11 cheap (and free) toys from Simple Mom

In the spirit of the baby toy alternative articles we’ve written in the past, Simple Mom has a great list of cheap and free toys for your toddler. It’s easy to forget about the simple and classic toys for our children. Toys with a lot of bells and whistles seem to replace the simpler toys because they are perceived to be better somehow. This list is a nice reminder that a child’s imagination can create entertaining fun with just about any object. From the list:

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. 

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.

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.

We do have the miniature versions of food products. The variety pack of just about every Kraft food imaginable was a gift and those tiny replicas turn up just about everywhere around the house. The regular size hand-me-downs would be easier to clean up and keep in order.

We also use egg cartons as a way to keep the finger paints in a confined space while our daughter creates her next masterpiece. The paint inevitably ends up all over the place, but the egg carton is a great way to bring a bit of organization to the painting chaos.

22 Comments for “11 cheap (and free) toys from Simple Mom”

  1. posted by Fit Bottomed Girls on

    Cute ideas! Especially the empty food containers. I’d never thought of that one.

    And I used dried beans and wild rice as decoration. They are pretty in glass jars!

  2. posted by Another Deb on

    The Simple Moms article has great ideas, and even more from the comments that followed. Oh, to be a child again! “Painting” the driveway with water, stringing macaroni onto yarn, cutting Betsy McCall paper dolls out of the magazine, making paper chain loops from newspaper.

    I use a length of pipe insulation slit in half longwise as a roller coaster track for my 6 year old nephews. You can tape the ends together and then tape it to chairs and tables in loops, hills and dips. They had a blast!

  3. posted by becoming minimalist on

    we have been removing many of our childrens’ toys out of our home and they don’t seem to mind. through the process, i have found that my children’s favorite toy is…me.

    there is nothing that they enjoy more than an afternoon with mom or dad – toys or not. it really is the simple things in life that bring the most joy.

  4. posted by Maggie on

    we like egg cartons too. I give them a container (usually cleaned out sour cream container) full of various buttons and they like to sort them into the egg cartons – by size, color or whatever suits their fancy.

    We were recently doing some outside painting and gave our 3yo twins a bucket full of water and two cheap brushes and showed them how to ‘paint’ the deck. They had hours of fun with that one.

  5. posted by robin on

    “The best toys are 90% kid and 10% toy.”

    My daughter loves nothing better than a stick, a pile of pebbles and some dirt to dig in.

  6. posted by Danny on

    … and then there’s the box that the toy came in, which is almost always more fun than the toy itself.

    Perhaps my most vivid memory from preschool was when the teachers gave us a paintbrush and a pail of water. (Actually, the “pail” may have been an old used milk carton.) We preschoolers then went outside and “painted” the school. I think we could have done that for hours if they let us…

  7. posted by adora on

    In fact, they use the “pouring beans” to teach young kids about math in Montessori schools. Get clear plastic containers in different shapes and sizes. Mark the “full” and “half” at each cups with sharpie, so kids will learn that equal volume can end in different height.

    When they master the single bean, try getting different sizes beans (mung beans, kidney beans). So they will learn how 2 of the half parts might combine into only 3/4 parts. It is a Chemistry thing.

    BTW, my 3 year old niece loves boxes. Just plain carton boxes. They are free at any groceries stores. Origami using old magazines always work well too.

  8. posted by C on

    My 22 month old just discovered the joy of imaginary cream cheese, thanks to my husband. Hurray for imagination!

  9. posted by Farmwife on

    Rocks! My 7 yr old is fascinated with rocks — all different shapes, sizes, colors. They are endlessly sorted into different piles, glued onto boards and paper, and sometimes I find trails of them outside, leading to little surprise stashes :)

  10. posted by Kris on

    Some of our 13-month-old’s favorite toys have been empty oatmeal cartons, wooden mixing spoons and measuring cups, a coffee scoop, newspaper, his hairbrush, and old remotes with the batteries removed.

  11. posted by mb on

    My mom used to save all our egg cartons. She would open them and nest them in each other while storing them. These then became our building blocks. My brother and I would break out the egg cartons to make forts, rooms or whatever our imaginations would come up with.

