Best toddler toys aren’t toys at all

My boy has plenty of toys. There’s the light-up singing talking helicopter and the tiger-shaped xylophone and the push-popper. He has piles of tiny cars, plastic dinosaurs and blocks.

But, of course, the go-to toys that really occupy him for hours – OK, who am I kidding, for minutes – aren’t toys at all. They are the simplest and cheapest household items that are so banal my eyes don’t even register on them at all. These are things never intended to be toys and they are brilliant.

I am constantly reminded of how buying lavish expensive kids’ toys is usually a colossal waste of money. I’m not immune to the dazzle and bling of shiny new toys or even to the promise of genius that will come with the shape sorters. But really, what’s the point? That talking Super Grover remote I bought last month at Target? That $12 bought me about 20 minutes.

Toys set aside in favor of household items. Think creativity.

Really, it’s the stuff lying around the house that really gets his attention. Isn’t that always the case? So why are we still buying our kids toys? Maybe because wrapping up an empty beer box and a ball of twine isn’t really a memory-worthy Christmas present.

Knowing that most parents probably marvel in the fact that the Tupperware is the hottest toddler item in the house, I thought I’d provide a list of my kid’s favorites (plus a few ideas I borrowed from my friend with two little ones). Behold the list of Excellent Toys Never Intended to be Toys:

  • Kitchen utensils: I have found myself plopping my kid in his high chair, pulling out a whisk, a set of wooden tongs and a couple measuring cups and letting him be. He bangs around and fiddles with these strangely shaped implements while I cook. Magic. For a while, he played with the plastic serving spoon so often that it’s new home was his toy box.
  • Plastic cup: A single small plastic cup is often the only toy we bring to the tub for bath time these days. The basket of squirty sea creatures sits untouched. Instead my kid fills and empties the small cup endlessly. When he’s distracted by the washcloth, I use the cup to rinse his hair. Another magical not-a-toy toy is the Neti pot: that small spouted pot intended for salty nasal rinsing is also a brilliant bath toy that doubles as a hair rinser.
  • String:  My boy is madly obsessed with string, twine, yarn, rope – any long cord that he can drag along behind him. The soft tape measure. The garden tape for tying up tomatoes. The dog leash. My shoelaces. He once threw an embarrassing full-throttled fit in downtown Baltimore when I tried to force him to leave the twine in the car. He once bathed with that same natty twine. I put my foot down at bedtime. No choking hazard in the crib, please. Similarly, any toy, intended or otherwise, that has a string attached for dragging is an instant favorite.
  • Boxes, bags, and everyday vessels in general:  Putting things in things is a time-consuming activity in our house. My boy like putting his small toys (or the small kitchen items like measuring cups) in the empty beer box we keep forgetting to put out in the recycling bin. And then dumping them out. And repeating. Pile up some miscellaneous bits in front of that kid and hand him a couple reusable cloth grocery bags and voila! you’ve bought yourself some hands-free parenting time.
  • Spice jars:  Leave aside the cayenne pepper and the pricey saffron, and let your kid stack, organize and line up those tiny jars. My friend regularly sets her toddler loose on the spices and actually manages to cook a full meal uninterrupted. Again, magic. What a thoughtful double use of those jars.
  • Rocks, dirt and flower pots: This one is kind of an extension of No. 4, the outside version of everyday vessels. My son has spent many minutes lately on the back porch dishing potting soil from one terra cotta pot to another with a tiny plastic baby spoon. He’ll drop in a rock or sliver of red brick. Then pull it out and put it in the other pot. Repeat.

I imagine the list is endless and surely other parents have a few they can suggest. There must be other toddler distracters I’m just overlooking. What are your Toys Never Intended to be Toys? Tell me about them: I need Christmas present ideas.