My “Deprived” Son: What I’ve Learned So Far Raising a (Mostly) Plastic-Free Kid on a Budget


The most oft-recited “nugget” about kids, besides that they don’t let you sleep, is that they’re expensive. Calculators exist so you can estimate how much money you’re going to spend on them in a given year. (Oddly, most of these calculators don’t include health insurance which is, so far, the only thing we’ve spent a massive amount of money on.)

Making choices about toxic materials in children’s stuff is also often met with, “That’s expensive. I can’t afford it.”

With the right mindset, it’s possible to have a happy kid without tons of plastic or tons of cash.

“You don’t buy plastic? What do you use?”

I have heard this question dozens of times with regard to our son, currently 16 months old.

Cotton, wood, stainless steel, glass, depending on what we’re replacing.

Glass bottles hold milk just as well as plastic ones. (Yes, the collar to hold the nipple in place is still plastic. If we are going to use bottles, there’s no avoiding that.)

His dishes and cup are stainless steel. We have one of each and give them a quick wipe-down after each meal or snack. We don’t use a sippy cup (all of the lids have at least one plastic component). Instead, he drinks straight from a cup. On the few occasions that he prefers a straw, we use paper straws.

But most of the time, people really just want to know what he plays with.

A few stuffed animals. Blocks. A pounding bench. Hand puppets. Balls.

A Leapfrog table. (That was from grandma and grandpa.)

But his favorite things to play with are household items.

He loves to scoop things from one container to another. (Two mixing bowls, a spoon, and some dry beans entertained him for an hour and a half one evening. Dry oats are also big fun.)

He loves to remove and replace lids. Two different-sized pots with lids keep him focused for a long time, trying out the lids on the correct and incorrect pots. Nesting the pots and trying out the lids that way. Picking up the entire pile at once and trying it all again five feet away.

A smattering of flour on a cookie sheet, along with a bowl and spoon to scoop into and out of. (We play with these outside.)

One of his favorite toys? The old tea kettle. I got a new one for my birthday and let him play with the old one, expecting to give it away on Freecycle a day or two later… and it has remained in his arsenal since then.

He loves to take everything out of the spice cabinet and then put it all back. Over and over.

Give him a bowl of water and permission to make a mess and he will have a great time. Two bowls last even longer, as he’ll pour water back and forth.

He doesn’t have a massive number of toys (though he still manages to make a significant mess with what he has), and we rotate the toys he does have, both to keep his interest and to reduce the mess.

And β€” how could I forget? β€” he, like every other child on the planet, loves boxes. He crawls through them, hides behind them, puts things in and out of them, carries them around (empty and not). He hits them with his wooden mallet (from the pounding table), hits them on the floor, wears them as hats.

Boxes are extremely versatile, never go out of style, and are easy to come by. We haven’t specifically purchased a box yet.

Fewer, but better

I have often heard people say that they can’t afford to buy well-crafted wooden toys.

While well-crafted wooden toys are definitely more expensive than their “affordable” counterparts, you don’t need hundreds of them. I’d rather spend $100 on two or three really good toys than the same $100 on a dozen or more plastic things that are toxic or won’t last or both.

The problem with toys that entertain children is that it primes them to need to be entertained instead of to be active. If all they need to do is push a button and then sit back and watch, their part is almost completely passive. Children will learn what “blue” is without a talking toy to tell them.

“I bought all these expensive toys and all he plays with is the wrapping paper and the boxes!”

So why not just give him wrapping paper and boxes?

“Because he needs toys!”

Seriously β€” if what he loves to play with is wrapping paper and boxes…

My boy has a rich life, full of objects of many sizes, shapes, colors, sounds, textures. He works on gross and fine motor skills and problem-solving. He delights in his discoveries. I have gotten countless comments about what a happy baby he is.

Let go of the belief that more is better, or that children need toys that light up and talk and play music in order to learn.

Instead, give them real objects (inspected for safety, of course!) and high-quality toys to play with. They’ll love it, they’ll be better for it, and you’ll be richer for it!


What are your favorite durable, plastic-free, worth-the-value kids’ toys – for all ages?

Comment and share!

36 thoughts on “My “Deprived” Son: What I’ve Learned So Far Raising a (Mostly) Plastic-Free Kid on a Budget”

  1. Amen! I don’t have kids, and I don’t really plan to, but all of this makes perfect sense to me. I don’t remember any of my childhood toys, except the ones I’ve seen in photos. I do remember making a drum set out of overturned pots and pans and banging on them with a wooden spoon. I remember the sandbox my dad built me in the backyard. I remember the tree I used to climb and homemade playdough and cardboard sewing cards with a piece of yarn.
    I need to take this to heart with my dog. He doesn’t need tons of treats and crap from PetSmart. He needs carrots and cucumber slices and empty spools when I’ve used up all the thread!

