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12 cheap (and free!) toys for young children

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by Tsh

Tsh is the founder of this blog and is currently traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

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 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 even become airline seats for little animal toys.

2. Chalk.

On sidewalks, on chalkboards… 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, scrap paper… give some to your kiddo with a pair of safety scissors, and he’ll be engrossed forever.

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.

6. 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.

7. Old clean socks.

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

8. 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.

9. Balloons.

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

10. Books.

They were my absolute favorite. The child who doesn’t like to read is missing out on adventure, meeting new people, and traveling through time.

11. 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.

12. 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, a tent, whatever. 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.

What are your cheap or free standbys? What enthralls your child for hours?

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Comments

  1. Oh yes, what a wonderful list. I would like to enhance ‘wood': give them three pieces of wood and the afternoon will be a great one. either they create a boat or a sword or they paint the wood.

    sevenjobs’s last blog post…Wann beginnt die Pubertät?

  2. I love this list, it takes me back a decade (the youngest of my four is now 16). Another good free toy is a wooden spoon and a saucepan or colander for an improvised drum etc. Just be sure to check periodically that the pan won’t get stuck on the head of the child in question – it needs to be very loose or far too small, because it will always end up as a hat!

    Joanna

    Joanna’s last blog post…A boy’s breakfast

  3. @sevenjobs – Great idea about the wood! I had not thought of that one.

    @Joanna – Very true. My kids are right in between that stage – my daughter doesn’t seem very interested in wooden spoons and pots anymore; my son will be approaching that age pretty soon. A great reminder!

  4. My three kiddos like shopping bags with handles, both brown paper ones and glossy gift bags. They tote all kinds of things in them, use them as backpacks, collect items on walks, etc. They are constantly reused and repurposed.

    Gina’s last blog post…CVS Trip Today

  5. The cardboard box is my kids’ favorite. They can’t wait until stuff gets sent to us from the States, just to be able to play with the box! Sheets of cardboard are also good- the latest invention was a pirate boat, using a broom as a paddle.

    Dried beans in an old tennis ball or Pringles can make a great rainmaker.

  6. Thanks for writing this post – sometimes I think we need to be reminded that the price sticker on a toy is by no means connected to it’s worth.

    My son loves my empty dish soap squeeze bottles for tub toys, and he also takes the “dishes” idea to a grander scale – with the garden hose and a few empty milk jugs.

    Makes you wish you could be four again, doesn’t it?

    Emily’s last blog post…The "B" Word

  7. The card board box is a staple around here, and right along with it goes duct tape. These boys can do anything with duct tape and card board.

    Other random things – we use egg cartoons too, with slightly older kids they work so well for mixing paint. I save random boxes, for example baby wipe containers, because the kids like to paint them and turn them into things like “allowance boxes.”

    String is always good for hours of amusement, especially when combined with sheets and/or cardboard.

    Lucie’s last blog post…Out of the Bed and Into the Crib – Adventures in Sleeping

  8. Great ideas! There’s nothing better than getting your child’s imagination in gear!
    http://www.momsmarbles.com

    Mom’s Marbles’s last blog post…Hairy Friends!

  9. Great list! We picked up a new vacuum cleaner over the weekend and it came in a large cardboard box. My son played with the box for hours, and my daughter even helped him decorate it a bit. Proof that sometimes the things that are most fun come in the cheapest packages (the packaging itself)!

    Frugal Dad’s last blog post…Rolex Versus Timex: How Valuable is Your Time

  10. We found paperclips on sale at Walgreen for 19 cents a box. My daughter is trying to break a world record making the longest paperclip chain. I don’t think she’ll break the record – but it’s sure keeping her busy and on task!

    Dana’s last blog post…Party at my place!

  11. Our oldest grandson was the first on both sides and he has more toys than his room can hold. One Saturday, my husband and I had planned to take him to the toy store to get a new board game. “Do we HAVE to go to the toy store?” he asked. “Can’t we stay here and play with the helicopter leaves?” He showed me how they whirl around to the ground after they are tossed into the air. We spent the next two hours just playing in the yard with the leaves, then with a simple ball having more fun than I can remember. Another free game he invented is a worm digging contest (set a timer and see who can dig up the most worms!) It’s a fun game that also weeds a flower bed at the same time!

  12. @Dana – your post reminded me of the flower chains we used to make as kids from clover flowers. We finished them into necklaces.

