Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Best Purchase for Young Children is No Purchase at All

Someone recently asked me about toys that are good buys for young children. The March 7th Social Mom’s writing prompt asks: what was the best purchase I ever made as a mother? After having a think about this, I decided that I couldn't in good conscience write a blog post about spending money. Firstly, I have little of it. I could wax lyrical about great products, but I won’t be buying any right now. Secondly, lots of other people these days don’t have enough money, either. As they say, though: the best things in life are free. This sounds like a cliché, but when it comes to raising kids, it’s almost true. Here's a list of the BEST NON-PURCHASES I'VE EVER MADE:

1. Dirt – I used to pay for sand, but when the sand ran out one day, my two boys just sat down and started playing in the dirt under the sand table. I was like: ‘What the Hell – why not?” I have to make sure and bath them after an afternoon outside-- but I had to bath them after a spell in the sand box anyway. Sand is worse, actually, as it goes EVERYWHERE. PRICE: Free

2. A Large Cardboard Box – Because my two year old killed the TV last week (there’s another blog post in that story), my husband brought home a new TV on Friday night. It came in a large box. Last summer, I bought a large piece of furniture, which also came in a large box. Guess what happened with these boxes after their contents were removed? That’s right – hours of play. They ended up outside and the kids hid in them, imagined in them, and, eventually, destroyed them. Price: Free (initial purchase required-unless you go box hunting around town...) Warning: you may have to clean box pieces off your lawn or living room rug. Trust me, this is worth having them entertained and stimulated (read: out of your hair) for a while.

3. Fresh Air - There’s nothing like several hours outside to exhaust them and get them into bed by 7:20 pm. How does my family like to get fresh air? Walks, bike riding, skateboarding, “insect hunting” in the garden with old fishing nets, chasing each other, etc. If you don’t have a bike or anything else, walking will do. Collect stones, weeds, and other interesting tit-bits along the way. Price: Free (If you don’t have outdoor fun gear, secure hand-me-downs or shop in a thrift store.)

4. The Local Playground - I want us outside getting physical exercise as much as possible. Playgrounds are great for climbing frames, area to run, swings, and so on. They make a change from the front garden, and you can picnic there, as well. We were home in Florida visiting family over Christmas 2009, and made the disappointing discovery that the local playground in Broward County was closed two days a week because of cut backs in public services funding. We showed up there one afternoon ready to play and couldn’t. What a bummer. This means that the fabulous public amenities they have in Broward aren’t available to children and adults on those days. Price: Free – unless you want to include your tax dollars that go to maintenance. And, petrol to get there (unless you can walk).

5. A Packet of Balloons - The kind you inflate with your mouth. Having a pack in the cupboard is no less than a lifeline on rainy days. Blow them up and play balloon volleyball in the living room. Or, balloon soccer. Or, balloon catch...you get the picture. The kids get exercise even when there’s snow or ice outside- and you can’t break anything with them (unless you do a vicious spike – but my 5 and 2 year olds aren’t capable of that). PRICE: A Euro? A Dollar? Some Rands?

6. The Library - Raining again? Go to the library. It’s good for you, and often they have more than just books on offer. There are sometimes activities, computers, and in some even toys and play areas. Price: Free or the cost of an annual membership – only €2 at my local library!

I could keep going here, but use your imagination. Sometimes, you do need to spend a little money – but not much. The best toys are the core ones that get kids engaged, and which don’t cost much: Paper, crayons, Play-Doh™, reading books, balls, blocks, buckets, bowls, spoons, shovels, blankets. Some of these things aren’t even technically “toys”, but your kids’ imaginations will make them so.

In closing I’d like to say that, to be honest, one of the best purchases I’ve ever made for young children was part-time childcare – but that was a purchase for me, not them!

If you have more creative ideas for free or almost free activities, please share them in the comments section, here.


  1. So true, Lory. My kids are happiest when they're outdoors on their bikes, or in the garden, running around and making mud pies. It's the simple things in life that give them happiness, and I'm sure it's the memories from these activities that they'll carry with them into their adulthood.

  2. My and my husband's belts!

    They've been snakes, horse reins, measuring tapes, animal tails, and racing lines.

    Scarves are awesome too.

  3. I was recently at a toy store with a child-free friend and shen mentioned that she hadn't realized there were so many things a kid needs these days. My answer to that was: "there is nothing in this store that a child needs".

  4. Oshrat - good point!
    Kerri - I hadn't thought of belts. Must try them out. I wonder would one of them "belt" the other one, though (they tend to do that).
    JD - you're right, those things will stick s memories.

  5. toilet paper rolls with paper on or off, sticks and stones and anything interesting outside, old wallets and mobile phones, water, rubberbands... can u tell i have two little boys? lots of trap-building by the older one, and the younger one loves anything dirty and messy.

  6. Hi Lisa - I forgot about the toilet paper/paper towel rolls thing. Good for "pirate telescopes". My older boy likes to be chased into "traps" (play tents upended and covered inblankets).

  7. Great post - I couldn't agree more. I just cleared our house of nasty plastic toy clutter (it was a lot like an exorcism) and we're all feeling much better for it.

    I'd add to the list: curtains, towels, sheets and piles of clothes - my youngest will play with any sort of fabric for hours. You can make great forts out of nothing but chairs and sheets.

  8. Yeah, forgot Fabric, manana mama. We regularly build forts, tents, tunnels, and rocket ships from chairs and blankets!

  9. Another great one is the local community pool (or lake/ocean if you're lucky). My kids love to swim!


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