Are you a parent struggling to keep your sanity during these crazy, pandemic times? Are you staying at home more with your kids because of lockdowns and quarantine? Are you attempting the juggling act of working from home, keeping your children entertained, AND staying on budget? You are not alone!

Millions of parents are working from home or have experienced a loss of income. We are trying to entertain our children at the same time as we deal with all the stress of the world while sticking to a budget and not breaking the bank. It feels like an impossible task at times. Pandemic parenting is anything but easy.

But the good news is that there are an infinite number of ways to keep your child learning and entertained and growing, even now, at home!

So many great products exist to entertain our kids while building important skills, but you can’t possibly buy them all! That would be impossible!

If you’re looking to make a “pandemic purchase” (as I call them) to add interest to your days and hours of entertainment to your toy collection, check out my post on great GIFT IDEAS AND BOREDOM BUSTERS to spark ideas. These boredom busters are sure to keep your kids busy at home. But, if you are looking for inspiration for free or inexpensive DIY kids toys and activities to add to the mix then you’re in the right spot!

Toys don’t have to be expensive! Toys can be made on a budget if you just know where to look and how to look at the materials right in front of you!

I sometimes laugh at the things I see as toys and give to my children to explore. For example, we made cement garden stones on Mother’s Day and I ended up giving my kids (ages one and four) the left over cement tube to use for play. They crawled through the tube, sent balls through it, and bounced on it for what seemed like forever. The tube is still in our garage and gets brought out from time to time for more fun. What a great use for something that had already served its original purpose!

GREAT TIP: Use your scraps and leftovers from projects to create more fun!

Some ideas include fabric swatches, yarn, bubble wrap (not unattended as it is a suffocation and choking hazard for kids), the leaves and flowers pruned from the garden, scraps of wood, the ends of the green beans you snap for dinner, a cement tube mold, and SO MUCH MORE!

These “toys” are budget friendly, and extend play for hours for no more money than you’ve already spent. Just make sure the items are safe! Nothing too small for your little ones that could be choked on or hazardous!

Ideas for DIY Toys and Activities to Entertain Your Kids on a Budget while at Home

Boxes for Play (and ART)

Have you ever bought your child a big, expensive toy and they seemed more interested in the box than the new toy you just spent your hard-earned money on? Boxes seem to be toys for children, naturally, with no effort on your part. However, simple boxes can be turned into a variety of toys with minimal effort. All you need is a pair of scissors, some imagination, and often art supplies!

  1. Box with crayons: Simply give your child a large box. They can sit inside and color to their hearts content!
  2. Cut holes of varying sizes in smaller boxes as a kind of shape sorter. Your kids can test out what fits through the several sized holes. Leave a flap on some of the holes by only cutting three sides of a square to open and close. To make it an activity for sorting by color, put tape around the outside of the holes in various colors and encourage your child to sort pompoms into the corresponding color matched hole.
  3. Build houses or rocket ships or pet shops or castles. Your imagination is your only limitation! We stacked boxes to create a pet shop for my daughter. We hung a sign up and she added all her stuffed animals to the boxes. Anyone who came to our house was asked “Do you want to buy a pet?” What buildings projects can you come up with?!
  4. Make a play kitchen – Use old CDS for burners on top of a box to create an oven to cook on and decorate the rest of the box to match the look. Your child will love this idea! The CDs really catch the light and add interest to the overall look.
  5. Target practice for golf or hockey – cut out squares from the top lip of an open box and flip it over so the squares create holes for target practice! My husband loves golf, so we use this activity as putting practice. By making the holes different sizes you can increase or decrease the level of difficulty.
  6. Make a “cake” out of stacked boxes decorated with puffy paint – this one requires finding just the right size boxes to stack to create a cake look, but if your kids are like mine they will LOVE this inexpensive activity and it will be totally worth the effort! I made puffy paint in a couple plastic cups by mixing shaving cream, glue and paint. I gave my kids large craft sticks to use as their “spatulas” to spread the puffy paint “icing” all over their box cake and they LOVED IT. This was a total hit! Very messy, but an amazing activity your kids are sure to love.

PVC Pipe Building Set

My husband created a PVC pipe building set for my children at the beginning of the year as the pandemic was starting. PVC is a super inexpensive building material, so it’s totally budget friendly.

You can use this DIY building set to make a fort (shown in the tutorial below) or for any number of other structures. My kids and I have used this open ended DIY play set to create a lot of different things and it’s been a great addition to our outside toy collection.