  13. My 3 year old niece loves the wooden spoon and bowls. She just loves to pretend to cook.

    A Frugal Housewife – Jody’s last blog post…Giveaway – Tell Us Your Favorite Cleaning Tip

  14. My husband and daughter recently starting playing with the broom. My daughter uses her “magic” to make the broom come to life, then it chases her (this is where my husband comes in) or she chases it. She had just watched Disney’s Fantasia. She is constantly coming up with ideas to recreate from movies. Another “free” activity is dancing in front of a mirror, that will keep her occupied indefinitely. (I think I have a 2 1/2 year old narcissus on my hands!)

  15. How ’bout home-made play dough?

    1/4 cup salt
    1 cup flour
    1/4 cup water (depending on humidity)
    Food coloring

    Mix the flour and salt in a bowl then add water. Knead until the consistency is that of regular Play Dough. For fun, try adding an unsweetened Kool-Aid packet or a few drops of vanilla.

    My favorite thing to do as a little boy was to build a fort out of tree limbs I found in the woods. I also made home-made bows and arrows (out of Mimosa trees) and would search to find bird feathers to tape on the arrows as fletching.

  16. my kids love playing with pipe cleaners — they can become anything.

    also, adult shoes make great cars for Barbies. at least they do in my house.

    make art every day’s last blog post…Welcome to Memphis.

  17. All your kids have some great ideas!

  18. Everything you said is great. What about some plain old sticks! My son loves to play with sticks, and they are everywhere. Rocks, too. And leaves and flowers to collect.

    Also, blankets and pillows. He makes forts and hiding places, benches, picnics.

    Magazines and the pictures in them. Cut out play food. Cut out paper dolls. Cut out houses.

    rowena’s last blog post…Where Sacred Art Exists

  19. Small boxes, like shoeboxes, are a big hit at my house. My daughter’s beloved Lambie is in a shoebox “boat” right now. Laundry baskets and wooden spoons become boats and oars for my daughter. Lining up a variety of chairs, pillows and boxes creates a train. A too-flowery-for-my-tastes maternity shirt is now her “ballerina dress with the boo-ti-ful flowers on it”. And yes, we have an empty dishwasher box “house” in our living room right now. She has requested that Daddy build her a garage to go with it.

    Our favorite classic toy of the moment is Legos. She can play with them for hours.

    Holly’s last blog post…Kid-Friendly Summer: VBS

  20. I love anything that we can make at home for the kids! We do a lot of things from that list and spend a lot of time playing with chalk, blowing bubbles, running through the sprinklers, and just enjoying nature.

    Amy’s last blog post…CVS Shopping & Savings 08.18.08

  21. And of course the classic….measuring cups! My son (maybe he’s strange) but he also loves any type of cloth so that he can pretend to clean..he wipes the floor, the tables, the walls….just about anything he can :)

  22. So many great ideas … I’m filling up my grandmother file! One day the kids had a blast measuring things all over the house with a ruler. They also enjoy doing their own little shows and we love to watch the performances!

  23. Earlier this summer, we built a “grocery store” with cardboard boxes and invited my daughter’s friends over to shop. I filled the “shelves” with empty food containers from our recycling bin, set up our toy cash register, gave each kiddo some paper and pencil to make their shopping list and gathered up all of our bags and purses for them to put toy money and their purchases in. While the kids played, their moms and I made the recycled t-shirt shopping bags I learned about on SimpleMom. It was a blast.

    lisa’s last blog post…

  24. This is so true!! I wish that I had not bought all the toys I “thought” my daughter needed when she was born. They were such a huge waste. You know what they play with for 30 mins when we go to the play room the big back of 2 dollar feathers :)

    Be sure to check out my site and enter to win the giveaway!

    Vanessa’s last blog post…Monday: Weekly Family Activity–Getting Your Kids Excited for School

  25. A few recent “toys”

    A bucket and a yardful of pinecones
    A pair of tongs
    spray bottles with colored water
    a rope tied to a laundry basket

    I agree that nosiy expensive toys do not provide nearly the entertainment you can provide in a pinch. My son also likes to scrub potatoes with the food scruber.

    nina’s last blog post…Comment, Content, Emails…

  26. I love giving my kids old paint brushes from the garage and a bucket of water, and then letting them “paint” the fence. It amuses them for the longest time!

