatile!

    Luke´s last blog post…Selling Your Home in a Wounded Market

  39. 280 Days

    As a mummy of a just-turned-two year old, this post is very close to my heart. Birthdays mean lots of plastic presents bestowed upon children by well-meaning friends and relatives. Our sitting room looks like a tornado has hit, and I’m forever picking up bits of plastic!

    I agree whole heartedly with your post. There are some great ideas. One of my happiest memories of when my dad was around was him chasing my sister and me around our small house with a balloon. And we had endless fun building forts and tents out of old bedsheets.

    During our childhood, finances meant we HAD to be more creative with play. Years later, we can provide a wealth of toys for our own daughter, but it is often the simplest things she loves most. I think very often we overcomplicate play.

    280 Days´s last blog post…Growing pains

  40. sallyavena

    various size cardboard boxes covered in duct tape=castles and buildings galore (you can also add paper towel rolls and other such things)

  41. Shaina

    My husband and I made a fort for the kids after I had a Pampered Chef party out of the shipping boxes. It was fantastic. It occupied them for days.

    Great ideas!

    Shaina´s last blog post…Banana Chocolate Chip Bread and Mini Loaves

  42. Julie W.

    Last winter, I gave my 3-year-old son empty syrup and dressing bottles, as well as a spray bottle, full of water tinted with food coloring. He had a blast “writing” his name in the snow and “drawing” pictures. I don’t really recommend using red though – the neighbors might wonder what’s been going on at your house. LOL

    Julie W.´s last blog post…A Mop

  43. kodinz

    i kept old magazines and unused papers. my son like to draw while watching his favorite cartoon. I think could develop his reading skill

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