Before I was a parent I had no idea the amount of STUFF I would accumulate just by virtue of having a tiny human in the house! I am by no means an expert at minimalist parenting just yet, but we are making our way there and I’ve learned a lot along the way. If you are feeling overwhelmed by toys and are looking to simplify, here are my top 10 toy free activities for the minimalist toddler parent!
Despite our best intentions, 3 years into Parenthood we seem to have acquired an amount of plastic toys, stuffed animals and play equipment that is beyond belief. We didn’t set out to buy all the things, but somehow ended up with more toys than the little could possibly play with in a year. There seems to be a growing movement of young families towards minimalism, however, and it is a really refreshing concept! There has long been a school of thought that children need fewer toys and more opportunities to use their imaginations, the Montessori and Waldorf methods of education to name a few. There was even a nursery in Germany that took away every. single. toy. and the children thrived!
While most parents can easily envision purging their old clothes or unused kitchen appliances, it can be harder for them to visualize occupying their children without the aid of numerous toys. However by replacing bins full of light up plastic toys with some simple material play time you can not only help to de-clutter your house, but also give your child invaluable opportunities to learn. We are just starting on the minimalist parent journey in our house, but I can say that the toy bins are slowly becoming obsolete as we discover new ways to learn and play!
Here are a few activities to get you started on your path towards a clutter free home and more meaningful playtime with your little one:
10 Toy Free Activities For The Minimalist Parent
1: Pouring Station
The idea of transferring is a key toddler skill that is often a challenge for parents! Dumping food, pouring out their water glass Arrgh! This activity is so developmentally appropriate for fine motor and muscle control, and well, if you can’t beat ’em join ’em! I’m all for giving kids controlled environments to explore these new skills in a way that causes the least pain for parents. You can either set the kid up at the sink, on a towel on the floor, outside on the lawn, or at a table they can reach. Alternately you can toss them in a bathtub and let them go to town, no mess to clean up! Items we like to include are: spoons of all sizes, funnels, colanders, cups, measuring cups, shot glasses etc. Expect the kid to get wet, and make sure your floor surface is easy to dry (ie no carpet or hardwood that can warp.)
2: Sorting and Scooping
I love this explanation of the activity from the Busy Toddler Blog. All you need is an empty ice tray, some small bowls and objects like rice, beans or beads, and some spoons (or a spork haha!) This activity is best for those little ones who have passed the stage of oral exploration;) If you have a baking tray to place the items in this works great for containing mess! Oh, and if you haven’t tried the Mini Mango Mochi from Trader Joe’s you should do it just so you can collect the adorable little trays they come in (in pic below, we eat a lot of mini mochi;)
3: Muffin Tin Geoboard
This activity keeps my little busy for so long! Rubber bands and a muffin tin and DONE! You might need to demonstrate a few times for them to get the hang of it, mine decided it was fun to just fling them at me lol… You can also experiment with simpler objects for a younger toddler, using a bottle or other simple cylinder. Full idea found here at andnextcomesL.
4: Playing With Pebbles
There is a shocking amount of activities you can do with just a few small river rocks! Collecting them on a walk outside (as many toddlers already do!) can be another simple activity. We had a bag from Home Depot for a gardening project ($6.) You can then set up your toddler inside or on the lawn to stack or wash them. Take it a step further by drawing lines on them like in this tutorial from You Clever Monkey they used a paint pen but you could easily use a sharpie as well! Bonus, practicing early handwriting skills while playing, you’re such a good parent:)
5: Snack Play
This activity has the added bonus of giving the little ones something to eat, which definitely helps to hold their attention a bit longer! You can get creative with what you draw, numerals work well but you could also do a face for them to decorate etc. All you need is a paper plate or paper and a marker, then just add snacks! Cheerios or fruit snacks work really well, as would bunny crackers or goldfish. Here is a quick tutorial for a Number based activity.
