Toys For The Ages

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By Tracy G. Cassels

 “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
– George Bernard Shaw

A huge thank you to Anastasia in Montreal for an email asking about toys that led to this post.  I hadn’t even thought about this, just lived it, but I admit I’ve come across some new ideas for me and my girl as well by writing this and we’ve been loving the new games.  Also, please note that links for all of the items discussed here can also be found in the Resources section under Play or by following the links in the links in the article. Cheers! 

Childhood in developed societies seems to be pronounced by one main thing: toys.  People start giving them to your child before he or she is even born and it just gets worse from there.  Evolutionarily, we didn’t have “toys” – infants would observe and interact with their environment, playing with whatever they could find.  This type of play develops imagination, creativity, an understanding of cause and effect, and allows children to interact with nature.  But for the most part, we’ve done away with that, though it’s one of the elements of Evolutionary Parenting I wish would become more mainstream (for more, see Toys: Fun For All or Creators of ADD?).  Nowadays, toys are talked about as being “developmentally appropriate” but they mostly still do the same thing – occupy your child so you don’t have to with minimal effort on behalf of your child.

All this said, there is a time when toys can be beneficial.  As children age and develop greater competencies with their hands, they are able to manipulate objects and learn from their own manipulations, and this is when introducing toys can be great because your child can actually do something with them instead of passively observe.  So what toys do you get?  In this article, I’ll go over some of the ones I’ve found to be good (or look that way if my daughter hasn’t tried it) and provide some sites on ideas to make your own toys – after all, why pay a company when you can create something for your child yourself?  And ask any parent, the “toys” your child will love more than anything else?  Regular household items, and especially those you yourself use.  My daughter’s favourite plaything right now is my wallet; there is nothing more fun than taking every card, id, piece of cash, and receipt out then spreading it all over the floor and asking me to put it back together again so she can repeat.

One last thing – just because most toys are really a load of you-know-what, play is one of the greatest things you and your child can do so please don’t think I’m against play – that couldn’t be further from the truth.  But I firmly believe that toys should enable interactive and imaginative play instead of prohibit it, so the toys you find below will only be ones that can be used to interact with and engage your child.  And who knows, you may stumble upon your inner child as well.


This has got to be the toy category I support the most because they aren’t really “toys”.  My daughter is a music fiend – she was dancing to music at 5 months and will regularly unlatch while breastfeeding to sign for more music whenever one of her favourite songs is done.  It’s not too surprising given she comes from parents who love music and one (dad) who’s actually a competent musician, but most kids love music anyway so allowing them to create their own can provide hours of joy.  I will say now that I am NOT talking about the toy guitars where you press a button and it plays a long tune or full song; that is NOT a musical instrument.  I am talking about buying or making your child drums, shakers, a harmonica, symbols, etc.  The first music set we bought our daughter was a plastic (I know, I know, bad for the environment, but it was cheap and there) with castinettes, rattles, a drum, trumpet, symbols, and tambourine.  She loved it.  We have an amazingly cute video of her ‘jamming’ with dad—him on bass, her with the tambourine—and it’s still one of our most used toys.  We’ve since moved on to wooden toys because they are better for the environment, more beautiful, and safer (they don’t crack leaving sharp pieces of plastic that cut).  My daughter was given a wooden tambourine which has replaced the plastic one to play with and we got her the wooden xylophone to go with it.  Frankly, I’m thrilled anytime she gets into playing music and I strongly recommend it for all kids of all ages.

Musical instruments for kids are available at Toys R Us, Amazon, or pretty much any kids toy store.  One site with some earth-friendly baby musical instruments (and other toys) is Baby Naturopathics.  But what if you want to make your own?  Unless you’re an expert craftsman, it may seem daunting to try and make anything beyond the simple shaker, but fear not, I have some things that may help you out.  First, there is the book Making Simple Musical Instruments by Bart Hopkin which provides you with easy to follow instructions (or so they say) on making simple instruments.  Mr. Hopkin also wrote another book which is even more relevant: Making Musical Instruments with Kids.  This one is even more relevant and if your child is old enough, provides not only a toy for your kid, but an activity for both of you.


