Nearly Free Kids Toys that Keep On Giving

Although I talk quite a bit about things like frugality, investing, bicycling, cars, and the ridiculousness of our society, it’s not actually what I think about for most of the day. Mrs. M. and I still consider our main task to simply be child-raising, since it takes more time and energy than the rest of life’s activities combined.

Since I’m sure many of the readers with kids of their own would agree, I thought it would be fun to share some thoughts on the most successful toys that we’ve ever stumbled across, just in case you and your young kids haven’t already discover these things yourselves.

In our household, finding engrossing activities for the little boy is a highly valuable thing: with no TV to turn on for automatic babysitting and a kid who likes a lot of attention, we appreciate the times he gets seriously hooked into some healthy independent play.  We already covered the ultimate outdoor toy (Nature), but there’s still a lot of time spent inside the house that needs to be accounted for. After six years of observing his growth, certain toys and activities have shone above all others so far:

1: A whiteboard and a pack of Colorful Markers

Man Oh Man, has this ever been a successful gift. Several times a day, my son will get the urge to draw, then spend fifteen minutes detailing some elaborate picture, usually involving futuristic cities, vehicles, other planets, or scenes from books we’ve recently read. Then he’ll come to me and ask, “Dada, do you want to ask some questions about my drawing?”. There will be an extended Q/A session, at which point I am instructed to take a picture of the picture so he can safely erase it and begin anew.

Whiteboard drawing can also become a community event. At least once a day, he hosts a “whiteboard war”, where we divide the board in half, draw our bases, and then have a drawing-based battle to the death – usually involving lasers. He always wins, except when battling other kids in which case the outcomes are more controversial.

Over recent years, I have amassed a network folder of THOUSANDS of digital pictures of whiteboard drawings – the collage above is just the tip of the iceberg – a few weeks’ worth at most.  All with one $10 whiteboard and a few bulk packages of markers. The value delivered in fun, drawing and writing skill, and plain old family bonding is immeasurable.

2: TRIO building blocks

These are like a larger (and more versatile, in my opinion) version of LEGO blocks. With a more positive clicking action, and the addition of “sticks”, which allow a sort of post-and-beam style of construction in addition to regular block stacking, Trio lets you build some seriously massive stuff (our record is a model of the Burj Khalifa Tower, standing just over 12 feet tall and reaching almost to the railing of the second-floor balcony in my living room area).

But unlike Lego, Trio is quite inexpensive. It comes in various packages at Target and other stores, the best value being the general block sets, as opposed to smaller kits designed to make a specific vehicle. I will admit that our little dude is a bit of an extreme Trio Consumer, having spent quite a bit of his own allowance to boost the size of the set – we might have $100 worth of the stuff in total. But that still puts the excellent play time he’s had with it at less than $1 per hour. If you factor in the intuitive knowledge of structural design that this type of play surely provides, it is a highly profitable activity to engage in.

3: Good Old-Fashioned Board Games, Puzzles and Kits

These are a great way to entertain the whole family at once. And while the collection looks huge and cluttery, it’s still reasonably practical because it combines a bunch of games we had from before becoming parents, hand-me-downs, and gifts. Board games are a good way to deflect the Destructive Power of Generous Grandparents – instead of having them buy you things that are absolutely impractical like battery powered plastic noisemakers, you can at least channel some of the generosity into things like games and books that are actually fun to play with for more than a few seconds.

Monopoly has been an unexpectedly educational game – it forces your kid to learn to add the numbers on dice, move delicate game pieces, collect and manage money and make change, budget from limited funds, and even collect and upgrade rental properties and make trades with other players.

The Game of Life, on the other hand, is a simple lesson in Antimustachianism: Go to college – you’re automatically $100,000 in debt! Now pay for a wedding: $25,000! Buy a house and car on credit too! Everything is determined by the roll of the dice, with no personal choice, because that’s how real life is right? Bleah.

4: Books

This is an obvious one, but I have really grown to love the cozy escape that reading provides. My mom read to all of her kids much more than what I later learned was normal, and it became such a cherished part of my childhood that I always wanted to carry on the tradition.

When there’s no TV to provide passive relaxation, books become all the more comforting – it’s late in the day, and everyone is tired – too tired to draw on the whiteboard, too tired to make stuff out of trio. So you kick back on the couch and your kid(s) curl up next to you, and the book lets you float off into fantasy land for an hour or two. Blissful!

Books are another good gift deflector: I would not normally buy my own fancy shelf full of kids’ books like I have here, since all the same ones are already available at the library. But family and friends send these books, so we read them while feeling thankful to the gift giver, then eventually re-gift them to another kid or donate them to the library, sharing the fun even further.

The re-gifting thing is quite practical when attending the birthday parties of other kids: no kid really wants a used star wars battery-powered toy, since those things are usually expected to be given in new condition. But they DO enjoy receiving a gift-wrapped box set of great books, with the implicit recommendation of the friend who just finished listening to them as his parents read.

Every kid has different tastes, and even those tastes change as the child gets older. But the toys above have proven to be so golden for so long that I just had to share them with you.

Further Parenting Reading on MMM:

What is the real cost of raising children?
What to Newborn Babies Really Need? (by Mrs. MM)
Avoiding Ivy-League Preschool Syndrome 

  • rjack April 20, 2012, 6:23 am

    My kids are now longer kids (18 and 21 years old), but we used to play with those Box Blocks which were basically shoe box size boxes that looked like bricks. You could build forts, walls, and all kinds of stuff with those.

    • BobTX June 23, 2013, 12:08 am

      Those things were the bomb.

  • madge April 20, 2012, 6:33 am

    lil M’s drawing skills are insane! i totally want to live in the future he is drawing in that center one. and i love that the Q & A is part of the ritual. lovely. :)

    • Mr. Money Mustache April 20, 2012, 10:05 am

      Thanks! He was pleased to hear that you want to live in his city, “Dectillion Bridge Town”.

  • Mr. Frugal Toque April 20, 2012, 6:37 am

    This made me laugh:
    “Monopoly has been an unexpectedly educational game – it forces your kid to … collect and upgrade rental properties …”

    Battleship teaches graphing and a certain measure of spatial reasoning. So does Blokus. Chess is just heavy strategy. I notice that you’re missing Catan. Sad, that.