  2. This was brilliant. Thanks for the ideas. I never really thought about the plastic in toys. I am very health-conscious and this just adds to my knowledge. Thanks so much.

  3. Brilliant πŸ™‚ I’m expecting my first in July, so it’s incredibly refreshing to hear about people who are adopting a minimalist approach to anything baby-related (the “helpful” registry people at Babies R Us haven’t been super-supportive of this type of thing…).

    Great ideas – thanks for sharing!

    1. Oh my goshβ€”the “what you need to register for” list was ridiculous!! We didn’t register for, receive, or long for most of it!

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  5. Great article! I don’t have kids yet, but I’ve often wondered why people insist on giving kids huge amounts of cheap plastic crap when they clearly prefer boxes and pots and pans to play with, not to mention some outdoor exploration time! My cat prefers boxes and golf balls to “cat toys,” so I’ve always kept those around instead.

    Also, there is the information overload aspect. Kids do not need hundreds of toys to play with. Isn’t it better to have a few cherished ones? I hadn’t really even thought of the concerns regarding plastic, or the active vs. passive aspects. Very interesting!

  6. This is how we raised up our girl, now 21. She is one of the most creative and delightful people on the planet. Just being in the natural world is actually the most educational and inspirational way to play. And the kitchen cupboard, like Heat’s son. Our daughter had her own cupboard in the kitchen and it was pots, pans, wooden spoons, etc. Put in, take out, over and over. Measuring cups are fantastic, as they are so multipurpose for learning.

  7. So how did/do you stop the onslaught of gifts from well-meaning friends and relatives who are not aware of your preference? And how do you convey this preference without coming across as a snob or starting what could easily be perceived as a lecture (when pointing out the advantages of avoiding plastics)?

    1. Yes! This is my question as well. We have relatives who, no kidding, give our kids the equivalent of a laundry basket full of toys every time we see them. We simply don’t have room in our house, and honestly, most of what they give us is not something I would pick out for our children, anyway. We have hardly bought them any toys ourselves, but when we do, we make sure to pick out things that will bring them many hours of creative play (a dollhouse, a train set, etc.) and that we can see holding up for many years. Plastic issue aside, I just can’t take the constant influx of stuff into our house. It’s so frustrating, but the reaction if I bring it up may not be worth the headache of doing so.

  8. This article is AWESOME!!! I wish EVERY pregnant mom would read this and really THINK about what a kid “needs”. Besides lots of love and the obvious necessities.. there really are no toys that a kid “needs”… but, trying telling that to people like my sister who thinks her daughter needs every latest gadget and gizmo toy on the market. It’s sensory overload even for myself!! What two year old NEEDS a laptop?? SERIOUSLY??!! It’s as if these parents think their kids are going to be more smarter, learn more and be better with all the expensive gadgets. If they just realized that most kids will be happy (like you said) with the household items in your own kitchen drawers. I cringe when i visit my niece because there is so much STUFF that even she doesn’t know what to play with first!! Like I said, AWESOME article!!

  9. I have the same questions as Elaine. There are some very well meaning folks in my family who have supplied my children with more than enough plastic, beeping, light up gadgets than I care to shuffle around their bedrooms. The thing is, my kids don’t really play with them!! There are so many!! I have always allowed my kids to use the “grown up” dishes, pans, utensils…help me cook or bake etc. They love to play outside, create things using whatever they can muster out of the recycling bin, play in the garden with me. I feel the most sense of guilt and remorse for all the wasted money on toys at Christmas when they receive all these gadgets that will inevitably collect dust in their rooms for awhile before I donate them someplace. I asked before last Christmas that they get books, clothes, outdoor toys for gift cards for experiences. We got them a gift card to go bowling and made plans for a family ski trip – they loved that idea. Anyway, I’m afraid I’ve rambled! Congrats and keep on keeping on with your natural and simple way of raising that adorable boy! πŸ™‚

    1. We’re planning to do a family trip as gifts to ourselves and each other for Christmas every year. Maybe gift a few things that we might want/need for the trip, but otherwise, make it more experience-based and less clutter-gathering. This year, he was too young to understand what Christmas is, but we’ll figure out how to do this logistically by next year.

