14 Free or Cheap Toys That Will Make Your Kid Smarter

It may seem like you need to spend a fortune on educational toys for your kids these days. Heck, many stores have entire sections devoted to learning aids cleverly disguised as playthings. All that stuff is great, but you can beef up your child's smarts with some awesome DIY projects. You'll spend much less money making things at home, and frugality is a great lesson to teach children at any age.

1. Sensory Tables

Bring your child's preschool favorite to you own playroom with these DIY sensory tables. Construct a simple wooden base out of pallets and plop in a plastic bin. You can fill them with rice, dried beans, or whatever else you like. And if you're looking to do this project on a dime, skip the table and just place the plastic bin on a waist-high surface.

2. Alphabet Board

I love this alphabet board project because you could take it in so many different directions. Just mount a metal oil pan on your wall to create a magnetic surface. The author cut up an alphabet poster and glued it to the pan. Then her child used magnetic letters to match. You could repeat with numbers, maps, or anything else you're looking to teach your child.

3. Felt Board

Here's a similar idea making a felt board versus metal. Cut a piece of felt so it's a bit larger than a cork board. Then use an X-Acto knife to size it perfectly before spraying with adhesive and pressing onto the board. Once it has dried, you can use homemade felt cut-outs to explore a variety of subjects.

4. Emo Dolls

Teach your child about facial expressions, emotions, and even empathy with these DIY emo dolls. Making them couldn't be easier. Take two types of cardboard tubes that are different sizes (toilet paper and cling wrap, for example). Cut them to the same length. Then cut a circle (face) into the larger one. Draw different faces on the smaller one. Nest them together, and you're done!

5. Sight Word Rolls

Use a similar approach for these sight word rolls. Cut varying lengths of tubes in different diameters. On one tube, write the first part of a word. One the second, the rest of it. There are many different ways to form your words, and this author started with consonant blends and digraphs.

6. Sewn Letters

Those of you who sew will love this plush alphabet project you can make using leftover scraps of fabric. Simply cut squares of fabric, sandwich in some batting, and then sew around a stencil guide. Cut out the letters using pinking shears so there's no fraying at the edges.

7. Sponge Letters

Not so crafty? Try cutting letters from clean sponges instead. The advantage here is that you can take them into the bath. You could also use them as paint stamps. Here's a free alphabet template you can print off and use as a guide.

8. Inventor's Box

Older kids will go crazy for this inventor's box. Fill a plastic bin with old electronic items, like a flashlight, keyboard, clock, radio, or whatever else you can find at yard sales and thrift shops. Then let your child independently explore. The author suggested taking a flashlight apart and letting your kid put it back together.

9. Memory Game

This memory game is something fun you could scale up or down for your child depending on age. Take wooden disks (you can find them at most craft stores) and cut out wool felt shapes in all different colors. Adhere the shapes to the wood and play.

10. Tide Pool

Create your own ecosystem with this tide pool project. You'll fill a metal pan with rocks, mini plastic marine animals, and sand. Then add water to the pan, noting which animals are covered by the water as it rises. Then slowly remove water and watch the tide in reverse.

11. Geoboard

Work on fine motor skills and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning with this homemade geoboard. Grab a slab of wood at a craft or home improvement store, then mark off a grid in pencil. Hammer nails into the corner of each marked square. Then give your child some colorful rubber bands to create shapes, letters, or whatever else.

12. Giant Puzzle

Rainy days call for creativity. This giant block puzzle will come to your rescue and challenge your child's spatial and problem-solving skills. Take shaped blocks (or other toys) and trace a bunch on a large sheet of paper. Then give your kids the blocks and let them figure it out.

13. Handwriting Tray

If your little one is just starting to write, try this handwriting tray. The author recycled wooden toy packaging for the tray. The letter cards are made of thick watercolor paper. Once you've finished writing all the letters, fill the tray with salt or sand and let your child write using his or her finger or a q-tip.

14. Color Classifier

Work on advanced color recognition with this shades of color activity. Pick up a variety of paint chip cards at your local hardware store, cut them up, and store in a zip bag. Create a quick chart on a plain piece of paper and let you child try putting the chips in order based on gradation.

Do you have a great project to share? Leave a note in the comments!

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14 Free or Cheap Toys That Will Make Your Kid Smarter

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Guest's picture

Our options were even more basic. Pencils and paper, some seeds and a place to plant them, a roll of masking tape, safety scissors and thin cardboard, a library card, strips of newspaper and flour paste for paper mache, a big cardboard box. When they got older simple hand tools and scrap lumber. I made the kids capes from scrap fabric and masks from milk jugs. They took it from there.