  27. We got some locker magnets at the dollar store and my 3-year-old plays with them for half and hour sometimes. They are more powerful so they shoot up and they all stick together, then you pull them apart, put them in a line and start again!

  28. I love the idea of the egg carton being a souvenier box for treasures found outside. We took a walk last night and my son came back with two pockets full of rocks. I’ll make a carton his treasure box.

    Also one of our favorite cheap toys is a collection of nuts. Walnuts, brazil nuts and other big nuts in their shells are great. Both of my boys use these when they ‘cook’. They love to pour them like rice and beans from one pot to another and they are fun to stir too.

  29. Buttons! This activity definitely needs supervision if your kid still puts things in their mouth, but my son loves to sort buttons into muffin tins. In a funny coincidence I just took pictures and plan to blog about it this week!

    We also stuff scrap fabric into old tissue boxes and use pull them out over and over (for babies & toddlers), doll & animal blankets or pretend cleaning (for preschoolers), plus we use them as washable tissues or for spills when needed.

    He also prefers to play cook with small pine cones, rocks and acorns.

    Jonah Lisa’s last blog post…Our Weekend

  30. Amen to cardboard boxes!!! We had a huge one that our huge grill came in, dh made a window with a shelf and the boys played “drive-thru” a lot!! Also my 2-year-old loves to play with the vacuum, so when the floor could use a little help, I just turn it out without any attachments (so the hose is light and short) and he cleans away! Bubble wrap is another great one!

    BTW, I’m hosting my first bloggy giveaway, so be sure to visit me @ http://betweenloadsoflaundry.blogspot.com/

    Mikki Roo’s last blog post…this is my 50th post – giveaway!

  31. avatar
    rosesmama says:

    As kids get older, they still like to play and learn from these great “toys” (boxes, tubes, paper clips, marshmallows, straws, rubberbands, toothpicks, etc.). We’ve been using Steven Caney’s Ultimate Building Book to explore the science and math behind the play. A great resource.

  32. Just make sure the age of the kids are appropriate if you are letting them play with beans and other small objects that could get put in their nose. I kid you not! My sister did it over 40 years ago, and it seems that small notebook’s little one did it recently. LOL!

    A friend that is a nurse says they see beans lodged in the nose quite often…

    Rhonda’s last blog post…Blah, Blah Blah

  33. @Rhonda – My daughter actually did this very thing a few months ago!: http://betterthingsahead.com/get-bead-out-of-kids-nose/

  34. A dry driveway, a bucket of water and a paintbrush!
    Fun for hours!
    Zendad
    http://www.zendad.net

    Zendad’s last blog post…Why Kids Are Always Testing Your Limits

  35. We’ve spent lots of time making tents in the dining room with sheets over the table and chairs.

    Our kids also like to make their current toys into a toy store. They make their own currency, set up shop, and help each other shop.

    The kids own baby clothes also make good doll clothes. It’s fun to tell them about when they were that little, too!

  36. Hey simplemom! Thanks for all of the great ideas! I linked to your meal planning idea in my latest post. What a novel idea! Thanks again=)

    Gardenmama’s last blog post…Menu Planning

  37. What a great list, just brings it all home to you that the most expensive toys are not always the best – we all knew that anyway didn’t we?
    I want to add to the list a large square scarf, useful for a multitude of things. Tents, toy and baby wraps, bed clothes, face cloths, dressing up, baby sling you name it.

    Lune’s last blog post…Autumn

  38. Love this list… I’ll be mentioning it on my site — but, wanted to share one of our favorite things… I’ll put together a quick list of things the kids can find outside and it becomes a scavenger hunt. They have to find everything on the list and it can take a while if you get creative with the list ;-) Here are some ideas:
    – blade of grass
    – ant
    – family of rocks
    – pine cone
    – pine needles (10)
    – 5 inch long stick
    – 12 inch long stick
    – yellow flower
    etc., etc…

    Jenni Hunt’s last blog post…Forget the Pet Rock… How About An Entire Neighborhood!

  39. My husband and I would buy things for our two sons, when they were very small, for Christmas, and they would end up playing with the boxes, instead. (We’d end up taking them back to the store.) They absolutely — positively — loved boxes!!!

    The number #1 gift that we bought that they loved and played with until they discovered computers and video games, were Lego Blocks, which look like little boxes, and you can make boxes with them. I used to love playing Legos with the kids, too.

    Some other ideas:

    Various sizes of wheels, which can go with the wood that others mentioned, to make go carts.