    Is it worth pointing out that one should avoid the version of Monopoly with the calculator “that keeps track of the money for you.” No! No! No-o-o-o!

    • El Beardo Numero Uno April 20, 2012, 9:07 am

      Agreed, Settlers of Catan is a must-have strategy game!

      • Mr. Money Mustache April 20, 2012, 10:06 am

        Cool, I have never played this “Catan” game, I’ll check it out.

        • Mr. Frugal Toque April 20, 2012, 10:14 am

          You can try it when you visit this summer. I’ll remember to have it along if we meet somewhere.
          Or you can walk out into your yard right now and shout, “Anyone want to play Settlers of Catan?” after which you will meet several boardgame inclined neighbours.

        • Jon April 20, 2012, 11:18 am

          I think you’ll love it. It’s a great game.

        • Valerie April 20, 2012, 11:53 am

          I will be playing Catan tomorrow night! Friends night in – games night at my place! I will be enjoying my homemade wine, which I was inspired to start making after one of your posts on beer making!
          Sheep for brick! Cheers

        • Baughman April 20, 2012, 12:37 pm

          Dude! Board games are the ultimate Mustachian hobby! Marginal cost of zero, low initial investment. Settlers of Catan was my gateway drug to the German strategy world of games. It is pretty freaking addicting. I own 40ish German-style games. Had a buddy who owned close to a thousand, and we bought our favorites that we played.

          Here are some of our favorites:
          Typical German strategy: Alhambra, Citadels, Factory Manager, Hansa, Hollywood Blockbuster, Ingenious, Kingsburg, Manila, Medici, Modern Art, Ra, Ricochet Robots, San Juan, Settlers of Catan

          Party style: GiftTrap, Wits & Wagers, Dixit

          Lighter: Coloretto, Five Crowns, For Sale, Hey! That’s my Fish, Incan Gold, Pack & Stack, Quiddler, Take it Easy

          http://boardgamegeek.com/ is a resource for gamers, though I don’t use it. My ultimate favorite game is ricochet robots (you can see reviews on Amazon, board game geek, or youtube). I love that game!!!! My wife and I played it every day for about a year. Totally addictive and it makes your brain tired. (admittedly, only about 15% of the people I teach it to like the game…but these people LOVE it).

          Alhambra is another classic. But Settlers is as probably as good of a place as any to start. I really like Medici too. Heck, I like all of the games we own…they are of the best investments I own.

          • Huck April 24, 2012, 10:52 am

            +1 for boardgames and for boardgamegeek.com as a resource. There are many “PnP” games (print and play) that are nearly free and quite good. Button Men (http://www.cheapass.com/sites/default/files/BMenRules.pdf) is one such game…here is an interesting post on using this game as a literature, writing, art, and math lesson (http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/393147/the-button-men-system-as-an-educational-activity). My boys 6 and 8 love to play games and my 3 year old loves to roll my dice, hold my cards, and cause the occasional earthquake in the land of Carcassone.

            The other fun toy that we all enjoy using is the GPS…we go geocaching!! This gets us outside, to places we may have never even gone to (even in our own ‘hood) and kids love finding treasure! The rule is you leave something and take something but our kids believe the rule is you leave several things and take one which helps us get rid of lots of the crappy plastic toys we seem to accumulate! Yes, the GPS was a little pricey so maybe that disqualifies this activity.

            • MooseOutFront November 22, 2013, 8:34 am

              Cool thoughts, all. Thanks for posting.

        • George Carlson April 20, 2012, 6:00 pm

          Carcassonne is also a great tile-based board game. It is like a colorful version of dominoes with some sweet twists if you add in an expansion set or two.

          Catan and Carcassonne have been my go-to games when introducing my friends to European-style board games.

          • Heath May 31, 2012, 12:08 pm

            +infinity for Carcassonne! It’s my favorite board game, and is one of the simplest to expand, if you want to spice things up. I’ve probably taught over 20 people how to play Carcassonne, and only 2 of them didn’t like it (and I’m pretty sure that’s because they couldn’t win consistently :-P).

            It’s also super awesome because it can be played with anywhere between 2 people to 6 people. And by adding/removing expansions (before playing), it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours. Seriously the most versatile game I’ve ever played!

        • Executioner April 21, 2012, 7:50 am

          +1 for the Settlers of Catan. Its only drawback (if there is one) is that it requires at least 3 players. My wife and I find ourselves wanting to play but always have to scrounge up one or two others — not a bad thing, but not always possible.

          However, it’s loads of fun. Just had a Catan gathering of 4 players at our place last night!

        • John Fiala May 2, 2012, 3:43 pm

          Hey, board games are crazy popular in Denver, and I’m sure they’re pretty popular up in boulder. I run this group: http://www.meetup.com/The-Denver-Boardgames-Meetup-Group/ and we play all sorts of great stuff.

          What’s great for you is that other people bring games they think are fun, and you get to play them for free!

      • Crazyfbs April 20, 2012, 11:28 am

        Gotta tack on Ticket to Ride here, though you might want to buy/find/photocopy the an expansion pack to get the full size cards.

        Frugal Toque
        The “Counts your money for you” bit is somewhat false advertising, yes it relieves players of the need to count and pass around cash, but I find that I still need to keep a paper copy of by money, like with a debit card or check book. Since the money supply isn’t constrained you could use the game to teach basic monetary and banking policy to older children and get them used to working with exponents. The global version also provides an introduction into basic, political, and economic geography with questions like “Where is Hong Kong?,” “Why does China have threes cities on the board?,” and “Why does Canada have three cities on the board?.”

  • Landor n Stella April 20, 2012, 6:56 am

    Another great post, MMM! We don’t have kids yet, but I’m making a note of these things and someday it will come in handy. I love the whiteboard and the pictures, what a great idea. My mom has boxes of drawings from me and my siblings, but no good way to display them, so they just clutter up her basement.

