The price of toys these days is disheartening. They can also be loud, obnoxious, and cheaply-made. I stand firmly in the camp of having fewer, but high-quality toys than having a thousand pieces of plastic to trip over, pick up, and lose. Plus, the less toys “do,” the more creative your child can be with them – when the toy sings and tells you to push buttons, the child is robbed a bit of her imagination and freedom to find all sorts of ingenious ways to play with it.

Even though I’d much rather pay 30 dollars for a set of wooden blocks that will stay with us forever, creative toys don’t have to be expensive. In fact, some of them are downright free. Here are just a few we love around here:

1. Egg cartons.

They make great caterpillars, they’re good storage containers for little treasures found on walks, and they can become airline seats for little animal toys.

2. Chalk.

On sidewalks, on chalkboards, on driveways – endless fun, and it hoses right off.

3. Water and cups.

Our 3-year-old loves to “wash” dishes. Just give her a step stool in front of the sink and a few dishes – she’s lost in her own world.

4. Paper and safety scissors.

Old newspapers, expired coupons, and scrap paper – give some to your kiddo with a pair of safety scissors, and he’ll be engrossed for hours.

5. Dried beans or rice.

It’s fun to pour into bowls and cups of different sizes, and it’s a good sensory exercise. Sand works well, too.

5. Toilet paper or paper towel tubes.

They’re great telescopes for your budding pirate, you can cover the ends and pour some dried beans inside for a musical shaker, or you can sit them upright as bowling pins.

6. Old clean socks.

Roll them up into balls, or get some markers and wear them on your hand for classic sock puppets.

7. Washed out empty food containers.

My daughter loves to play kitchen, and she’s stocked with some of our empty syrup, ketchup, and dressing bottles. No need to buy a child-size version of the same plastic thing.

8. Balloons.

Indoor volleyball is fun for everyone.  And armed with a marker, they’re transformed into silly faces.

9. Books.

My absolute favorite. The child who doesn’t like to read is missing out on adventure, meeting new people, and traveling through time.  Be sure to stick with twaddle-free books.  If your child isn’t creazy about reading yet, Sara from On Simplicity wrote a great guest post with 30 ways to get your child ready to read.

10. Paper and crayons.

It’s a classic for a reason – give your child a blank canvas, and anticipate their creation. It’s a joy to watch their process.

11. A cardboard box.

You knew this one would be on the list, didn’t you? Every child loves a big, unused cardboard box to transform into a clubhouse, a fort, a time machine, and a tent. Hours of fun, indeed.

Using simple toys, or reusing basic items as playthings, is environmentally responsible, it’s a catalyst for creativity, and it’s incredibly inexpensive.

Now it’s your turn, and I know you have ideas – what are your cheap or free standbys? What enthralls your child for hours?

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This post was originally published on August 18, 2008.