Let’s face it: the internet is full of websites trying to shove marketing gimmicks down our throats. And when we set out to find an educational toy for our kids, we are inundated with sales offers of plastic trash disguised as the ultimate solution to our kids’ learning needs.
So if you are tired of constant sales pitches and plastic toys, why not try making an educational toy at home yourself. It costs next to nothing, and you can create a toy that actually teaches kids something.
I have two little girls myself and I have been trying to make learning fun for them for as long as I can remember. Here, let me share with your five of my favorite educational toys.
You can make all five of these at home yourself. The best bit is that they are easy enough to make, even for lazy crafters such as myself.
Which educational toy is most appropriate for your child?
Educational toys promote learning in children by teaching about a particular subject or skill. To make educational toys at home, you first need to look at the child’s age and developmental stage.
You can do this by referring to this table that I created using information provided by the NHS. This will help you determine the most suitable toy for the child. Once you have identified the child’s age on the table, you can start thinking about what kind of toy to create at home.
Why create educational toys for children?
A wide variety of educational toys can be quick and easy to create using only one or two supplies. For example you might want to quickly put together a toy that keeps your toddler occupied while you cook food.
But if you are making a toy for a special occasion like a child’s birthday, you will not want to throw together some pasta shells in a can and call it a day. Instead you will need to give your project some thought and fore planning.
In my experience of making educational toys for my two young girls, I have learned that a successful toy always begins with the why. Why do you want to make the toy? Is it for a child’s birthday? Is it that you are seeing your niece after two years? Or is it that you just want some time to do the dishes without your toddler wrapped around your legs?
If it is indeed a special occasion involving an exchange of presents and cards, then please stay away from dried pasta shells! But that is not to say that they have their own special place as an educational toy too.
Getting started with educational toys to make
Once you have nailed down the age, learning needs and occasion for creating an educational toy, it is time to browse the internet for ideas. Pinterest is an excellent place to start.
For example if the child is 2 years old, simply search for educational toys for 2 year old, and see what comes up. You are bound to find something in the results that you can create at home.
But here, let me share with you five different educational toys that you can make from a variety of different mediums (or media or whatever). All of these toys are very cheap to make.
I have based these toys based upon NHS recommendations. And in my experience as a mom, all of these are well worth making at home. Besides, if you have the basic supplies already, you need not spend any money creating these at all.
Using dried pasta as an educational toy
Let’s start with the easiest homemade educational toy that you can create from just a handful of supplies from your kitchen cupboard.
You can use pasta shapes of all different sizes and textures for educational purposes. Young toddlers can use jumbo tweezers to practise fine motor skills. The pasta can also be used as counters to practise numbers and basic mathematics.
You can add in other supplies like acrylic paints and glue to create colourful pasta jewellery and practice threading.
The best thing about using dried pasta as an educational toy is that it is so cheap and versatile. You don’t need any skill or equipment for this and you can get going with just a handful of supplies. It is perfect for when you are at home with your kids and need a creative educational toy quickly.
Pasta is brittle so don’t be surprised if your children’s crafty creations crack and disintegrate within a few days. I would also not recommend gifting pasta to a child as a birthday present! And if you have young toddlers, you do need to keep an eye to make sure no one swallows any dry pasta!
Story stones as educational toys
Story stones are easy to create and make for an excellent educational toy.
Simply start with some clean smooth pebbles. If you live near the coast, you could go down to the beach and collect beach pebbles for this purpose. Alternatively you could get a bag of smooth garden pebbles from your local garden center.
The pebbles should be large enough for you to draw on. Their size should also be appropriate for toddlers to hold and play without swallowing them.
Flattish pebbles are best as they don’t roll over easily. Since you will be drawing on these, stick with lighter colored stones so that your paints and markings really pop.
To decorate your story stones, you will need acrylic paint or pens, along with permanent markers. My favourite medium is acrylic pens as they are incredibly bright and make permanent marks. Finally, you will need a can of spray-on varnish to seal your work.
How to make story stones
Here’s the fun part now. You need to start by drawing images on your smooth stones. The internet is a great place for inspiration, along with favourite storybooks. You could create a wide array of images including story characters, everyday items, letters, numbers and words.
Just remember to draw only one or two pictures on each stone. Now color your pictures with bright acrylic paint. Outlining the images with black makes the pictures pop.
Once you are satisfied, finish off your story stones with a spray of varnish to seal the paint.
Story stones are a great way of sparking children’s imagination. Children play by pulling a stone out of the pouch and placing it on a flat surface. Then they take another stone out and place it next to the first one and try to spin a story around the pictures they see.
As more stones are added, the story develops and deepens further, creating unique and exciting pieces of prose. Older children can use story stones to write these stories down, honing their language and communication skills.
But story stones have numerous other inherent educational qualities as well. Younger ones can play with these to identify colors, shapes, objects. The stones can also be used for counting, phonics (with words written on the stones), maths etc.
Story stones also act as excellent visual aids while reading stories to children of pre-kindergarten and elementary school (Key Stage 1 in the UK).
Tactically, the smooth pebbles nest easily within children’s little hands, making them a joy to play with. This experience is far more rewarding than, say, handling picture flashcards. And as a toy, story stones are also highly portable. They can also be expanded upon as children grow older.
The only downside of story stones is that they are hard and dense. So perhaps a very large collection of these will not make for your first choice as part of your holiday luggage. This is hardly enough reason for you to not create story stones for someone you love!
Quiet books make excellent educational toys
Ok so this is by far my favourite kind of educational toy to make at home. Quiet books ─ also often called busy books ─ are soft, interactive, touch and feel books made out of fabric, felt and other haberdashery supplies.
