Two girls with bowls of dried pasta, preparing for positioning schema play

A ‘toy box’ of everyday things

Babies have treasure baskets and toddlers have heuristic play.

But what’s the equivalent for an inquisitive preschooler? What box of treasures can you offer that is full of challenge and possibility?

A toy box of everyday things.

Your home already contains all kinds of interesting ‘toys’ that will engage and inspire your child.

They are hiding in plain sight.

Usually, all you have to do is offer them, sit back and leave your child to explore.

Sometimes, however, your child may need a nudge, to be shown the possibilities, but after that you can look forward to a summer’s worth of independent play.

A box of useful things

Children are fascinated by boxes of odds and ends. They always find something to covet and use in their play.

Some useful things to keep in an old shoebox include: Paper clips, magnets, bulldog clips, straws, pipe cleaners, buttons, thread, tiddliwinks, hair grips and clips, corks, sponges, door hinges, old keys, empty matchboxes.

A box full of natural materials, like sticks, leaves, feathers, pebbles, conkers, shells and acorns is also very handy. Children will find a way to include these in almost any game they play.

Give them enough time and space – and access to some interesting materials – and children will make their own fun.

As well as these smaller objects, why not include the following. You’re sure to have them at home already. I suggest a few activities for each but in the first instance, just give your child the materials and see what she makes of them.


Having a ball of strong string around gives you instant access to a host of free and easy activities, most of which help develop fine-motor skills. Use string to make necklaces or garlands with pasta shapes, old buttons or beads (heaven for the child who is exploring their connecting schema.) Or coat it in glue and use it make string paintings of city skylines or crazy patterns. Use string to make your own dolls’ clothes with felt squares and pegs. Or keep it simple and thread it through conkers.


Length, and measuring it with a ruler, is something children will eventually cover in school. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get them using a ruler at home early on. It’s a great way to help them practice using two hands at the same time (one holding the ruler steady, the other drawing the line), a surprisingly tricky task for a child to master. Once they’ve got the hang of it, they can use it to draw lines in their pictures, make mazes, draw 2-D shapes and even draw grids for their own word searches.Go for wide and chunky first rulers, that small hands can easily grasp.

Read more: Bilateral co-ordination


Sorting is a fundamental human activity. It’s about noticing the difference between things. Even in the womb, babies begin to sort, noticing light/dark, sound/no sound. For young children, it’s about making a choice: this, not that. And seeing that one thing is different to another. How can you count without knowing that two is different to three? How can you read without noticing that b is different to d? The older children get, the more nuanced the differences they notice become, left shoe and right shoe, adverb and adjective.

With a set of nested bowls, your child can sort objects into groups. Red beads in the red bowl, blue beads in the blue. Later, a fun phonics activity is to collect things beginning with ‘p’ in one bowl and ‘d’ in the other. Soon your child will be inventing categories of her own.

Nested bowls are also a great way to learn about seriation, that small things fit inside larger things and that there is an order in which things must be arranged if the whole set is to fit back together. This is basic maths and helps children understand that numbers have an order, that smaller numbers fit inside bigger ones.

And, of course, bowls are also useful for mixing things. Use them to make playdough or slime, or when you are play-cooking. Fill them with water and they are miniature fishponds or boating lakes.

Read more: Seriation | Sorting activities | What was the first game you ever played?


For drawing and writing, of course, but having plenty of paper on hand means you have instant access to a host of other creative activities. Paper aeroplanes, and other fold-up games like a paper fortune-teller, are always appreciated and help small hands develop fine-motor precision and strength as well as introducing early ideas around maths and science (how far will your plane fly? When will it drop?).

You can also use tracing paper for pencil control (for better handwriting), strong paper for rolling up to make a telescope or a trumpet, sugar-paper for flowers and decorating hats, and regular paper for writing letters to Father Christmas. Cut it up and make garlands or window stencils. Use printouts you no longer need to cut out letters or words, keep envelopes with windows in to make a frosty winter scene. The possibilities with paper are endless. And best of all it can all be recycled at the end of the day.

Read more: Paper folding activities | Paper maché recipe | Tissue paper stained glass butterfly | Printmaking


Children love to role-play everyday grown-up activities and shopping is one of the most common. It’s through these games of make believe that they learn how money is exchanged for goods and services, and that change is given when the money you have available is greater than the cost of the goods you’re buying.

Get some packets and tins out of the cupboard, put them on a low table and set up a shop in your kitchen or living room. You or your child can write prices on stickers and one of you gets to be the shopkeeper. It’s easiest to start with everything priced in pounds and use only pound coins. Count out three coins to buy a £3 box of cereal, and so on.

Since many of us now pay with a card or even a smart phone, you could also include an old or toy phone and a credit card in your child’s play purse.

Tip: There is so much to learn about human interaction by setting up a play shop. Even if you only ever use contactless payments in your shop, your child can learn what to do and say when they’re out with you at the market or store.