  10. One way is to announce to everyone, via email or an actual announcement of some sort so it sticks in their mind, that you are conducting an experiment to see how long you can go without using plastic. Somehow that frames it differently and makes it seem “educational”.

    Or, you can truthfully say that you’ve been noticing the kids don’t gravitate towards plastic toys and that their hard-earned money would be better spent on experiences or books. And that you’d be happy to supply ideas to them if they are at a loss for ideas (then be sure to keep a running list on hand).

  11. Well … if they’re people who see your kids regularly, let them see your kids playing with basic things. It might help a bit.

    I created a wish list on amazon and explained that these were ths kinds of things that we were looking for, and anything on here or anything similar would be excellent.

    I explained that we’re following the Montessori principle of child learning and directed them to sites on what that means and other sites where you can buy those types of toys/objects. (I like For Small Hands.) (We’re not strictly Montessori but are using many principles.)

    My mom got offended and stopped sending gifts. I think that’s dumb, but it’s her choice, and it’s one less piece of flashy plastic to get rid of. Most people otherwise are on board because they’ve seen him play. (I have a YouTube site for our out-of-town family; user heatmas2011 if you want to look.) People who don’t really know what to do have been gifting basic things, like balls, which has been fine πŸ™‚

  12. Brilliant. We’re expecting our first child in June. This is exactly the type of childhood I want for my kid(s). I want them to use their imagination to create and explore. Plus if I get them started early with pots, pans, and utensils; maybe they will want to cook at an early age too. Winning! (yep, bringing that back)

    1. The boy LOVES all things kitchen. Wants to be part of all meals being prepared. Wants to watch things cooking in pots. Take him to a restaurant with a visible kitchen and he’s captivated. So yeah, I’m hoping for a chef πŸ˜‰

      1. Even better: Take him to a restaurant operated by a culinary school. For one here in Chicago, you can see the action and the meals are a bargain.

  13. I agree with the fewer the better. Our daughter currently has too much but, not for long hehe I am currently decluttering some of her toys. My personal favorite toys for her are her wooden blocks both the short and long ones, and some stuffed animals mainly the ones I have made for her by knitting. She loves them and plays with them a lot. Those are her favorites and the one she will return to even when the batteries die on her leap pad. She too also loves a good box to play with as well.

  14. Nice article. Want to mention the need to be careful with stainless steel. Unless industrial grade plus made in USA, it could contain lead and other toxins. I’d be wary of any material handled by children which is made outside the US.

  15. We specifically asked guests invited to our first child’s baby shower to give only wooden toys or their favorite story book. Some people were surprised, but all participated and many commented how fun it was to remember their own favourite book from childhood. The toys have lasted years, and the books were treasured by our child and us!

  16. You had me with a great article, but then you lost me with the picture of your son in the backyard with a big honkin’ plastic Little Tikes picnic table behind him…

    1. Yes indeed. And you can judge me for that if you need to. We have that and a little climbing/sliding board set that were hand-me-downs from local cousins.

      I didn’t address this in the article (it wasn’t relevant, I think), but part of why I am consuming less plastic in general is earth-friendliness. Along with not purchasing new plastics, I will reuse older ones, as long as I feel they are safe and have a use for them. So we accepted the table and the playset.

      Truth be told, we could probably get rid of those, too, as he shows little interest. He’ll climb and slide at the playground, but in the yard? Not interested.

      I have been tipped off to a local table-maker, however, and am planning to Freecycle the plastic in favor of wood (assuming it’s not treated), maybe at the end of the summer. Part of this is cost/budgeting, and part is that in metro Phoenix, the sun eats everything in the summer, and we don’t play outside much.

      Thanks for your comment.

      1. I’m not judging. My kids had the exact same table and they loved it. Just saying you lost my interest in the article because the picture didn’t represent what you were preaching.

        If your son had no interest in the table he probably wouldn’t have interest in a wooden one there, either. Maybe when he’s older. My kids loved eating lunch outside on the table, and it was our go-to place for messy crafts (lots of fingerpainting). Maybe store it for a few months over the summer and then pull it out again. Good luck.

        1. Eh. DIfference of perspective. One piece of hand-me-down plastic furniture is still mostly plastic-free. If I was preaching being *entirely* plastic-free, then sure.