We also explored using the PVC structures with water for another fun twist! The more versatile and open ended a toy is the better. This DIY toy ticks off all the boxes for a great DIY toy: easy to make, hours of fun, and so many ways to use it that you’ll never get bored!

Drill Holes in the Lid of a Container or Bottle

This DIY toy creates a great fine motor activity for toddlers, with little effort on your part. Drill different size holes depending on the ability of your toddler (smaller holes for more advanced children) and what material you’re hoping to use for threading through the holes. My top two favorites materials to use for this threading activity are cotton swabs and dried spaghetti.

Two holes in the top of a Gatorade bottle are perfect for threading spaghetti. We recently put larger holes in the lid of a cleaned out Nutella jar to thread cotton swabs through. I have also used a cleaned out, plastic spice container with dried spaghetti as a threading activity if you aren’t great with power tools!

Cut an ‘X’ in the Plastic Lid of a Coffee Can

Using scissors or an exacto knife, cut an ‘X’ in the lid of a coffee can. This will allow for a fun fine motor activity for your toddler as they can push items through the lid and into the can.

I typically give my child rocks to push into the can. When the can is full, I either help to take off the lid or let my child practice taking off the lid themselves. They love dumping the rocks out and doing it over and over again!

Grasping the rocks builds fine motor muscles and figuring out the process of filling and dumping builds cognitive abilities. The sound of the rocks hitting the bottom of the can is an added bonus in the eyes of your child!

This DIY fine motor activity is sure to be a hit and keep your little one busy for at least a little while. Such a simple DIY and free activity is a great one to add to your rotation to keep your little one busy!

Recyclables for your Kids Play Kitchen

No need to go out and buy new accessories for your child’s kitchen space! Simply clean out the plastic containers destined for your recycling bin and you have FREE kids toys. You can rotate them out so that the toys in the kitchen area are always new and different. All it takes is a little imagination (and cleaning!) and you’ve got new toys for no money at all!

I like using plastic yellow mustard bottles, sprinkle containers, plastic spice containers and creamer bottles to add interest to my kids kitchen space. Just make sure the lids are large enough that they aren’t choking hazards if they come off. Adding things like cereal boxes and empty oatmeal containers are also great.

The various types of lids you include promote fine motor growth as your child tries to take them off or flip the tops. The words on the packages also provide opportunity to point out environmental print to start teaching the important concept that “print has meaning”.

But let’s be honest – what beats FREE toys that your kids will love?! Not much.

Old Wallets and Purses in Dramatic play

I’ve saved many items from the donation bin that now live in my kids dramatic play area. The motto is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, and in our house we certainly reuse in the form of kids toys. I’ve gotten goodie bags from baby stores that include bottles and wristlets that I never needed, so I added them to our dramatic play space.

Kids love to have real items to include in their play. My children always want to go through my purse and the diaper bag anyway, so this is a perfect alternative and way to meet that need.

I keep old membership cards and used up gift cards as well that they stick in the wallets and pretend to pay for toys with. Just make sure to take a Sharpie and write your children’s names on the back to make sure these cards for play don’t get mixed up with your current cards. This is yet another opportunity to build name recognition and letter recognition in a practical and useful way that has meaning.

I also keep sturdy shopping bags for my kids to add to their play and use with their toy collection. My kids love to fill the shopping bags up and carry small toys around the house. And if a bag rips its no big deal, just throw it in the recycling bin. These toys were free to start with and are getting a new lease on life, so no stress over breakage. Just keep an eye out for another free replacement!

DIY Musical Instruments for Kids

Shakers are the absolute easiest DIY musical instrument to make at home. Simply take a washed out clear plastic bottle and fill it with ANYTHING: beads, rice, paperclips, anything you have lying around! Believe me, your child will instinctively want to shake!

You can make color coded sensory bottles to keep on your shelf as well. Your child will use them as shakers too, but during the process of creating you can make it a game to sort out the different colored materials into the different bottles. Imagine a lineup of bottles filled with red, orange and yellow. They look beautiful and provide both the instrument and the opportunity to learn about colors and sorting! It’s a win-win!

Another way to make a shaker is to duct tape two plastic cups together with rice or beans or beads inside. Let your child decorate the outside of the plastic cups with stickers or crayons and you’ve got a lovely activity full of fun and entertainment.

