Adhering to minimalist principles can be a challenge when you’ve got kids. (I’ve written before about owning fewer possessions and living a minimalist lifestyle; and I’ve talked about minimizing baby stuff, too.)
We’re trying to avoid screens for our daughter before she turns two (and hopefully beyond), and we’re also trying to keep the number of toys we keep in the house to a minimum. That means we have to be creative sometimes. Keeping a kid happy and stimulated, while trying to get stuff done, without TV and electronic gadgets, requires a bit of imagination.
This list of toddler-friendly items includes open-ended materials which encourage creativity more than electronic gadgets and registered characters do. That means you don’t need to replace them all the time: you can just repurpose them when your kid gets bored of a certain activity. Altogether, they probably cost us less than $30.
These are all items that have turned out to be a big hit with my Lydia, from about 18-24 months. I’ve managed to come up with several activities that she finds interesting and engaging using these items, and can keep her quietly occupied for quite some time. (I also try to involve her in what I do around the house, from cooking to cleaning, when I can.)
Looking at my photos, you might notice that we’re inspired by a lot of Montessori principles: we prefer natural materials, where possible, over plastic. We think beauty and quality matter. We don’t shy away from breakable materials (like glass), to encourage our daughter to be gentle and respectful of her materials. And we store toys on low, accessible shelves, instead of tossing everything pell-mell into a box, so that everything is kept orderly and easy for her to access, and to encourage respect for each individual item.
(That being said, we still have plenty of cheap, plastic crap, and we let things get chaotic and messy on a daily basis).
We also strictly limit the amount of toys our daughter has access to, so she isn’t overwhelmed by stuff and is less prone to devaluing her materials. And also so that I have less stuff to pick up. These shelves represent everything she has access to right now, aside from her doll, doll cradle, and doll stroller.
My Seven Favourite Play Items for a Toddler
I think I got all of these items from Hobby Lobby during different visits to the US (Sadly, I don’t think we have this store here in Canada. I LOVE Hobby Lobby for these kinds of things!)
I should also probably point out that almost all the items I’ve listed come with a warning, “Not for children under 3.” Apparently they’re choking hazards and whatnot. So give them to your child at your own risk, and stay close while he/she uses them. I have never, ever had a problem with Lydia putting these items in her mouth. And besides, she needs my help opening the containers holding things she could potentially choke on. I try to keep an eye on her when she’s using them.
When she was about 17 months, Lydia could spend half an hour pushing pom-poms through a hole in a jar lid. Our most successful activity to date.
Now, she can also sort them by colour in a muffin tin (though she usually just dumps them into the cups indiscriminately).
When the pom-pom game got too easy, we had Lydia push popsicle sticks through a slot. It’s a little more challenging, because you have to get the angle just right. Again, this could occupy her for ages.
Popsicle sticks can also be used with play-dough (below), and eventually for building things.
These beauties from Hobby Lobby can be used for sorting (by colour, by shape, etc), for stringing onto pipe cleaners, and for decorating play-dough (below). Lots of possibilities. Lydia even loves to just shove her hand in the can and feel all the smooth buttons. (These are similar.)
These crayons are made by Melissa & Doug, and they are the BEST. I’m a huge fan, and so is Lydia. She loves to draw!
Because they’re triangular, they don’t roll around, which is nice for your budding (but still-clumsy) artist. Also, they’re stronger than regular crayons, so they won’t break as easily. (We’ve had these for over a month, and Lydia uses them every day, but she hasn’t broken a single one. The only reason the white one is broken is because I absent-mindedly put it in my back pocket one time and then sat on it. Whoops! Good thing white almost never gets used…)
As you can see, these have been nibbled on a little bit, so be sure to keep an eye on your kid while she’s using them.
Big Wooden Beads
These lovely beads can be used for stringing onto all kinds of things — pipe cleaners, leather laces, sticks, etc. You could also use them for practicing identifying colours, sorting, etc.
Also (apparently) known as “chenille stems,” these are great for little hands when learning to thread things. Yarn and string are generally too fiddly for most toddlers; pipe cleaners are a great alternative because they stay stiff. And you can thread them with all sizes of items — big or little beads, Cheerios, pasta noodles, etc.
Your toddler can also poke them through anything with holes, like a colander.
Realistic(ish) Toy Animals
I am thrilled with these toy animals. I was looking for reasonably-realistic looking animals, but the gorgeous Schleich toys (at $6-12 apiece) were just out of our price range. I finally found a decent alternative: A Toob of animals (found — where else? — at Hobby Lobby). At less than $10 for a pack of 12, they were immediate winners. (We got the Zoo Babies; I’d like to get more in the future).
Since I am a big nerd, I spent one Sunday morning (when I should have been in church — *ahem*) making laminated animal cards that corresponded with her plastic animals, so she could match them up. (I got the idea here).
Bonus item: Play Dough
Don’t buy store-bought play-dough: make your own! It’s so easy and cheap! Play-dough provides lots of stimulating fun.
Lydia helped me make the play-dough (dumping ingredients and stirring), so even that was an activity.
Here, we’re combining a few of the materials for an activity I saw on Pinterest:
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So these are some of our favourite cheap, simple, open-ended toddler toys.
What are some other items your toddler loves? What do you do with them? I’m always looking for fun activities.