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It is inevitable. You spend a small fortune kitting your child out with the very best toys and all he or she wants to play with is the pots and pans, sticky tape, an old crushed cardboard box and some string. So what are you going to do? Well, firstly, stop spending a fortune on toys! You and your preschooler can make some great toys for next to nothing, and not only will you save money (which you'll need later when they start school and through peer pressure and advertisements develop a "need" for specific and expensive brandnames), but you can make the process of creating the toys part of the fun and learning process. Here are some great toy ideas which are nearly free, very easy to make and practically guaranteed to get more play and offer more of an educational benefit (especially if you let your preschooler help with the process) than the fanciest developmentally oriented purchases.

1. Squash Ball: take a balloon and cut off the thin edge where you blow it up. Put in about 8 Tablespoons of birdseed (we use chicken food since we have it handy and it works well). Tie off the end. Take another balloon of a different colour, cut of the thin edge and make a few holes in the body (just small ones). Pull it over the first balloon so that the tied end is covered and the colour of the first balloon peeks through the holes. That's it! You can squeeze, bounce or roll your ball around. It is a great stress reliever for adults too and good for small Father's Day presents or stocking stuffers.

2. Balloon pump and fly: Balloons are great to have on hand (from age 2, since younger children can choke on balloons that aren't blown up or that burst). You can buy a big pack for very little money and they have a ton of uses. One activity that we like is to use a hand pump (great exercise for young children's arms) and attach the balloon to it. Then have the child blow up the balloon using the pump, and be ready to remove it quickly, as they will deflate as soon as the pumping stops. Then give the balloon to your preschooler and have them let the balloon go. It will fly all over the room until all the air is out. You might be surprised at how long this game will last and how much pleasure they will get from it. This is fun for a young (@3 years old) party game too.

3. Papier Mache: One more balloon craft. Blow up a balloon. Make a paste from flour and water (about the consistency of thin pancake batter). Tear up a newspaper into small pieces, and then dip the newspaper into the paste and put on the balloon until the whole balloon is covered with several layers of newspaper, leaving an open bit at the bottom where you tie up the balloon. Then let the thing dry for a few days. Once dry, reach in with a pin and pop the balloon, and your children can paint it. They can do animals or just colours - anything. When dry, you can fill with candy/lollies/sweets and hang up for a pinata, or the children can just play with it. Note that the newspaper and paste part is very messy activity and requires parental supervision and an easy to clean surface. The paste cleans off surfaces and hands pretty easily though with a soapy sponge.

4. While we're on the topic of flour and water, there is always that old standby play-doh. Children love making their own, especially if you let them add the food colouring and it is very cheap and just as the bought thing, plus you can make it really special with a few additions. Just mix a cup of white flour with a half a cup of salt (yes, it is very salty - so don't let them eat it!), 1 tbsp oil and 2 tsp cream of tartar (you can leave out the tartar if you don't have any, but it won't stay soft as long). Break into a few portions and add a few drops of food colouring to each (I let my kids do this part). Mix together and cook over low heat for about 5 minutes, until it starts to darken, let cool for a few seconds and then knead each piece - note that the food colouring will stain your hands and won't wash off easily, but it does clean off with a bit of cold cream or lotion. Store in the fridge and it will last indefinately. If you want to make the dough really special, just add some glitter.

5. Paper is another item with infinite uses and a wide range of play options. Snowflakes: Get children to colour a piece of paper anyway they want. Then cut into a circle and fold into quarters. Cut (you can let older preschoolers do this themselves if they are competent with scissors) tiny patterns into the paper. Open, tape on a piece of looped string and hang about the house. Great for holiday decorating! My older son (5) can sit and make these all by himself for hours. Younger children really need supervision with the scissors though.

