When is a toy not a toy?

9 frugal mood enhancers.Last week DF and I had the chance to watch his granddaughter for a couple of hours. The baby, whom I’ll call “Rose,” recently had  her first birthday.

Her dad brought along a couple of stuffed animals but no other playthings. That was fine, since I’d prepared for her visit by pulling together a few things.

Technically, none of them were “toys.” Here’s what awaited her:

  • A clear plastic jug that once held eight pounds of popcorn
  • A small dough scraper
  • Some metal measuring spoons
  • Two canning-jar rings
  • A large kitchen spatula

For the first 15 minutes or so Rose sat on the couch like a very small queen with a very large diaper butt. She stared all around her, checking out the scene and fingering the textures of the afghans beneath and behind her.

When I gave her the plastic jug with the kitchen items, the fun really began.

She put everything in and then reached in to pull it all back out, seeming fascinated by the fact that she could see the items – and her arm – through the clear plastic. The edge of the jug’s rim was a little bit sharp (though not enough to draw blood) so she quickly figured out how to reach in without feeling an unpleasant sensation.

I showed her how to dump all the items out at once, and how to push the dough scraper and spatula through the space made by the jug’s handle. To DF’s relief, she did not decide to bang the measuring spoons against the jug. Appparently the irregular and discordant noises of children’s play grate on his nerves.

Too bad, because I’d planned to make another “toy” by dropping a few dried beans into a small plastic bottle and gluing on the lid. Instant maraca! Now that I know that such sounds drill him, I won’t do it. Of course, if I’m ever called upon to babysit by myself then I plan to make all sorts of joyful noises with the young miss.

The best non-toy toys

Frugalist nonpareil Amy Dacyczyn would have approved. “Babies are happiest with pot lids and measuring spoons, and they are given more toys than they need,” she notes in “The Tightwad Gazette II.”

According to my mom, one of my favorite preschool activities was to take all the canned goods out of a low cupboard and then put them all back in. Apparently I had my own ideas of how the cans should have been arranged.

Later I enjoyed playing with scraps of wood in my grandparents’ garage. My grandfather was a carpenter and he never threw anything away, apparently. (After his death we found several boxes he’d knocked together out of bits of wood; all held odds and ends of hardware. “Whenever Dad needed a box and didn’t have one, he’d make one,” my father remarked.)

When my niece was about Rose’s age, she loved to have someone empty all the clothespins out of their storage container, which was an old Clorox bottle. She’d drop them one at a time back into the jug, then smile happily when someone dumped them back out so she could begin again.

My family has an absolute genius for simple amusement. Then again, so would most babies if they weren’t surrounded by bells-and-whistles playthings, stuffties that light up and play music or, heaven help us, hand-me-down iPads.

Show of hands: Who’s entertained kids by setting out non-toys such as pots and pans, a big cardboard box or a few pieces of Tupperware? In fact, DF’s mom suggested we just pull out all the Tupperware and miscellaneous plastics (sour cream, hummus, yogurt) and let Rose have at them. Less was more, as it turned out.

More fun, less clutter

“Kids don’t need toys,” DF remarked at one point. Later he clarified the thought: Kids don’t need nearly as many toys as we think, and most kids have too many.

A woman I once worked with did a quarterly toy clearout: Every three months she packed up at least one-fourth of her children’s playthings and banished them to the attic. While there, she’d pick up some of the things she’d previously sent to the Toy Gulag.

Guess what? Her three kids were delighted with the “new” stuff and played happily and intently with it. Since they had only up to 75% of their toys downstairs at any given time, the result was more fun and less clutter.

Understand: I’m not against toys as such. I’m against excess. I’ve seen quite a few children’s rooms dominated by dolls or tyrannized by Tonka. Doting relatives + inexpensive yard sale toys = overkill. When you have too many toys, none of them is really meaningful.

Full disclosure: I have a bag of small playthings, probably 75 in all, acquired during my daughter’s growing-up years. Some were inherited from her cousin and the rest we accumulated here and there (especially as regards kids’ meals at various fast-food outlets). In her teen years she sometimes took the bag along to babysitting jobs because children are generally fascinated by large quantities of small objects, and by other people’s toys.

Occasionally I bring it out when my nephews are visiting. They, too, are delighted by the variety and the novelty. I won’t introduce Rose to it any time soon, in part because many of the pieces are just the right size to block a toddler’s airway.

It’s also because I hope she’ll see her grandfather’s house as one that isn’t full of toys, but rather of storybooks, music, cooking, kid-sized chores, walks and gardening. She can get light-up stuffties in other places, but how often does a kid get to play with an empty Orville Redenbacher jug?