    • Travis April 20, 2012, 9:33 am

      I have two young kids and we find the plainest things can be turned into toys. For example,

      * A big paper bag with handles that he can jump around in
      * A large ball of crumpled paper which is a boulder he can toss like a strong man
      * A box from a car seat that we cut a hole in and is now his rocket ship
      * We got a play kitchen for free and save our pasta boxes, egg cartons, etc for his kitchen
      * A folded up piece of paper like a fan which he finds all sorts of uses for
      * A small fish tank net that he uses to act like a diver and fish with
      *Toilet Paper rolls taped together as binoculars
      * Paper towel roll taped to a paper plate as a “candle” to jump over

      We have lots of toys for our kids that we paid very little for or even nothing at all. Just a matter of being creative.

  • Andrea April 20, 2012, 7:31 am

    My kids loved Play-Doh. Just get a sleeve of assorted colors ($3). Forget the Play-Doh play sets. Get out your own baking supplies and give those to them, instead. Rolling pin, cookie cutters, muffin tin, plastic butter knife, bread pan, etc. It is good for a couple of hours every time!

  • Heather April 20, 2012, 7:55 am

    I’d like to add our favorites to the list:
    – Sandbox.

    – Bike

    – paint and paper. We’ve had a few fun sessions where everyone in the family gets painting. It’s been a long time since I’ve tried to paint anything, and I can see there’s a lot of room for development for me here.

    – Storytelling: I started telling my son made-up bedtime stories with the lights out, as a way to get him settled more quickly. After a few sessions I discovered to my complete surprise, that I was good at it. My husband even comes to listen sometimes. Now my son keeps interrupting to add his plot twists to the story. Sometimes he makes up stories for me now, or re-tells to me stories that my husband made up. It has to be good.

    • Mr. Money Mustache April 20, 2012, 10:08 am

      Oh, you are lucky to discover you have storytelling built in! I discovered the opposite – even though I like writing about things that really happened, my mind goes blank when asked to come up with a fantasy story for kids.

      • Heather April 20, 2012, 11:47 am

        Just get little MM to give you three things to put in the story, then start talking. I usually don’t know what happens in advance either. I’m as surprised as anyone if the whole plot just works out. Sometimes they completely disintegrate, but my audience is very forgiving.

      • Moonwaves April 17, 2014, 4:40 am

        I haven’t read to the end of the comments yet so perhaps someone has already mentioned it but you could try out Rory’s Story Cubes. I think they’re great and my niece definitely thought they were one of the best presents I had every brought her. I even bought some for myself when I decided to attempt the 3-day-novel competition last year. Didn’t help much, but was lots of fun. https://www.storycubes.com/

  • bogart April 20, 2012, 8:15 am

    You have neglected the best inexpensive toy of all: the giant cardboard box! (Or a modest collection of medium-sized cardboard boxes). We got months of use (play) out of the box-the-dishwasher-was-delivered in.

    An assortment of balls (we do allow play in the house as well, of course, as out, but within certain rules — basically, dropping and kicking are OK, throwing is not, bouncing is allowed if the ball is not TOO bouncy; this is probably easier/safer-for-our-possessions given that we have just 1 kid; YMMV).

    Small items that have proven remarkably useful are magazines/newpaper inserts + a pair of scissors, DS enjoys cutting out images and grouping them; and of course, cardboard tubes — from toilet paper or paper towel rolls, that can be used as ‘telescopes’ and building tools, among other things.

    A bathtub full of water and some bath toys (which might be 2 plastic cups, an old soda bottle, and a cork) (and with age-appropriate supervision of course).

    • Mrs. Money Mustache April 20, 2012, 8:45 am

      Yeah, it should be added that all other activities that are not outdoors involve IMAGINATION!! I agree that cardboard boxes are excellent (just look up Caine’s Arcade for an awesome example of that!).

      Big hits inside that don’t involve actual toys are: play fighting (usually MMM or I get hurt though), dancing, making forts, creating elaborate videos, inventing games, playing “time machine” (we go back in time in the van and when we come out everything is new and amazing and we go through the whole house while little MM explains this strange new world), playing in the car, acting out games invented at school, making music, cutting magazines and making art, painting, etc… you get the point. A lot of time is spent making things as well using various supplies. Toilet paper rolls all turn into “crispy sides”, MMMs tools and carpentry supplies get used to make metal robots, wooden boats, or slingshots. One time little MM was very quiet upstairs and when we came up he had made a book wall out of all the books in our house at the top of the stairs. It was taller than him!

      Outside there’s too much to even mention.

      Every kid is different of course, but it does seem that very few toys end up being big hits with a child and the rest of the toys just sit around and create clutter.

      So, yeah, this article only mentions traditional toys that were actually purchased at a store. :)

      • Dancedancekj April 20, 2012, 10:11 am

        I firmly believe that fostering creativity with playtime is part of what allowed my success later in life. I wanted to make all sorts of things, but my parents didn’t buy any of the fancy toys. They did have a plethora of paper, crayons, markers, colored pencils, scissors, tape, glue, toilet paper, brown paper bags, toilet paper rolls, egg cartons, and all sorts of household items that could be used to create all sorts of different things. I like to think this allowed me to hone my ability in drawing, sculpting, construction, design, manual dexterity, and project management :)

        My brother felt deprived we didn’t have TV or gaming systems even to this day.

      • bogart April 21, 2012, 7:39 pm

        Thanks Mrs. MM — I missed that detail in my first read-through (that these are toys that were purchased, though inexpensively).

    • Erik Y April 20, 2012, 10:21 am

      Plus one on the big cardboard box. Free to get, hours of fun, and you can put it in the recycle bin after. Add some markers, crayons, tape etc. And our kids have built fantastic box worlds. The teens usually get in on the act too, helping out the little ones.

  • Erik Y April 20, 2012, 8:19 am

    I’ve got a set of wooden blocks from when I was a kid. All of my crew have loved playing with them, and they will probably keep bring enjoyment for decades and generations to come.

  • Stavros April 20, 2012, 8:43 am

    Awesome ideas, you just motivated me to start reading ‘regular’ books to my newly minted 4-year old. Any recommendations? I don’t want something too heady and long as I don’t think he’ll sit through, but would love to get a story that is prolonged over many readings and has some level of depth to it. I was thinking Harry Potter, but may be a bit too deep.

