By Ashley Graham
The glossy ad wars are firmly entrenched in your local paper by now, preaching how much Junior needs Potty Time Elmo or Cuponk (bounce a ping pong ball into a cup — how original). Feeling the need to deck the tree with bundles of gifts you dutifully run out to indulge him. Let’s think about his track record first.
While some new toys are actually worth their price tag, most of them will be played with once, then cast aside. The most awesome toys have been the same for decades–cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, a long stick, a cape. Keep to the theme and you’ll not only save hundreds this Christmas, but Junior will enjoy his gifts longer.
1. Puppet Show Theater — This could take a bit of work if you don’t have a large appliance box, but most stores that sell refrigerators have a couple on hand. Cut a large rectangle on a side of the box—make sure it’s toward the top, but that your little ones can reach it comfortably. Cover the outside of the box with contact paper or spray-glued fabric. Wallpaper samples also work really well as they are durable, plus you can wipe them clean. Let your children decorate the outside with permanent markers, stickers or drawings. And voila! From trash to toy treasure, your little one will love his new homemade spotlight.
2. Peek-a-Box — Any medium or large sized box will work well. Open both ends of a box and cut two opposite sides off of one end. Decorate the outside with paper or family pictures to make it more inviting. Show your child how to fold in the two sides, hiding inside, and then jump out of the top.
3. Big Box Playhouse — This easy-to-make house always hits the spot for young kids! The best part about making your own playhouse is you have the freedom to paint it with the same color scheme as your own house. Plus you can even wallpaper the inside for additional drama. If you don’t have a giant box to make your four walls, use larger parts of other big boxes to make them.
4. Paper Roll Log Cabins — Among the most frequent trash items in my house is the toilet paper roll—and they multiply exponentially with each child. Put them to good use instead! Cover several paper towel and toilet paper rolls with shelf paper or contact paper. Enclose the ends first by cutting a circle with notches around it. If the rolls aren’t reinforced with paper they’ll fall apart quickly. To make the holes for each log, cut a semicircular notch an inch from each end. The width of each notch should be slightly narrower than the diameter of the roll. Make the same cut on both ends, top and bottom, and presto! Long lasting, attractive toy logs for cheap.
5. Homemade Band — Most percussion is easy to make! Beans, string, and cans go a long way, so hang on to them!
6. Bottle Cap Tamborine—Save your leftover beer bottle caps (wash thoroughly, please) and grab a rectangular piece of wood. Fully sand the wood and slap two coats of polyurethane on it to prevent splinters. To make holes in the bottle caps, use a drill bit larger than your nail so that each cap is hole-punched. Nail several pairs of bottle caps to the wood, leaving enough room for the bottle caps to jingle up and down.
7. Dowel Sticks—Simply cut a 1/2″ dowel rod to make 1′ pieces. Sand the ends, wrap ribbon or sticky shelf paper around one end for grip and Junior can enjoy a fine pair of sticks. Doubles as matching wizard wands.
8. Jingle Bells—Even if you don’t have any bells on hand, you can purchase them for under $1 at a craft store. String them together with twine or ribbon and then attach the bundle to a small, wide bracelet. Slip the jingle bells around your wrist for holiday fun!
9. Soda Pop Shakers—Put 2 tbsp of dry beans into an empty and washed can. Tape the top with duct tape and spray paint the can or cover it with contact paper. Add different items to other cans, like coins, rice, or macaroni, to hear warious sounds.
10. Ring-a-Ding Tools—Loop a large bolt or washer to the end of a thin string (yarn will muffle the sound, so choose fishing wire instead). Hold the strung bolt by the wire and clink it with an old spoon to make a triangle ring sound.
11. Binoculars — Using two long paper towel tubes, connect them at each end with a string tied tightly through a punched hole. Spray paint them black and practice looking through them.
12. Bean Bag Toss — Cut out several squares of fabric and sew them together, leaving 1/4″ allowance along the outside. Leave two inches of the stitch open on one side. Cut the corners to make nice corners, then turn it inside out, filling it 2/3 full with dry beans. Sew the open section with a blind stitch. Use an empty, low bucket like a large plastic sherbet container or cool whip can as the target. Paint it and make it look pretty—you’ll also need to weight it down with something heavy like a can taped to the bottom. Cut a hole in the top of the container lid, or, for younger tossers, leave it off.
13. Sock Puppets — While you can slap together a puppet from an old sock, two buttons, and a magic marker, these puppets really look like store-bought goodies. They use minimal materials—socks, batting, cotton balls, small cups, yarn, felt, pipe cleaners—but look expensive.
14. Paper City — Using old half-gallon milk containers, oatmeal containers, tissue boxes, cereal boxes and anything else you’d typically toss, create your own tiny-tot city! Cover each box with white contact paper first. To add some sturdiness, double box each structure (insert one into the other). Using clippings from magazines or your own artistic prowess, create windows, doors, and other features on each box to create a city. Cover each decorated building with clear coat to add even more stiffness. Set up the “city” on tile or another hard surface and use cars and people for accessories.
15. Oatmeal Cradle — Little girls love their babies! Make your own rocking cradle by cutting out a rectangle from an old oatmeal canister. Paint it a pink and even knit a little blanket for her favorite doll.
16. Lid Sorting — Using an infant formula or coffee canister, cut a long rectangular slit at the top. Collect varying sizes of lids from yogurt, spices, margarine, and anything else plastic. Your tiny tot will enjoy slipping each lid through the opening, taking them out, and then repeating. For hours and hours.
17. Egg Carton Operation — Spray paint an old egg carton with a fun color and put a variety of small things in it, one per egg slot. Use cotton balls, small beads, coins, bottle tops, and other odd shaped items for variety. Encourage your tiny tot to practice picking out each item without dropping it to encourage motor skill development. First with their fingers, then a spoon, working up to using tweezers.
18. Bowling for Puffs — Save the toddler puffs cans to use in a game of bowling. Take the wrapping off each one, and draw two red lines on the top, a la bowling pin. Set up 10 (if your child is like mine, it only takes two weeks to save up that many puffs containers) and have a fierce bowling match. Put a piece of masking tape on the floor to mark the pin locations and show your little one how to set it up herself.
Ashley Graham writes about environmental issues, parenting and frugal living for Gift Cards Granny and several other online shopping-related websites.