The Most Affordable Kids Toys (That Aren’t Really Toys)

by Linsey Knerl · 15 comments

I have five kids, but at times, I certainly don’t have five times the budget for them. This doesn’t mean that I’m negligent, but I’ve quickly learned throughout the years that spending money on kids has a risky return. Take toys, for instance. The hot toys this year will certainly not be the hot thing next year. If paying $70 for a robotic dinosaur this Christmas seems like a good idea, consider what your kids spend most of their time doing. If you can truly envision them spending hours upon hours with a toy that does all the work for them, you (with a few exceptions) are in denial, have a freaky kid, or don’t know much about your kid at all.

Studies and practical life experience have taught me that “open-ended” toys are truly where it’s at. While I have four little boys who consider themselves to be best friends, even when they play alone, it’s important to pick a good toy. Surprisingly, their favorite toys are super-affordable and don’t usually come from the toy shelf at our big box store. Here are their top picks (in no particular order):


No, my boys don’t play “tea party.” They could if they wanted to (I have no qualms with it), but what they really like to do with my plastic plates, pots, pans, and wire wisks is play restaurant. Then, when they are done, they build robots. When super-bored (and my patience is at maximum capacity), they do a rendition of “Rock Band” with my stainless steel pans. Because these “toys” are new to them (I only get them out on special occasions), durable, and require no batteries, they keep the kids busy for hours. I also keep a set of “play only” kitchen equipment for use in the bath tub, sand box, or when playing in the pool.


There are some very impressive lines of kids tools out there today, designed to fit little hands and be more sturdy for the under 12 crowd. I have found that the boys want what Daddy is using, however, and we have stop by a cheap place like the Dollar Store for a small hammer, measuring tape, a few wrenches, and a screwdriver. If you’re concerned about smaller kids getting hurt, just skip the hammer, and be certain that you keep an eye while they are playing. (Explain the rules, as well: no disassembling without permission and nothing in the light sockets.) Even if you don’t give them nails or anything to really work, they have a blast measuring, turning screws that you’ve preset into some wood boards, or “helping” with real work around the house. Girls love this activity, too!

Cleaning Supplies

I’m not suggesting that you let your kid lug around their own mini bottle of bleach, but I am keen on getting kids into the habit of helping around the house. Cleaning a room isn’t usually fun for kids, but having their own small broom or hand-held vacuum does make for some exciting play (and can get them trained for light duties later on.) Things that my boys get excited about include: dusting with a feather duster (top down, of course), washing plastic dishes in the sink with their own soap-dispensing sponge wand, using a non-toxic disposable wipe to clean up messes from the table or floor. Get them their own tote or caddy and watch the interest grow.

Nature’s Finest

If you give a kid a jar or bucket, then tell them to collect “treasures” from the yard, you will almost always be surprised at what they come back with. Right now, I am currently housing a box of rocks, two jars of moldy dandelion blooms, and what I think is the dried up remains of a toad or frog. While you definitely don’t have to go as far as to harbor dead things in your home (and I don’t recommend it), trinkets like stones, sticks, beautiful leaves, and flowers can teach your child about the natural world and keep them busy. It is amazing to me that it’s not just a one-and-done process, either. They collect, store, and often revisit their treasures with pride. Looking over what they have found time and time again is also part of the play.

While you likely won’t get away with putting a bunch of sticks in your kid’s stocking this holiday, there is room in their life (and closet) for some out-of-the box, affordable alternatives to another gaming system. The younger your child is, the better chance you have at them embracing some of the more abstract playthings the world has to offer. Be there to encourage, give them time to explore, and you’ll find that the best toys in life are free – or almost, anyway.

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Jodi says:

    I also spent a year playing ‘house’ in the attic of the apartment building we lived in. This was communal storage space (mostly junk) and we weren’t supposed to be in there, but I got a hold of a key and spent months with my best friend playing upstairs, re-arranging years of bits and bobs until I had a faux house laid out. Including old sheets hanging from the rafters as curtains, broken dishes dug up and arranged in the kitchen area, an air mattress with sofa cushions as a bed, and all of the ‘rooms’ were divided by 4 to 5 feet walls of boxes. The place was so realistic that when the house manager had to get something from storage he almost had a heart attack because he thought there was a squatter living in the attic!

