7 Cheap and Awesome Items to Add to Your Toddler’s Toy Shelf

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.

Comme  ça:

Montessori toy shelf

(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.


pom poms: awesome, inexpensive items to add to your toddler's toy shelf

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.

Pom-pom activity for a toddler

Now, she can also sort them by colour in a muffin tin (though she usually just dumps them into the cups indiscriminately).

Popsicle Sticks

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 - awesome, inexpensive items to add to your toddler's toy shelf

Popsicle sticks can also be used with play-dough (below), and eventually for building things.

Jumbo Buttons

big buttons: awesome, inexpensive items to add to your toddler's toy shelf

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.)

Triangular Crayons

Melissa and Doug triangle crayons: awesome for  toddlers

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

big wooden beads: awesome, inexpensive items to add to your toddler's toy shelf

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.

Pipe Cleaners

pipe cleaners: awesome, inexpensive items to add to your toddler's toy shelf

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

Toob toy animals: awesome, inexpensive items to add to your toddler's toy shelf (much cheaper than Schleich but good quality)

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).

Lydia loves her animals. She can distinguish between her tiger cub and her leopard cub, and between her gorilla and her monkey.

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).

DIY animal matching game for toddler - montessoriShe loves both the toys and the cards, though she has only played the game all the way through once.

Bonus item: Play Dough

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.

making play dough

Here, we’re combining a few of the materials for an activity I saw on Pinterest:

play dough, beads, and wooden skewers - activity for toddler(stringing beads onto wooden skewers, standing in play-dough. The original post uses spaghetti noodles instead of skewers. Safer.)

* * *

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.

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  1. Thanks for sharing! I have been looking for new ideas for Olivia. She is starting to outgrow her “baby” toys.

  2. You seemed to have forgotten sticks, string and cardboard boxes. Oh and a Tonka truck.

  3. i love this post. thanks for giving us a peek into this part of your world! i’m interested in montessori styles as well and want my almost 3 year old to have less screen time than he does … it’s the early mornings that kill us, also 4 months of travel in the last 6 but i feel inspired by your post that we can make some changes in that area.

    Toys is such a big question for us. Mostly ours are hand me downs and not really very great at all. I bought a wooden train set from gumtree (aussie craig’s list) for $50 that would probably not get nearly the use that plastic animals would. :) i’ve found that my son really does well with Duplo blocks, and my daughter (17 mo) likes to pull them apart and try and put them together as well. Together they like to play with baby dolls (our old cabbage patch dolls from when we were kids), wearing them or putting them in a bed (drawer) with blankets covering their heads (is that what i do?!) But my kids very favorite thing to do is listen to music and dance/play air instruments. they could do that for a very long time (and we do). if it’s half way nice out (which is one of the benefits of living in australia, even in the winter!) we get outside and run, play at local parks, take walks around the neighbourhood. i would really love to increase their attentions spans for other things though, so that I could, you know, maybe write a blog post? :)
    becca: exile fertility recently posted..when we buy art, we know we are homeMy Profile

  4. Thanks so much for sharing these ideas! We go by a lot of the same philosophies (no screens, less stuff, montessori principles) with our 10 month old, so this will really come in handy in a few months!
    AlissaBC recently posted..Adventures in Simplicity: Embracing the Flip PhoneMy Profile

  5. Henry just ran up to the computer and keeps asking “What Henny doing?” while looking at the bottom picture of Lydia ;)

    Other than our craft box we can be pretty satisfied with trains, our toob animals, plastic dinosaurs and train tracks. =) In fact I’m getting ready to do a purge of baby type toys that got little to no play soon.
    Molly recently posted..For NowMy Profile

  6. Great ideas! I love all the open-ended stuff, and combining them with the play dough…genius! :-)

  7. I like the concept of having things all on shelves rather than in buckets. Nearly all my mama friends do the latter but I see how it could contribute to children having less care for their possessions, and just being harder to see what they have to play with. (Also just having more stuff generally).

    *stores up all these ideas for future use…*
    Fiona Lynne recently posted..writing our soulsMy Profile

  8. I LOVE the toys on a shelf idea. The problem with that is our cats love to steal Anastasia’s toys and drag them everywhere. Maybe I’ll have to look into a cabinet or sorts…
    Michele recently posted..To Sleep, or Not To Sleep?My Profile

  9. Great ideas! Thanks!

  10. How did you put the hole in the lid for the pom poms? Your ideas are excellent! I can’t wait to try this with my little one.
    Karen recently posted..Organic Tinted Lip Balm by SunnysideSkincareMy Profile

  11. Since Lydia is a little more than a year older than Rex, I love these posts because I get ideas to use down the road! I remember when you posted this I was impatient for him to be able to do things, but I have to tell you that I finally made a pom pom container for him and he does like it! He’s 16 months, was close to 15 when I first made it. He really focused on it until he figured out how to get them in there; now it doesn’t occupy him as long, but he still likes to get them out of the tub, throw them, and rub them on his face (he’ll touch one to his nose and sort of lean into it. So cute!).

    I know you just posted the new post on activities Lydia is doing now, but I wanted to let you know we were finally able to use these ideas! It’s a relief to finally SEE that he really will be able to do things eventually, if that makes sense. Now to get the DH to build him a sensory table… ;-)

  12. You are so kind thank you for sharing your great ideas

  13. I relatively recently put a ‘montessori inspired’ shelf in our living room for my toddler. blogged about it here: http://www.tunemyheartblog.com/2015/03/my-attempt-at-montessori-inspired-shelf.html

    by the way, just found your blog and am reading ALL of it. Thanks for all the ideas!!! One thing my 27 month old loves to do with pom-poms is tape various size cardboard tubes to the wall at varying heights (toilet paper, paper towel, etc.) and then put clear containers underneath. she loves to drop them through and try to land them in the container.
    also, toothpicks (or cut up pipe cleaners for a safer alternative) in a parmesan cheese shaker (from dollar store);

    I wrote lowercase letters on mini post-its (one letter per post-it) and then gave her 26 bananagram (or scrabble) tiles – one of each uppercase letter. She likes to match the BIG tiles on the little post-its.

    confessions of a homeschooler blog has a fun dot letter printable intended for do-a-dot markers. i put the pages in sheet protectors and we do all kinds of thigns with the – dot stickers (1$ at walmart); color in the dots with dry erase markers; put mancala stones on them; the printable is here: http://www.confessionsofahomeschooler.com/blog/2012/12/a-z-do-a-dot-worksheets.html

    okay this comment is way too long. sorry!
    Renee recently posted..sleeping babies, hugs and other precious children thingsMy Profile

  14. hello- I love this page. I am curious how you made the hole in the lid of the Pom Pom jar? I’ve tried but it’s jagged and sharp? Any tips? I’m using a sports reusable bottle which serves the same purpose for Pom poms but it’s a bit lightweight.


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