If you don’t want or can’t afford the book, here are some sites that offer craft ideas for kids that will lead to musical instrument-type-things:

  2. (my favourite)

Regardless of whether you buy or make your own instruments, a good and loud time will definitely be had by all!


Called the greatest toy invented in Sophie’s World, lego, or duplo for younger children, is one of the most versatile toys because it allows for children to create anything, break it and start over.  And if your child is too young to fully build something herself, it’s the perfect opportunity for you to get down and show your child how to do it while having fun yourself.  Make her a car or a house.  Let her destroy whatever you build and then show her how to build something new.  Because of this versatility, I am particularly fond of the packages that just have pieces and don’t build something specific.  While I understand for older kids the specific item can be great, when you’re getting started I prefer to let my and my child’s imaginations lead the way.  And if you’re like me and spent far too long being logical and well-reasoned prior to having a child, you may feel that your imagination just simply is gone.  Don’t fret – it will come back; it just needs, like anything, a bit of practice.






Lego is one of those things that can’t really be made BUT you can start collecting household items and use those to create the myriad things you use lego to build.  For example, if you save up all your toilet rolls, you can use those, some glue (or tape if your child is prone to eating glue), buttons, and markers to create your own cars to drive around the house.  If you go to a local crafts store, you can find all the little things (e.g., glitter) to use as finishing touches for your homemade masterpieces.  And personalizing these just makes them that much better.  Instead of buying “Bob’s Garage” to park cars in, make your kid a garage and name it after them.  It’s the little things that make toys special, and when you make them yourself, you can add myriad little things.  Useful items to start keeping:

  1. Toilet rolls
  2. Kleenex boxes
  3. Jam jars
  4. String
  5. Tape and glue (essentials for making toys)
  6. Buttons
  7. Boxes

The best part of building your own toys is that when they get destroyed (because they inevitably do), you a) aren’t upset that you lost money on it, and b) it’s easy to make it again!

There are many books out there you can get that provide craft ideas for kids.  A few that seem to be on the better side because they offer ideas for larger age-ranges (which is always helpful) or because they don’t require you to buy a million things before you can start creating are listed below.



Again, if you don’t want to bother with having to buy books, here are a few sites that may offer up some ideas for you:


And then of course there’s your very own imagination or that of your child.  Of course, the latter is a bit harder if you have to help create their image – somehow you can never quite get it just right, but they’ll appreciate the work all the same.


The first fort I built with my daughter was ridiculous looking.  I had two chairs, a sheet, and the sofa.  I had moved our coffee table to the middle of the living room and then put the chairs in front of it and draped the sheet over the chairs and sofa.  That was it.  As simple as it was, though, it gave my daughter (and me) a couple hours of fun.  We would bring toys inside the fort and play with them there, we’d crawl in circles going in and out of the fort and around the coffee table.  She would be fascinated by the fact that she could start through the legs of the chair to the “outside” of our fort and that I could go out and send balls to her from out there to play with.  It was heaven.  And it was easy as pie to make.

While building a fort is one of the simpler tasks you can do, there are actually sites out there that provide information on how to build an indoor fort which I will share simply because a) it may be helpful for some people who didn’t grow up with forts, b) may provide new ideas that you hadn’t thought of for a fort, and c) some also include safety tips to consider which are always welcome:


I will mention that it is also possible to buy fort-making kits, but I absolutely refuse to advertise those because I find it an unbelievable rip-off.  There is absolutely no reason why you should have to spend money to build an indoor fort.  None whatsoever.  But if you are so inclined, you can find those somewhere.  I won’t tell you where though.