    Old clothing and accessories are great for making all kinds of make believe outfits and costumes.

  40. Aluminum foil! (Probably not good for kiddos still putting things in their mouth, though.)

    Rocks In My Dryer’s last blog post…Do So Everyday

  41. Cotton Balls and a big bowl. My girls had a BLAST throwing them in, dumping them out, making a “cloud” with the cotton balls. It was excellent.

    Erika’s last blog post…Haircut!

  42. My 16 month old son was recently at grandma and grandpa’s house when he discovered my dad’s stash of iced tea boxes. (The man is addicted to iced tea and buys it in bulk during sales!) Well, baby started bringing the boxes into the living room and began stacking them. He needed some help, of course, and together, we built a stack of boxes standing taller than him! He loved it so much and was laughing like crazy.

    Now, whenever we go to grandpa’s, he runs straight over to dad’s stash of tea.

    Blogger Dad’s last blog post…Baby’s first hurricane watch

  43. Nesting tupperware-type bowls!

    Amanda Yeager’s last blog post…I hereby vow to get my Target addiction under control…THIS YEAR!!! Target,…

  44. hi, i’m francesca from italy
    great ideas for my kids at the kindergarten!

    officina dei colori’s last blog post…A piedi nudi…

  45. Great reminder of easy things to do, thanks!! We received a package yesterday and the box was a good size, my kids played with & colored it for more then 30 minutes (and they’re 6, 7, & 9!!).

    Liz’s last blog post…Start CVSing

  46. With regards to boxes. My kids have also used the boxes when they are past their prime as sleds to go down grassy hillsides. this was especially fun when we were living in Hawaii & they never had snow!

  47. Aha–a list that speaks to the Waldorf parent’s heart. My son loved (and still sometimes loves at age 12) the pop piece on OJ cartons and some milk cartons. You push down on the top piece and it pops up–two can have popping wars–or if you prefer ” poping contest’s” Worth the investment–wooden blocks–we recently cleaned my sons room and he still was not ready to part with the blocks–or hot wheel cars.

  48. Goobledegook!
    Water and cornstarch until it forms a paste that’s a near-solid on the table surface, but melts intriguingly through your fingers when pried up.
    Food coloring optional, and the way to a preschool boy’s heart is to call it “Alien Slime”.
    BTW- A big second on books as the best toy ever. But if your child resists reading, try the self-test at http://www.irlen.com.
    I have Irlen’s syndrome, and before my teachers figured it out, my poor mom had to develop the negotiation skills of a Middle-east policy negotiator to get me to read at all.

  49. Please *do not* reuse egg cartons! Salmonella bacteria can live on egg cartons for months, and can easily be transferred from hand to mouth.

    • Thanks but this is something I just would not worry about–a lot of the more natural toys carry a little more risk than the colorful plastic, carefully proofed store bought toys however I think in most cases its worth it–car seats, bike helmets, crossing at the green not in between, leaving a party with someone who has had to much to drink—give me cause to worry….

  50. When my grandson was a baby, I took a checkbook box, put some dried beans in and covered the box with packing tape. He couldn’t get into the box but had a lot of fun shaking it.

    GrammaB´s last blog post…Link Love :: the hurray for family-owned shops! edition

  51. A great selection of ideas! The other night my 12 year old son had a couple of friends over and my wife started a rolled up sock fight. They thought it was “silly’ until one got beamed upside the head the head, then it was GAME ON!

    We had a great time. Lots of fun can be found in the “simple”
    .-= Michael´s last blog ..Zhu Zhu Pet Hamsters on eBay: =-.

  52. Cool cheap toys!
    .-= Aaron Shaw´s last blog ..Fun for Kids Activities – Thanksgiving Crafts! =-.

  53. There’s nothing like cardboard boxes, blankets, and fort building for entertaining. My granddaughter will play in her fort for hours at a time. If we don’t have any boxes we just position a couple of chairs together and go for it. I’m sure we’ll eventually have sleep overs in that good old fort.
    .-= Tina@CorvetteRideOnToys´s last blog ..Corvette Ride On Toys – A Luxury Ride For The Kids =-.

  54. avatar
    Isa Thalasso says:

    Thank you very much for that great list. I will definitely bring back a big cardboard box for my nephew and niece.

  55. Please be aware some uncooked beans are toxic if eaten by children…..

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