Toys schmoys

Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE our annual Toy Issue. My kiddos have participated in the official Minnesota Parent Toy Test, and I even rely on the results for holiday ideas. 

I’ve also genuinely loved checking out all the cool new toy favorites — old and new — with my kids, neighbors, nieces and nephews during each stage of childhood. 

But the toddler years can be tricky in terms of “stuff.” They’re just getting into actual toys. They rapidly outgrow age-appropriate toys. And they simply don’t understand that you can’t afford to buy them new toys every single day. 

Manage it your way.

How should you deal with all this simultaneous development, growth, independent play, budding consumerism and your limited budget? Here are a few survival tips:

Remove the batteries from anything with sirens, earworm melodies, baby talk or Elmo’s giggle. Immediately. Don’t look back. Don’t feel guilty. Avoid psychosis. 

Rotate your toys, hiding some away for a rainy day. This really does make them new and exciting again and can really help you resist the urge to overindulge in new toys. 

Do a toy swap with friends. Do it with parents only to avoid a battle of toddler “mines.” Also, use your noggin: Don’t send your kid’s “extra” stuffed animals to a frequently visited playmate’s house. 

Find something else to do. 

Be a rebel. Savor simpler times. Revisit your youth. DITCH the toys. 

Again, I say this as an expert train table engineer, a lover of building blocks and a dollhouse designer. 

When you’re sick of the Playskool singsong migraine bus, when your rabid midwinter bed-headed, jelly-stained mini dino is stomping and roaring for something new, try these cool DIY toys from around the house:

Pots and pans. A classic! But you have to commit. Pull them all out — the wooden spoons too — and pop in your earbuds. No rules, no holding back, let them drum and encourage cacophony. 

Cloud dough. It’s silky, it’s like moonsand. It’s moldable awesomeness. Though this alternative to playdough is traditionally made with baby oil and flour, many toddler parents feel that vegetable oil is safer. It’s up to you. You can jazz it up with tempura paint powder and glitter, too.

Containers and lids. Mix and match. Fill them with toddler-safe items. Stack, organize, take them to the bath. The possibilities are endless. 

Safe, sturdy bookshelf. Let go of your Type A and allow your child to empty and reorganize a display area or bookshelf. Better for older toddlers, this is something they'll LOVE to do — plus it encourages independence, critical thinking and confidence. Try it! You’ll see!

Toilet paper. Mummies. Décor. Let go and let it roll. 

Cardboard tubes. Once your home is thoroughly TP-ed, use the rolls (plus paper towel rolls, too) for horns, crafts, rollers and building.

Old electronics. Batteries-out, plug-free old phones and remotes are fun for “playing grown-up.” 

Swiffers, brooms and mops. Don’t worry TOO much about your toddler actually getting the job done. If there’s a small reduction in dust, just call it a welcome side effect. (Toddlers LOVE this one.)

Boxes. This is the MVP of DIY toys. We all know the old saying; “He had more fun playing with the box than the actual toy!” Boxes are playhouses, castles, desks, schools, racecars and hideouts — and, for hipster toddlers — breakdancing mats. Save them up and have a big old box party. Don’t forget the crayons and stickers. Decorating is key. 

Kids love their toys and parents (and grandparents) love to buy them. 

But toddlers love the opportunity to explore their everyday surroundings, make messes and wreak a little non-threatening havoc with what’s often off limits. 

The old school stuff you used to do at Grandma’s when you were a tot is still really cool with today’s toddlers. The brown box post office? The kitchen floor drum set? 

Come on: It just doesn’t get better.

Jen Wittes is a freelance writer and mother of two who lives in St. Paul. Learn more about her work at Send questions or comments to