That’s a Toy?: Using Open-ended/Repurposed Materials as Educational “Toys” at Home

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I think it’s safe to say that we have all witnessed the magic that a basic box provides a child when they’ve opened a big gift.  While we’ve spent money and time selecting the item INSIDE the box, the box will undoubtedly win.

Making educational “toys” at home from open-ended materials is easy, inexpensive and gives your child the chance to really guide his/her own play.

When we offer “loose parts”, materials that can be used in many different ways, we give children infinite play possibilities! And it typically doesn’t cost us much!

What are some Items I Might Consider Saving?

Tubes, Cardboard and Containers

A bin full of paper towel tubes, poster tubes, cardboard strips, and containers offers children many play opportunities. Pringles or other cylindrical containers can easily be morphed into a tube by popping off one end.

I’ve seen toy car races happen on cardboard strips and amazing castles built using paper towel rolls (and tape)! Easy Rainy Day fun using empty “Puff” containers: Bowling!

Fabric Remnants

My children love fabric! Yes, you heard me correctly…both the baby and the 3 year old enjoy using fabric in their play.

My Mother-In-Law happily hemmed the edges of some fabric remnants I purchased on Etsy. (You can easily find fabric remnants in local fabric and craft stores for super cheap).

For an infant, I would roll a few of the washed and hemmed fabric pieces in a basket, as a play invitation. Infants like to grasp the fabric, mouth it, wave it around and so much more.

As we moved into toddlerhood, the fabric would be used for doll beds and now as a preschooler it’s being used in her play kitchen regularly. These are probably the least expensive but greatest additions to our play spaces.

Tissue Boxes

Add the fabric remnants into the tissue boxes and older infants LOVE the surprise of them being pulled out!

For toddlers and preschoolers, save a few boxes in different colors.  Set up a “Color Sort” with household objects or inexpensive pom-poms! Tissue boxes are another great open-ended material to have handy for children’s play.

Food Containers & Boxes

There are so many adorable play food toys out there but I’d also argue that children love “the real stuff” too. Our daughter loves cream cheese, so we made sure to save and wash out the tub of shmear for her play.

Not only did she get to make believe she was making cream cheese sandwiches but she was also getting fine motor skill practice in opening her beloved container.

We saw how this play contributed to a more independent kitchen helper in opening containers etc. In my opinion, these items are some of the easiest things we can save for them and an inexpensive way to add to their pretend play!

Sample Flooring

Lots of hardware stores carry samples of flooring in their aisles and these are such a great addition to a child’s playspace.  I added a basketful of these samples in my daughter’s playspace, among other building materials. They’re routinely used for creating race tracks, building hospitals and making pathways.

What’s an easy open-ended “toy” that I could make at home with/for my child?

I think a great beginner “toy” to make with your child is a sensory bottle. It’s basically pulling together the concept of loose parts and open-ended materials.

You can easily become inspired by many ideas if you do a quick Pinterest search. I’ve shared some ideas of what we’ve done below, if you’re interested in getting started now!

Simple Sensory Bottles: Great for all ages!

There are so many ways to create quality sensory bottles and equally as many ways to use with them! For my babies, I started off adding materials to the bottles that otherwise would be a total “no no”.

For example, my daughter would always notice the Sweet Gum balls hanging off the trees when she was an infant. If you are unfamiliar with Sweet Gum balls, they are super pokey, but interesting looking seed pods. I would collect a few of these, pop them into a bottle (glued shut) and confidently offer it to her to explore.

Jingle bells inside a bottle was another favorite for her. Obviously offering her loose jingle bells would be a huge safety/choking hazard, but secured in glued shut bottle, it was hours of play!  

As her collection of sensory bottles grew, it was fascinating to watch her quietly compare the noises when shaking and notice some were heavier than others etc.

Side note: My daughter is 3 years old now, and she’ll still use these sensory bottles in imaginative play. The open-endness of the bottles allow her, and her friends, to use them as spice jars, juices, blenders in pretend play.

DIY Sensory Bottles:

  • Sturdy, plastic bottles (VOSS and Pom are great ones!)
  • Super glue or hot glue gun

Possibilities for DIY Sensory Bottle dry contents:

  • Mardi-Gras necklaces
  • Jingle Bells
  • Sticks
  • Stones
  • Flower Petals
  • Leaves
  • Seashells
  • Pom-poms
  • Ribbons
  • Strips of aluminum foil
  • Rice/Beans/Corn Kernels

Additional Contents for wet bottles:

  • Baby Oil, Food Coloring and Water
  • Glitter/ Letter Beads/ Sequins etc.

Ideas for an older set of children:

  • Fill first inch or so of bottle with rice (or fine sand), add tiny toys, figurines, knick knacks for the next inch, layer with more rice (or fine sand); repeat; leave about 1 inch empty at the very top; hot glue gun it closed. This is a great “Can You Find It?” game for road trips or simply acts as a great Calm Down Jar.
  • If you’re expecting, creating sensory bottles with your firstborn can be a really great way for them to offer their “big kid” skills in creating toys. Showing her baby brother how a sensory bottle could be used, was a great way for my daughter to connect with him early on.

As you can tell, I’m super passionate about loose parts and offering children open-ended materials. I’m hoping this post may have sparked some inspiration or perhaps has offered a different perspective on what kinds of things we can offer children to extend their play.

What are some non traditional toy items your kids love to play with?

Angie Waltz is an Early Childhood Educator with over 10 years experience in Reggio-inspired, play-based classrooms.  Her undergraduate degree is in Child Development and she holds a Masters in Human Development. Angie is enthusiastic about sharing ideas, activities and materials that support a play-based, child-led learning approach. She also loves helping families create developmentally appropriate, thoughtful, rich learning spaces for their children. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook @mamasgonnamake or her website, for fresh ideas and inspirations to support children’s learning!

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