    Also think I’m going to bring my unused whiteboard up from my basement office into the playroom!

    • Amy April 20, 2012, 10:47 am

      Get thee to the nearest library – you should be able to find age appropriate kids books there. I bet a librarian staffing the kids section would be a wealth of knowledge regarding titles and authors.
      I don’t know if this will work for a 4 year old, but I know that my sister and her DH read their children (ages 1.5 – 11) books like Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings.
      I grew up on those and little house on the praire, little women and a few of the ‘tear jerkers’ (the yearling for example) as well.
      There’s lots of good stories out there. I hope you get the reading tradition going!

    • shanendoah@the dog ate my wallet April 20, 2012, 12:21 pm

      My parents read to us from a very young age. Hits were Choose Your Own Adventure books, also The Phatom Tollbooth, and a much less famous book called Key to the Treasure by Peggy Parish- it started a tradition of my aunt hiding little gifts for my brother and I every day, but we had to follow the clues to find them.

    • Crazyfbs April 20, 2012, 12:48 pm

      The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
      Any Redwall book, Brian Jaques, you may want to read through them first, but they split up easily and feature poems, songs, and recipes
      The Boxcar Children series
      The Merlin series by T. A. Barron
      Something by Jules Verne or one of the older Sci-Fi authors
      You can usually find anthologies in odd places, like mythology and sci-fi/fantasy sections, they usually have a bunch of good stories in them, most bookstores seem to have a “Year’s best” for sale at any point

      Also I’ve heard that David and the Phoenix is pretty good but I’ve never read it myself.

      Definitely hit up a children’s or youth or young adult section of a library, just browsing can help you find some good ones.

    • Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple April 20, 2012, 2:38 pm

      I think Harry Potter is a bit deep. It’s a bit deep for my 6 year old too.

      The Boxcar children, yes. And the Magic Tree House series.

      We started with Charlotte’s Web, the Secret Garden, and Oliver Twist (which I had to “clean up” as I went along).

    • Mrs. Money Mustache April 20, 2012, 5:35 pm

      We actually read the Harry Potter series up to book 3 only (books 4-6 were too much at the time) to our son when he was 4. He can sit through some pretty big books.

      The biggest hits have been Harry Potter, The Neverending Story, The Hobbit (we haven’t done the Lord of the Rings yet), Gregor the Overlander, the Percy Jackson Series, Ender’s Game (!!), and this latest bat adventure that we’re reading called Silverwing and Firewing.

      Surprisingly, he also enjoyed Watership Down and Wildwood which were longer and had more complicated language.

      I really like Cornelia Funke, but MMM is not a fan of the writing style. We read a bunch of her books. The Invention of Hugo Cabret was also a really fun read, but I remember thinking it felt a bit creepy at first. But, it turned out great.

      I wish my library kept track of all the books we’ve checked out. The Magic Tree House and the Boxcar Children would probably be good for a 4 year old, but they get a bit boring to read after about 4-5 books, but they are pretty educational. We enjoyed the Choose your Own Adventure books a little, but often the stories aren’t that great. We also read the Monster’s Ring, but again, some of the other books in that series were a bit disappointing.

      EDIT: I just found my list of books! Here are the ones I didn’t mention for those interested: Dragon Rider, The Magician’s Elephant, MoonGobble and Me, Stuart Little, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Charlotte’s Web, James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

      The last few would probably be great for a 4 year old. And, if you haven’t read any Bill Peet books yet, you definitely should! The Caboose Who Got Loose was one of our favorites for a long time.

      • T-Lou April 20, 2012, 7:19 pm

        I too read all of the Harry Potter books to my kids – I think I started when my girls were about 5 and 6 and ended as they were almost teenagers, well able to read on there own.

        I had forgotten about the Kenneth Oppel bat series. Kenneth Oppel rocks! After reading all three of the bat books to my girls we discovered 2 other books of his, set in the future, called Airborne and Skybreaker. My google search shows it’s actually a trilogy, but I’ve only read the 1st two.I was skeptical when my nephew reported that the Airborne books were better than the bat series, but had to agree after reading them both. As much as we all loved them – even more magical for boys than girls I expect – replete with made up dangerous creatures and pirates.

        • Mr. Money Mustache April 21, 2012, 6:53 am

          Wow! Thanks T-Lou – in that case I’m really excited about the Airborne/Skybreaker series.

          All three of us are finding that these Kenneth Oppel books are some of the best kid books around. Better than most of the other authors, just in sheer interestingness and writing quality.

          For example, we read the entire Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, and it was good enough for him to enjoy, but sometimes felt like a long forced slog through a bunch of dull adventures. Especially when he tried to get into detailed historical plot points with a bunch of confusing greek god names instead of action. But this Oppel dude actually makes the bats into characters you care about, and the concepts and adventures they go through are just plain awesome.

          • Hanah April 21, 2012, 7:12 am

            Second The Railway Children by E Nesbit. She has some other terrific books too: Five Children and It jumps to mind. Also the Moomintroll series by Tove Jannson. The latter is little known outside of Europe but totally delightful for adults as well as kids.

          • T-Lou April 21, 2012, 10:11 am

            My youngest daughter agrees with you on the Percy Jackson series. She enjoyed them but is a big fan of Greek mythology. She reports they would get dull at times if you don’t know something about Greek mythology and like that sort of stuff.

          • BobTX June 23, 2013, 12:21 am

            No clue if you’ll ever see this, but you might check out the “Freddy the Pig” series of books (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freddy_the_Pig). I absolutely adored them at your son’s age. When I taught 4th and 5th grade for a while before a career switch (ecology and evolutionary biology now), my students liked them quite a bit too.

      • The Roamer September 14, 2014, 5:03 pm

        We read a lot to our son too. Specially as a night time routine buy lately I’ve realized we are reading at all times of the day. He’s even gotten interested in some books he didn’t much like before… Winne the pooh the classic series.

        I am so excited to start sharing harry potter with him but I think he’s a but young still. We have also read James and the giant peach and he really likes that.

        I recently clean out some clutter and found a book series I was really a fan of growing up. The time warp trio. They’re silly but he loves then and I’m glad to be able to share something I use to like. Have you read the stinky cheese man? Same author as time warp trio. Also really silly!

