Children learn and develop through play, but does that mean you need to spend a lot of money on expensive toys? No. In fact, the best toys are often common household items. Young children learn best when they are in natural settings with the people and materials that are familiar to them. Early intervention providers may use this principle to help you choose materials already in your home, teach you how to use everyday objects to achieve your child’s developmental goals, and engage your child in activities using their interests.

Remember a “toy” is just a tool to support your child’s developmental goals and “play” is just a method we use to teach. You play an important role in your child’s everyday experiences. You help your child grow stronger through play. Next, we share a list of common household items and related activities that you can use to support your child’s development.

Empty Plastic Bottles

Have you tried bottle bowling? This is a fun activity that can work on your child’s gross motor skills. First, fill several plastic bottles with the same amount of water. To make it colorful, add paint or food coloring into the water. Set the bottles up like bowling pins. Grab a ball and ask your child to knock the bottles down! In addition to building gross motor skills, you can also boost cognitive and communication development by asking your child to identify the colors in the bottles.

Muffin Tray

A muffin tray is not only for muffins. You can use the tray as a color matching game. Get a muffin tray, colorful plastic balls (use balls bigger than ping pong size to avoid choking hazards), and colored paper that matches the colors of the balls. Place the colored paper in the muffin tray and have your child match the right ball with the correct colored tray. You can also encourage your child to identify different colors. This activity builds both fine motor and cognitive skills.

Peeling a Clementine or Banana

A very simple and healthy way to work on your child’s small muscles (e.g., finger strength, pincer grasp, bilateral coordination) is to have your child help peel their fruit (e.g., clementines, bananas). To make it easier, you can start to peel the fruit and then have your child finish.

Couch Cushions, Pillows, Cardboard Boxes, and Masking Tape

Do you want to work on your child’s gross motor skills when it’s cold or rainy? Gather couch cushions and pillows and arrange them in an obstacle course. If you have a large cardboard box, ask your child to crawl through it like a tunnel. Also, use masking tape to create lines on the floor and have your child to walk heel-to-toe on the line or jump over the line. The line can be straight or curvy. Then, join your child and have fun!

Grocery Items

Just get home from the grocery store? To build your child’s vocabulary and language skills, have your child name the products or encourage your child to describe the color and size of the products as you unpack the bags. Meanwhile, you can also play a guessing game by giving them three to five clues. For example, you may say “This item is a fruit. It looks round and red. It tastes juicy and yummy.” Then encourage your child to guess what it is.

With a little creativity, you can use household items to create fun games between you and your child. If you have more questions on how to use household items to address your child’s developmental outcomes, talk to your service coordinator or early intervention providers.


Originally written for the Illinois Early Intervention Clearinghouse Newsletter: Fall 2018

You Have Everything You Need: Using Household Items for Early Intervention (by Hsiu-Wen Yang)