Updated on 04.27.09

The Frugal Rainy Day Box

Trent Hamm

Yesterday, I mentioned offhand the value of having things on hand to entertain and create special moments for children. Things like this are easy to plan ahead for, easy to bargain hunt for, and can really come in handy on a rainy day or other unexpected event. It can also be useful to have on hand if you don’t have children of your own, but occasionally have young visitors.

So what kinds of things do we have in our rainy day box? (Note that we use many of these items in other situations, too, but it’s useful to have all of this stuff collected in one place so you can easily find it.)

A big box Any sort of box will do – it just needs to be of good size to store quite a few items. A pair of large shoe boxes can do the trick – and it’s a great way to reuse shoe boxes. In fact, the first “rainy day” project can actually involve decorating the boxes.

Drawing paper You can get a ton of drawing paper for just a buck or two by buying an end roll of paper from your local newspaper office. This paper is perfect for other projects, too, like paper pirate hats.

Pencils Keep your eye open for free pencils and pens, particularly at hotels or other such places. I unabashedly grab quite a few when I see them – they’re given away for advertising purposes, after all, so I have no qualms collecting them.

Crayons I tend to believe a giant box of crayons is the best $5 item you can buy for a child, but that doesn’t mean I don’t watch carefully for sales on crayons and washable markers.

Food coloring There are lots of different kid-friendly projects that can really utilize food coloring, so just look for a good deal on vials of coloring, particularly red, blue, and yellow coloring (as you can mix these to get many other colors).

Glue, tape, and safety scissors These tend to be overstocked around the time school starts, then they tend to be on sale in late September and early October. These are great items to get at a dollar store.

Paints and paintbrushes Keep any paintbrushes you find in miscellaneous art sets that your kids get (my kids have received several for gifts). Then, make your own paint: mix 3 tablespoons sugar, half a cup of corn starch, and two cups of cold water. Cook it in a pan, bringing it almost to boiling, until it thickens, then stir in a teaspoon of liquid dish soap. Split it into four roughly equal amounts (in small cups or dishes) and stir in some food coloring into each – it works great for simple art projects.

Small beans Buy a bag of beans for a kitchen recipe, then save half a cup of them or so in a small baggie for later use. Beans make a great addition to art projects. You can do the same thing with cereal (like Cheerios).

Construction paper / cardboard Pieces of unmarked cardboard are well worth saving in this box. Shirt boxes are great sources for this material, as are

Old magazines Keep ten or so issues of old magazines in your art box. Old magazines are great sources for collages, and these work even for three year olds. For example, I’m planning on helping my son hunt through these for big examples of the letters in his name and making a big collage out of them.

Old wrapping paper Similarly, keep sheets of old wrapping paper. Just carefully unwrap presents, fold up the sheets, and tell people you’re saving them for an art project for the kids. Wrapping paper can make a great background for various projects.

Old greeting cards Greeting cards (particularly the flood of them that people send for Christmas) are a great source for elements for collages as well.

Paper towel, wrapping paper, and toilet paper rolls Tubes like these can be musical instruments (blowing through them or using them as drum sticks) and structural pieces for building models.

Recipes Not recipes for food per se, but recipes for things like play dough and bubble solution. Having these recipes in the box is often a great reminder to go make a batch of these things if we have the ingredients on hand – and given that such things are usually made from kitchen staples, we usually have them. Bubble solution? Dish soap, cold water, and a spoon full of corn syrup. Play dough? The easy “Mister Rogers” recipe is just two cups of flour and one cup of water, which literally makes dough, but a better recipe is one cup of flour, one cup of warm water, two teaspoons of cream of tartar, one teaspoon of oil, a quarter of a cup of salt, and food coloring (for color). Cook this over medium heat and stir it until it’s smooth, then knead it until it’s doughy.

Music Finally, include a few CDs worth of catchy, upbeat music that appeals to both you and the kids. We’re big fans of They Might Be Giants’ Here Come the ABCs. If you want to save some on this, just download legal mp3s of the music and burn your own CD (or use another music device). I don’t advocate piracy, but if you look around, there are lots of great legal sources for inexpensive and free music of all kinds.

A rainy day box can be a lot of fun for kids and adults alike! Good luck!

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Baker @ ManVsDebt says:

    In addition, you can find all sorts of old school board games at thrift stores for like a dollar.

    I recently had a blast playing Chutes and Ladders with my 3 year old niece. We found Candy Land for 50 cents at a garage sale and she loves it!

  2. Maureen says:

    You could save some odd socks and decorate them with bits of fabric, buttons, felt and yarn to make puppets. You can also make puppets from paper lunch bags.

    You could punch holes around pictures pasted on cardboard to make ‘sewing cards’. How about yarn or plastic lacing and pony beads for threading to make necklaces? These are great for hand-eye coordination.

  3. Rob says:

    Google crafts for kids, or simply handmade crafts. Plenty of sites. Just have to weed out the bad ones. Making things are the best. My 2 year old has a limited attention span, so we need to start making things for mothers day 2 months in advance. Buying stuff ahead of time at a thrift store is perfect. Last year I found about 20 small puzzle/coloring pads for a buck. They will be the addition to the pails I will give out to the kids on his third birthday. Always think ahead.

  4. KJ says:

    The Mister Rogers recipe, if I recall him singsonging properly, is “One part salt, one part flour, MIX with water ’til it’s READY for modeling.” : )

  5. Michelle says:

    Just remember… food coloring stains (not just clothes, but tile grout too)!! Found that out the hard way. ;)

  6. Luke says:

    All great ideas for a rainy day box! You’ve inspired us to add to ours. One note to add about the beans-these are also great for little ones learning math concepts like addition and subtraction. Then graduate to M&Ms for color sorting, introducing ratios, fractions (3/5 of the M&Ms are blue, etc.).