  • October MacBain April 20, 2012, 8:51 am

    If I ever have to buy a present for a child, I’m totally getting them a white board and a set of markers. What an excellent, excellent idea!

  • Jen April 20, 2012, 9:17 am

    I was also gonna comment on little MMM’s drawing skills – amazing!!! How old is he?

    Was interesting to learn about TRIO building blocks – never heard of those before. My kids have a huge pile of Lego, and it is the best toy we have – keeps them busy for hours (well, maybe not that long :). The best part is that the pieces are virtually indestructible and retain their resale value. I bought them used on eBay and planning on reselling several years later without much depreciation.

  • Monevator April 20, 2012, 9:39 am

    As your kids get older, you might want to try some of the newer fancier board games on them.

    My top recommendations are Settlers of Catan and the very new Revolution.

    Neither are hard to learn, and they have a lot of subtle depth.

  • Travis April 20, 2012, 9:41 am

    We also make extensive use of Freecycle.org and have gotten for free:

    * Worth or trains and tracks Brio/Thomas brand (Retail value ~$100)
    * Play kitchen w/BBQ on one side & kitchen on the other (Retail value ~50)
    * Lego table and Legos (Retail value ~$50-$75)
    * Kids outdoor slide (Retail value ~$30)

    Not too mention everything else we get from there including clothes (Adult/Children), furniture, specialty baking pans, portable dishwasher, strollers, lawn mowers.

    My point being even expensive toys and items can often be found for free if you’re willing to look.

  • Sarah April 20, 2012, 10:06 am

    This is an awesome collection! My daughter is 16 months old and already loves scribbling on our DIY whiteboard/calendar/organizer. :)

  • Lindsey April 20, 2012, 10:16 am

    I love the whiteboard idea, and what a creative lil’ MM you have – those cities look pretty amazing! Such a shame that the ability to just imagine those completly fantastical worlds in our heads seems to degrade as we get older (or is that just me? I guess the daily grind slowly robs you of any imagination after a few years!)

    One of the best childrens gift ideas I’ve come across is getting hold of the biggest cardboard box that you can, filling it with blown up balloons and then covering it with assorted wrapping. Did this for my cousins 3rd birthday party and the look on her little face, well it was the look of pure joy only a child can have at the thought of the potential of a giant box…and of course all the impending mess!

  • Joe April 20, 2012, 10:24 am

    I think my (soon to be) five year old is a Mustachian in the making. Farther along than me!! He has WAY too many toys (mostly gifts), but the only ones he bothers with on a regular basis are the exact ones you talk about here.

    His grandparents think my wife and I are nuts when we simply shrug when asked the question “what does he want for (insert holiday here)?” Especially so when we suggested Post-It notes as a gift for him. He LOVES playing with them. Making signs, pictures out of them.

    He amazes me with his simplicity. I love it.

  • Jon April 20, 2012, 11:24 am

    These four things aren’t just for kids; they’re the typical things that engineers like to play with! Especially #1. That’s all I do all day. Just write on my whiteboard, lol.

  • Nurse Frugal April 20, 2012, 11:24 am

    I love the whiteboard and colored markers idea!! It’s incredible how inexpensive that can be and how many hours of entertainment that can provide. I remember growing up playing board games with my parents. It’s so sad how that culture has seem to go by the wayside and has been replaced with countless hours on the TV, internet and video games. My favorite is your book collection……those Harry Potter books are awesome!

  • Shanna April 20, 2012, 11:33 am

    Whiteboard, two 36 by 48 inch ones side by side on the wall for 4 kids. We could probably have even bigger since the 14 month old is starting to hog a little.

    My first daughter once played with two wooden dowels taped together for 9 hours. She ate food but spent the entire day making new faces to tape on and entire wardrobes etc.

    We have some mad artists around here, maybe I could influence them toward welding art so at least they could make money ;)

  • Monica April 20, 2012, 11:37 am

    Great ideas MMM – When I taught preschool, the games and toys that I created, along with simple wooden blocks and Legos were the most popular. We actually had to get more whiteboards and markers because the kids would argue over who could use them! Glad you have the classic Monopoly game, I saw one that has a credit card now, couldn’t believe my eyes! Great post!

  • Tim Stobbs April 20, 2012, 12:20 pm

    An idea to add: caulk board paint (sorry I can’t recall the price, but you only need a little can of it). Just add some tape to a wall, two coats of paint and you know have a huge caulk board for the kids to play on. Just don’t put it in an area with carpet as you will have to wipe up some very colourful dust from the floor.

    My wife’s daycare kids love drawing on it. The older ones also do letters, numbers on it and teach the little ones. As an added bonus it forces kids to use the proper grip for holding a pencil. Ironically this was suggested to us by a professional for our oldest son to help correct his grip.

    I also second just plan old colour building blocks…I’ve done some very impressive towers with the kids using those. Thanks for the ideas MMM family!

    • Llama April 20, 2012, 12:36 pm

      Chalk board paint is $10/ quart at the Depot, and now they have a brand that can be color tinted.

      I’ve been wanting to paint the pantry front with it for notes and lists, but I’m told that’s “tacky.” What evs.

      • kathryn August 31, 2014, 9:04 am

        As a compromise, maybe paint the interior of the pantry door?

  • Gob April 20, 2012, 12:21 pm

    My brothers and I used to spend about a month building forts/bases and having mini battles with our Halloween candy (lolly-pops were cannons etc.). This encouraged us to ration our consumption of the candy as everything we ate was one less toy to play with. Needless to say my parents were pretty happy with this arrangement.

  • shanendoah@the dog ate my wallet April 20, 2012, 12:27 pm

    I love the idea of the white board. I also love TIm’s idea of chalk board paint in the room.
    I’d never heard of Trio, but I grew up with Brick Blocks- basically red and white, cheaper plastic, fewer shapes than Lego, but we made everything from houses to ships out of them. We used to build ships and then have rubber band wars with my father to see who could destroy whose ship faster.
    This post was perfect fo me right now, as my husband and I are in the adoption process and one of the things we’ve talked about is not wanting to use the TV as a babysitter. While we have TVs in the house, it’s not something we want to expose our child to on a regular basis, so having great ideas like these is really helpful.

