It is often assumed that I NEVER spend money. This is not completely true, I often avoid spending money whenever I can. I hate clutter and try to avoid bringing things into my home but my kids are maximalists. So I can’t restrict everything. Here are a few things that we have played with for years in our house. Try Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace first if unable to find used, go to our article on how to save money when shopping.
For reference: I have a 6 and 9-year-old, boy and girl. I received this book at a pediatric conference when I was pregnant with my first child. It basically encouraged NO TV or electronics until after age 2 and then less than 1-2 hours a day after that. Since my kids use iPads at school (which is infuriating) we don’t allow electronics or tv much at our house. They will go 2-3 days without any screens. We also don’t watch tv while they are awake which means keeping them busy without entertaining them is tricky.
My kids are obsessed with these planks. They will play for endless hours making all sorts of creative buildings, corrals, parking lots, etc. At first, you feel like you wasted your money on a bunch of expensive paint stick stirrers but if your kid has any ounce of creativity, they will do amazing things. My son typically does the building and then my daughter shows up with her Polly Pockets and they take up residence.
Magformer magnets can create rocket ships, semi-trucks, castles, farmhouses, really anything you kid can think up. The more you have the more expansive the projects. They are big enough that you don’t need to worry about your kid choking on a magnet, we’ve added to the same set for 7 years.
This is the generic version of Magformers. We have a mix of both.
This sand can become a magical scene for any idea. My biggest regret on this is not getting a lot of ONE color. We are always trying to keep them separate when a big pile of one kind would be more versatile. This stuff is 100% better than play-doh and slime because it doesn’t ruin your carpet.
The reason Polly Pockets makes the list is that the entire set is small and can be stuffed into a shoebox. My daughter can throw some favorites into a ziplock bag and play with them on our car rides. (I hate gross Barbie hair so I much prefer these.) The other great thing is their small size means they can live in all of the above creations.
Other honorable mentions are matchbox cars and a semi-truck carrying case. The problem is you drop your guard for 1 minute and you now have 100+ cars to step on. This truck carrying case holds 30 cars which helps you manage the clutter and it sets a nice expectation for clean up.
Disclaimer: these are amazon affiliate links and we receive a small commission. Try to buy used first! Also, these are easy to resell online once your kids are grown (except for the sand).