Motherly Collective

As a mother of two trying to keep my young children intellectually stimulated, I sometimes worried that my children were at a disadvantage when the budget did not allow for expensive toys that other families seemed to have. And as a teacher of hundreds, I saw other parents with the same concerns. But thirty years of experience with youngsters taught me something very important: young children do not need expensive toys. 

The concepts they need to learn come from experiencing the three-dimensional world through repetitive play. I came to realize that a budget that does not allow for expensive toys does not create a disadvantage for children. In fact, simple, homemade toys may be even better than the latest device to teach your child about the world.  

Here are some inexpensive ways you can encourage your child’s creativity and cognitive growth.

Homemade toys for kids that won’t break the budget

1. Nesting objects

Young kids love nesting objects and will play with them over and over again. You can make your own from household packages (bonus points for recycling!). The best part about these is if they become destroyed, they are free to replace. My favorite is made from powdered baking cocoa containers. Start with the largest container, nest in the smaller one, then add a smaller box. You can use anything from empty oatmeal containers to shoe boxes. 

Homemade nesting boxes offer the additional benefit of letting children figure out how to open and close them and put on lids. It’s always fun to place a little “treasure” inside the last box but this treasure can change each time your child plays with the toy. I developed a routine of hiding a different treasure in the toy each time my child napped. Discovering it delighted him every time he awoke. Your child may also enjoy hiding a treasure inside for you to find.

2. Cup stacking

Cup stacking has been a popular activity for years. Cheap paper or plastic cups are surprisingly entertaining. Even if children are too young for intricate patterns or timed races, they still have fun stacking just a few cups and knocking them down. Simply nesting them together is another favorite activity. 

3. Dump bin

An indoor dump bin can be a lifesaver on days when the sandbox is not available. Use rice, macaroni, dried beans or cornmeal to fill a bin. Add scoops and discarded plastic containers of various shapes and sizes. Supervised, of course! Nobody wants to dig dry macaroni out of their child’s nose (or anywhere else!). Children also love containers with lids that twist off. Pro tip: play with these on a play mat or on any surface that can be swept clean after. Involve your child with clean-up by encouraging them to use child-sized household tools. 

4. Giant blocks

Rinse empty milk cartons and fold the pointed ends flat to create a sturdy set of giant play blocks. These can be fashioned into all sorts of excellent forts, castles and houses for stuffed animals. 

5. Sidewalk paint

A few cheap paint brushes and a tub of water on a sunny sidewalk or patio can keep a child busy for an hour. Fences, houses and lawn furniture can also be painted. Best part? Water dries and your furniture might be a bit cleaner. 

6. Custom crayon rubbing

Give old boxes of crayons a second life by creating a crayon rubbing. Tear off the paper wrapping from crayons and rub the exposed crayons on a textured surface for an artsy production like no other. Cement sidewalks, leaves, tree trunks, bricks and sandpaper all offer possibilities for art projects. Your children will find many more. Liquid glue offers one way to create a textured surface. Simply dribble a design on heavy paper and let it dry. Making the design is part of the activity, so experiment away. Fingers, paintbrushes, bottle tips all yield different results. What happens when string or sand are added to the glue? 

7. Giant crayon-cakes

Line an old cupcake pan with aluminum foil. Fill each hollow about half full of peeled and broken crayons. Place the pan in the oven for four to eight minutes on a low heat. Shorter times create less color blending. Once the wax cools and hardens, you have giant crayons for giant projects. 

8. Sidewalk shadows

Spread a large sheet of paper on the sidewalk. Have one child stand over it and cast a shadow while another child draws around it. Or, have your child lie on the paper and draw around their body. These are great to cut out and put up in a child’s room. You can create a wardrobe for the figures that change with seasons. If you don’t have large paper available (hobby stores usually carry these), you might use regular paper and grass, dandelions or any small object to create a shadow to draw around.

These inexpensive toys can engage, stimulate and inspire your child for lengthy periods of time. What’s not to like?

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother's journey is unique. By amplifying each mother's experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you're interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please click here.