  • Michelle April 20, 2012, 1:42 pm

    We love TRIO blocks too and tell everyone we know with kids about them. We bought some for my son when he was 3.5 during a relocation and now, two years later, they still get played with every.single.day. We’ve added additional sets with gifts and closeouts. We have Lego toys too, but the large scale building that TRIO allows make it more fun. I wish they had better publicity because they are great! When we do buy Lego we prefer the Creator series of sets because you get plans to make 3 things for one kit – a little more bang for the buck and no annoying branding.

    Our wooden blocks are also an everyday favorite. Not necessarily cheap but a good value considering the amount of play. Lester Walker’s book _Block Building with Children_ has amazing ideas for a very basic set of unit blocks. With a few matchbox cars and plastic animals you can have a lot of fun.

    Sometimes I let me son pick out a toy from the dollar store when we drop in. He almost always goes for the bag of decorative rocks or colored glass beads from the craft section. He calls them “jewels” and uses them to create various scenes or to decorate his wooden block castles. I always figured I was doing something right if my kid would rather have a bag of rocks than just about anything else.

  • Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple April 20, 2012, 2:34 pm

    These are awesome ideas. My kid loves building with legos. We use legos because my hubby is 1/2 Danish and his mom saved (and sent) all the legos he had as a kid. Plus the family gets him a lot of legos as gifts. We enjoy building the ones with instructions but also love being creative.

    he also loves to draw too and will occasionally use the whiteboard. But mostly it’s pencils and crayons – we have so much scrap paper from junk mail and school where we can draw on the back.

    Board games are great…I try to make him be the bank for Monopoly sometimes.

    And I second the cardboard box. We had a big one last year and he took his pillow, blanket, and bowl in there and made his own “house”. It was hilarious.

    Of course books too. We are reading the Tree House series. Although they are getting pretty deep. Last night I just finished the one about the Titanic, which does not have a happy ending.

    Ah, 6 year olds are adorable.

  • LadyMaier April 20, 2012, 2:55 pm

    Two Words: Couch. Fort. :)

    • Gerard April 20, 2012, 3:28 pm

      Engineers like those, too.

      • Debbie M April 20, 2012, 9:25 pm

        And non-engineers.

  • Susan April 20, 2012, 4:56 pm

    oh my gosh, this brought back some childhood memories. Yeah, the Atari and LEGO were great, but my two favorites that my friend and I spent hours with: a giant, thick paper tube used to roll carpeting around (at least 6 feet long), propped up on an ottoman, with a lobster-shaped aspic pan at the bottom, and a giant container of marbles. We rolled marbles and toy cars down that tube, and they made a weird sound as they moved down the tube that would send us into fits of laughter. The tube also made a great didgeridoo.
    And the other thing was a roll of cap-gun caps from the local dime store and two ball-peen hammers. We sat outside in the concrete driveway and hammered them. (I guess not a good idea if you have neighbors very close by.)
    Yeah, a little weird, but fun.

  • Jim Kohnman April 20, 2012, 6:22 pm

    When my daughter was 3 or 4 we got a game of “Trouble” to help her learn to count. We’ve all played that game do much eventually we had to replace it because we could no longer read the dice in the “pop-o-matic”. It’s hooked most of our family members and goes on any camping vacation. Not bad for $8. She’s 15 now, and we are STILL playing that game.

  • Chris April 20, 2012, 7:17 pm

    No TV. Amazing concept. It sickens me a bit when I’m out in public and see parents babysitting their kids with IPADS/videos. Maybe I’ll eat my words, but I really hate that concept. You can’t go wrong with Monopoly and Legos!

    • Mr. Money Mustache April 21, 2012, 6:59 am

      I thing I have a bit of sympathy for the parents who give their kids gadget-based entertainment when they are out in public trying to get something done like groceries or a long drive. At least, if it’s done as a last resort. Obviously it’s better to have everyone involved in the same thing together, but sometimes with multiple kids or a single parent I can see how they would feel they need help.

      On the other hand, good entertainment is much easier to do at home. If you have no TV, and your kids end up briefly bored, there’s nobody around to hear the trouble. Then they’ll be forced to take up new hobbies and all will be well.

      Little MM woke up early with me today – he’s sitting next to me drawing a futuristic city in yellow highlighter while he very kindly lets me type this :-)

      • Ana April 21, 2012, 10:13 am

        Um, yeah, there’s a BIG difference between taking the kids out and handing them something electronic and staying home and what they do there. My Ipod has been invaluable for trips out – especially when we get stuck in line or waiting at a restaurant far longer than they have patience for. Both my 4 and 7 year old are pretty good at sharing it, and while their heads are bent over it, I can deal with whatever situation has arisen – plus, I don’t have to deal with dirty looks at us when the kids are restless. At home, they rarely play with it, which also increases its value when we are out.

        Also, the thought of juggling Monopoly or Legos on a four hour plane trip is sort of horrifying…

  • Fawn April 20, 2012, 8:13 pm

    Ahhhh, Mr & Mrs MMM, a topic very dear to my heart. Let me introduce you to my four chidren (now ages 29, 17, 16, 13.) No TV for most of the past 30 years.
    DS #1: wood blocks and legos “OK.” Took him to a (free) minor league baseball game when he was 3 yrs old. At 4 yrs T-ball, at 8 years 2 leagues each summer, regionals in high school, baseball scholarship to college and now is a university baseball coach/recruiter.
    DD: Read Harry Potter (with some assistance) at age 5. Read every book in the library (I only exagerate a smidge) by age 14. Rides her bike to school and ultimate frisbee every day. Is making her own duct tape prom dress. Made or contributed to 3 feature length film by age 16. Plays clarinet and alto saxophone. Very well.
    DS#2: Has never gotten a grade less than a A…though he did spend the first week of first grade under his desk. Bless Mrs Gebhart, she let him stay there as he felt safe and was paying attention. He runs the high school Improv Troupe. He went to state running track (4 x 800) as a freshman, may return this year as a sophomore. Plays alto and bari saxophone very well, several awards. He is flat out the funniest person I know.
    DS#3: Spent most of preschool and elementary school in the principal’s office for misbehavior/bulling. I bought him a leash when he ran into traffic to at about age 2 years to defy me. Fast forward to middle school: some brilliant teacher made him the “weatherman” in the daily announcements and he has a following of girls that write on his arms and invite him to parties, boys that he plays on-line games with and another set he plays music with (he plays drums-random other percussion- and electric guitar).