  12. posted by Toblerone on

    Thanks for linking to my article!

    @Another Deb – What a fun idea – I’ve never thought of pipe insulation as a toy before.

    @Robin – I love that quote. I’m writing that down as I soon as I hit ‘submit.’

  13. posted by Lori on

    All GREAT ideas.

  14. posted by Sharon on

    I gave my niece a box full of 4×4 hemmed pieces of fabric- silky, stretchy, fleece, all colors, for Xmas one year, and they were her favorite playthings for years (and now belong to her toddler bro and sis). Those cloths were forts, costumes, doll clothes, curtains, puppet theaters, rivers, beds…you name it. Never wore out, never got boring, and only cost a few dollars each.
    My other sister’s in-laws give her kids clunky plastic “Elmo reads” books, and other one-use toys (never clay, or paints, or tools) and their rooms are STREWN knee deep in endless clutter of the “stuff” that Grammy and Paw-Paw give them…while the kids are off playing with dirt, and sticks and 99 cent store paints and paper…

    I read somewhere that studies have shown that the more “specific use” a toy is (my favorite example: Teddy Ruxbin- tapes wear out and he’s too clunky to cuddle) the faster a child bores of it and discards it.

  15. posted by Susan on

    To color macaroni for stringing:
    Put food coloring and rubbing alcohol in a wide-mouthed jar and mix. Add large-elbow macaroni and shake until the food coloring is absorbed.
    Pour out the excess liquid and spread the pasta newspaper to dry in a well-ventilated area (away from open flame too!).
    My mom was a preschool teacher, and she did this for her students. They string it on yarn for necklaces, toys, whatever, and it encourages small-motor development.

  16. posted by Shana on

    When I was little my dad built us a sandbox on our back patio. I don’t think I ever spent much time digging or building in it, but I had a BLAST sorting the grains of sand into inidividual color piles.

    I spent hours sorting sand, m&ms, skittles, jellybeans… when we got a little older my grandma had us sort the m&ms and skittles into color piles and then draw bar graphs about them, later on, dad taught us about percentages after we sorted and counted the candy. Who knew a little sugary goodness could be so entertaining and educational!

  17. posted by Alice on

    These are great ideas. Just remember that you need to know your kid, depending on age and habits your kid might do some interesting “volume” experiments with those beans and his ears/nose!

  18. posted by Another Deb on

    I neglected to mention on the pipe insulation roller coasters: use marbles down the U-shaped inside groove.

    An old box of seashells from my classroom became a favorite toy of visiting children. They love to sort them and match up the halves.

    I love the magazine origami idea!

    This article has brought back so many memories!

    My aunts and grandmothers taught us to weave potholders, crochet with yarn scraps, knit and embroider. I remember being 6 years old and embroidering on a tea towel and (how geeky am I?) knitting at lunchtime in 4th grade!

    Someone gave me a shoebox full of used stamps and I was in heaven for years with my “stamp collection”. A package of gourd seeds started my lifeling love of gardening. Some scraps of lace trim became doll hats.

    It’s amazing that these crafty habits have stayed with me and expanded into my woodcraft, plumbing, home repair and cooking skills.

    I guess I’ll go scrapbook a memory!

  19. posted by Andamom on

    I’ve got a toddler myself (as well as a teenager but that’s another story)… Many weeks, we participate in the Weekly Project at Unplugyourkids.com which provides a topic and we look around our home for objects that will help us take part.

    I’ve done a few posting myself on similar topics, but really – kids don’t need much but can always benefit from creativity. Less is more.

  20. posted by zoz on

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

  21. posted by Chuk Gleason on

    For very young babies, that are still putting things in their mouths, get an envelope made out of Tyvek; the bigger the better. They can put it in the mouth, it doesn’t mush like real paper does, it rattles when they shake it – both our kids had loads of fun with them. And cheap!!

  22. posted by Vanderbilt Wife on

    We were at a friends’ house this weekend and realized we had nothing for our 6-month-old to play with while we played a card game with the adults. Amazing how contented she was with an old rubbermaid container! Soon she’ll be thrilled with those pots and pans and a wooden spoon. :)

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