The old adage says that a toddler (or baby) would rather play with the box a toy comes in than with the toy itself. If the adage is true (which it usually is), why not save some money and give your young children what they really want? Make toys from the things you would normally throw away. Of course, some trash items are inappropriate playthings – I don’t suggest using a depleted AA battery as a teether – but many other household trash items can be made into safe and fun toys.
The possibilities for toy-making are vast, and once you start to see the play potential in a few household items, you will probably have some creative ideas of your own. In the meantime, here are a few to get you started:
1. Use cereal boxes, oatmeal boxes, and similar boxes to make large building blocks. Slightly older children can use these boxes to play store. (Save fake credit cards from pre-approved offers for the same purpose.)
2. Use a large cardboard box to make a playhouse or tunnel. Allow your child to do the interior (and exterior) decorating with crayons or markers.
3. Put rubber bands around a shoebox (without a lid) to make a guitar-like instrument.
4. Use squeeze bottles that previously held dish detergent or shampoo as squirt toys in the bathtub or pool. Assorted plastic cups and bowls are also great in the tub to teach children how to pour.
5. In addition to pouring, pudding or yogurt cups have many fun uses. Put a small toy underneath one to play a hide and seek game. Babies may also enjoy putting these cups inside each other (or putting another toy inside them). For older children, connect two cups with a string to make a telephone.
6. Put dry beans or rice in a cup or on a paper or plastic plate. Glue/tape a second cup or plate to the rim of the first to make maracas (cups) or a tambourine (plates).
7. Turn toilet paper tubes into kazoos by putting a piece of wax paper over one end and securing it with a rubber band.
8. Tie a wide wrapping paper tube to the stair rail. Put a ball in the top of the tube and watch it reappear at the bottom.
9. Put together several margarine tubs to make a drum set, using spoons as drumsticks. (Smaller yogurt cups with lids can also be part of the set.)
10. Save plastic milk lids. Cut an “X” in the lid of a margarine tub and allow your toddler to push the milk lids through the top. Reinforce the “X” with packing tape; in our house, this homemade toy has been used far more than I expected, and the untaped “X” on the first lid quickly tore.
11. Stick matching pairs of stickers on frozen juice can lids to create a memory game.
12. Fill an empty plastic bottle with a mixture of water and cooking oil. Add a few drops of food coloring for interest, and tightly secure the top. Tilt the bottle to make waves with interesting patterns.
13. Use a pencil sharpener or knife to shave wax off broken crayons. Allow your child to arrange the shavings on a piece of wax paper. Cover the crayons with another piece of wax paper and briefly put the paper under an iron to melt the wax. Voila! You have instant “stained glass” to tape to your windows.
14. Cut straws of different colors into inch-long pieces. Allow your toddler to string them onto a shoelace or yarn to make a necklace. (You can also intersperse Cheerios beads.)
15. Use an egg carton as a paint tray or allow your supervised toddler to move small objects from one segment to the next. Create a texture tray by gluing fabric, paper, and other things of varied textures to the bottoms of the segments and letting your child feel the different surfaces.
16. Save the plastic Gerber Graduates Puffs containers to make a bowling set.
17. Open junk mail. You may find interesting stickers, scratch-off “games,” and other goodies your toddler can use. (My toddler enjoys the stickers and scratch-offs no matter what design is on or under them. He’s never disappointed to see, “Sorry! Try again!”)
For more inspiration, check your local library for books on toddler games. (Some of these ideas came from books of this sort; one of my favorites is More Things To Do with Toddlers and Twos by Karen Miller.) Be creative, and have fun!