Updated on 11.17.08

Christmas Inspiration from a Stick and a Cardboard Box

Trent Hamm

Dave's box house by davef3138 on Flickr!Late last week, a rather amusing story made the rounds in the mainstream media: the humble wooden stick had been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Usually such stories are tossed out there into the news to give people a lighthearted moment in between more intense and often downbeat stories, but this story gave me pause. In an age where many of the toys targeted towards children are fairly expensive and seem to only hold their interest for a few minutes, what toys have really stood the test of time?

I spent some time looking at the list of toys in the Toy Hall of Fame, and I was actually rather impressed – and inspired. I didn’t really expect this little investigation to turn into an article for The Simple Dollar, but when I started digging in, I had something of an epiphany: there were a few profound patterns in the toys in the Hall, and those patterns point straight towards good patterns for frugal parenting.

A few of the toys were basically free. You can find a humble wooden stick in the yard. Many items that you buy come with a “free” cardboard box. It’s also fairly easy to make a homemade kite, homemade Play-Doh, or homemade Silly Putty. None of those items – all of them classic toys – require much expenditure at all.

Almost all of the toys were open-ended. There’s not a set way you can play with most of the toys – they don’t have an obvious, specific way to play. Instead, a child must bring some imagination to the table – and when they do that, there’s a huge abundance of replay value in these toys. The stick and the cardboard box are just for starters – crayons, alphabet blocks, Erector sets, LEGOs, Tinkertoys, and several other items on the list fall into that category.

Almost all of the toys are cheap to buy new. Even beyond the free items, most of the toys are very cheap to buy new. I could only identify a small number of items on the entire list of 41 toys that cost more than $10 – many could be purchased for far less than that.

Most of the toys are sturdy – and thus likely to be found at yard sales. Items like alphabet blocks, Etch-A-Sketches, hula hoops, jump ropes, marbles, and skateboards are often easily found at yard sales and are passed down from child to child, generation to generation. Why? They’re sturdy – it’s hard to break them during normal play.

So, what’s the message here? Most of the “great” toys on this list are also frugal toys as well. A child is much likely to get more intellectual growth out of a box of crayons and a big pad of paper than they ever would out of a $20 toy that lights up and makes noises. The noisy toy might get a bit more attention at first, but over the long run, that box of crayons will become well-worn while the noisy toy gathers dust in the corner.

This Christmas, when you go to buy gifts for the children on your Christmas list, think carefully about the Toy Hall of Fame – the toys that are truly timeless. They’re not the ones with the big price tag. They’re not the toy of the moment.

Instead, they’re toys that your parents played with, that you played with, and that my own kids are playing with right now. They’re the ones that children are drawn to over and over again, because they let their imaginations roam instead of just responding to the push of a button.

The best part is, they come with a very low price tag.

Instead of getting your child or your nephew some expensive toy this Christmas, get that child some crayons and an end roll of newspaper to draw on and then spend an hour drawing with that child. If you’re a parent, package one of your gifts in a big cardboard box – likely, your child will have more fun with the box than with the gift.

In short, give a little more imagination and spend a little less money. If you really feel obligated to spend that money, make a donation to the child’s 529 in addition to the gift.

As for us? Our two kids are receiving at least three of the items from the Toy Hall of Fame this Christmas. I can’t think of a better “wish list” to start from.

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  1. Luke says:

    Growing up my favorite toy was a length of rope. My Dad made me a rope making machine and I would use old baling twine to make rope for tree houses, swings, tying up sisters etc. I loved it.

  2. Mary says:

    When I was a kid I really enjoyed a drawing book my mom made for me- an old binder with paper that had printing on one side, salvaged from my dad’s work.

    Also, I was watching a home movie a while back that my parents made before I was born. There’s a scene where my mom is “reading” with my 18 month old sister. My mom had taken an old day planner or small pocket-binder, and filled it with several pages of collages from magazines, featuring animals, household items or whatever else. Good idea, no?

  3. Ken says:

    Nice! Great article, Trent.

    A few years ago I saw a list of the “Top 100 toys of all time,” and the #1 toy was the bicycle. I think it falls into the same category as what you describe – endless “replay” value, and gets used more than about anything else.

