If you follow me here or on Instagram, you might know that I’m attempting a “no buy year,” which has proven to be interesting and challenging. There haven’t been a lot of “new” things coming in — not that there were before, either — so I’ve been able to see what my kids actually play with. Even when they have gotten something new as a gift, they tend to go right back to these staples. This is not an exhaustive list of what we play with every day, but it’s the cream of the crop.
There are a couple of things that i know about kids toys from being an aunt, a friend and now being a mom. The first thing is that most of us just want the kids in our lives to be happy and joyful. The second truth is that if you walk into a toy store, a huge number of products are made of plastic or other low-quality materials and not designed to last. The last thing I’ve had to learn the hard way is that cheap stuff not only doesn’t last in the home, it typically doesn’t hold the attention of anyone at any age. Toys and creative items that are the “best” can come with a hefty price tag that makes you wonder if it’s worth it. Not always, though, see: free sticks from the back yard. But if you’re looking to buy toys that are good quality and ethically made for the kids in your life, you might be shocked that something costs what it does. A big part of this is because we’ve been trained as consumers over our lifetime to expect toys not to cost very much due to unethical, polluting and unhealthy manufacturing and other practices.
I don’t want to hear about that. You don’t want to hear about that. We just want fun things to bring the kids in our life joy. Unfortunately that is the truth behind most cheap stuff.
It can be simple to have an ethical, minimal toy collection, though. By buying fewer items, buying secondhand and buying higher quality things as much as we can afford, we can all drastically reduce our toy footprint and be more ethical in our consumption. No one is perfect. Things happen. With kids, a LOT of things happen. But if our foundation is solid, the “exceptions” will be infrequent.
For example. We were recently on vacation and my 3.5 year old daughter was an incredible helper, great traveler and overall I was so proud of her reaction to a long and tiring couple of days. In a small-town pharmacy packed with toys (I’m not sure why? Perhaps because it was a vacation town and they knew tired parents are suckers?) she navigated the rows and rows of toys without issue. Right by the checkout counter she saw a small plastic tube of sparkly … goo. With a unicorn inside, too, naturally. She asked if she could buy it and I said yes. A life lived in absolutes might work for some people, but it doesn’t work for me. However, because I know that this was an exception and not the rule, I’m absolutely fine with it.
The things I mention below are a variety of price points, but of course no one needs to buy this list in order to have happy kids. This is what my kids love to play with. They are currently 1.5 and 3.5 and these items have proven to capture and re-capture their attention and inspire creative play day after day.
Wooden balance board
A wooden balance board toy is simple, nice to look at and engages small babies up to bigger kids. We received the Wavee Board by Sarah’s Silks (Note: often out of stock – keep an eye out for it to restock and also for seconds to be listed at a discount on Amazon and on the brand website.) as a gift and it immediately became a hit. Younger babies use it to pull up and explore crawling over the “bridge” and older kids can use it as a balance board while standing up, lying down inside with a pillow and a book or propped up on the couch or cushions as a slide. Sometimes it’s used as a slide, bridge or house for toys. It slides right under our couch, which is great for our small space. But you could leave it out if you have the space or desire.
We love this sewing/lacing toy. Used as a quiet time puzzle or as a “fishing line” or many other creative uses, my daughters both love lacing toys. Another toy that looks simple but translates to hours of fun. We don’t have this one, but I like the fun shape. I also love the concept of this one with the button.
Magnetic building tiles
We’ve had a group of people aged 1 through 70 and everyone in between (yes, even the elusive tweens and teens!) on the floor playing actively with magnetic tiles. Building a castle or playing with colors and shapes are fun for all, as is exploring the properties of magnets. Note these are recommended for ages 3+ but we let littler kids play with adult supervision. The brand we have and recommend are Magnatiles. We also have a set of Playmags that fit perfectly with the Magnatile brand and have also held up very well. If you prefer entirely plastic-free, Big Future Toys make a lovely wooden version called “Earthtiles.”
A wooden block set is classic and truly the height of open-ended. My kids use them for everything from building towers to play “food.” I have on occasion put them away in a closet and they always come back out quickly because they’re requested frequently. We have a natural wood hand-me-down set and we added a small naturally-dyed set to round out the shapes and colors. We love being able to call out the colors and shapes during play.
I had play silks on my “wish list” for a while since I saw them posted everywhere from my favorite blogs to friends on Instagram. However, it wasn’t until my daughter got a set from a grandparent a few holidays ago that I got what all the fuss was about. They come in a variety of sizes from standard to mini and even giant (which I have my eye on for a future birthday gift), beautiful feeling/texture and weave, and the uses are endless. We keep them on the floor in our living room in an open basket so they’re always readily available to anyone.
Stacking and nesting boxes
These have been a surprise hit. We received a set of cardboard stacking and nesting blocks as a hand-me-down from my sister when my first child was 6 months old. They can be stacked and knocked over, nested (a fun puzzle) or used as countless other things from hats to part of a play kitchen to houses for our favorite small animal figures. There are many options out there, but this eco-friendly stacking set looks so fun. If a box is broken, fix with tape or recycle if it’s beyond repair.
Some parents might not consider instruments in the category of “toys” but I do. My kids take our wooden egg shakers, kalimba (thumb piano) and other noise makers out every day, sometimes several times a day. We’ve collected the items slowly, focusing on wood and metal. Some have been gifts and others we’ve found at small shops. Plastic-free instruments are easy to find, especially at global/fair trade stores. We like having instruments from around the world to give us openings to learn about other cultures and the people who invented and use these instruments.
Another area that get’s lots of attention is our art supplies. We love these multi-use wooden crayons. The color is vivid on any surface. They even work on mirrors, windows and white boards with minimal clean-up. I’m working on a post with an inside look at our kid-accessible art area.
We also see dolls and stuffed animals get attention, but not all the time.
Of course, toys that aren’t toys get a lot of attention daily as well. Wool dryer balls, bowls and jars from the kitchen, and the perennial favorite, spoons. My 3 year old played “shoe maker” with a long piece of yarn for 30 minutes the other day. I mean, clearly we didn’t get that at a big box toy store. And then there’s sticks, flowers and leaves we find in the yard and on walks that capture our hearts and attention.
I love watching my kids’ imaginations let loose whether it’s by running around or quietly working something out. What toys are your kids playing with these days? Let’s chat in the comments.