Five Great Toys For Toddlers (That Aren’t Toys)

Around these here parts, we’re big fans of not buying things for your baby. (Seriously. Half the reason we do all the research for our guides is so you can know if actually need something in the first place.) In that spirit, we asked Laura June to write about her 17-month-old’s favorite things to throw and destroy that were inexpensive and already around the house.

Early on in my baby’s life I started to try to think creatively about what constitutes a “toy.” I’ve spent a lot of money on toys and books for my daughter, and so have friends and family—it turns out her favorite plaything is a cardboard box. Seriously, I can’t count the number of friends who, when babysitting, text to inform me “she’s in a box.”

But she loves more than boxes! The things here are some of her favorites. I think they’ll make your baby extremely satisfied too, but please note: since they’re not toys, they are not tested for safety. You need to think about what you’re giving a child before you give it to them, consider if it has any small parts that may create choking hazards, and most importantly: supervise them! I inspect things my daughter plays with very often to make sure there aren’t any small pieces or parts, nor any baby-induced damage which would make things unsafe. Be smart! Also, remember that most of these suggestions are for babies who can at least sit up really well on their own.

Used old change purse

I gave my daughter a used, zippered change purse after the first phase of teething had ended and she had stopped putting most things in her mouth. She just liked carrying it around a lot at first but eventually began to practice working the zipper, too! Unfortunately, she’s still terrible at personal finance.

Dish Towel

A few months ago, right as she learned to walk, my daughter discovered a love of cleaning. She toddles around and wipes everything in sight: walls, herself, floors, the dog. She spends, I’d wager, 2 or 3 hours a day contentedly working away. This is an excellent trend and one I hope to foster through teenhood, so I splurged for a “playset” of cleaning accessories: a mop, broom, and sponges. As a traditionalist, though, and devotee of the pioneer lifestyle, most days my tiny child laborer prefers to use a plain, clean dish towel.

Wooden Spoon / Pots and Pans

This is the most cliché thing you can give a kid but trust me, they will love the combination of loud banging sounds and also the fact that they are something they see getting used around them in everyday life. Sometimes I strap her in her high chair and give her a metal bowl and whisk. She pretends to be making cakes; I pretend to be eating them. I bought her a $5,000 All-Clad copper-core baking set for her own playtime so she won’t damage the good stuff. (Just kidding; I give her any dumb old pan!)

Plastic food storage containers

One morning when my daughter was about 8 months old, she was sitting on a blanket in her room. I was in the chair nearby, suffering from a headache. I’d taken some ibuprofen and left the child-safety-capped bottle in a place where she almost immediately grabbed it. Before I grabbed it right back, she starting rhythmically, happily, intensely shaking the bottle. (Lesson learned about why pill bottles are child-proofed!)

I took all the pills out of the bottle and filled it with lentils. She loved it for one day, playing with almost nothing else, but everyone who saw her doing it thought she was playing with a bottle of Advil, which wouldn’t do. My husband also suggested that maybe playing with a bottle of “pills”—even if they were actually lentils—set a dangerous precedent. He was right, of course. My judgement was momentarily clouded by an intense desire to stimulate my daughter’s brain and help her sense of musical timing.

Instead, I started filling small food storage containers with lentils. The ones I have are from IKEA, and come in sizes tiny enough for baby hands. She’s figured out how to open them by now—a whole new world of fun!—but the possibilities with a resealable plastic container are endless.

For instance, instead of lentils, you could fill them with garbanzos.


Okay sure. This one is a toy. A ball is perhaps the most classic one you can come up with. But because it seems like everything now lights up or makes noise or is a giraffe that teaches your baby the fundamentals of relational database design, it might take you a while to think of giving your baby a… ball. A rubber ball! A tennis ball! A beach ball! That’s the great thing about balls: they come in all shapes, sizes, and materials; they even make balls now that aren’t labeled “Oracle Summerfest ‘08.”

It’s so much fun to watch a baby try to pick up a ball that is slightly too big for its grasp, and I bet it’s good for their motor skills, too! And if not, it’s funny to watch them to be really terrible at sports. Get balls, trust me!

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