The best toys aren’t toys

As Magda Gerber (founder of the RIE movement) said, the best toys don’t do anything (and aren’t really toys – Gerber called them “play objects“). I’m not the only one saying this – you’ll find other ideas on the subject from RIE educator Janet Lansbury here, in Wired magazine here, and here.

As a result, when parents ask me what kinds of toys they should be sure to have for their children, or when they remark that their child is really enjoying a particular toy in the playroom and that they ought to buy it, I gently invite them to put away their wallets.  The best toys aren’t toys – haven’t you noticed your kids are always more interested in the wrapping than what’s inside a present?  Moreover, toys that do too much for children can actually hinder their language development (not to mention give you headaches and scare the stuffing out of you when you get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night)!

So, let the non-toy toy fun begin! Here are some of my favorite ideas. What are yours?

  1. Discovery jars – I made a bunch of these for my daughter – every time we ran out of a spice or something else in a glass jar, I washed it and dried it, removed the label, filled it partway with something interesting (different beads of the same color, multicolored pasta noodles, pink salt, coffee beans, quinoa, etc.), and placed them in a bin for her to investigate. She calls them “shakers,” and they double as musical instruments and blocks – she likes to give us specific ones to shake and sometimes stack them all on their heads. She also enjoys smelling the coffee beans (I left the perforated inner lid on the spice jars – came in handy for this). I didn’t glue the lids down because (a) I want to be able to change the contents if I choose, and (b) my kiddo isn’t dextrous enough to get them off on her own yet (which doesn’t stop her from asking me to open them). You may want to glue them shut, though!  Another version of this is the calm-down jar, filled with water, glitter, and a little glue. Shaking it up, then watching the glitter, is soothing and can help you and your child self-regulate.  There are so many ways to make these things!
  2. Upcycled wipes/tissue boxes – Anybody else’s kid love to pull wipe after wipe, tissue after fresh tissue out of the box and scatter them all over the house? I discovered a partial remedy to this by taking old wipe packages and tissue boxes and filling them with things that were okay for her to scatter.  Bits of ribbon from old presents, handkerchiefs, scraps of fabric (you can usually get these very cheaply at your local fabric or craft store), pieces of crinkly paper, etc. Did it cure her bizarre obsession with the wipes and tissues? No. Did it redirect her for a time? Absolutely.
  3. Kid drawers – What’s a better toy than a drawer at kid height? It’s great for your child to have access to a drawer that’s completely for them. Fill it with whatever you like: parent-approved snacks, empty containers, and paper and crayons, or change it every once in a while.  My kiddo likes to rummage through her snack bin and play with the adjacent bins filled with boxes of tea and canisters of coffee.  She carries them around, then puts them back, then gets something else, then repeats. I hear her talking about “little shopping” while she does this, so there’s obviously some very intentional imaginative play going on here.
  4. Cooking utensils – The 99 Cent store, Dollar Tree, and Daiso are your friend for these. Stainless steel bowls make fantastic sounds and are wonderful for all kinds of imaginary play. Get some mixing spoons, ladles, plastic or wooden cutlery, plastic tupperware, colanders, new or used (heck, visit some garage sales or your local thrift/charity store).  Invite your little one to make you something delicious and be sure to ask for frequent tastes!
  5. Handkerchiefs/Bandanas/Scarves – These are great non-toys almost from birth.  They can start twisted up on the baby’s blanket as a colorful item to look at and reach for, then evolve into peek-a-boo props, then become magical capes, baby blankets, bandanas for cowpokes or train robbers, blindfolds for hide and seek, etc. The list goes on.
  6. Boxes – If you’ve never read Antoinette Portis’s Not a Box, I highly recommend picking up a copy. As the book illustrates, a box is never just a box – it’s a race car, a pirate ship, a rocket, etc. I wonder if we could just order boxes from Amazon instead of having to get something inside of them (although our recently purchased laundry baskets came in fantastically huge boxes that made for great drawing and playing for a few days). (P.S. – Antoinette Portis has also written Not a Stick, about another fantastic non-toy toy.)
  7. Egg cartons – Great for sorting small toys/items (which also builds fine motor skills), making into puppets and other crafts, or just plain exploring!
  8. Oatmeal and coffee canisters – These double as drums or tiny stools (for a stuffed animal or toddler). With a little glue and construction paper you can make one into a sorting game. Need a bunch more crafty ideas for what to do besides use this fantastic non-toy as-is? Thank goodness for the internet.
  9. Socks – Whether used as puppets or dress-up items for improbably cold-toed stuffed animals, the contents of my daughter’s sock drawer are pretty popular around here.
  10. An old wallet – Your kid probably loves your wallet, which is cute, but not so great in terms of being able to locate your credit cards, driver’s license, cash, etc. Instead, grab an old wallet and fill it with expired credit cards, Monopoly money, random business cards, and that Pinkberry frequent buyer punch card you never filled up, then give it to your kid. Instant entertainment!
  11. Shaving cream – When they told me on a tour at my kid’s preschool that during the last school year the children had asked to play with shaving cream every day for three weeks in a row, I couldn’t believe I had never tried this with my little one! I stripped my kid down, plunked her in the tub, filled a stainless steel bowl with some cheap Barbasol (thank you, CVS!), and let the magic happen. We even added a few drops of finger paint here and there for bonus fun.
  12. Silicone Cupcake Liners – These gems come in different colors and shapes, are safe to go in the mouth, are easy to grab and squish, and can be put to many creative purposes throughout a young child’s life (even making cupcakes!).
  13. Space blanket – These silver foil blankets are literally made of space-age material designed by NASA and are used by first responders to keep people warm in emergencies. But the best thing? They make a wonderful crinkling sound, are super shiny, and are fairly indestructible. At this price point, you can grab a couple: one for your budding astronaut for a DIY space suit and another for your curious crawler!
  14. Blue painter’s tape – Terrific for impromptu games. Make a big ball and toss it at the wall! Create a hopscotch court inside! Make some concentric rings or squares and assign points for tossing beanbags into them! 

Have fun playing, everyone!

For additional reading:

Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track. Virtual visits now available!

Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!

Success! You're on the list.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: