The Best Toys: the Miniature of Real Life

We have been radically purging our toy collection this year to really minimize to the truly best toys – toys that would stand the test of time. And we have discovered that it is the miniature versions of real life things that our children love the most. They love pretending in their dress, their cooking, and their building. They want to be like Mommy and Daddy. What better way to encourage their participation in service and family life then providing them with little tools so they can jump on board with us?

I love what Harvey & Laurie Bluedorn share in their book, Teaching the Trivium:

“Give the child plenty of time to explore and play. Do not buy ‘toystore’ toys – they are expensive and are usually forgotten after the newness wears off. Invest in real things. Garage sales and auctions are an unending source for things like sewing machines, small tools for working in the garden, hammers, nails, and things for building, some wooden blocks, and dress-up clothes. Buy tools for exploring (a good microscope, telescope, binoculars, etc), not toys for adoring. When your children are young, spend your money on the tools of exploration, and motivate them to learn how to use the tools and enjoy using the tools.”


A big box of miscellaneous dress ups have been one of the most enjoyed items in our home. Every time we have company, all the girls get lined up in their princess/wedding attire and march around the house. Our collection is a random assortment of Goodwill/thrift store items including fancy girls dresses, old wedding gowns, sparkly women’s shoes, vintage hats and purses, play silks, and a few Melissa & Doug role play costumes. We will be adding some knight costumes soon as our little boy guests are feeling a bit deprived.

Karis has had one sweet Rosy Cheeks cloth doll and a few accessories that she has loved from 15 months of age. No need for a huge collection…one has been well loved, washed repeatedly, and treasured for over three years, and still holding up strong. Practicing being a little mommy is one of the cutest things ever.

Building tools

Some basic wooden building blocks have been a fun item to have in our house because their is a never ending variety of things that can be built and torn down and built again. Lots of imaginative play happens here building churches, castles, grocery stores, and more. Melissa & Doug offer two fabulous wooden block sets that are reasonably priced and nice quality.

The little helpers toolbox (pictured above) is an awesome way to include your little people in the basic repairs around the house that need to be done. Working together with Daddy fixing and building things is quality time invested together plus they are learning basic skills at the same time.

Kitchen tools

We love the Curious Chef Nylon Knife set as they are safe and easy to use for both my two and four year old. The Sassafrass Little Cook set is a full line up of supplies for encouraging kids to participate in the kitchen. And of course the broom and dust pan is always a hit. There are a variety of fun little chef costumes, aprons, and such out there as well. We made our own little apron for Karis a few years back and she still uses it regularly.

Of course, a cute little miniature kitchen with our own homemade assortment of food items with a little grocery cart have been the top favorite toy in our home.

Garden tools

Raking leaves, gardening, weeding, and planting are regular happenings if you have a back yard of any kind. Why not include the little ones and work together? With a kids Big Tool set or garden tool set, they can learn how to help and enjoy the wonders of exploration outdoors in their own free digging play.

Old cell phones & cameras

We have kept a few of our old broken cell phones (or run out of battery life) for the kids pretend play and we experience a lot of laughter as we over hear their conversations calling Aunts and Uncles, Grandma and Grandpa. An old workable digital camera is also fun for little eyes to be able to begin exploring with capturing pictures. Their perspective on life is so precious, it helps keep me treasuring the little things. There are an assortment of kids digital cameras on the market as well which would also encourage that fun explorative creative outlet.

Musical Instruments

We bought Titus a little guitar and xylophone for his 2nd birthday this year and it has certainly been a hit. It has withstood some wear and tear but it has been so much fun to encourage a love for music in our home. Wooden drums, tamborines, and harmonics are other fun instruments for children’s play.

Exploring Tools

As the Bluehorn’s shared above, why not invest now in some quality exploratory tools, such as a good microscope, telescope, binoculars, etc. Now go out and explore nature together with real tools!

I’m excited to start investing in real tools that will help teach my children valuable life skills while serving together to care for the needs of our family. That real toolbox set is on Titus’ birthday list as I can’t get over how cute it is! I look at our toy collection now and see wooden blocks, a kitchen set, matchbox cars, and dress-ups, and they get used every day.

