What to Play? Make Your Own Toys!

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Getting back to creative basics, and making your own toys!

DIY toys stimulates creative free play. Make this cup & ball with materials you have at home! (Photo credit: Carrie St. John)

While looking for some DIY toys and games for my summer campers to make or design and to inspire play, I found a great book at Gabriel Books in Northampton, MA. John has amazing finds in his $1 box on the sidewalk. I am guessing these are the books he considers duds. Not his best sellers. They take up valuable shelf space. I frequently find good things in that box. I have never had it in me to be a tag sale person or thrift shop hunter but I love to stop and check on old books. This find, Easy-to-Make Old-Fashioned Toys by Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., is dated in style and illustrations. It was published in 1979. I was 8 years old. I am dated, too.

Some of the toys remind me of days spent reading Laura Ingalls Wilder. Others had me thinking of our last visit to Old Sturbridge Village where we tried hoop rolling. The paper boat plan brought memories of summer days spent wading with my brother in the creek after a heavy rain. We made our boats from wood scraps found on my Dad’s workbench. We would get out the coping saw and draw a few guide lines to cut out a space for a rear paddle/propeller thingy. There was a lot of experimenting and learning to use real tools. A small piece of wood wound tightly with a rubber band would send our boats SLOWLY racing across the creek. We just played.

My goal this summer is to get a few of my campers to slow down and play with ideas while making their own simple toys. Toys they could make at home with no expense. Simple toys to explore and play. No grand end result. No motors or batteries. No preset step by step insructions. Simple materials.

Back to this book I found in the $1 box…here are my favorite old toys in the book:

  • Parachutes −You only need something for weight, string and half a ziplock bag for the top. Laura Ingalls did not have ziplocks. Maybe she used one of Pa’s old worn handkerchiefs. I have memories of experimenting with paper towels and tissues.
  • Pinwheels − A square of paper, a thumb tack and a pencil or straw.
  • Cup and Ball − Find a paper cup, a bouncy ball and string. Experiment with string length and cup height to enhance difficulty. The cups can be decorated for fun.
  • Paper Airplanes − Test flights in the yard. No explanation needed for those.
  • And last, Toy Boats.

One of my summer campers asked about a toy boat race during Water Week. “Why not?” was the best answer I could give. Why not experiment? Why not let the kids bring me ideas? Why not indulge his 8 year old desire to experiment with toy boats? Why not? He is rescuing empty bottles from the recycling at home. I am bringing wooden skewers and straws for fake paddles. I might grab a Lego guy for a captain. We are going to play with the best shape, size and weight we need to beat each other down the stream at the park. I have a feeling he will win…I saw sketches and notes in his backpack the other day!

Gather a few simple materials from the house. Suggest a few easy toys. See what happens. Enjoy July. School and schedules start too soon!

Here are some toys you can learn to make online:


Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie continues to do freelance work for clients here and in Chicago.

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