The Un-Toy: A Celebration

IMG_6368Toys, it must be said, can be as annoying as they are delightful. Toddler toys have gazillions of pieces, some of which are required for the set-up to work. Puzzle pieces and the like inevitably end up in the sofa cushions, the car seat, even the refrigerator, making it part of the puzzle just to keep the darn thing together!

So I’ll have to give credit to the inventiveness of Maya’s former preschool in showing me that excellent toys need not be, well, toys. They used tennis balls with mouths cut into them and eyes drawn on for holding buttons, lovely little thrift store change purses with zippers, snaps and clamps for practicing fine motor skills, and even several sizes of old sets of hair curlers with the bristles for building blocks. And of course, there is the always popular cardboard box, which can be a fort, hiding place, or other retreat.

Then there are natural un-toys, like acorns, dried leaves in fall, stones, pine cones, shells and other wonders. These can be displayed on a nature table seasonally with small dolls or building structures if you have the space and patience with all the bits that will inevitably end up on the floor.

Sadly, thrift store toy aisles are rather depressing, plastic-filled places. So get out of there and into the tchotchke aisle instead. Here are some things to look for while at thrift stores, on-line on places like Ebay, or at yard or estate sales:

  1. Old fantasy chess sets or other interesting game pieces, the more elaborate the better;
  2. Sets of interesting similar items, like the three bags of miniature painted duck decoys I found for a buck each;
  3. Small wooden figures;
  4. Small furniture that can serve for dolls;
  5. Glass baubles and stones for a light table (easily made with an upended plastic storage box and flashlight or light stick);
  6. Small figures for the sandbox or a shadow box;
  7. Craft supplies (I found a large bag of simple wooden blocks that Maya has had a ball painting; also birdhouses for painting and raffia for use in 3-D constructions);
  8. Dress-up clothes and small purses;
  9. Large pieces of nicer fabric and scarves to use as forts, dress-ups, etc.
  10. Stamps and batik blocks, rolling pins or cookie cutters for tracing and playdough;
  11. Muffin tins, measuring cups, wooden bowls and nesting bowls;
  12. Baskets to keep all the toys (and un-toys) organized and accessible.

Here’s some of our current items in circulation, including these cool stamps:

IMG_6370 IMG_6367 IMG_6366 IMG_6365 IMG_6362There’s nothing I enjoy more than inventing a new purpose for some castaway that gives it renewed life. What are some things you’ve scored along the way?

Related posts:

6 thoughts on “The Un-Toy: A Celebration

  1. Hello Laura,
    Thank you for this list! I come back to it every couple months.
    May I ask
    – what kind of storage do you use? Any particular plastic storage/organization bins stand out for chemical safety?
    – if you know whether re-using cardboard is safe, or does cutting to repurpose it release toxins into the air?
    – are there certain toys that you cannot avoid having in plastic form, (e.g. animal figurines, sand tables, etc)?
    – do you use a particular type of sand?
    I’m finding I’ve been limiting my son’s explorations a little because of my toxin worries.
    Thank you again!

    • HI there Aarti! Thanks for writing and what excellent questions!
      1) For storage, I like woven baskets and wooden boxes from the thrift store — there are lots of sizes, they are cheap when used, and if they start to fall apart, I just replace them. A lot of cheaper toys come with vinyl soft carriers, which are toxic PVC. Hard plastic can be better, but I tend to reserve those for the sets with tons of small pieces, and we only have a few. I also use wooden cradles and chests found at yard sales for books and dress-ups and fabric bins for stuffies.
      2) Re cardboard: while the process to make it is not “green” — in that it uses chemicals on pulp that discharge into the air (and used to be discharged into waterways) (, given that your child is not ingesting it, I think it’s fine to use, build with, etc. And it makes excellent tunnels, houses, etc. Some ideas and links here:
      3) Yes — we have some plastic animals in the sandbox outside and they are durable and perfect for that use, as well as plastic scoopers, buckets, etc. For bath toys, we use measuring cups that are plastic and PVC-free, but avoid much of the plastic bath toys out there given the exposure to water and heat. Our outdoor toys like sand tables are plastic, bought used. Though I have ogled wooden sandboxes, we just don’t have room in our tiny yard. Given that wooden items for outdoors are often treated with chemicals, my thought is that for some of these things, plastic might be safer, though it is more for the landfill. Sigh.
      4) You’re right to worry about sand, as it often contains asbestos. Here’s one option: and I bought this one,, in a 25-lb bag. Shipping costs are nuts, so I bought two of them, but have saved the second for next year. While expensive, one bag lasted all summer in a covered sandbox with plenty of play.
      For art supplies, you may want to check out Stubby Pencil Studio — run by a Mom who is very picky about toxics.

  2. My almost 3yo currently loves: Decks of cards; her big sister’s old binder filled with paper, stickers, and pencil pouch with writing and cutting instruments; wooden beads and small cardboard squares adorned with letters; vintage soft dolls and stuffed animals; fabric purses or paper bags in which to stow all the above.

    And some less green things: foam and cardboard trays from (I know, I know) cucumbers and zucchini, empty bottles from the spice cupboard, the measuring cup from a bottle of laundry detergent, rubber bands. She is of an age that mouthing objects is no longer a problem, so I’m concerned about choking hazards.

    A fave un-toy when she was about 18-24 months were small fabric squares to put into small cardboard box and an empty wipes box and oval-shaped links that once attached toys to her stroller (again with the plastic, I know, but at least I am upcycling).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s