It’s all fun and games until you need your salad spinner back.

If you’ve ever been around small kids on Christmas morning, you know the old cliché is totally true: usually they’re far more interested in the big cardboard boxes or the crumpled up wrapping paper than the toys themselves.

Because what’s a “toy” anyway? Something a kid likes to play with. It could come from the toy store. Or it could come from the hardware store. As long as it’s new and interesting, it’s as endearing as a baby doll or the Fisher Price popper.

What I’m trying to say is, save your money! Instead of the light-up puppy constantly begging “Hug me!” in his loud, cloying voice, try seeing what your child can do with stuff you already have. From honing sensory and fine motor skills to just plain using their imagination, there’s incredible value in getting them busy with items such as:

Salad spinner

Salad Spinner

You can take it apart. You can put it back together. You can put stuff inside and close the lid. And oh yes—you can make it SPIN! And FAST! I have probably spent a year of my life (and wasted several 12-packs of paper towels) hand-drying romaine leaves because I couldn’t get a stubborn toddler to relinquish this beloved kitchen tool.

Dixie cups

Disposable Cups

My kids have never been as interested in old-fashioned building blocks as I would like. But when they see a fresh stack of Dixie cups in the bathroom, suddenly they’re Frank Lloyd Wright. And I’m chugging mouthwash straight from the bottle.


Tissue Boxes

You know that trick when a magician keeps pulling scarves out of his sleeve? That’s what it’s like watching a 13-month-old encounter a tissue box for the first time. He pulls out a tissue. And another. And another. So much awe and wonder until—oops. No more? That’s OK, because now there is all this cloudy fluff to toss in the air, or stuff back into the box. (This is a really good one if you find yourself at a friend or relative’s house with a bored toddler. Just ask them for a box of tissues—and offer reimbursement.)



Years ago, my husband and I took our then-five- and two-year-olds to a science museum. Of all the incredible things to do and see, they were most content sitting and playing in a gigantic trough of uncooked rice. They ran it through their hands. They scooped and poured it with measuring cups. They hunted for pennies. It was a humbling, “Why didn’t we think of this?” moment.


Paint Brushes

And the biggest object of affection at the kiddie pool this year is… paint brushes! Not the dainty watercolor ones, but the big old house paint and varnish brushes. When they aren’t fighting over them, the three- and four-year-olds are sitting by the side hypnotically brushing benches and tiles like the Karate Kid. Side note: These are a much better bathtub option than the foam letters that I fondly refer to as mold magnets.

Tape measure

Tape Measure

Kids are no fools. We once bought my son a child-friendly tape measure toy because he was so obsessed with our real one. It had all these safety mechanisms in place so baby can’t wrap the (soft not hard) tape around his neck or accidentally hurt his finger if the tape quickly snapped back into place. Nope—it was the hardware-store version he craved, hazards and all. Also a big fan of the straight-from-the-toolbox folding ruler, both of which he could only play with under close supervision.

Water bottle

Spray Bottle

My daughter got a Barbie swimming pool for her fourth birthday. You know how she spent the majority of last Saturday? Using the pool like a bucket and washing the siding on my garage with a spray bottle and sponge. “What can I clean for you next?” she asked. I can hardly complain.

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