About Lindsay

Lindsay Edmonds is first a lover of Jesus, wife, mother of four, homemaker, and writer. She loves inspiring women around the world toward simple, natural, and intentional living for the glory of God.

31 Responses to The Best Toys: the Miniature of Real Life

  1. Nicole December 4, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    Hi Lindsay!

    How do you keep the toys contained? I use those nylon boxes with the handle that slide in and out of their “home”. I finally got around to labeling them with picture labels so my son knows how and where to sort toys. This seemed to help for a short time, until my 1.5yr old easily tore off the labels , and toys started getting mixed up and not put away. Do you suggest the dolor store bins for the smaller stuff like cars etc? These might be easier to label and with a lid, might help with the “play with one thing at a time”. I’ve got three boys under 3.5, so they like to make messes ;) help please? Thanks and God bless!

    • Wanderdust December 5, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

      I use clear containers with lids– yes, I have to take the lids off myself and take it out one at a time but it saves having a disaster to clean up with everything taken out at once. I know people think it all ought to be accessible to kids in bins, but that doesn’t work for me. I also like the clear underbed containers for trains, planes, and playmobil. We just take out one bin at a time. Dress ups are out and accessible as they just have to dump it all back in the bin. Cars are in a slide out container. Hope it helps.

  2. Carrie November 14, 2011 at 7:54 am #

    I love this post, unfortunately my Mom, good friend’s, and my husband’s family gives us lots of stuff. I have tried to cut it down but it continues. They have gotten my 4 year old hooked on princess and things of that nature. I purge constantly and we do have toys on rotation. I do fine though that her main play things are crafts, her favorite doll ( she has many that have been given), our medical kit, and her precious doll house that my father made me. I adore that piece. We are trying to cut down, but my Mom does tend to notice things that are missing. Now my almost one year old has her sister’s toys plus what is being given to her. I want to scream, enough!! I find myself going crazy with all of the things. I value the fact that my daughter’s Christian school, soon to be our daycare again as I must return to work after a year off has simple toys and leans more to make believe items. Everything is on rotation. Today I dropped her off and the toys this week are dress up clothes, baking items, and the wooden block area, along with the craft center.

  3. Nola November 11, 2011 at 3:37 pm #

    These are great ideas! I also have found the same things. Another good one at our house that gets TONS of play is small toy animals- like a few inches high. Farm style, zoo style, etc. They get played with a lot!

    Also, one thing about play kitchens- I really wanted a wooden one for my kids, but we can’t afford it. I didn’t want a big plastic one personally, plus even that was expensive (there is also not a large used market in my area, we have no Craiglist etc).

    So my husband made my girls one last Christmas. He got boxes from an appliance store and made a sink and a stove. I drew the elements, timer etc on the stove with black marker. The sink has a rubbermaid dishpan sunk into it and a cupboard underneath with a shelf (which is made from the resused frame from our old furance filter which is just a plastic frame, that could not be used in the new furnace). The stove has an oven door that opens into a space where there is a box turned upside down inside to make a spot to put things. The edges of the cupboard and oven are edged with red duct tape. Its almost a year old and still in good shape. It was pretty much free. If something happened to it, we could make new ones, and recycle these ones! My kids (5 and 2) are just as happy with it as anything else, and yes, we actually gave it to them (with a few other small things) for Christmas. But my kids also don’t have huge expectations (which I love that they don’t!) its worked really well for us.

  4. Lorilee @ Loving Simple November 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    Yes, I love this post. We have cleaned out most of our kids toys and it is amazing how much it helped. The kids were relieved, liked it and are less overwellmed by play or cleaning up. They need they toys that bring out their imagination like you noted. Dolls and blocks are favorites in our house. I am reading Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne right now and it talks a bunch about toys. The benefits of the right ones and the problems with too many.

  5. Kristen November 10, 2011 at 6:49 am #

    Our kids end up getting a lot of hand-me-downs or gifts from others (grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, even neighbors…). We really WANT to be minimalists when dealing with toys, but it is hard to say “no” to someone else’s generosity. Do you have any suggestions for how to handle thoughtful but unwelcome gifts (even just particular toys I wouldn’t want in my house)?? I don’t want to be a jerk, but I do want to live simply and thankfully.

