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Children love to play. They are little scientists exploring the world and following their interests. This hands-on, intrinsically motivated exploration is how they learn and grow.
Often, when adults think of play, they think of toys, so they rush out to buy all the latest, greatest development-enhancing toys.
But it’s important to remember that children don’t need toys and are often more than happy to play with everyday objects. In fact, any child-safe object is a toy to a child.
We’ve all seen the child who loves the box more than the new present. There is even a British nursery school that did away with all toys, instead using things like boxes and cans, and found that this change had a positive impact on play.
Top Everyday Items to Use as Toys
So cut back on the clutter and let kids play with what you’ve got. Here are some favorite “toys” for kids:
1. Kitchen Items
Kids love to have a cupboard or drawer in the kitchen where they are allowed to take things out as they please. Young kids enjoy taking things in and out of bowls and containers, while older kids love to pretend to cook.
Kitchen favorites include:
- Pots and pans
- Measuring cups
- Wood spoons
- Mixing bowls
- Plastic containers with lids
- Dry pasta
I have watched kids play for hours with measuring cups, a mixing bowl, and some dry pasta. They scooped, poured, mixed, dumped, and pretended to cook to their heart’s content.
I have seen other kids simply take things in and out of plastic containers as they practiced taking the lid on and off.
You can help make this manageable by limiting the number of items your child can take out at a time. Children play better with less, and this reduces your stress levels around cleaning up.
2. Cardboard Boxes
A cardboard box is magical because it is open-ended – there is no prescribed way to play with it. Kids can climb in and out of the box, use it as a tunnel, push it around, paint it, fill it with other toys, dump things out, pretend it’s a car, or whatever else they can imagine.
Save a few cardboard boxes in various sizes, put them out in your playroom, step back, and see what kids do with them. Avoid giving suggestions or spending hours making the box into a realistic-looking castle. Kids are incredibly creative all on their own when given time and space.
Kids love to play with rocks!
Rocks are another open-ended play item that can be used in endless ways, thus engaging kids day after day. Kids can bang rocks together, carry them around, fill buckets with them, or pretend they are play food in the mud kitchen. Rocks can be stacked, dumped, thrown, or painted.
Extend the play by pairing rocks with water, paint and brushes, sand, or buckets.
You can collect rocks from your backyard or the local park or buy a small bag of landscaping rocks.
Make sure to select rock sizes that are appropriate for your child’s age and stage. Opt for larger rocks with little ones who still put things into their mouth to avoid choking.
A few paper or reusable grocery bags can enhance play. Kids love to put things in and out of bags and carry them around. I have seen toddlers spend extended amounts of time happily placing toys in and out of bags.
It’s fun to see all the creative things kids can do with something as simple as a paper bag. Place the bag in the play area where you know your child will spot it and watch what they do.
5. Blankets and Sheets
Blankets and sheets are another everyday item that kids use in so many different ways. They can use them to build a fort, have a picnic, wear them as a cap, or create a cozy spot to read with all their dolls.
To keep the blankets under control, I suggest having a few designated play blankets that live in a basket. Kids can easily access what they need and put things away without the need to do any folding. This way, you’re not spending every evening refolding your whole linen closet after your kids go to bed.
6. Water, Scoops, and Sponges
Kids love to play with water, and this can be as simple as placing two mixing bowls and a measuring cup in the kitchen sink. Then, kids can scoop, pour, transfer, and refill as needed, all while the sink keeps the water contained.
You can add a sponge and some soap to vary the play.
I love to save scoops from things like protein powder and other food items. They are the perfect size for small hands.
Help water play to be fun and successful by setting it up in spaces you don’t mind getting wet. Yes, some water will splash out, so avoid carpet and the couch. Take water play outside or opt for spaces that can easily be wiped up, and have towels handy.
You don’t need to spend a lot of money on toys to get kids to play. Instead, give them access to varied everyday items and lots of unstructured time and see the creative ways they direct their time.
About the author
Laurel is an early childhood educator, parenting coach, and lover of the outdoors. She shares her knowledge and experience by writing for Kids Who Play.