    (BTW, Love that Howdy Doody doll in the pic – I think I had that exact same one when I was a kid)

  4. Cindy says:

    THis is great if you have smaller children. When they get in their teens they want the more expensive things…..ipod, xbox 360 etc…

  5. Jade says:

    I still have my Legos, lol! And I still play with them too!

    Something I doubt you’d find in the hall of fame though, leaves! Seriously, one thing I miss about living in a house with a tree outside, no leaves to rake!

    I always had fun jumping in a pile of leaves, or making a sort of leaf house with them. It would turn out kinda like a floor plan for a house, but instead of drawing it on paper, we’d rake the leaves so we had these long piles that weren’t very high but we’d pretend they were walls in our house, and we’d make gaps for doors between rooms and all. And we’d get really mad at people for walking through the “walls”, which was really just a person stepping over the leaves rather than finding a gap to walk through the “door”.

    It’s a great way to sucker your kids into raking the leaves too. Even if all they do is make a leaf house, at least the leaves are more contained, and you can just go along the “walls” and pick up the leaves to dump into the garbage bag or recycling cart or whatever.

    But with no leaves around, I could settle for a bunch of cardboard boxes…

  6. And perhaps a copy of “Not a Stick” or “Not a Box” by Antoinette Portis. I know, kinda ruins the whole “essentially free” thing, but these two kids’ books describe the phenomena exactly. Great way to incorporate literacy as well.

  7. Super Mom says:

    I was really surprized not to see puppets on the list. Our children would spend hours playing with them and putting on puppet shows. In fact, as we’re having a mostly homemade Christmas this year, I’m making felt puppets and a puppet theatre for my husband’s grandson.

    It was always the simplest of toys that our children returned to time and again for their imaginative play.

  8. Susy says:

    My favorite things to play with as a child were bugs & flowers. My parents didn’t buy us many toys (only ones that spurred the imagination & creativity). So we made due with flowers & stuff. Never missed all the toys.

    It’s funny because when you watch those shows like, 1940’s house, 1900’s house, frontier house, the kids didn’t have any toys but they made their own and entertianed themselves without them.

  9. Ryan McLean says:

    Great article. Really these toys are so great because they are only limited to the imagination of a child. I think as we get older we lose that imagination and which is why we need more expensive items. If we just learnt to cultivate our imagination then we could achieve so much more

  10. This is the time of the year when we share with those who are less fortunate. At my work, we are participating in Christmas Shoebox Project. It’s very simple. Pack some toys, books, and games in a shoebox and it will be sent to children around the world.
    A Dawn Journal
    Toronto, Canada

  11. Mike says:

    Our daughter’s best toys were as many books as she wanted to read, a big box that we turned into a “house” for her and a round, library style kick stool that we turned into a “stove” for her. The library supplied most of the books. Everyone has probably turned a box into a playhouse. In the case of the stool, we just added some paper “knobs” to make it look like a stove and gave her some old pots and pans. Today she is a National Merit Semifinalist, a musician, and a fantastic cook. No batteries needed.

  12. Molly says:

    When I was about 5, and my sister was 3, my mom and dad got us a box of “misfit” toys. We were broke, so my mom went to a thrift store and bought a ton of My Little Ponies, books, and a bunch of other stuff, and put it in a huge box. We played with those toys for years, and its still one of my favorite Christmas memories.

  13. Chetan says:

    Totally agree.

    When it comes to toys, that ripped-up old Teddy Bear beats the amplified guitar any day. My daughter still loves the old tea set that grandma gave her even though she’s already received several shiny new (and expensive) toys in subsequent parties.

    I just put in a post about spending low-cost, high-quality time with your kids, and I believe nothing can beat that, though.

  14. sunny says:

    My favorites as a kid, card table and a sheet for a tent, stick horse (do they even make them anymore?)and a coffee can with holes poked in the lid for whatever I trapped.