    My only advice for other parents is:
    1) get rid of the TV
    2) try different things and see what your kid(s) like.
    3) make sacrifices, if neccessary, to keep them doing what excites them.

    As an aside–none of us like Monoploy or other board games. Meh. DS #2 & DS#3 both LOVE Legos. Although their dad has a farm….NOBODY wants a pony.

    My kids are the most fun I have ever had…and they know it.

    • kathryn August 31, 2014, 9:14 am

      One of my daughter’s friends was not permitted tv in their home. It used to drive my daughter crazy when the friend came over to our house. All the friend wanted to do was watch tv.

      Nothing wrong with tv. It allows people to see other situations, where they may rarely have that opportunity.
      Not everything needs to be ‘educational’. People can still learn, under the guise of entertainment.
      To me it’s similar to home schooling or private schools. For the child, they don’t have the opportunity to interact with a whole range of personalities.

  • lurker April 21, 2012, 7:02 am

    I so miss reading aloud to my kids. Those were such great times for all of us.
    We also had books on tape from the library for long car rides when they were little. Of those, my favorite was EB White reading his own Charlotte’s Web. God I love books! Thanks MMM

  • Joe @ Retire By 40 April 21, 2012, 7:20 am

    Great tips MMM. Our kid is only a year old and we do need to keep a look out for future toys. I like the white board and the trio blocks. They seems like a great creative outlet for your kid.
    I don’t know if we can get rid of the TV. We like our dose of daily Jeopardy and a bit of local news.

  • Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple April 21, 2012, 8:16 am

    I wanted to add – I LOVE the idea of taking pictures of his artwork!! I can’t believe I didn’t think of that. We have a HUGE pile of art sent home from school (and we’ve culled it quite a bit) and I feel a bit of guilt whenever I throw something out. Now I just need to digitize it!

  • RiskyStartup.com April 21, 2012, 8:41 am

    My wife is a home-made sensory-bin type mother. She did amazing work with things like egg cartons, dry-pasta, popsicle sticks, cardboard boxes…

    One of the son’s favourites is the big Tupperware filled pasta (or other one with rice) used in conjunction with sandbox toys. It is like a sandbox for your house (perfect for long winters too). Total cost could not have been more than $20 for everything ($12 Tupperware from Walmart, $5 in toys, $3 in pasta…) and our boy plays with it for hours. My wife makes up games with it too – hiding small toys to be found, even eggs for Easter.

  • George April 22, 2012, 11:26 am

    We have a baby on the way. So far, I have checked out the thrift shops (i.e. Goodwill or Community Aid) and they have all kinds of really good toys for only about 5-10% of the new retail price. They have toys like boardgames, books, DVDs, and blocks for different age groups. Garage sales are also a good place to look.

    Most of this stuff people will probably use for about 5 years at most, then the child outgrows them. Thus, there is a large amount of used toys available.

    After our child outgrows the toys we got so far, we will donate them right back to the same thrift shop so that someone can enjoy them.

  • Jamie April 23, 2012, 3:39 pm

    We have a ten year old son and one of our favorite “free” toys for our son are broken electronics that are beyond repair. When a coffee maker or DVD player dies we give it to our son to take apart. He has spent hours and hours in the garage with my husband dismantling them, it builds dexterity in his hands, he learns how to use tools and which are the best to use, he see how things are made and how they work whether it be mechanical or electrical and the best part is, I take any left-over piece that catch my eye and use in my mixed media art.

    • Gus April 24, 2012, 11:12 am

      One word of advice regarding letting younger ones play with discarded electronic: Please be aware that some processes in the manufacture of those products use pretty nasty chemicals and heavy metals. Sometimes those elements can be found (in trace amount) on the surface of the inside components.

      Making sure to wash his hands after and a strict “no eating” while working policy would likely reduce any potential risks.

  • 4TheUser May 1, 2012, 9:59 am

    My kids played with 2 of those cheap wooden paint stir sticks for almost 3 hours yesterday. We are painting our hallway and got a stick with each gallon. They immediately took them from the guy at the store and then played lightsaber battle and about 5 other games with them all afternoon.

  • John Fiala May 2, 2012, 3:48 pm

    My kid’s only eight or nine months old now, and she gets a ton of excitement and fun out a simple baloon or ball…. both of which are toys that are crazy inexpensive and last a while.. I got her a mylar balloon last Easter that still floats.

  • Heath May 31, 2012, 12:42 pm

    Great toys that I played with excessively as a kid: Legos (though now they’re wicked expensive), and wooden blocks. The blocks were seriously awesome. Just different shaped bricks of well polished wood. Much bigger than standard kids ‘building’ materials, and thus much more satisfying to collapse those ‘castles’ :-) (but also much easier to smash fingers and or beat people with…)

    I also very much loved Shel Silverstein poetry books (Where The Sidewalk End, and A Light In The Attic, and Falling Upward), and my collection of Calvin and Hobbes. Those are DEFINITELY going to be shared with my future kid(s).

    I’m also going to throw this out there: nature. I know you covered this a few posts ago, and it’s time I agree with you wholeheartedly. I never found a single toy more awesome than going outside and playing. My imagination, combined with my dad who taught me the basics of biology and astronomy, and plenty of science-fiction… I had such a blast!!

  • Georgia July 28, 2012, 8:09 am

    I don’t think anyone else has mentioned this game yet: Set. http://www.amazon.com/SET-Enterprises-100-Set/dp/B00000IV34
    It’s a seemingly simple, but in fact quite challenging card game requiring counting, color recognition, shape recognition, and pattern recognition.

  • anonymous August 31, 2012, 12:12 am

    Legos are actually quite inexpensive if you buy the right ones.