6. We like making "eggs" with paper too. Just cut pieces of paper into ovals (egg shaped) and then you can do all sorts of things to them with paint. We cut potatoes in half and cut shapes into them, cut apples in half, cut up carrots and do veggie prints using paint. You can also put some paint on a safe surface (one that can wash easily) and get children to swirl the paint around with their fingers, and then press the eggs onto the surface for a nice swirly pattern. They can just paint them too. This is a really good Easter activity and a lot simpler (and cheaper) than using real eggs. You can make your own fingerpaint with a few tablespoons of sugar, a half cup of cornflour, 2 cups water and some food colouring all mixed together and heated over a low heat for a few minutes until thick. You can also use cotton buds (Q-tips), sponges (cut into shapes) and a variety of brushes and straws to get different effects.

7. Paper Bag Masks, puppets and puppet show: Cut out eyes, a nose, and paint to look like any kind of mask you want. They can also be stuffed with paper, coloured or painted with a face, and attached to a stick for a puppet. Make a bunch of puppets, and then cut off the front of a box or just cut window flaps for a "theatre". If you want to get really fancy, you can glue on a piece of fabric to each window for curtains, and that's it . They can use their puppets, dolls, cut out pictures stuck to Popsicle sticks and stuffed animals and make their own shows as wild and varied as the imagination permits. This is another really educational, high imagination activity that will keep your children playing for hours.

8. Posting: This is especially good for younger children (although don't be surprised if older ones join in - we humans seem to like putting things into slots). Cut a slot in the lid of a coffee can, ice cream container or cardboard box (a shoebox is good) and provide lots of small jar lids or coins (for older children) to go into the slot. Make sure that the lid matches the slots. You can make the holes different shapes if your child has blocks and they can post the blocks into the holes, or you can even cut out cardboard shapes to fit the slots. If you have an older child, you can make a money box the same way using almost any kind of jar, with slots just the right size for money - give your child some loose change (we give almost all of our loose silver change to our children for their "banks") and let them go for it. My older child likes counting his, scrooge style, and it has really helped him learn about maths and money (we helped at first).

9. Threading: A thick piece of string or yarn and some old cotton reels (leftover from thread) is a great way to increase hand eye coordination and children can play with this "toy" for long periods. You can use lots of different things for threading, from the rings of a preserving jar to big beads, shells with holes (most beach shells seem to have holes in them) or coloured macaroni. To make your own coloured "beads" from pasta, put some raw macaroni into a cut and put a few drops of food colouring in to the cup and stir until coloured. Spread out on a sheet of paper or a paper plate and let dry. They can then be made into a range of bracelets and necklaces - but keep it dry!

10. On a hot day, a washing up bowl outside is the best toy of all. You can fill it with sand, cornmeal, flour or soap and water (and provide a few unbreakable dishes and a draining rack - excellent training for later) for long term imaginative fun. A range of plastic containers, some newspaper, a few friends, some kitchen implements like sieves and pots - even a few ice cubes if it is really hot (don't forget hats and clothing that can get wet and dirty without too many problems).

Of course there is no limit to what you can do if you think about it. Children have terrific imaginations and can take almost any material and turn it into a wonderful toy. The simpler a toy is, the more scope there is for creative play. Forget electronic gadgets or items that talk, move or do things for the child. The best kind of toys are simple blocks, Duplo and Lego (expensive, but it lasts forever, especially if you get the most basic kind - forget the 'themed' stuff and fancy plug in trains and electronic virtual reality studios and stick to the starter kits) and the stuff you can make yourself. The ten suggestions here are just some ideas to get you started. I'm sure you can come up with lots more 'home-made' toys which will provide long hours of play and lots of tactile, educational experiences. Just remember to take note of painted surfaces, your child's age versus the size and sturdiness of the toys (always ask 'what are the risk' before giving a 'toy' to your child) and the potential for a toy to go in the mouth if your child is under 3. And don't forget to join in! Half the fun of playing is collaborative.

About the Author: Magdalena Ball runs the Preschool Entertainment at and The Compulsive Reader at, and is the author of two books, The Literary Lunch: Recipes for a Hungry Mind, and The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything. Her fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in a wide range of on-line and print publications.
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