    Added bonus – assuming your hands and the surface are clean, the “Math Monster” gets to eat those candies after his lesson!

  7. Kristy says:

    These are all great ideas! One of my favorite things to do is cut pictures out of old magazines and paste them into our own story books. The pictures help make up the story!

    Thank you for the inspiration! I’ll definitely use these ideas.

  8. My daughter did a lot of babysitting as a teenager. She use to carry a bag full of items that you mentioned whenever she would go to babysit. The kids loved it and couldn’t wait to see what she had in her bag. She ended up turning down more then she took because she was so popular. Great post!

  9. Great post! Entertaining the kids is always a challenge and can be done frugally . . .

  10. My daughter use to babysit as a teenager. She would always bring a large bag full of many of the items you mentioned above. The kids would just love going through the bag to see what she had for them to do. Of course, the parents loved her as well. She had more work then she knew what to do with. Great Post!

  11. Shevy says:

    Lots of good ideas but just a couple of cautions. First of all, you shouldn’t keep food items in a box like this because they might attract mice or bugs. Either keep them in the kitchen with your other food or put them in glass containers in the box. And be very careful with supervising beans and similar objects that young children may stick up their noses or choke on.

  12. Leah says:

    I love this! I do stuff like this when babysitting, as it makes kids want me to come over more.

    another fun one: keep some aluminum foil, and play “will it sink?” Make different boat shapes and see which shape can hold the most of different kinds of objects (pennies, beans, bottle caps, etc). you can also make foil hats and all sorts of fake “metal” stuff.

  13. Hogan says:

    I know why you are writing this, it has been cold and rainy in Iowa for 4 days. Good stuff to keep a parent and child busy in a constructive way.

  14. Jica says:

    Another fun children’s album is “Snacktime” by Barenaked Ladies.

  15. Mo says:

    Add felt to the box. Great for making faces on pine cones!

    My mom saved extra buttons in a big old coffee can. My brother and I loved playing with the can of buttons and now my nieces and nephews do. My mom thinks it’s so funny because she never imagined generations would ever have so much fun with a can of buttons.

  16. RAjeev Singh says:

    Nice post.. very well written and informative.. Now I know exactly what to do in similar situation…thanks ,.. keep them coming.

  17. Alonwith these things, one also needs loads of patience and desire to enjoy the moment with kids.. I can tell out of my own experience that its really fulfilling to be able to get a smile on childs face and this box will definately help. I am going to have mine ready.

  18. Laura says:

    My children used to like to “paint” the walls- inside or out- with water! This kept even the shortest attention span occupied.

  19. MB says:

    This is great timing as it rained all day yesterday here and looks like it’s settled in for the weekend. We will definitely be doing some crafts! My son also loves playing make-believe, so I’m sure I will be playing “house”, “police”, “fireman”, and yes even, “Cinderella”. :)

  20. lurker carl says:

    Add a liberal portion of salt to that paint recipe. Salt will deter vermin (mice, ants, cockroaches) and Fido from devouring the finished product.

    Unless they are coated with paint or shellac, beans and Cheerios crafts should be disposed of after a few days to discourage a pest infestation. Even with a protective coating, an enterprising critter may still make a meal or home with the project.

  21. Alternative Livings says:

    My grandpa was an avid garage sale hunter, and he always found the most incredible things. Often they were toys, but other times they would be curiosities of various sorts. He and my Dad were always on the look out for discount costumes. Those are perfect for a rainy day box!

  22. Sandy says:

    I’ll echo the painting with water. Buy a couple cheap paintbrushes at the beginning of the summer…a soapy bucket and an area to “clean” will keep them busy for hours!
    Also, check out your local library…some have boxes of toys you can borrow..new toys to your kids, and toys that you (and they!) know belong to the library and will have to go back, like library books. And you don’t have to keep forever!
    Also, rainy days are great times for baking and cooking fun stuff w/ kids. Muffins are perfect for this…everyone can take turns measuring pouring and stirring. What fun!

  23. joan says:

    You can use plain kool-aid (no sugar) instead of food coloring. The packages of kool-aid are less apt to spill.

  24. tammy says:

    Comment #4 said: “The Mister Rogers recipe, if I recall him singsonging properly, is “One part salt, one part flour, MIX with water ’til it’s READY for modeling.” : )

    You’re almost right- I believe the actual lyric is “’til it’s RIGHT for modeling.” Sheesh, how do I remember this stuff? I haven’t even seen that show in 20 years!

  25. Jessica says:

    My grandmother used to keep all kinds of stuff like this to entertain me and I remember we always had a lot of fun making crafts and art projects. Great ideas

  26. lori says:

    My parents always had this stuff on hand for me and my three siblings when we were younger, and I think it was key to developing our creativity (and hopefully keeping us out of a little trouble). My mom still has some of the stuff I made.

    We don’t have kids, but I might make a mini rainy-day box so that we can reciprocate dinner invitations without our friends’ kids getting bored.

  27. Nathan says:

    Another fun idea is Corn Starch. My kids love to play with ‘Goop’. It has very interesting physical properties: under preasure it is solid, when released it is liquid. Try it out, you’ll play for hours!

  28. kelly says:

    Great ideas. I always try to keep a couple of cheap cans of shaving cream in our kids fun box. Squirt a huge pile on a paper plate and they will play for hours!

  29. Lenetta says:

    Just wanted to let you know I linked to this post, the make your own deal finding web page post, and your 25 fave sites post on Sunday. All good stuff!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *