I love toys. I especially love smart toys – ones that prompt little brain neurons to fire and make new connections. I’m partial to toys that don’t have tons of bells and whistles (all those sounds make me feel like my mind is going to blow), and that kids can use in different ways as they develop.
I also like to mix things up a bit in our playroom. I’ve shared recently how I trade out our toys via our toy rotation (see Kid Spaces in Adult Places). But sometimes that’s not enough – for me. It’s probably enough for Jax, but I get SO bored with the same ol’ playthings. While I’d love to go out and buy new toys for Jax every time I need a change, our family budget couldn’t handle the hit. And as tempted as I am to raid our Jax in the Box toy inventory to satisfy my need for new stimulation, that’s probably not a wise business practice. My solution has been to come up with creative ways to make toys out of things I have around the house or materials I can purchase very inexpensively. These are the ones that are Jax approved.
1. Sensory Tray. I put this together when Jax was around 6-months old and sitting up. He was constantly touching new things and exploring their textures, so I thought this modified egg carton might do the trick. We play with this together and basically explore the objects as I name the texture, “That feels squishy … Ooo that’s soft.” Because I liked the idea of being able to see though it, I chose a clear plastic egg carton. I used objects of different textures that I had around the house and hot glued them inside each egg-holder space (what’s that called anyway?). While you can choose just about anything, these are the items that made the cut for our tray: puff ball, elbow noodles (glue them well so they don’t fall out when touched), sand paper, cotton balls, white duct tape (sticky side up), golf ball, Easter grass, aplix swatch (the scratchy side), bristle head of a bottle brush, squishy ball, soft yarn and a smooth rock.
2. Clothespin Drop. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this one. When Jax was around 10 months, he started to get a kick out of putting smaller things into bigger things. He also loved the sound things made as they fell to the floor – a trick he performed over and over when sitting in his highchair. So, I recycled a large-mouthed plastic cashew container, bought some old-fashioned clothespins at the dollar store, and introduced Jax to the Clothespin Drop. At around 12-months old, I introduced other plastic containers with mouths of varied sizes. This became progressively more challenging for Jax as he threaded the clothespins through the container’s opening. At 16-months old, this is still one of his favorite activities.
3. Ball Throw. Like lots of little boys around 10-months old, Jax discovered the joy of balls. Any ball of any size and any color, Jax loves them all. He especially loved to roll them on the floor and soon learned to toss them. As I was unpacking my van-load of groceries from Costco one day, the thought occurred to me that the plastic container the organic apples came in would perfectly house several plastic balls (that we use in an indoor plastic pool for our “ball pit”). So, I replaced the apples with balls of assorted colors. Jax gets a kick out of dumping the balls out and tossing them in. What I love about this “toy” is that the balls almost always roll into one of the grooves – the result of which gives Jax a pretty satisfying feeling of accomplishment evidenced by the grin that appears on his face.
4. Muffin Tin Sorter. I borrowed this concept from my twins’ pre-primary Montessori classroom (wow – that seems like many moons ago now that they are eight!) Leveraging Jax’s desire to put things in things, I dug out my seldom used mini-muffin tin and grabbed a handful of colored poof balls (one of which I also used in the sensory tray). I offered Jax the puff balls in a small plastic bowl which I set along side the muffin tin. Almost as if by instinct, he used his pincer grasp to place each puff one-by-one into a muffin hole. He does this until all the holes are filled, then returns the puffs to the bowl. In a few months, I’ll introduce a large spoon into the picture, and he can scoop the balls up with the spoon and place them in the holes. At around 20 months or so, I’ll give him a set of tongs with which he can pinch the balls and set into the tin. This progression requires progressively more fine-motor control and develops his hand and finger muscles for pencil-holding.
5. 4-Pack o’ Bottles. Okay, I may be from Wisconsin, but I don’t recommend introducing your child to wine during their toddler years. The evolution of this toy has a story. Jax loves to play in the refrigerator – really he does. He loves to take condiments off the door shelves, line them up on the floor and replace them in random fashion. One day, a six-pack of beer bottles sat on the shelf and Jax had a ball putting the bottles in and out of the cardboard carton. Later that afternoon, I was in Target (one of my favorite Mom hangouts) and thought I’d look for something non-alcoholic with which he could perform the same action. Well, the the only options I could find involved beer or wine. I opted for this Sutter Home 4-pack because the bottles were perfectly sized for Jax’s little hands. I wrapped the carton in white duct tape, emptied three of the bottles, and refilled them with different colored water (which I colored with food coloring). I’ve been out of red food coloring for a while, so opted to leave one bottle filled with wine. Or perhaps I’m unconsciously throwing myself a life-preserver. You know, for those nights after the kids go to bed and you really need to wind down (and you’d actually drink Sutter Home because you’re feeling that desperate). In all seriousness, this is currently one of his favorite toys. He totes the carton all around the house, rolls the bottles down his slide, lines the bottles along the counter of his play kitchen … I could go on and on.
6. Color Bins. I literally stole this concept from a high-end toy company. I loved the color-themed bins they were selling. Each bin contained several small objects of the same color. When spotting this smart toy online, I quickly pictured Jax sorting the objects by color, then sorting them by object type (balls, squares, etc.). Then I looked at the price-tag and decided I could re-create this idea myself. I purchased hard, clear plastic bins with easy-to-remove lids from Target. Then I raided the “1 Spot” for small toys that would fit into the bins. Although Jax won’t be ready to identify colors for a while, he loves lining up the bins, taking the lids off and exploring the objects as he empties them and fills them back up.
None of these ideas involve rocket science, but they’ve kept things fresh for us during playtime. I keep all of these homemade toys in drawers or bins that Jax doesn’t have ready access to, and I pull them out when there is a lull in the day. This helps preserve the fun involved in each one.