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10 Great Educational Toys to Make at Home

Easy instructions for ten types of make-it-yourself toys that rival the best educational playthings on the market.

When Joey Jones opened a large present for his fourth birthday, he seized the silver, holographic wrapping paper. Ignoring the expensive gift underneath, he folded the paper into an airplane and launched it across the living room. The plane dove and crashed as Joey rushed to retrieve it for another flight. The intended gift, an expensive building set, lay untouched.

Joey followed his natural instinct for finding the fun in items that are not officially toys. A closer look reveals that Joey also demonstrated kids’ natural instinct for learning. He explored principals of engineering and physics, using the wrapping paper as an educational plaything.

The right playthings at home can improve learning at school, but educational toys tend to be expensive. Budget-minded families can make no or low cost versions with just a little effort. Homemade toys delight children partly because of their novelty. Every parent knows that Joey’s reaction to his gift is a common one. The key test of any toy is whether a child will play with it.

Parents can construct homemade, inexpensive toys that enchant children as well as promote learning. Anyone can transform common household items and even discards into items that kids will love. Easy instructions follow for ten types of make-it-yourself toys that rival the best educational playthings on the market.

1. Building sets. Seal empty cardboard boxes with masking tape to create lightweight, reusable blocks. Oatmeal boxes make great silos! Very large boxes become child-sized rooms or vehicles with just a few cuts. Create design elements with paint or markers. Provide inexpensive Popsicle™ sticks and glue for smaller scale building.

2. Creativity kits. Images cut from old greeting cards, magazines and even advertising combine with used wrapping paper, packing materials, discarded buttons, old silk flowers and just about anything else to produce collages and other works of art. Have kids glue small pasta to recycled containers and boxes, then paint to hold treasures.

3. Explore Science. Purchase an inexpensive magnifying glass and teach kids to examine the details of everything. Use egg cartons to sort collections of rocks for further study. Punch holes in a plastic container with a transparent top to hold insects briefly for observation.

4. Physical development. Pile pillows and seat cushions on the floor to encourage the movement young children need to develop motor coordination. Older kids can blow up a bag of balloons for throwing, hitting and catching on a gloomy day.

5. Infant stimulation. Babies thrive on visual contrast. Paste 8 1/2 x 11 inch black and white pictures (or draw the images yourself with a marker) on pieces of light cardboard. Insert in plastic page covers. Display wherever your newborn might look, and change the display often. As baby gets older, repeat the name of each object as you show them the cards to develop language skills.

6. Master a skill. Supplies you already have for cooking, sewing, woodworking and household repairs can be used to teach older children practical skills.

7. Play dress up for social/emotional learning. Adult clothing and accessories (if you’re willing) provide great props for exploring self-image and learning about social conventions.

8. Personalized reading. For a child learning to read, have them dictate a story about themselves. Transcribe it to sheets of paper and fasten them together, then let them illustrate each page. Your child can practice reading their own words in a personalized picture book.

9. Do the math. Buttons, beans, containers lids, and even dried pasta are ready-made tools for counting and arithmetic activities. Actual coins work well to demonstrate financial transactions. Measuring cups and spoons teach computation as well as measurement.

10. Thinking and speaking. Encourage your children to express their thoughts as you share everyday tasks and family activities. Get them to think and talk about all kinds of things, then, listen to them and give responses that invite even more conversation. Remember, you are the ultimate educational toy for your children.

The next time you admire expensive educational toys, remember that children learn just as well from homemade versions. Make your own playthings, delight your kids, and teach them a bonus lesson: how to save money.

Getting Started

1. Save boxes, containers, colorful advertising, paper scraps and bits of other materials.
2. Note the variety of natural objects available for study in your yard and neighborhood. Collect some.
3. Along with your child, explore and order some pamphlets that look interesting. Contact a local tourism agency (online or by mail) and request free books and maps.

4. Watch your kids – they already possess the inclination that you are trying to develop.


Sharon Nolfi, M.A., School Psychologist, is the mother of two children. Her daughter recently graduated from the University of California, and her son is a student at Stanford University. Her articles have been published across Canada and the US. Copyright, Sharon Nolfi, 2009.


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