  • Jodi says:

    As much as my brother and I loved Legos and Playmobile, the highlight of childhood ‘toy’ memories is a bunch of old Beta VCRs my dad got given after they lost the VHS wars.
    There were 2 or 3 and using my tools we took them apart and using various boxes we assembled and reassembled the parts, building spaceships, race cars, microwaves, etc. Lots of electronic boards and all analog, so moving parts, ticking numbers and interlocking bits. Absolutely wonderful and kept us busy for 6 months!
    Incidentally, I got a tool set for Christmas at age 5 but my brother had no interest, he much preferred to play with my Barbies.

  • Sysyfus says:

    Best Christmas present ever! Cost was about $7.00, and consisted of cheap plastic Harry Potter figurines as Christmas ornaments. I bought this for my young son, we cut the hanging strings off the tops of them (after all, they were supposed to be ornaments), and played with the characters.

    We named one of the characters a “wizard Shaun” after my son, and then we made up our own stories involving all the characters. We put on different voices for each figurine, and made up dialogue as we went. It became my son’s favourite game, and really engaged his imagination and creativity. By having him play himself as a character, it really engaged him. we both hae ery fond memories of it still.

    I also started creating stories from his favourite books, and would also insert a character with his name…it would really keep him very engaged and he would be excited to know what his character would do, making all kinds of suggestions too! This was a wonderful way of reinforcing our own bond.

  • Sysyfus says:

    a great adventure is “science laboratory” which consists of me filling old baby bottles with water, and then having food colouring! I put a drop of food colouring in the bottles, put them in the sink, and let my son and friend play scientist with mixing the colours together. they love it and learn about colours at the same time!

    Very cheap and very fun…

  • anitay20 says:

    You should also try teaching your kids gardening. My parents used to get us to do yard work with them: digging out the old plants and weeds, turning the soil, digging for earthworms, and then planting whatever we wanted.

  • guest in ca says:

    Ping pong balls for toddlers to preschool. Perfect size, great bounce, easy to throw, almost impossible for kids to hurt someone or break something with them.

    And I agree on the boxes. My parents used to get appliance boxes for us for outdoor play – mother even made a canvas cover for one that we had turned into a playhouse, so it would last longer; our kids loved disposable diaper boxes – or any box big enough to sit in.

    We also had a big enough yard that our parents allowed us to dig big holes to play in.

    • Linsey Knerl says:

      Digging holes is great, too! We just busted our boys doing that same thing about an hour ago, LOL

  • marci357 says:

    Imagination is a wonderful trait to foster 🙂

  • Nancy says:

    Boxes, boxes, boxes. When I was a kid, we had two large (refrig & washer) boxes and a few smaller boxes in the yard every day for weeks. They were forts, castles, play houses, spaceships, etc. The neighborhood kids were always asking when we were dragging the boxes off the carport and back to the front yard. Those boxes keep the kids on the block occupied for the summer months.

  • KM says:

    My son is 9 months old and he is not really interested in this toys that much, but would much rather play with the household things like scattering empty plastic bottles to be recycled, driving around a plastic food box, or just crawling around and climbing on things. I will definitely do my best to get him interested in playing outside since it promotes creativity more so than sitting indoors and playing video games (which I have no problem with and love to do myself, but it should be a limited activity). We have a garden in our backyard and I am hoping it will be fun for him to help out, at least by picking the fruits, vegetables, and berries, then starting to weed and water them.

    • Linsey Knerl says:

      Gardening is such an enriching activity for children! I can’t emphasize enough how much they can learn from it. My middle son actually “adopted” a giant, overgrown zucchini when he was 3 and even though it was bigger than him, he took it everywhere with him. (It was even dressed in a diaper for awhile.) The whole concept was ridiculous, but he insisted on having this veggie as his sidekick for almost 2 weeks. (Of course, finding it a month later, slightly mushy in the bottom of a toy box, was not the highlight to the story.) This just proves that kids are equipped with the best toy ever — their imagination!

  • ChrisCD says:

    I have six, so you have one more to go. :O)

    We purchased some popular expensive toys like those programmable robots. They play with them for a day and then they sit. Although Legos are on the expensive end they seem to be something they always return to. Same with hotwheels, darts, etc. Of course playing swords with empty wrapping paper tubes is always fun.

    Their imagination is more often then not far more advanced than what toy makers come up with and can turn the least expensive items into hours of fun.

    • KM says:

      I can’t wait until my son is old enough for Legos! That used to be my favorite toy ever and I still have a huge box of the ones I played with that I saved for my kids. Passing down toys from generation to generation is a great way to save on the expensive ones too.

    • Linsey Knerl says:

      I can’t agree more with the Legos. Also, my younger kids adore the MegaBloks. We also get a kick out of a simple block set that my husband cut from scrap boards, sanded, and let the kids paint. They still play with them 6 years after he made them!

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