    • Lindsay November 10, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

      We always accept them with a thankful heart and then after a short time (maybe after the newness wears off) we pass them on to Goodwill or others. The givers never seem to mind or even notice for that matter.

    • Nola November 11, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

      We’ve had a few experiences where the giver DID notice…so if its something really annoying or something like that for a while we keep it in “toy rotation” and it just doesn’t come out when I rotate things….its kept in the basement in a box and then eventually it moves on.

  6. lisa November 10, 2011 at 4:06 am #

    Thank you for this list! We just purged about 4 boxes of toys from our house and it felt so good! I wish I had started out in the beginning buying quality toys that are purposeful. They really do enjoy those toys so much more. Your suggestions are great — and just in time for Christmas! The grandparents have been asking for ideas, so this is a huge help. Thank you!

  7. Jill November 9, 2011 at 9:20 pm #

    Great ideas as we’re all thinking about Christmas these days! One thing we’ve done for our 4 boys is to add to their tool collection at each birthday and Christmas. When they’re around 4 or so we get them a real toolbox, and then slowly add “real” tools over time. It’s amazing what you get when you turn a couple boys loose with a few tools, some scrap wood, and leftover nails!

  8. Lacey Wilcox November 9, 2011 at 6:00 pm #

    You make me wish I’d had my daughter yesterday so that I could be more prepared with all these amazing ideas you’ve shared :) . But, there’s no time like the present, right, so I’m pumped about starting to find her some of these things! With Grandmas anxious to buy a Christmas present for their first grandbaby, I might just ask for a few of these things!
    Thanks for such great ideas!

  9. Ashley Willcox November 9, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

    Wonderful resource of suggestions!! Thank you for the inspiration!

  10. Sarah M November 9, 2011 at 1:27 pm #

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. This is exactly what my family does, and we love the resource “Smallhands/Montessori resources” (.com) for great quality (and fairly priced!) child-size tools/utensils/toys/etc. They have everything and a free catalog to boot, even a miniature microscope that I really thought about for our son this year–just maybe a year too young for it.
    The proof is in the play–the toys that we do have (we don’t have many, and keep even less out, using a ‘rotating’ method to keep things fresh) are just about all of the above.
    I’m going to share this on facebook!
    Sarah M
    Here is the link:

    • Amy November 10, 2011 at 3:48 pm #

      Thanks for the link to the Montessori website!

  11. Shannon Hazleton November 9, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

    Yay- we couldn’t agree more. When we brought our son home from Ukraine, we quickly realized we had NO boy dress-up. One day, after he dressed from head to toe in butterfly wings and princess crowns and tu-tus, I threw all the kids in the van and we went to the Dollar Tree and bought every boy dress-up item we could find. Sword & shield, fire-fighters helmet… pirate patch & hook…and since then we’ve been stocking up here and there on Vision Forum sale items… but I think the best-loved item is his ‘real’ cowboy hat that belonged to his Papa (grandpa). :)

  12. Erin November 9, 2011 at 10:02 am #

    Hi Lindsay! I love this post. We are on the same page and have many of the toys you wrote about here. We also have a rosy cheeks doll and my daughter LOVES her. I was wondering how you wash her. Have you put her in the washing machine? I keep surface washing her but would love to put her through the machine. I just want to make sure she’ll come out fine :-) . Thanks!

    • Christine November 9, 2011 at 10:30 am #

      Most of the dolls or stuffed animals we have give instructions to surface wash only (which really doesn’t work IMO!). So we put them in a pillowcase, tie it at the top, and wash it in the machine. To dry, we set them out to air dry. The toys wash beautifully this way!! When there are little babies here, I also throw in those toys that have some fabric on it, even if it’s a harder toy.
      Now, I have washed a few toys this way that have played music (like when you push their belly). Do this at your own risk, lol… The first couple of times I did take the chance because they were filthy, and they were fine. But after the second or third time washing them, two of them stopped working (the batteries were not removable). Now a year later one is working again! ;)

    • Lindsay November 9, 2011 at 10:31 am #

      Yes, we have put her through the washing machine numerous times, followed by air drying.