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  1. So very true…In another life when I owned a store I would bring home empty boxes that cartons of cigarettes came in. DD1 loved them as they were the perfect size for a host of things. An empty box and some crayons to decorate the box and this kid was set….

    • Donna Freedman

      Once I interviewed a young woman whose husband worked for an elevator installation company. She was an at-home mom so their holiday budget (like their everyday budget) was pretty tight. Her husband rescued one of the wooden crates in which an elevator car had been delivered, and worked in the garage every night after their daughter had gone to bed to turn the crate into a playhouse. He cut windows in the thing, added a door and painted it. So smart — and a gift of love.
      Then again, I remember playing with my siblings in an old chicken house on our property. As I said: easily amused.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  2. I am a huge fan of non toys. My 4 year old nephew and 2 year old niece are regular visitors and i too have a few age appropriate toys for them but they really prefer my kitchen drawer of measuring spoons, plastic cookie cutters, and such and an old coffee can full of crayons,markers, and colored pencils.
    My son’s growing up had a manageable amount of toys but never too much. once a year before Christmas I made them go through their old toys with me so we could put together a bag for donation. Too often nowadays kids have so many toys they can’t make choices and just seem to get overwhelmed.

    • Donna Freedman

      Exactly! A few years back I babysat for some kids who had so many toys that none of them really made any difference in their lives. Interestingly, whenever I babysat they never played with toys. We talked and sometimes did a little make-believe. I won’t say they were starved for attention — their at-home moms seemed to be doing a good job — but I will say that if they would spend three hours before bed hanging out with an adult, they surely needed more one-on-one time.
      Your encouraging those kids to use their imaginations is a tremendous gift. They’re lucky to have you in their life, Jersey Girl.

  3. I am so in agreement with you. I moved near my family in the past few years. I can not stomach Christmas with them. My DS, gives her two grandchildren at least a $1000 worth of toys every Christmas. I babysit these kids. By a week later, they play with one or two of them and that is it.

    By the way, I refuse to give them anything but clothes.

  4. Children want your time and love, not stuff.

  5. Agree completely. My brothers and I loved playing with kitchen stuff as little ones. Cardboard boxes and old blankets for forts. Crayons, books, Lincoln logs, and wooden blocks for inside; trikes/bikes and a few Tonka toys for outside play. Coupled with climbing trees and playing made-up games with neighborhood friends, we grew up active and healthy with good immaginations and the ability to interact with other people – adults and kids – without doing it through a mobile device. Glad the children in your life will have someone who feels these kind of experiences are more important than the latest whiz-bang toy or electronic gizmo. Wish all children did.

  6. I agree, I agree, I agree – but I’ve found it so hard to get loving relatives (MY PARENTS) to stop buying them things. And now, with Christmas, I’m just short of begging them not to buy any more TOYS. I can’t keep up and it’s impossible for them to play with everything. I don’t want to hurt feelings, but it’s just too much.

    • Donna Freedman

      I don’t suppose you could get them to see that the money spent on those short-term-use toys would be better used in a college fund? That’s what DF is doing for Rose. The only physical things he’s bought since her birth are board books in German (her grandmother’s first language).
      But they’ll probably protest that it’s their job to “spoil” her. A college degree seems so far off. But you and I know it isn’t.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  7. I was a big fan of the Clorox bottle/clothespins myself. Maybe the Clorox thing is just in our DNA?

    I was also happy running the Fisher-Price “lawn mower” around. It had little balls that popped up some when you moved it.

    • Donna Freedman

      Yes, we believed in inculcating children early to love both laundry and vacuuming.

  8. Reminds me of the time my mom spent *months* stealing the stuffed toys off our beds – mostly my brother’s. He had accumulated SO many stuffies that there was hardly any room for *him*.

    She was taking them away slowly – one at a time and wait to see if he noticed. Put them all in a trash bag in her bedroom closet.

    One day – not sure why – we were playing in her bedroom and ended up poking around in the closet. My mom came in to find us squealing and laughing. “Mom! Look! all the toys are in the GARBAGE bag in your closet! we FOUND them! How did they GET here!”

    And she had to start over from scratch 🙂

    Eventually she had a big bagful and we talked about how we didn’t need ALL of them and how we could take them to the school and give them to the kindergarten class. We all agreed, and so off they went.

    And a few days later, she had to go in to the kindergarten class and explain to the teacher that she *really* needed to bring one back home – my brother had realized that one left that he *really* wanted back. The kindergarten teacher – who had been the kindergarten teacher for all 3 of us kids at that point – was very kind and completely understood, and dug the toy out and gave it back to my mom for my brother.