    The LEGO “sets” designed to build some particular thing pictured on the box are quite pricey (especially the co-branded ones like Star Wars or Harry Potter), and come with a pile of specialized pieces you can’t use for much else, and they encourage the “kit” mentality where you leave something built rather than assembling something else.

    However, a giant bin of bricks costs much less, and even less if purchased used (common since so many kids seem to mysteriously lose either the free time or inclination to play with Lego when they turn into adults).

  • Hanne van Essen September 11, 2012, 6:08 am

    A really cheap fun toy is printing out papercraft models and building them. Hours and hours of cutting and gluing fun! A good site is: http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/1006/
    There is something there for every kid. Cute animals that can be built in an hour, to complex dinosaurs, boats or airplanes that will take weeks. I have built whole cities with my kids and nephews. All you need is some paper, scissors, glue and a printer. The city we usually printed out in black in white, and the kids colored them first.

  • Mark July 3, 2013, 8:08 am

    I mean this as a genuine question from a non-parent.
    With no TV at all, do you find that your child feels that he is missing out?
    I can understand the idea of reducing TV watching hours, but I wonder whether no TV means that when he goes to school and all his friends watched some TV programme last night and are talking about it, or when some reference is made to a TV character or celebrity etc. and he doesn’t know what they are talking about, whether this makes bonding with the other children more difficult for him?

  • fruGAL July 15, 2013, 3:51 pm

    Even WIRED admits that the latest expensive gadgets are not required in order for kids to have fun. In a 2011 article, the 5 best toys of all time are listed as:

    1) stick,
    2) box,
    3) string,
    4) cardboard tube, and
    5) dirt.

    http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2011/01/the-5-best-toys-of-all-time/5/. I dig it.

  • kirsty November 6, 2013, 4:16 am

    Sometimes there’s no room for large cardboard boxes but i found that old sheets and pegs make great dens and they’re different every time you make them Then you have to furnish the inside and when all thats done make a small picnic to eat inside the den. This normally takes half a day.
    Also make your own musical instruments ie two pan lids for cymbals, wooden spoons and pots for drums,drinking glasses and spoons for bells. Also glue and scraps of material, paper etc for making collages.

  • Her Grace the Duchess of Kneale February 8, 2014, 4:57 am

    Several years ago Christmas fell in between the time we bought our new house and sold our old house (two months of crushing debt). That year I had literally ten dollars for Christmas.

    So I went to a second-hand shop and explained how I only had ten dollars for Christmas, what was their recommendation for a couple of kids. Coincidentally, they’d just received a donation of a whole lotta classic board games: Monopoly, Cluedo, Risk (bilingual from Canada!) and more. Plenty more.

    They told me I could have the lot for ten dollars. Bless their furry little souls!

    Best. Christmas. EVAR!! We spent the next six weeks indulging in fun board games. The kids never grew bored. (Note: this was also the Australian Summer Holidays; school didn’t start until February.)

    Several years later (and with one year left on our mortgage at current paying-off rates {g}) we’re still playing those board games.

  • Deben June 8, 2014, 3:54 pm

    Modelling clay was the longest-lasting toy that I had as a kid. These were oil-based and don’t dry out. They come in many colors and are easier to separate when you are done with a project. They cannot be fired or hardened. Because they are oil-based, you can make some neat water-work sculptures.

  • Kristin September 27, 2014, 12:24 pm

    I’ve been reading along in order from the beginning for a little over a month. I meant to wait until I caught up to say anything, but it might be awhile. I’ve been making little changes along the way, getting better with my bicycle, packing my lunch, looking into some of the retirement and investment suggestions, etc.

    Anyway, I wanted to suggest a picture book to find in your library: _Anno’s Magic Seeds_. It’s the math-filled story of a man who realizes he can become rich by investing his magic seeds instead of using them to live on for the short term. http://smile.amazon.com/Annos-Magic-Seeds-Paperstar-Book/dp/0698116186/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1411842149&sr=8-1&keywords=anno+magic+seeds

  • Joe Average March 25, 2015, 10:07 am

    For slightly older children: Elenco’s Electronics Project Labs. They make different versions – 150 in 1, 200 in 1, 300 in 1. Everything is included that you need to build those 300 different electronics kits. Unlike the chemistry sets, you don’t consume any supplies so the kit is just as useful 20 years in the future as it is now. You might want to buy a 22AWG spool of wire if you start losing the little jumper wires but you can get those spools of wire everywhere, even locally (Radio shack). I had one growing up and then a few years ago bought our kids three of them from eBay for less than $45. We’ve had some fun with them. Taught me troubleshooting which has served me very well over the years.

    The other toy I would recommend is an Erector Set. Used. I bought three vintage sets on eBay for cheap. You might need a box of screws and nuts but these can be purchased easily and cheaply from a myriad of locations. Just figure out what size the original screws were (#6 perhaps) and match the nut threads. The big box hardware stores will likely charge a premium for five screws and five nuts at a time but better places sell them for similar prices @ 100 pcs per box. McMaster-Carr or Fastenal are two examples. If you can understand finance then sourcing hardware is no big deal.

    Third idea: model cars. These are the static models – not R/C. Buy them NOS on eBay or discounted from craft stores. Full retail prices can get pretty rich. We have a craft store here that has sales every week. I have just waited for the sale to rotate around and cover the model car section. 50% off sometimes. I spent a week building some of those kits when I was a kid in the summer. Taught me attention to detail. Wanted the end result to be as real as possible.

    lastly – don’t under estimate the power of a scrap of wood, some finishing nails, and a hammer. I was always playing with my grandfather’s wood working tools growing up. He had a crank drill. Hammers. Screw drivers. Drawers full of recycled hardware and plenty of wood scraps. A piece of 120 or 220 grit sand paper was a hoot. How smooth could I make it? He also always had plenty of paste glue around which was non-toxic and fun to peel off kid fingers.

  • roselyn August 5, 2015, 12:18 am

    Hi, there are so many comments so I don’t know if someone already mention Mancala, my kids love this board game!!! You can even make one with an empty dozen-egg carton and some stones from the yard!! Teach you counting and strategies to get more stones to win!!! there are electronic versions if you want to check it out now!!!


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