6: Mystery Bag
This idea comes from the Montessori ‘Stereognostic’ bag... but I think ‘Mystery Bag’ sounds more fun:) This is another activity that works best for you to do with them, or an older sibling might enjoy the game too! A drawstring bag works well (like those inexpensive gym backpacks you get from races, fundraisers etc.) Any bag will do though, as long as it is not transparent and you keep the top somewhat cinched so as not to ruin the surprise. Simply find real objects from around the house that you think the toddler will recognize (spoons, hair bow, brush, coins, cotton-balls) and place them in the bag. If you’re like me you have a million random items in your purse that would work quite well;)
Model how it works by putting your hand in and describing an object ie round, fuzzy, soft. Make your guess ‘cotton-ball!’ and pull out the object. Take turns and when you’ve went through the objects give them a chance to add new objects to the bag for you to figure out as well!
So maybe technically this is a toy? All I know is you probably have most of the materials in your kitchen, it is a great sensory activity, and after a few months when it dries out you can throw it away and not feel too bad:) I feel like even the most minimalist family wouldn’t hate on this homemade play-dough. Try out our favorite playdough recipe, add in some kitchen utensils like a potato masher, butter knife etc and get ready for hours of fun! You definitely do not need to buy the plastic kits from the store, do sign up for our newsletter though to get our ’26 Ways To Play With Playdough’ post coming soon!
9: Old Clothes And Sheets
For the superhero loving little one pretty much anything can be a cape. Scarves can be slings for babies or stuffed animals. Sock puppets anyone? (Just add my fave, googley eyes;) Old white button up shirts make great paint smocks or doctor coats. Handkerchiefs are for pirates! Sheets were made for fort building and parachute toss, or this awesome activity using a fan.
It can be tempting to buy the pre-made costumes,but in doing so you are not only creating more clutter, you are limiting what their imaginations can come up with! Of course if you happen to have leftover Halloween costumes throw them in! Might as well get your moneys worth:) Create a bin or one of these cool hanging bars and let them enter their own make believe world…
10: Natural Materials
We are lucky to have a big backyard despite living in the city, and it is such a resource for teaching our daughter! We recently finished a post about the easiest plants to grow with littles (even with limited space) so check it out here if you would like to get started gardening with your kids! Even if you don’t have an outdoor space of your own however, it doesn’t mean you can’t utilize some of the best learning tools there are! If you’ve ever taken a walk with your toddler and had to stop every 5 feet to check out another rock/leaf/stick then you know that the natural world holds a great allure for little ones…
Especially if you live in the city though, they might not get the time they need to truly dive in to understanding the natural world unless you provide intentional opportunities for leisurely study. Nature tables are a great way to bring nature inside in a *contained* space. We have this simple tray and use it everyday for both art and nature play.
Having a ‘treasures jar’ can also be an opportunity for your child to study these materials without adding to the clutter of the home. We clear out our pockets into the jar after a day outside, helps minimize laundry disasters too lol! We add to the jar, take things out to investigate on our tray and occasionally dump the items back outside and start again. For an example check out our post on a Simple Nest Activity we did using household items and found natural elements. Our Nature Play Pinterest Board has new ideas for playing with natural materials updated daily!
Are you ready to become a minimalist parent?
These were the first ideas that came to mind as I reflected on our journey, however the possibilities truly are endless! Once you decide to be intentional about providing lots of open ended, toy free activities for your child you will find that you need fewer and fewer ‘things.’ I know we are still in process, it takes awhile! I hope this list helps you to minimize your toy clutter and maximize the benefits your kids can get from open ended toy free activities.
If your kids are used to screens or toys that do things FOR them, you may have to model some of these simple activities. The end goal though is that you are able to step back and let them create in their own ways, and flex their imagination muscles:) Some parents can also feel like they need a bit of practice, stepping back and giving your kids the necessary space to explore in their own ways rather than showing them how it ‘should’ be done isn’t always easy. The gift of time and learning you are giving them is beyond measure though. Oh, and you’ll love not stepping on sharp plastic toys on your way to the kitchen for your coffee!
What challenges do you have on your path to minimizing toys? Or maybe you have tips for those of us just starting out? Share in the comments! Also don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter for new simple activity inspiration every month! If you are looking for a daily dose of inspiration come join our Facebook community for new ideas and resources.