Learn more about teaching your child to count.


Dice bring maths to life for children, showing the connection between counting and numbers in a fun and thrilling way. The idea that if you throw a five, you can move forward five spaces on your board game, helps reinforce the connection between the abstract number and the physical quantity or movement.

Dice come in many shapes and sizes. From the traditional six-sides with dots, to those with 20 sides found in complex games like Dungeons and Dragons (any father who played this as a spotty teen can tell you about these… cough).

If you’re not on to numbers yet, you can replace the numbers with pictures – make your own or use stickers. You could also use or make spinners, with segments that show faces or shapes. Draw anything you like on them, and change the pictures to numbers (or number words) as they learn.

Read more: Three good things | Make your own board game | Games with rules | Non-comeptitive board games

Magnifying glass

Children love to play detective with a magnifying glass.  This simple, timeless piece of equipment is great for getting close up to the small things, not only outdoors, but the familiar aspects of daily life – the textures in a woven placemat on the kitchen table, or the different coloured threads in a teatowel. Children can use the things they see to inform their drawings and pattern-making. For real detective work, try taking fingerprints and seeing if you can find any on the surfaces at home.

Outside in the garden or the woods, you can use a magnifying glass to inspect insects and leaves, tree bark and pebbles. Take pictures of what you find and look them up, keep a record of your finds. Were they as you expected? How does size affect things, which is stronger, how quickly can something with no legs move? A magnifying glass can be a gateway to some pretty big maths questions, and a window on the natural life that’s just outside your door.

Read more: How to make a nature table

Letters and numbers

Using letters and numbers without having to write them down, takes away much of the cognitive load young children experience when learning to write. The struggle to grip the pencil correctly, and form letters perfectly is gone, and they can focus simply on letter sounds. In this way, many grasp the concept of reading long before they can write, and why deprive them of that chance?

Whether magnetic, wooden or printed on cards, you can use them in all kinds of ways:

  • Create a sound tray. Put today’s letter in the tray and fill the tray with objects that begin with that sound.
  • Swap letters to make new words. Spell out cat. Now swap the c for h, then p and b and so on.
  • Hang letters and numbers on a washing line and play around with their order, take one away, etc.

Read more: Introduction to phonics

Builder’s tray and sand

A child-height, bashable, waterproof tray table can transform opportunities for play at home. Fill it with shaving foam, jelly, rice, sand or water and you have a neatly contained environment in which to explore sensory activities and practice all kinds of fine-motor skills. A Tuff Spot or similar also works well as a context for small world play, which may or may not contain messy elements. With moss and stones from the garden set the scene for the Three Billy Goats Gruff, use sand to create your own Sahara desert, or make an Arctic scene with shaving foam and play figures.

Read more: Messy play | Small world play | Sensory play

Jugs and plastic bottles

Under-fives love playing with water, and for good reason. There is so much to learn, from understanding capacity and displacement to how liquid travels. As adults we know that a tall thin bottle may not hold as much liquid as a short, wide one. But for a preschooler, this is a real scientific discovery.

Bath time is therefore one big learning opportunity for children, and is why they usually enjoy it so much. The nuances of water’s flow seem infinite, so time spent splashing about is never wasted, and is of course enormous fun. Forget the bath toys, especially the plastic books. Bathtime is time for maths and science. Some empty shampoo bottles are all you need. Throw in a measuring jug, a funnel and perhaps even a short length of hose pipe for extra thrills and spills.

Tip: If you have a younger child, discovery bottles are yet another way to use your unwanted plastic.

Read more: Open-ended play


Make a ramp using an old plank or a tray and you have usually bought yourself a few good hours of happy play time. Children love to hurl things down a ramp – whether it’s a car, a ball, or maybe some water and washing up liquid. Why is it so engaging? Because as always they are conducting scientific research, in this case, learning about gravity.

What slides down fastest? A big car or a small one? A heavy one or a light one? Will something without wheels slide down? What if the ramp is wet? Covered in oil? In sandpaper? The questions and possibilities are endless and that’s precisely why it is so much fun.

Read more: Why are toddlers obsessed with toy cars?


Light is eternally fascinating to young children and most enjoy watching it move and dance, grow brighter or change colour. A torch at the ready (loaded with working batteries) is a simple way to introduce light play. Use it under your chin in the dark to make funny faces, or behind a sheet to make shadow puppets with fingers or cut-outs. A head-torch worn in the garden at night is an instant adventure, and a way to see familiar objects from a new perspective. Even rummaging for things in a dark cupboard can become exciting with a torch at hand.

Read more: Light and shadow activities

I hope you found something useful amongst this collection of odds and ends.

Sometimes buying a new toy can be a life-saver during the holidays but you’ve probably already got more fun than your child can handle sitting unused in the most unexpected of places, hiding in plain sight.