There is something incredibly beautiful about the wooden train sets of Thomas the Tank Engine.  My brother played with them when he was younger and then my stepson also had some and I was so happy to see that Learning Curve haven’t given way to cheaper, plastic versions of themselves (unlike other brands who make Thomas stuff).  I also love the fact that it enables kids to build whatever track they want.  There are no instructions to follow to get your track right, but you simply build where you want the train to go and that’s that!  It’s a bit like Lego in that you can build a track, use it, take it apart, and start over.  There’s no “one way” to do things with Thomas the Tank Engine.  And as all pieces fit together, you can slowly build up a great train set collection that you can pass on from child to child.

In addition to the myriad tracks you can build, I also like the fact that, for the most part, kids have to move the train themselves.  I know that recently some automatic trains have been made for TTE but I prefer to ignore those and pretend they don’t exist.  It may not be an aerobic exercise, but I feel that kids are more in tune with what they’re playing with then they have to be actively involved.  Sitting and watching a train move around a track is, well, kind of boring.  But when you’re moving it around yourself, you become engrossed in whatever game you’ve got going on in your head.

Here are some starter kits for TTE:




As I get to this stage, I realize this could go on for a while, so I’ll put an end to this but say that you can definitely expect Volume 2 of Toys for the Ages.  This has been way too much fun to write and I hope you enjoy some of the ideas as much as we have in our household.

What’s your child’s favourite toy?  Do you make your own?  Do you have any toy ideas to share?

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  1. says

    I will admit we have *way* too many toys in this household. Mostly because my mil likes to buy them but, I don’t throw them away so there’s that. That being said I prefer ‘people’ toys (action figures, dolls, stuffed animals) or ‘thing’ toys (pots, pans, cars) to toys that ‘do’ something (push the button and see the gears move! Wind it up and watch it go!). I think people toys and thing toys, while being completly unnecessary, are good for imaginative play. I also think toys are mostly an inside necessity. We only rarely take toys outside (and when we do it’s balls or shovels), but unless I want Thomas to be constantly dragging out *my* spatula, him having a toy one is good. I think figuring playthings out by ones self outside is the best there is.
    Honestly though this is the thing I struggle most with as a parent. I’m partially disabled, with a serious pain problem, and just can not play with my kids as much as i’d like. They watch too much t.v., spend a great deal of time in independant play, and don’t get outside anywhere near like they should. But it is so physically hard. I know it’s not ideal, and is in fact very much against my general parenting beliefs, but when the option is ‘Mickey Mouse’ or ‘dislocated wrist’ (which is actually one of the easist to fix and least painful that is likely to come up) it’s hard to turn off the t.v. and go play outside (especially when it’s 110 out like it’s been for the last 2 weeks)
    The really crappy part is the judge’s main reason for denying me disability benefits (which would have allowed me some extra $ to spend on a babysitter/mother’s helper to help run around with the kids) was that I couldn’t possibly be disabled if I was parenting 2 small kids!

    • says

      I’m so sorry about the pain – that does have to make things hard. And what the hell about the judge?? Sometimes I wonder how people get to make such obviously ridiculous statements and wield the power to hurt people based on those ridiculous statements.

      I do agree that the people and thing toys are good (like Thomas the Tank Engine). And definitely inside is better for toys, though I’m partial to balls or chalk for outside playing. And skip rope when they’re old enough :) However, no matter what toys my daughter has, *my* stuff is always preferable – whether it be my wallet, my spoon, my spatula, etc. Whatever mom has must be better than anything else or she wouldn’t be using it, right???

      • says

        “Whatever mom has…” yeah, I have that problem with FOOD! My daughter will go after food on anyone’s but especially mine, plate while she ignores her own. I keep telling her it’s the same food, but even if I then pick her food up, transfer it to my plate, and start eating hers, she still will grab at what was initially on my plate. It helps some when I make sure everybodies food is on the same type of plate but, you know what? I’m not using kids plates for everything, and my 1 and 2 year old aren’t using our glass grown up plates! It drives my husband crazy but ultimately it’s cuter than it is worth getting steamed about.

