I’ll admit it: It’s hard for me to pass up a good deal on a good book. Or an educational game. Or anything else that looks like a fun learning experience for my kiddos. I don’t spend much on clothes, make-up, or electronics, but learning tools are a weakness for me! (Is that weird?)
Cute, colorful toddler and preschool learning activities present even more of a temptation. But, since I have three older kids to educate, too, and expenses for their books and field trips tend to add up quickly, I have a very limited budget for those fun toddler items. If you are in the same boat, never fear! So much learning can take place in your home, with just a minimal investment of funds.
Here are just a few of my favorite ways to keep it cheap when playing, purchasing, protecting, and storing:
1. Playing on a shoestring
There is great fun to be had in your home without breaking the bank to make it happen. Want to know the secret? Use what you already have!
Dump a package of dry (uncooked) beans in a big bowl and give your child something fun to scoop them with so he can dig around and play.
I got my scoops at the dollar store, but you could use measuring cups from your kitchen drawer and not spend a dime! I also got the big plastic bowls there–a set of TWO for a dollar–so she can transfer the beans from one to the other. I store the beans in the (stacked) bowls on a high closet shelf.
I’m telling you right now that I don’t think there’s a child alive who wouldn’t enjoy getting into a big bowl of beans like this! You’ll be amazed at how long it will hold your little one’s attention. Will your tot make a mess with these? You’d better believe it!
Probably a big one, too…
…but the clean-up is actually fairly easy and your little one can be taught to help you as part of the activity.
Rice and salt are also fun things to dig around in. I hide tiny toys in the containers so she can dig around and search for surprises. (I’ve pulled some to the top so you can see them, but usually they’re hidden and she has to find them.)
Obviously, these, too, need to be stored on a high shelf with tight lids, and I wouldn’t pull out either if the vacuum were broken…Otherwise, clean-up is quick and easy.
Just as I was about to toss the packaging from some Play-Doh I’d purchased…
…I realized the pre-cut circles in the sturdy box would provide ready-made holes, perfect for inserting round blocks or clothes pins. Let your toddler have a pile of “stuff” so he can discover on his own what fits through the holes and what doesn’t. Remember, at this age, playing IS learning. (You can also make holes in an empty cereal box and let your child try to poke in pieces of uncooked, tube-shaped pasta or crayons.)
You know those free calendars you get? Don’t toss those, either.
Instead, spend a few minutes cutting out the pictures of trees or animals or pretty flowers for you little one. The same goes for the fun cards your kids receive in the mail or on birthdays…
Store the cut-out pieces in a box with a non-toxic glue stick, and your child is ready for some big-time gluing fun!
What do you have sitting around your house that you can re-purpose into a learning game for your toddler or preschooler? My tot had a blast filling up an empty ice tray with her counting bears, and using a long-handled spoon made it a challenging exercise in dexterity.
She told me she was “making ice,” and when she was done she asked if she could have some real ice to play with. (Yeah, right.)
I save all those plastic eggs after Easter because my toddler loves, loves, loves to play with them. She opens them, closes them, shuffles them around, and yes, throws them.
I washed out a plastic Parmesan cheese container once we’d emptied it, and it’s perfect for challenging little hands to fit cotton swabs into the holes.
I keep all the “mess-ups” from our printer in a special tray underneath it, and I let Remi use them for gluing, sticking stickers, practicing cutting, and scribbling on. Cost = zero. 🙂
Do you have dominoes? Your tot can practice stacking them and building towers. A deck of playing cards handy? He can sort them by color and, eventually, by suit. Cereal in the pantry? Cheerios, Apple Jacks, or Fruit Loops your child strings onto a piece of yarn or string will produce a great, edible necklace. What else can you come up with as you look around the house?
