We’ve all heard the story of — or even witnessed ourselves — the hilarity of giving a kid a nice toy only to see them spend hours playing with the box, the box’s packing peanuts, or a leftover wrapping paper tube. This story is funny, sure, but it contains an undeniable truth: Kids don’t need much to enjoy themselves and the best toys are often not truly toys at all. There are so many household objects that, with a little creativity and imagination, kids can use to occupy themselves for hours. Who among us hasn’t spent an afternoon screwing around with a paper towel tube or a gigantic link of paper clips? What about a blanket and a cardboard box? Of course, not all household objects are created equal, however, which is why we put together this very official ranking of the best toys that aren’t toys. Some are classics (sup bubble wrap); others are surprises (the phone case!). All can be used in many, many ways and offer hours of inspired fun. Here, then, are the 20 best toys that aren’t toys.
Fact: Putting stuff inside of other stuff is an age-old pastime for kids, which makes these lidded containers a win. But they’re far more than containers. Throw some change in there and a kid has a make-shift maraca. Poke some holes in the lid and you have a safe space for caught bugs. Speaking of the lid, it turns into a fling-able Frisbee.
19. A Roll of Tape
Sure, tape itself can be used for everything from laying down makeshift roads for matchbox cars or hopscotch courses to playing a fun round of tic-tac-toe or that age-old classic tape-on-the-face. But even when not used for its sticky purpose, a roll of tape is a fun play companion. It can be rolled across the floor. It can be worn as a wrist bracelet. It’s center hole means it can be used as a target into which objects can be tossed.
18. The iPhone Case
Have a little kid who wants to play phone? Hand them a spare case so they can answer a call without dropping your life line to, well, everything.
17. The Rolling Chair
A chair, with wheels? What kid doesn’t look at one and come up with 1,000 ideas? Race one another down the hall. Spin yourself silly. Have a kid sit in it and close their eyes, then lean them back, and shake it around to simulate a space launch. Simply loading it up with stuff and pushing it around is a good time.
16. The Egg Carton
The classic container easily transforms into an area suitable for a variety of kid’s activities. Sort shapes and colors. Use it as a palette for paints. Play counting games by numbering its container. Separate each container, plant a flag in one, and you have tiny forts for action figure play. Break off pairs of two containers, flip ‘em over, and you have a pair of eyes to paint in zany colors. The uses are near-endless.
15. The Kitchen Pot
Give a kid a kitchen pot and one of three things will happen: they’ll wear it on their head (handle facing backwards of course), place it on the ground and begin throwing things into it, or flip it over and start beating on it with a stick or spoon. All are fun ways to waste a block of time. Have smaller children? Place two pots side by side, fill one with water, and hand your kid a ladle or cup. Transferring water from one vessel to another is a fucking blast to a toddler.
14. Bubble Wrap
Pop-pop. Pop-pop-pop. Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. Whether you’re an adult or a child, few things are as immediately satisfying as going to town on a sheet of bubble wrap with your hands or feet. Aside from popping, the plastic is ideal for wrapping it around hands or feet and staging some (supervised) roughhousing as well as rolling over with cars, trucks, and other toys. It’s also a pretty top-notch craft supply, able to add texture and, well, pop to everything from painting projects to game boards.
13. The Ice Cube
A bucket of ice cubes contains an afternoon’s worth of play ideas. Treat them as blocks and build sculptures. Make large-scale ones by filling Tupperware with water and freezing them, then teach kids to (carefully) chip away at them to make designs. Treat small ice cubes like hockey pucks to slide across tables and into barriers for points. Hell, just squeezing an ice cube until it melts is a fun pastime.
12. The Metal Spoon
Oh, spoon. What can’t you do? Breathe on it and stick it to your nose. Fling objects, catapult style. Pretend it’s a microphone for singing competitions. Use it as a drum stick. Fill a bowl with something a let kits go wild stirring. Do you know how much fun stirring can be?
11. The Plastic Watering Can
Pouring various things out of a watering can is a blast for kids, so using it for its intended purpose is a game in of itself. But so tipping it upside down and making it seem like a trunked helmet. So is finding a high-ish tree branch and seeing who can chuck the can just so its handle gets hooked on. Inevitably, they’ll throw things at it to knock it down from its perch.