  15. Saver Queen says:

    One of my favourite homemade toys consisted of a piece of plastic. My parents used to have a waterbed (I grew up in the 80s) and when it popped, my mom let it dry out and then folded it up and kept it in the closet. Around that time, “slip ‘n’ slides” came into style. (Anyone remember those?) My sister and I wanted one but my parents never had the money for brand name toys. Instead, my mom hauled the plastic sheet onto a hump in the backyard and put the sprinkler on it. My sister and I loved running and slipping down that waterbed sheet!

  16. Maureen says:

    One of the best ‘toys’ we ever invested in was a sandbox. It was enjoyed for many years.

    Another frugal ‘toy’ was a bin filled with water with boats to float and cups to pour.

    Life’s simple pleasures are the best…

  17. Lisa says:

    The Strong Museum of Play is absolutely outstanding!!!! When you plan a family vacation to Niagara Falls, swing by. The grandparents will love all the old toys on display and the kids will have a fantastic time with all the creative things for them to do.

    I like to give an “art box.” That is, a pad of construction paper, colors, tape, kid scissors, etc. in a box with a lid for tidy storage.

  18. DivaJean says:

    When I was a kidlet, I had a Barbie townhouse- it was the platinum standard among my friends for toys. Did I play with it? NO. I preferred to convert cardboard boxes and odds & ends into my own house for dolls.

    Fast forward to now. My son is constantly revising his Hogwarts castle- built out of cardboard boxes and odds & ends for his Harry Potter action figures.

  19. Rosie says:

    when i was little i remember my brother and i playing with army men. my parents got a pack of 100 from the dollar store. we would tie plastic bags to them and throw them off the balcony so they could parachute. my sister and i used to play “shops” by taking all the canned food out of the pantry and we would take turns shopping and ringing them up. we also did that with books and made a library.

  20. Kevin says:

    This reminds me of the “toys” my Grandma used to have around her house. Little plastic tubes (which I later found out were the rolls from adding machine tape), scratch paper and pens to draw on (their old junk mail) and plastic containers (butter, sour cream, you name it). You’re right Trent, the name of the game was imagination. Funny that I remember that stuff more than the other toys my parents bought me brand new.

  21. J says:

    The Strong Museum of Play (which hosts the site) is a fantastic place to take kids. We took out three year old there and she had a great time.

  22. Bavaria says:

    My sisters and I loved to play ‘dress up’ and it was all done with stuff from Salvation Army–old prom dresses, discarded Halloween costumes, suits, scarves, hats, crazy shoes, and costume jewelery. It was great fun to be pirates, cowboys and indians, southern belles, etc…

  23. Karen says:

    Some wonderful examples of things that will bring joy to a child have been provided – and they are inexpensive. In our house, the simple gifts have always been the ones we’ve chosen for our kids, and was ok if it was something that was picked up at a thrift store or garage sale too – my kids got some wonderful gifts from their aunt because she knew we wouldn’t be offended by a gift that wasn’t fresh from the store, and that the kids would never know the difference. This thread has me thinking that soon we’ll all be bombarded with requests to give toys to the unfortunate, and those toys must be brand new and in the box. I remember when programs like Toys for Tots and such requested used toys, but now the needy need them brand new. I’m sure the stores prefer that we donate new, but I think it’s wrong. I’m also bracing for a higher degree of whining that “my kids won’t have a Christmas this year because I lost my job”. As this thread is showing, there are so many simple and inexpensive things that children will love and appreciate.

  24. Mo says:

    The Strong Museum of Play is located in Rochester, NY where we live. We have a family membership so we usually go at least once or twice a month with my 3 small grandchildren. We never get tired of it because most of the museum is hands-on-play and they change the exhibits all the time. I highly recommend it.

    After a couple of Christmas of watching my grandchildren opening up one expensive toy after another and then seeing how quickly, they got bored with those toys, I decided to try something different. Last year, I went to the dollar store and bought them each a small basket and then filled them with dollar store toys. Ones that they had asked for each time we went to the store. Now when they come to see me, they get out their baskets and play with those toys and then put them back. I’m sure the expensive toys have rarely made it off the toy shelves since last Christmas.

  25. The type toys you mention Will be played with a lot more than some of the hi-tech electronics, that when easily broken, become garbage, or go out of stlye prematurely. It’s a money saving, good idea.

    John DeFlumeri Jr.

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