Stretch rubber bands over a small jelly roll pan or cookie tray with a rim to create a strumming instrument that’s oh so mesmerizing. You can also stretch rubber bands over a used up facial tissue container which is reminiscent of a guitar.

Another favorite DIY musical instrument of mine that you don’t always think of with DIY instruments is stapling two paper plates together on a stick (you can use a pencil or a dowel rod). You then staple strings with beads on them on opposite sides of the paper plate, so that when you roll the pencil in your hand the beads swing back and forth hitting the sides of the drum the paper plate creates.

Lastly check your recycling bin again for anything that can be used as a drum. I’ve used oatmeal containers and cleaned out Crisco cans of various sizes to make drums that make different sounds depending on the material they’re made out of. DIY musical instruments are so much fun and hardly cost a thing!

Colander and Pipe Cleaners Fine Motor Activity

Have your kids try weaving pipe cleaners through the holes in a colander! This activity helps to focus on fine motor muscle growth. My one year old feels proud when he’s working on this activity that strengthens his fine motor skills and my four year old turns it into more of a weaving activity where she creates designs.

I love when an activity can grow with your child and doesn’t get old. This is an activity for very little money, uses materials we always have on hand, and doesn’t get old. It’s a great inexpensive activity to pull out randomly to entertain your little one!

Wood Block Hedgehog

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This is a really cute way to practice the fine motor skill of driving nails (with adult supervision of course.) To create this cute hedgehog, my husband cut a two by four into the shape of the hedgehog and I used a Sharpie marker to draw the face. It didn’t take long to create and we’ve gone back to add more nails several times.

If you don’t have a kid sized hammer, I highly recommend them! Kids hammers are what we used to drive nails into this piece of wood to make a hedgehog. We use kids hammers for other activities as well. like hammering golf tees into cardboard boxes and/or Styrofoam cubes. In the Fall, we also hammer golf tees into pumpkins which my children absolutely love! Using these hammers that look more like the real ones their parents use make kids extra excited about their projects and learning new skills!

My husband is quite handy, and loves wood working projects so our kids are very interested in what you can create out of wood. They always want to see what he’s up to when he’s working on a project. But… being one and four, they aren’t quite ready to learn EVERYTHING that he’s doing with power tools. This budget friendly activity is a fun one that young kids can complete and feel accomplished doing.

My husband and I hope to teach our kids the life skill of working with tools and wood working. As they grow we’ll build birdhouses. flower boxes, and shelves. For now though, this is a great way to encourage the fine motor skills it takes to drive nails with a hammer and make them feel accomplished and at very little cost since it only takes a bit of scrap wood to make!

Wood Houses

Again, my husband is good with power tools and wood working so it didn’t take long to make these simple houses. Someone who is a beginner and has the right saw can easily create these houses. My four year old and I painted them and now they make a great set to use in play. I love how open ended they are and that they are made of natural wood. Super simple DIY toy for your child and very budget friendly!

This blog post is a great one with even more ideas for simple wooden toys.

Dowel Rod Tents/Catapults

We originally made catapults using dowel rods and rubber bands for a fun activity at my daughters 2nd birthday party. You can find the step by step instructions to make the catapults in this awesome tutorial:

When the pandemic hit however, I started finding new uses for nearly everything in our home, including the catapults! I discovered that the catapult structures make great tents with a simple bed sheet draped over them. We happen to have two catapults (since we made them for birthday party entertainment) which works out perfectly for our family, since I have two kids! Both children get to have their own little tent or squish into one and share it.

We took our tents outside, and they provided the perfect little shaded spot for my kids to take a break from the sun. We don’t have a large space, but we work with what we have and rotate the toys we bring out from the garage. These DIY tents are a great addition to our toy rotation.

The materials used to create these catapults/tents are inexpensive and the structures themselves require little skill to make. To the DIY beginner, you’ve got this! Your children will be so excited to have their own little tent to hide away in!!!

Why are DIY toys and activities the BEST?!

DIY projects often are an activity in and of themselves. Kids will love watching you complete a project, making them toys, and helping you out as they are able. If you choose to tackle some of these easy DIY toy projects and activities, I am sure your little ones will be entertained while you feel happy staying on budget and spending less. The satisfaction you get from making toys yourself and seeing the joy that your work brings to your child is priceless. I can’t wait for you to get started and see how much fun you can have on a budget! The possibilities are endless!

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