Why do I buy stuff? The novelty of opening up a gift is the most exciting part of stuff. In the pandemic, when we first locked down, I thought I could buy my kids’ sanity with more things. I bought art supply kits, toys and even a bounce house.
In the end, the things my kids have loved the most throughout their short little lives are not the fancy toys but the everyday, lying-around-your-house or part-of-the-natural-world things. Here I will count down the greatest toys that aren’t toys.
#10: The chair
My children loved chairs from a young age. To a toddler, a chair is Everest, begging to be surmounted and toppled. There are infinite types of chairs, each with its own signature delights. Rocking chairs can be violently rocked to your heart’s content. You can spin your brother in a chair until he laughs so hard he pukes. Chairs make for good fort walls. Should your household be blessed with a rolling chair, you can use it to push or pull yourself all over the newly refinished hardwood floors.
Tape is another one of the most versatile items in a non-toy box. Washi tape is seemingly made for crafting. Scotch tape is ever so satisfying. Painter’s tape is, of course, the most toddler-safe, used for hanging up masterpieces, making race tracks and even for creating elaborate “Mission Impossible”-style hallway obstacle courses. Maybe keep the duct tape away from the preschoolers — they’ll have plenty of time to experiment with it in middle school. And beware packing tape: Once I was on a phone call and my 3-year-old used an entire roll on his abdomen. I had to cut him out of it.
#8 Kitchen utensils
My kid wants nothing more than to wield the knife sharpener. Watch for sharps, of course, but consider giving your child free reign of the utensils. My son has been known to carry around a basting brush like a precious totem. Take the whole project up a notch by giving the kids a bowl of ice, water, food goo such as pudding or applesauce, shaving cream, play dough, kinetic sand or art supplies and witness all they can do with those citrus peelers and melon ballers you never use anyway.
#7 Plastic food containers
My 6-year-old next-door neighbor’s porch currently has an assortment of clear containers rivaling a Howard Hughes collection. Instead of containing his own bodily fluids, though, these plastic takeout containers store “potions,” mixtures of dirt, flowers, rocks, water and whatever else the kids can find lying around between our two houses. Over the years, we’ve used empty yogurt tubs for water play, towers, bowling pins, art and so much more. They stack nicely and you can never have too many.
We all know the magic of a pillow, blanket and sheet fort. My daughter, always the innovator, has taken bedding as a toy to the next level. We keep her old crib mattress to use for sleepovers on my bedroom floor. She rode it down our stairs. She’s fine. I’m traumatized. You can also use blankets or strong sheets to make a sensory swing or hammock by putting a kid or two in the middle and swinging them around between two hearty adults. Plus, don’t forget the classic use of bedding: comfort object à la Linus. Always a classic.
#5 A cardboard tube
When it comes to cardboard tubes, size matters: the bigger, the better. Toilet paper tube: useful for crafts and birdfeeders. Paper towel tube: good for a pirate’s telescope in a pinch. Wrapping paper tube: sword, duh. Rug or poster tube: OH YEAH. That’s the best. The possibilities are endless. Make a car chute or talk through it. Use it in your blanket fort (see #10 and #6) as a support beam or message center. The world is your oyster.
#4 Bubble wrap
Line a hallway with it and run your cars over it. Wrap yourself in it and sumo-wrestle your sister. Wrap your toys in it and throw them down the stairs. Or just sit and pop it to your heart’s content. There is no wrong way to play with bubble wrap. Unless you’re the family dog. The family dog does not appreciate bubble wrap.
This one’s kind of controversial. You gotta be careful with rocks, you hear? No throwing them at your brother. Into a river? Yes. But not at a person or car. Paint them. Disperse them around your neighborhood. Play Jenga or tic-tac-toe with them. Collect them and use them as currency in your newly formed child-run government.
#2 A tree
Right after rocks, the next natural resource that children can enjoy more than any thingamabob is a tree. Climb it. Swing from it. Sit under it and read. Do a rubbing of the bark. Use the fallen autumn leaves for crafts. Take a picture of it every day for a year or once a year on your birthday to see how you’ve grown. Decorate it with knick-knacks and ribbon for the fairies. Hide treasures in its nooks like Boo Radley.
#1 The box
From the makers of the cardboard tube: the cardboard box. Again, the bigger, the better. A small box can hold treasures or be découpaged for a gift. A medium box can be a doll bed or a dinosaur habitat. A big box can be one of many rooms in that fort you’ve been working on or a Barbie dream house of your own design. Put a smallish toddler in a box with some crayons and enjoy some quiet time. A refrigerator or treadmill box can be a safe cave or rocket ship. The box is the original classic.
It’s okay to get your kids some new toys once in a while, of course. It’s also okay to tell them to go play with the cardboard box the toy came in. I’m not holier than thou — my kids watch TV and have tablets. But sometimes, when the mood strikes them, my kids abandon their devices, pick up some trash and turn it into treasure.