Free unstructured play time is an important part of childhood, but kids don’t need expensive toys to realize the benefits of play. Let your kids exercise their creativity and develop their dexterity by providing access to some of the items below. But before you visit the hardware store – or raid your garage – be sure to take into consideration what would be developmentally appropriate and safe for your child.

Flashlight – kids can figure out all sorts of interesting things to do with a flashlight, from creating constellations with a tin can with holes punched in the bottom, making shadow puppets or playing flashlight tag.

Tape measure – this is the ideal tool to give kids practice measuring. If they’re ready, you can point out which side measures inches and which measures centimeters. Suggest they measure the coffee table, a pencil, the length and width of a book or whatever items strike their fancy. My son has been known to measure the distance he and his brother can jump. A yard stick would serve a similar purpose.

Painter’s tape – let kids hang up whatever papers or posters they want in their rooms without any worries about damaging the walls. Or suggest they use painter’s tape to create designs on a wall or the floor. Tape on the floor makes an easily modifiable race course for toy cars – or kids may want to follow taped down zig zap patterns with their own feet.

Clothespins – my kids used to load clothespins up and haul them around in a toy truck or wagon. They have also clipped them together to be transformed into one-of-a-kind fences, buildings, robots and whatever else their imaginations can come up with.

Screen cloth – though it’s designed for keeping insects from flying in your windows, a small piece of a screen can provide hours of outdoor fun. When we were kids, we used to take whatever odds and ends of a screen we came across and turn them into makeshift sand sifters. We’d put moderately coarse gravel on top, shake well and enjoy the pile of fine sand that was produced right below the screen. An old kitchen strainer could serve the same purpose.

String – kids can transform a string into a spider-web style obstacle course or use it as a key component of a mobile for their bedroom. String comes in handy if your child decides to make a kite or wants to create string art by gluing pieces of string to form designs on paper. But provide ample supervision with string so kids don’t hurt themselves or others – by wrapping it tightly around the limbs or neck of a sibling, for example.

PVC pipe and connectors – a single piece of half-inch PVC pipe can be used as a bubble blower, and a slightly larger one could become a play telescope. Add a few connectors into the mix and it’s pretty easy to arm yourselves for a mini marshmallow battle. Give kids an assortment of pipe lengths and connectors and you may be surprised by what they create.

Storage organizer – a tackle box organizer or any other storage box with lots of little compartments is a great way for a child to sort and store a collection or keep an assortment of little treasures all together in one place.

Duct tape – online articles, videos and entire books of duct tape crafts exist. What could your kids come up with on their own given a roll of tape, scissors and a free afternoon?


By Anita Dualeh