10. The Straw
Blow spit balls. Make music. Pinch one end and carry liquid around. Tie ’em in knots to create animals, structures, or many-limbed creatures. Fasten a bunch together, end-to-end, and you’ve got a complex pipe system through which you can send a variety of substances and toys from one end of the house to another. Fasten a bunch of different lengths together, side by side, and you’ve got a pan flute (ish) instrument. Oh yeah, and you can sip through them, too.
9. The Empty Oatmeal Container
Yes, an arsenal of art projects, from space helmets to funky shoes, can be made using one of this cardboard cylinder. It’s also a storage container, a target, a drum, a castle tower, a shaker, and a stool (sort of). With the bottom snipped off, it’s a large tunnel through which toys can pass. With shapes cut out on the sides and a flashlight inserted in one end, it’s a makeshift planetarium.
Is there a household object more suited to kid’s imaginations? Play cat’s cradle. Practice a slip knot. Set up an obstacle course. Set up a tin-can telephone system. Hang things from door knobs and swing them back and forth. Make bracelets. Make pretty hair. Just wind it around and around and around a ball or a toy.
7. The Twisty Tie
It keeps bags tightly sealed and cats occupied for hours. But it’s also a hell of a toy. With a handful, kids can wind ’em together to make a battalion of stick figures, write out their names, or any number of creative projects. They can use ’em to add flair and function to dolls or action figures. Hell, it’s fun to use a bunch to chain a stuff together. One is also fun to flick. Very fun.
6. The Paper Towel Tube
Once the Bounty is used up, there’s a bounty of options of what to do with this tough tube. Make art. Blow bubbles. Wield it as a sword. Unravel it to create makeshift nunchakus’. Craft an extreme drop down through one can send rolled quarters, cars, and other items. Look through it like a telescope. Tape several of them strategically to a wall and you have a makeshift marble shoot. Slice ’em into small cylinders, draw shapes on them, and create a fun matching game. The options are endless.
5. The Paper Clip
Moldable, and available in a variety of sizes, the paper clip can turn into pretty much anything with a few bends. Make animals. Build bracelets and necklaces. Mark pages in books. Fasten a bunch together to form long, swingable, hang-able, drape-able chains. Flick ’em across a table. A good time can be had just straightening a bunch out.
4. The Blanket
Worn, it’s a cape, a cloak, a skirt. Draped over a chair or two, it’s a cave, a portal to a magic kingdom, a cozy tent for reading. Laid out on the floor, it’s a magic carpet, a drag-able sled, a space for the perfect tea party. Grabbed at the corners and pulled tight by a pair or more and it’s a fun, springy tarp to bounce toys and stuffed animals.
3. The Pillow
Is there a better roughhouse tool than the pillow? We think not. Not only can it be used as a weapon but it can also be taped around knees and chests for armor. Outside of the arena, a bunch of pillows are, of course, excellent for fort-building. They’re also widely useful for impromptu games. Space a bunch out on the floor and you’ve got a hop-able obstacle course — or a bunch of islands onto which you must jump. Also, there’s nothing more fun than making a mountain of pillows, trying to scale it, and tumbling back down. They’re pretty good for on, too.
2. The Wrapping Paper Tube
The super sized version of the paper towel tube. It’s thicker and it’s much more fun. Use it for batting practice (outside). Make gigantic tubes and tunnels with it. Practice some bow staff skills. Put a paper head on it and it’s a ride-able stick animal. Set it between a pair of chairs and it’s a limbo staff or a bridge over which toys can cross. Make a gravity-fed shoot system for toys. Use a bunch of them to build a fort.
1. The Cardboard Box
The most legendary household item there is, what can’t be done with a box? Hide in it. Draw on it. Turn it into a spaceship. Turn it into a house. Crawl inside and scare your brother or cousin or dad. Craft tunnels. Make a dollhouse. Make a castle. Make a car. Is it a boat? Sure! The beauty of the corrugated box is that it can be anything a kid wants. It’s big enough and moldable enough for nearly every kind of activity and it’s the most beloved non-toy toy there is.
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