    • Nola November 11, 2011 at 3:41 pm #

      I would use cold water and a gentle cycle and air drying, or if you can, line drying is even better since it dries faster.

  13. Harrison family November 9, 2011 at 9:43 am #

    We made our own wooden blocks out of 2×4 untreated blocks of wood. We just cut them to different sizes and sanded them down and our almost two-year old plays with them all of the time.

  14. Kristen November 9, 2011 at 9:01 am #

    I love these simplifying posts! I am on a simplifying/minimalizing journey and would love more peaks into your simple family life or more tips on how to get there.

    Thanks for the great toy ideas. We have too many plastic toys and what I call little junks that the kids get as gifts or for free, that I think another toy purge is coming just before Christmas. These toy ideas will also help me make a wishlist for Christmas so that the grandparents don’t buy the usual “treasures” that clutter up our home. ;-)

  15. I Live in an Antbed November 9, 2011 at 8:39 am #

    Yes! As mother of seven, our motto is “Tools not Toys.” We much prefer our children receiving something wonderfully useful so their creativity can sprout wings. Investing is things they can use for years bears so much fruit! (The category of “useful” includes anything that helps them learn or explore, is well made and well designed.) We don’t encourage video games or movies, but do encourage K’nex, Legos, Widgets, Rokenbok, cameras, hammers/pliers/wrenches, books, sewing machines, knitting needles, binoculars, guitars, mountain dulcimers, harmonicas, flashlights, tents, etc. Great post, dear! :)

  16. Kari M. November 9, 2011 at 7:57 am #

    Just make sure to take out the batteries! If they turn it on any cell phone can call 911! A good friend learned from experience…she had cops knock on her door and ask why she locked her daughter in her room. She was 3 and it was nap time she just couldn’t turn the knob: )

    • Lindsay November 9, 2011 at 8:09 am #

      Yah. I’m referring to cell phones that are broken or completely run out of battery life.

  17. Kay November 9, 2011 at 7:22 am #

    Thank you for this post! I literally was just talking to my husband about minimizing our children’s toys after reading an article about this last night. I would like to toss out all of our plastic, electronic, and noise making toys. I feel that more natural and as you describe above, more realistic toys are more purposeful and foster imagination.

    We’ve decided after Christmas we will be doing a major purge of the toys and reorganize. I’m hoping it makes for an exciting new year!

  18. Christy November 9, 2011 at 7:19 am #

    Looks like a fun list! Just a caution with the cellphones and cameras, I know they are sooo fun to play with, but they often contain lots of nasty chemicals. We ended up taking them away from our kids because of this. :(

    • Lindsay November 9, 2011 at 7:27 am #

      But its not like they are eating them. ;)

    • Kerry November 9, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

      My thoughts exactly about the chemicals! I took the batteries out of those toys because little brother will get ahold of them and put them in his mouth.

  19. Faith Storms November 9, 2011 at 7:13 am #

    Love this list! What toys do you recommend for the 6-24 months old age range? Most of these toys are for 3 and older (although a 2 year old would probably do just fine!).

    • Lindsay November 9, 2011 at 7:24 am #

      During that age, we purchased our matchbox cars, doll, and musical instruments. We bought our kitchen set when Karis was 2 year old. It’s never too early to invest in some quality wooden blocks, or make your own. A nice safe thing to chew on. ;) For my little Eden, I am going to put together some little treasure baskets with various textured items for her exploration. Check out a wealth of ideas here.

    • Nola November 11, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

      for 6 months to about 1.5, real household items are a big attraction. Yogurt containers, things with lids, egg cartons, etc. But if you want a store bought toy, look for items not chokeable, and items such as kitchen play stuff eg. food and plates, cutlery, anything that is used in a kitchen (you can also reuse plastic containers and boxes as pretend food if they are really clean). Cars are a big hit, blocks, stacking cups, those donut shaped stackable cones, balls, cloth bags to put things in/use as purses, dolls, doll clothes (on some dolls, like ours, preemie clothes fit fairly well). Wooden puzzles with the pictures underneath, etc. I hope this gives you some ideas.