          We’re thinking about building a tree house, which would be cooler than a picnic table anyway. We’ll see. Nothing is set in stone πŸ™‚

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  18. I just dropped my 4 year old son off at his Montessori preschool with a lovely natural basket for their little Easter Egg hunt today. Immediately he was greeted by 10 other children, most of whom had sparkly decorated plastic tubs. Two little boys had giant plastic tubs covered in Spiderman. His disappointment was palpable. At four he is much more aware of the difference between his life and other children’s and he is not always in favor of his (no video games, a lot fewer toys, more natural toys). This along with the onslaught of gifts from family makes holding this ground a lot more challenging. And he is only four years old!! All to say, it seems that it is going to be a challenge raising a child to appreciate simple things and activities in such a consumerist culture.

  19. After years of working with infants in a childcare setting using a very similar holistic and heuristic approach, the best ‘toys’ by far are the screw on rings for perserving jar lids and good old metal baking/mixing bowls! Hours of exploration takes place.

  20. You are so right!!! Letting a kid uses a box or the things your kiyd is playing with only sparkles their imagination!!! And for better vinger coordination a kid really doesn’t need a lot of toys!!

  21. My daughter is now four and her favorite thing to do is crafting. Paper, scissors, scotch tape, pencils, paints, empty TO rolls and whatever. She loves to create. And she loves reading. She has a few favorite stuffed toys that she plays with, but she has very little toys in general, and she will flat out refuse them sometimes. She has given away many gifts that she received. She has been offered a free pick from a basket of toys and she didn’t want to take any. She has even asked to leave a toy store when I was there looking at something πŸ™‚ We were never strictly no-plastic but she has always eaten off a regular plate, just one of the smaller salad/sandwich plates. We haven’t bought her plastic toys but she has been given a few. If she played with them, they could stay, if not, we gave them away. A couple of times she has asked for something and those are her two favorite toys. So I listen to her. I realize that she is quite peculiar in her anti-materialism, but I really do not think children need a lot of toys to be happy. They certainly do not deep them to “develop skills” or whatever. Creative play and reading are absolutely the best. And time and attention from their parents.

  22. When I was two, back in 1969, my mom quit smoking. She had an old empty Zippo lighter and I was fascinated by shinny things (I still am!) and I was quite happy to sit down and hold the base of the Zippo and click the lid on and off. Like, this would entertain me for HOURS as a two year old. Sadly, today, giving you child an empty lighter is apparently, inappropriate, but to this day, when I see a Zippo lighter, I feel a wave of nostalgia.

  23. I love the idea of no plastic toys! But what would you recommend as toys for a smaller baby? My little one is 8 months old. Wooden spatulas seem to be fantastic as teething toys for her but does anyone have any other suggestions?

    1. Plush. Rattles. (There actually is a pretty good selection of wooden and cloth rattles available.) Cups and bowls. I think the oatmeal and flour pics were both taken between 8 months and a year.

      Keep your eye on her with a spatula β€” if she has the end in her mouth and tips forwards, she can give herself a tonsillectomy πŸ™

  24. How to get rid of excess toys: Charity!

    From the time I was 4, my grandmother taught me about charity. She explained that I had much to be grateful for and that not all kids were so lucky. She taught me to empathize, to put myself in their shoes and imagine what it would be like to be deprived of something I enjoyed.

    So from the time I was 4, every year shortly before Christmas, Granny and I would sort through all of my toys, books and clothes and she would patiently wait for me to decide which toys and books to part with and which to keep, occasionally pointing out that “You haven’t shown interest in that one in weeks/months, do you have a good reason to keep it?” (Usually things with very sentimental value, such as gifts from my dad were kept, or things very engaging such as board games.) The toys and books I parted with, along with clothes I had outgrown, were given to Salvation Army to be passed on to less fortunate kids.

    This helped keep Granny’s house in order, enhanced my organizational skills, helped me learn to prioritize, taught me not to hoard junk unnecessarily and taught me to think about other people instead of being self centered and greedy. I am better off than I would have been without Granny sharing her good sense, and I am now teaching my own child these things as well.

    To prevent dubious/undesirable toys from being gifted on holidays and birthdays, you could ask those well meaning, non-thinking kinfolks to make a charitable donation to a reputable organization on behalf of the child in lieu of giving him/her toys. Donation can be equal to the cost of a toy, or even be as little as $2. Considering how ridiculously priced some of the more ridiculous toys are, kinfolks might be relieved if you ask them to opt for a $2 donation to a worthwhile cause.

    If the child is developed enough to comprehend the basics of social responsibility, you could spend time together learning about different NGOs, then let the child choose an appropriate cause to donate to. Maybe that weird rich uncle will save us all.

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