Quiet books contain colorful, fun activities that children can sit and do by themselves. They provide children with the perfect tactile, sensory, educational and playful experience all wrapped up in one neat little book!
I have been making quiet books for over 5 years now. And I could go on and on about them to no end! But I’ll let you be the judge: check out my post that will quickly give you an overview of quiet books and how to make them.
The best thing about quiet books is that they can be customised to no end. They also cover a wide age range of children, from absolute infants up to 7 years. Children with heightened sensory needs can even use quiet books beyond 7 years.
Since quiet books are so customisable, their educational value is immense. You can read more about all the benefits of quiet books in my post here. It will really give you an insight into what you can expect if you decide to create a quiet book at home so do check it out.
I think the only downside of creating a quiet book at home is that you need to sew and so it takes some time to create them. Perhaps a few days.
I have seen some fabulous quiet books that people have created simply with a needle and thread. But in my experience, using a cheap little sewing machine to create a quiet book pays dividends for your craft.
This is really not at all as challenging as it sounds. In fact before 2014, I had never done any sewing at all. So everything that I learned about sewing is through making quiet books.
Most of the time you will only be using the straight stitch function. This is the simplest function on a sewing machine and the quickest way to create a quiet book in the shortest amount of time.
For further considerations, do check out the link I have posted earlier which will help you decide whether making a quiet book is for you or not.
But if you have a few weeks and if you love the child enough, do consider this seriously. It’s tonnes of fun and very rewarding indeed. Quiet books also make for fabulous birthday presents!
Paint wooden blocks to make educational toys. (Or may be not?)
Now you might be thinking something that sounds as simple as painted wooden blocks should be the easiest and quickest educational toy to make. This would mean that it should be a strong contender for making at home.
But in my experience, creating painted wooden blocks at home is not as simple or rewarding as it sounds.
Let’s begin with making the wooden blocks themselves. You will need to either cut a 2×2 or 3×3 post into accurate cubes or cuboids. If you are using a hand saw, you’d better be super accurate in your sawing skills.
Or you could make this easier by having your hardware store cut these up for you. You could also purchase pre-cut wooden cubes, for example on Ebay.
However the edges of all these cubes are sharp. I have bought and tried these myself and I wouldn’t let babies or toddlers play with them unless the edges are well sanded and smooth.
So you would need a nail file or sanding block to sand down every single edge of every wooden block. You’re talking about hundreds of edges here.
Next you need to paint the blocks in different vibrant colors. You would use acrylic paint for the job. But you can only paint 5 sides of the cube in one go. Wait for all the cubes to dry. Recoat. Wait. Recoat a third time. Wait.
Now flip the cubes over and paint the bases of each. Three times over.
Finally it’s time to seal the cubes with varnish. It’s the same spray-and-wait game. Once the top and sides are done, you will flip each cube over and seal the base.
Each of these steps sounds simple enough, but the fact is that the compounding effect of your efforts will not amount to much at all. At the end of all that hard work, you will still be left with a pile of colored wooden blocks and not much more.
Wooden blocks are super cheap to buy
Sure the blocks can be used for a variety of educational purposes like counting, sorting, color matching and maths practice. But is it worth making these at home when a set of brand new colored wooden blocks is selling for only $2.47? I’d rather leave it to commercial suppliers.
Colored wooden blocks are therefore simple enough to make if you have the tools and the will to make these at home.
On the other hand, the amount of time, money and effort needed to create these just doesn’t justify making these at home. It is best to buy these from a retailer and focus your creative efforts on another educational toy.
Play dough as an educational toy
Play dough is one of my favorite quick educational toys to make at home. I have worked with and honed this recipe over many years and here it is below.
Play dough ingredients
- Plain white flour – 1 cup
- Salt – ½ cup
- Cream of tartar – 2 tbsp
- Cooking oil – 1 tbsp
- Water – 1 cup (boiling straight from the kettle)
- Food color of choice
- Extra flour for dusting
- Essential oil for fragrance
- Glitter for a shimmer
Play dough recipe
- In a large bowl, put in all the dry ingredients (flour, salt, cream of tartar) and mix with a wooden spoon.
- Add in the cooking oil and food color and mix well.
- Boil a kettle of water and measure out exactly 1 cup of boiling water. Pour this water into the bowl.
- Now quickly stir the mixture with a wooden spoon until it starts clumping together. (Optional: if you want, you can now add a few drops of essential oil and/or glitter. I don’t use glitter anymore because it is bad for the environment).
- Dust a flat surface with dry flour and turn out the clumpy mixture. Now knead it for a good five minutes until it comes together to make a warm, springy, soft dough.
Your play dough is ready! Store it in a clean dry container. It will keep for weeks.
Play dough has an inherent fun and educational quality to it. You can use it for creative play in tonnes of different ways.
Academically, you can use it as an educational medium for young children. For example you could download play dough number mats to help children learn to count and write numbers. You could do the same with the alphabet as well.
This is just one such example. But you could really use this cheap and effective educational toy in a wide variety of useful ways. My girls are 6 and 8 now and they never tire of playing with play dough even today!
The only downside I can see in making play dough is that you might not have all the ingredients at home, particularly cream of tartar. So you might have to nip out to the grocery store. Hardly something to worry about!
Some parting thoughts about DIY educational toys
According to Soto and Guyton, the educational value of commercially sold educational toys is often questionable at best. Instead, “homemade educational toys may be just as effective as expensive purchased ones, as long as developmental issues are understood.”
It is heartening to see that established academicians are encouraging DIY educational toys over commercially bought junk. This is also why it is so important that you first look at the table at the beginning of this article to figure out the learning needs of your special child.
Quiet books are one unique educational toy that can be universally used across all the different stages of a child’s development. This is because they are highly customizable.