I bought my 9-year-old daughter some of those pink, sponge curlers from the dollar store, but noticed they kept leaving her bathroom drawer and ending up all over the house. The toddler was the culprit. It turns out she thoroughly enjoys taking them apart, putting them back together, opening them, and snapping them shut. And they are QUIET! So, they’re now part of Remi’s tot school repertoire. (Sorry, Addy, but at least your hair looks pretty when it’s straight.)
Hopefully you’re getting the idea that you already have plenty of items around your house that are fun and educational for your little one. I really enjoy the challenge of figuring out how what we already own can benefit our tot school, and now even Remi is getting in on that action. Here’s the game she made up for herself today:
The wooden block usually holds our steak knives, but Remi wanted to know if she could play with it with the butter knives. I gave her some old, mismatched ones (Why do we have those, anyway?!) and she had so much fun putting them all in the slots and then taking them back out again. I lost track of how many times she ended up doing this.
2. Purchasing on a shoestring
If you do want to go beyond what you already have available at home, please, please do not feel like you need to go out and buy all the latest and greatest supplies, all at once. Just keep your eyes open for deals and pick them up as you can. I have built up quite a stash of tot school materials, but I did it over a long period of time and bought MANY of them at yard sales, thrift shops, homeschool association used book sales, and day care/preschool closings.
And remember, the dollar store is your friend! That’s where I got these butterfly hair clips (3/$1), pompoms, and ramekins (3/$1), and they can be used for all kinds of transferring and sorting activities.
I also got this little plastic bird feeder at the dollar store, and its round opening is just right for fitting in pompoms, Teddy Grahams, or marbles.
Do you shop at Target? Their “dollar spot” often has great things to use in your tot school, like these Animal Action cards. They are not only cute (I love the clean background!), but they encourage my baby girl to wiggle, waddle, and bounce. All for a buck and tax!
3. Protection on a shoestring
If you have a toddler, you already have messes. If you are going to do fun learning activities with your tot, your mess potential can only increase. Being the
cheapskate careful spender that I am, I’ve found some cheap-o ways to protect floors, furniture, and work surfaces, like these cutting mats I got in a 2-pack from Dollar Tree:
We use these at the table under EVERY paper we draw on, paint on, color on, or use markers on. We use them under our Play-Doh when we’re sculpting. We use them while we’re gluing. And they look awful, but just look at how nice they’ve kept the table, all for only 50 cents a pop! (I keep four of these in a cabinet next to the table where we work and play, and all the kids use them during potentially-messy activities.)
If you don’t take a print newspaper (We don’t), cut or tear the seams of a large yard bag to spread out on the floor under your little painter. And if you don’t happen to have an art smock, no worries…Daddy’s old T-shirts work great, too! If they’re in good condition, I also recycle those plastic table cloths we use at birthday parties to cover our work table or floor during messy projects and activities. No stress over trashing the floor or furniture means more fun with my little one!
4. Storage on a shoestring
I know, I know, the temptation to stock up on attractive storage containers can be quite the draw, especially once you’ve corralled all these great tot school supplies that need a good home. Don’t give in! Shoe boxes work just as well, and you can save your money for more important things, like the contents of the boxes. Just make sure you label them, then stack away.
My favorite free storage option: Save the empty baby wipe boxes.
They are the perfect size for much of what you’ll be storing…
…and they stack well on the shelves, too.
So, there you have it…a no-money-is-no-excuse plan for educating your tot at home. Now, go raid those kitchen drawers, bathroom drawers, pantry shelves, and craft cabinets! You’ll find a treasure trove of fun toddler activities for you and your little blessing to do together to make learning a treat. And by all means, please let me know what you come up with! (I love your comments!)
Oh, and please come back tomorrow and I’ll try to help you organize all your great finds!
Here’s what’s on the schedule for the rest of Tiny Tots Week:
Monday: Helping our wee helpers
Tuesday: Tot School fun
Wednesday: Tot School on a shoestring
Thursday: Tot School organization
Friday: My favorite toddler resources
And, see the bonus post here.