When my daughter Mathilda was 3, I went through her closet and weeded out some of the baby toys she hadn't played with in ages. I came to a set of stacking cups—plastic cylinders of varying sizes that neatly fit inside each other. "Baby blocks," she said, wrinkling her nose in disgust, as I picked them up.
On a whim, I dropped a few Legos into one of the cups, covered it with my hand, and shook it. "Hey, maracas!" I said. "You can make music with these." Fascinated, she picked up my lead and did the same thing with another cup. "It's my tambourine!" she shouted, skipping across the floor. Since then, she's figured out more uses for the cups—boats for tiny plastic animals, helmets for teddy bears, and garbage cans for Barbie.
The lesson? The objects gathering dust in the closet can be transformed into fresh and exciting playthings with a little imagination and a bit of parental guidance. Here are some ways to breathe new life into old toys.
It's one of those universal truths: The more children have, the less they play with.
"Kids can become completely overwhelmed by looking at a sea of plastic and bright colors every day, and they don't focus on individual toys," says Mimi Doe, author of 10 Principles for Spiritual Parenting (Perennial) and a mother of two. The simplest way to get them interested? Put some toys away for a few months. "When something is out of sight for a while, it becomes basically new again," says Doe.
Chris Crytzer, a mom of two in Pittsburgh, sneaks a few toys away from every Christmas and birthday stash. "Both kids get way too many presents, so they don't even notice they're gone," she says. "On rainy 'there's nothing to do' days throughout the year, I pull them out, and it's like Christmas all over again."
Your son's Matchbox cars might be languishing in the closet—but with some nudging, he can figure out new ways to play with them. For instance, take sidewalk chalk and make a figure eight racetrack on your driveway. Or make a garage out of a shoebox. Along the same lines, you can transform a neglected wagon into an ambulance headed to the doll hospital or turn the Barbie Hotel into a Beanie Baby estate.
Sometimes changing just one tiny part of a toy can make it seem new and fun to a toddler or preschooler. Jazz up a tired easel by adding glittery new paints, for example, or get a few more months out of an old tricycle by attaching a snazzy new basket. My kids always got a kick out of playing the board game Chutes and Ladders using something offbeat for game pieces—plastic dinosaurs or Barbie shoes, for instance. (The bonus was that it kept them playing by themselves long after I had walked away.)
"Toddlers are very interested in anything slightly off or with a funny spin," says Maureen O'Brien, Ph.D., director of parenting and child development at thefirstyears.com. "Once you get your child used to thinking creatively, he'll be more likely to do it on his own, without your help."
One way to encourage generosity is to have your toddler go through his toys and assess which ones might be appropriate for another child who's less fortunate.Hopefully, you'll impart a valuable lesson in compassion. But chances are good that some previously forgotten toys will never make it to the giveaway pile; instead of parting with them, your child may start playing with them again.
Another way to recycle toys is to hold a toy swap. Maria Swanson, a mother of four in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, was talking with her neighbors when their children were toddlers about all the toys they had just sitting around. "The outcome of the conversation was that we dug up the toys in our kids' closets that were in good shape but were never played with anymore and exchanged them among ourselves. The kids were in heaven."
Often just changing the setting can give a new glow to a child's belongings. "It's the same concept that grocery stores use," says Lynn Saunders of Upland, California. "The inventory they want to move gets placed in the most eye-catching spots."
Saunders recently rearranged her 4-year-old daughter's bedroom, putting the preschooler's dress-up bin at a more accessible level. "It's renewed her interest in playing make-believe," she says. "Likewise, my son, A.J., had a tool bench that he never played with until I moved it from beside his bookshelf—crowded in among other toys—to a featured place alone under the window."
Holiday decorations are so exciting because we only see them once a year. Toys can follow suit: Anne Leedom, a mother of two in El Dorado Hills, California, keeps a stash of play-date toys. "We have a special set of dolls, a tea set, certain videos, that we only use when they have a friend over," she says. "The girls get excited because they don't see these things every day."
Kids might lose interest in toys with multiple pieces (Legos, train sets, puzzles) because they get so scattered. I thought my kids were bored with their Playmobil figures (they never seemed to play with them) until one day when I gathered them all up into a single storage box. Suddenly, all the pirates were together, all the soccer players, all the wedding party—and they now see lots of action. Likewise, when Saunders created an art center with a table, chairs, and an easel, her daughter showed much more interest in crafts because all the glue, glitter, crayons, and paints were in one central location.
Sometimes it's not what the toy is, it's what you call it. We have a doll, for instance, that I long ago christened One-Legged Ken. He came to us, quite whole, from a garage sale, and he never logged much playtime until one day I noticed that his leg had come off. With a little encouragement on my part ("What happened to poor Ken?"), my kids invented a whole life and identity for the hapless doll—he was a hero who lost his leg fighting off giant aliens. Since then, One-Legged Ken has been a constant figure in their imaginary play (occasionally minus one arm or even his head—he seems unusually prone to losing limbs).
Here's a childhood fact of life: Any toy is more appealing when it's wet. I'll never forget the time my brothers and I put my pricey Madame Alexander doll into the washing machine—much to my mom's chagrin—just to see what would happen. Of course, you don't want to encourage such wanton destruction, but do take advantage of this childhood fascination with water. For example, when the weather's nice, get kids into bathing suits, hand them the hose and their plastic cars, and make a car wash or Barbie water park outside. Or maybe all the plastic action figures need a bath.
Another strategy to revitalize your kid's toy stash is to arrange items in unexpected groupings. For example, put all the green or red toys together. It leads kids to think about things in new ways. Not only are you getting mileage out of old toys, but you're encouraging creativity and problem-solving—lessons you can't put a price tag on.
Charlotte Latvala is a mother of three in Sewickley, Pennsylvania.