Everyday things in your home can spark creativity and help children develop, too. Here are fun ways to get your kids playing with pots, pans, and even shoe boxes.

By Jennie Monness
January 26, 2021
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An image of non-toy toys on a blanket.
Credit: Illustration: Julia Bohan-Upadhyay.

Something I quickly learned throughout my years of working in early childhood was that, when given the choice, young children always choose the object that isn't the toy. Why? There are many reasons, but it mostly comes down to two things: First, children are born curious and born to take volition over their own play; objects that aren't necessarily made to be toys offer something that can help them achieve both. Second, children love to play with things that resemble the things that we use in day-to-day life.

As a parent, sometimes you need nothing more than objects that you can pick up quickly to help engage your young children thoughtfully and thoroughly while you work from home or steal away to take a shower.

That's why I've rounded up my favorite non-toy items that you may or may not have lying around. If you don't, I'm sure these can inspire some ideas surrounding items you do have that you can repurpose as your child's next favorite toy. The best part is: These non-toy toys last for years, rarely lose their luster even after they are no longer novel, and usually serve another purpose around the house.

Popsicle Sticks

The natural urges that children have in their earliest years are called schemas. Schemas help children figure out the world. One of the most interesting ones to me is the enclosure schema. This is when children build a fence around their toys or themselves. Popsicle sticks can help a child create a frame around something they are playing with to "separate" their play from the rest of the toys. It's children's way of taking ownership over their play.

To buy: popsicle sticks, $5.99; amazon.com.

Dog Bowls

Children have a natural urge to dump things. (If you have a dog, you've already realized that your child likely can't stay away from the dog's bowls.) When children are allowed to dump things, they are discovering what happens to the properties of substances when dumped. Does water stay the same when I dump it? What does it feel like when it splashes on me? Letting children dump things allows them to exert energy in this way, too (when they are just asked to play in a more contained way, their desire to dump and make messes increases). That means providing children with a way to dump is beneficial for both them and us.

These metal bowls, which you can buy here, are also removable and can be used without water as a toy as well. Babies especially love the shiny quality of a metal bowl, the cool surface when they mouth it, the clanging noise when they bang it, and the reflections of light on them.

Disclaimer: Don't forget to put down a garbage bag or splat mat to contain the water, or better yet, just go with the pet theme and buy one of these pet crate trays—they contain any mess.

Salad Spinner

A salad spinner is basically an open-ended, less annoying or scary Jack-in-the-Box offering children a way to explore cause and effect. Children can see the power in their play right before their eyes. When I push this down, I am making this spin! I can't do this with anything else in my playroom. See what I mean by non-toys offering something magical that regular toys just can't?

Put paint inside and watch what happens as it spins, put mini flashlights inside for a light show, or just use it by itself. A clear salad spinner is key so that children see what is happening inside.

Fruit Coasters

I love sticking these on surfaces like windows and the dishwasher. Developing babies will engage their core to reach up onto their knees or to standing to take them off and on surfaces. Because of how thin they are, these coasters also help children practice their fine motor skills as they peel them off surfaces. For super young babies, they are awesome teethers to gnaw on.

Apothecary Jars

Disorganized play spaces lead to disorganized play. I say that not to overwhelm you but to motivate you—it's what led me to get these jars! I noticed that my daughters loved the cleanup process of figuring out which toy went in which jar. Furthermore, I saw how they played with toys they hadn't looked at in weeks when I displayed them in these jars. They are all different sizes, so when the lids are taken off it's amazing to see how even babies figure out and problem-solve which top fits on which jar.

To buy: plastic apothecary jars, $26.99; amazon.com.

Metal Condiment Cups

I like to think of these as building blocks from the kitchen: Children stack them high and love the clanging they make when they fall down (again, anything metal is ideal). These metal cups come in a pack of 12, so it's fun for children to nest them, stack them, or line them up. We also use them for water play or in the bath (they won't ever mold like some other bath toys!).

Shoe Boxes and Wipes Containers

Children love to open and close things—it's their way of problem-solving and figuring out the permanence of things. Do things continue to exist when I can't see them? What happens when I put this doll inside this box and cover it? Opening, closing, and seeing that the doll continues to exist transforms children into mini scientists—and it's much safer for them to practice opening and closing using a shoebox versus a door or cabinet.

We like to make our shoeboxes cribs for stuffed animals and we cut slits in the tops of them and see what fits through (and what doesn't). A wipes container can offer the same benefits.

Jennie Monness is an early childhood educator, co-owner of New York City-based play space Union Square Play, and founder of parenting resource Mo' Mommies. She is a mom of a 3- and 1-year-old who are her constant muses for all things play and responsive parenting. Follow along as she shares parenting hacks, tips, and other insightful gems on Instagram @momommies.