        As for the judge, yeah, it’s been appealed but it happened fairly recently and was really difficult to stomach being called a liar and having her say clearly I’m exgagerating (and my doctors are liars too) because I can’t actually be disabled if I birthed, nursed, and care for two kids! Seriously, that I breastfed/feed my children is really in the official court decision as one of her ‘points’. It’s just, grrr.

        I like sidewalk chalk, so does Bella, to eat. So have to wait on that one or I spend the entire time pulling it out of her mouth instead of coloring with Thomas. Same thing with crayons. Why don’t they make them taste bad??

  2. says

    Oh, and both my kids cycle through ‘favorite’ toys pretty rapidly although on a whole my daughter *loves* baby dolls and my son *loves* action figures/realistically human dolls (but is largely uninterested in baby dolls, stuffed animals, or unrealistic human figures). I loved to build forts as a child, and loved to make paper dolls. But I’ve been a reader since an early age, so my constant companions have been books, not toys, since I was about 4.

  3. says

    This is really interesting. I never gave it much thought. My daughter has stacks of toys, but really she just plays with the same ones time and again: her garage and cars, her building blocks, her toy animals and things that make noise. She doesn’t tend to bother with the stuff that lights up and talks. You’ve really made me think about what I’ll be getting for christmas this year.

    • says

      It sounds like your daughter made the decision for you :) It’s amazing how when given the opportunity to play with things that get their imagination going, kids will leap at the opportunity! I hope your daughter enjoys her Christmas this year with more toys that suit her creative side :)

  4. Jennifer says

    I read your article yesterday, today it is posted to my Facebook account as something I have “liked”. I have nothing against your article but I did not share it to my Facebook account. How did this happen?

  5. says

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  6. says

    Getting other people to stop buying your kids junk is SO HARD! And you don’t want to be too firm because it’s nice that people love your children.

    We are pretty picky about the toys we bring into our house (and just trade in the rest for credit at our fave kids consignment shop!) and most fit your criteria above. We have the IKEA version of the Thomas train set… It’s not quite as nice but pretty close, and I believe you can mix the two sets. (Melissa & Doug also makes a version, which I think works universally with the others as well.)

    The other toy category I would include is imaginative props, like dolls, dress up clothes, etc. Like the other toys on the list, these items can be improvised, but I think that a few quality pieces are nice to have. And fun for me!

    • jayne says

      I agree, the most difficult part is definitely trying to convince people to not buy toys or certain types of toys for your children. My mother in law has bought over hundreds of dollars worth of toys for my daughter and my daughter did not care for them at all. The only toys my daughter has and and enjoy are wooden puzzles, real child sized instruments, blocks, books and my daughters Schleich farm life animals (the only plastic, though beautifully made and very life like) and those are the only things my daughter “plays” with. She prefers going into our backyard and digging, gardening, climbing, hiding, playing with our dogs and cats and she spends hours out there all by herself.

      I am pretty proud actually that my 2 1/2 year old can play all by herself and use her own imagination to entertain herself or that exploring the same backyard brings new things and experiences into her life. And I attest this to the fact that she doesn’t have so many in your face toys and wasn’t brought up to be entertained but to explore, think and imagine.

      When she was just born, strangers and family members always made me feel guilty for literally not buying her any toys. All she had were her bed time books and 2 stuffed animals, but I did not see any reason why a newborn or even an 8 month old needed toys. We had fulflling days, her and daddy would wake up, they would cook breakfast, make coffee, feed the animals and enjoy the morning air in our backyard. When daddy would go to work, we had our day to day maintenance, dinner and just hanging out, napping together. Home life, family interaction, animals and nature is more than enough for a child to thrive.

  7. Ellyn says

    I’m so excited to have stumbled across this post! I’ve been looking online for ideas about which toys I should get for my daughter from an evolutionary perspective – and I hadn’t been able to find what I was looking for. I should have checked your website first! I haven’t had a chance to read this post in detail but a quick skim lets me know its exactly what I’ve been looking for! So excited to find a few minutes to go through the website in detail!

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