  9. Mirabella

    All true. As a kid, my favorite things to play with were 1) a mattress box which my brother and I used as a pretend funhouse, 2) blank pieces of paper for my fabulous childhood artwork, and 3) silly putty, which you could do just about anything with (except stick to a wool blanket, which sadly ended silly putty’s usefulness).

    • Donna Freedman

      I was always fascinated by Silly Putty but we never got any. Now that I can afford to buy my own…Well, just not interested any more.

  10. My kids loved cardboard boxes and would play in them for hours on end. They also liked to build a blanket fort in the living room. They enjoyed camping in the backyard as well.
    Your tale of taking all the cans out made me smile. We babysat a friend’s 3 year old and she did the same thing. Took each can out, one at a time, brought it to the family room and then went back for more. When she was done, she started to bring them back–but not all. When her dad came the next day, we explained why we had so many canned goods all over the rooms. Kept her entertained and gave us a chance to sit down and watch. Three year olds have a lot of energy!

  11. My sister has the means to shop and buy as much as she wants. Buying for her daughter is fun! Because she overbuys I have a nice side income of selling the stuff on ebay for commission :).

    As I watched my four year old niece a few days ago while the power was out she said she was board and wanted to “go to a store”. So she is learning that from my sister. I redirected her attention to some toys and she forgot about going shopping. We built a fort out of cushions and a blanket.

    I only plan on buying her books for Christmas this year.

  12. My niece is six months old now and she is fascinated with a cup we give her to play with every time we watch her once we showed her it makes noise when you scratch it. She is so happy to alternate between banging the cup and scratching it at this point. So I agree non toys are sometimes more fun. 🙂

  13. a ball, a doll or bear, a skipping rope, coloring pencil and paper,block of wood. that the list i go for. at the children house i work that what we aim for.

  14. When people came into my third child’s room, I was chastised for too many toys. The child rarely got a toy. Her shelves had toys from her brother and sister. All toys were played with and well-cared for so they lasted. Most toys were Tonka, Fisher Price, and toys from my childhood.

    The people who chastised me bought junky toys week in and week out and threw them away after their children played with toys once or twice. Their children had nothing. My children only got toys at Christmas and birthdays. I think the constant buying of toys is another one of the problems.

    I won’t say my children never tore up a toy. But, they had sturdy toys, took care of them, and were encouraged to not abuse toys.

    I know I am late to the party.

  15. I remember hearing my mom telling her girlfriend that she doesn’t know why she wastes her money (what little there was) on toys. We enjoyed the boxes more then the toys.
    Also with our own & gr kids, they learned counting w/the cans from under the cupboard. Plastic dishes & when older washing them so they could play in the water they loved.
    Now my gr kids think they are being less then good parent if they can’t get their kids toys, and they are poorer then my parents be-cause of the economy. Can’t buy toys on food stamps.
    Keep up your good work and I’m so sorry about the loss of your latest (and the others) grandchild. They all mean so much to each of us.

    • Donna Freedman

      I have suggested to DF that he keep his eyes peeled at work — maybe a giant new computer item will be delivered and he can turn the box into a be-anything toy, or maybe even into a little playhouse.
      When she was over the other night I added a couple of funnels to the “toy” mix. That made me think that if she’s visiting on a warm summer day I am going to put out a plastic bin with water and show her how to fill containers with water. The fact that the bin is big enough for her to get in should just add to the fun. That is, unless there’s lots of mosquitoes that day. 🙁
      As for not being a good parent unless there are lots of toys…Well, I beg to differ. Obviously.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  16. I meant to add My favorite toy was my grams button jar.
    She would make hooked rugs or braided rugs from wool so
    would get old clothes, cut off the buttons and put them
    in her jar. What a treasure that was! BIG ONES, SHINEY
    to count too.
    Clothes pins were second, except when I had to hang clothes.
    We would take the snap ones apart and throw mom’s blankets
    over the line, pound the pins into the ground at the cornors,
    and at the middle on each side. Make a wonderful tent.
    Mom would say she always knew what blankets were hers. MORE FUN!
    Have a nice day.

    • Donna Freedman

      My mom had a button jar, too, although she didn’t sew much. She probably inherited it from someone. It was a canning jar with a zinc lid and some of the buttons were old and beautiful. I liked emptying them out and sorting them.
      My niece makes a tent for her boys using sheets, the clothesline and a few pins. They love playing in it; she loves the fact that it didn’t cost her anything.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.


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