Unexpected Toy Find!

I’m a play geek. Ever since I first recognized the value of inner-directed free play for young children, I’ve been hooked on providing the environments and materials that encourage it.

Over the last twenty years I’ve observed hundreds of infants and toddlers playing, both my own and the ones who attend my weekly Parent-Infant and Toddler Guidance Classes. Yet I’m still captivated watching them learn from their environment and peers. When uninterrupted, they will investigate, create, process feelings and experiences, and design their own perfect curriculum for that particular day.

It certainly doesn’t take a veteran play observer to realize that babies and toddlers tend to be most deeply engaged by toys that aren’t toys at all. While babies are intrigued by everything in their world, what they really appreciate is packaging, the real stuff mom and dad use, whatever big sister has, the shadows on the floor or cracks in the plaster, and of course, Nature.

In order to accommodate the interests of our tiny explorers, at least half of the toys we use in our classes are household objects: empty gallon-sized water bottles, cotton napkins, mixing bowls and cups made of stainless steel, silicone and wood, colanders, canisters, fish and chips baskets (really), plastic hair rollers, etc.

All of our objects are safe for mouthing, cleanable, and light enough not to cause injury if tossed enthusiastically. They are simple, durable and fully explore-able. They can be made sense of (unlike more mysterious, battery-powered noise-makers) and used in a multitude of ways.

Some of the most sought after items in class have always been the small plastic jars with screw-on lids. Children focus on exploring these jars during the latter part of their first year, developing their fine motor skills, and their interest in them continues through 3 years old.

The only problem with the jars (normally for face cream, I think) is that they’re not easy to come by and usually require label removal. But in a recent class, one of our thoughtful parents announced that she’d found some on Amazon (HERE).

unexpected toy find large

I was thrilled. I like these jars even better than the ones we have at my RIE classes because of the cool indentation on the lid (babies tend to appreciate cool indentations). They’re also very well-priced and plant-based (because they’re actually snack jars!).

A couple of thoughts:

1. Allow your child to enjoy discovering them. Rather than presenting the jars to your child, include them in his or her play area, either with the tops on loosely or already separated.

2. Let whatever is, be. Trust children to use the jars their way and in their time.

3. Remember that young children are process oriented. If the jars are loosely closed, they will accept them that way, at least for a while. If you’ve left the jars and lids separated, there’s no need for your child to know that they are supposed to go together.

4. Let go of the impulse to tell or show children what the jars do, because this will likely create stress that is totally unnecessary and a dependency on the adult to fix something that otherwise wouldn’t need fixing. Again, let what is, be, and you will make room for independent, experiential learning and the power of discovery.

5. Relax, observe and enjoy your child’s experiments with the jars and the way she uses them in conjunction with her other toys.

While we’re at it, here are some other brilliant, inexpensive, unexpected toy finds:

8 piece set: mixing/measuring bowls and colander to stack, nest, and explore

Hair rollers for infants and toddlers to grasp, roll, nest, and collect

Stainless steel bowls (set of 6) and mini cups (12)                  Otis touching jar

Mini wooden bowls

Silicone baking and cupcake cups

Handmade cotton napkins for infant grasping, waving, exploring

Silicone trivets


(A big thanks to Annie for finding the jars and sharing these photos of her marvelous boy!)



I share more about the power of self-directed play in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. We just discovered the joys of empty gallon jugs recently! I took a blade to one and cut the top off, leaving the handle intact. It makes for excellent (and wonderfully noisy) transportation and storage for very important possessions (currently a small plastic cow, a straw, a sock, and an empty tube of cream!)

  2. This is a great find. I can use these for play and for snacks. I will gladly purchase the “girl” version for my older boy who loves pink and purple!

  3. Thank you for this – I can’t wait to order! It’s funny because when I read about your observations of when children develop particular interests (these jars at the end of first year) I’m reminded of Maria Montessori. She never taught but was a doctor and scientist who observed for many, many years what appealed to children. She used her medical expertise to determine why this interest was there; in other words what need the material was answering developmentally. She developed her materials very slowly based on observation and then had the teacher (called directress to establish the point that she is not teaching) serve as a link to the material which the child uses to teach himself. Thanks again!

    1. Thanks, Kate! Maria Montessori was a brilliant woman and must have been one of the first to advocate respect for children. Magda Gerber was a great fan of hers.

  4. Yes, yes, yes! Little A. LOVES her face cream jars. Sometimes I hide things inside them (like mini pinecones or a scarf). A favourite has also been scarves in an old wipes container.

    1. Thank you, Eleanor, I love these ideas! And yes, the jars can be used for all sorts of things as kids get older…

  5. Stick with blue… Everyone likes blue, right? It might as well be gender neutral.

    I’ve found a draw back to leaving my son to explore jars and various twisty things…

    My 2 year old can open fully closed childproof containers.

    My 2 year old insists on opening the chili powder every time we walk past the spice rack.

    My 2 year old can unlock BOTH the locks on our door.

    My 2 year old can remove childproofers on door knobs.

    Not cool Janet… Not cool. 😉

    1. Wow, now that’s talent! He’ll probably be a surgeon, just watch…

  6. These are perfect! Thank you for sharing the find! My 1 year old loves her jars and lids too! She usually plays with her glass lifefactory bottles and their lids, which she discovered on her own, when she got into my pumping supplies that I had packed for work. It was so fun to watch!

  7. Katharine says:

    Darn! I ordered the jars before I finished reading the article and missed out on the other cool recommendations.

  8. The Happy Mamma says:

    My son LOVED to play with the silicon ice cube trays that I had to make his frozen baby foods. And with the little areas to put things in; he really enjoyed organizing his cheerios or rocks and other treasures that could hide in them.

  9. Robin Martins says:

    My mom hooked me up with you link, love this toy find!

  10. Lizzy Spohr Russinko says:

    Way a great post! I love reading about how to provide my daughter with new toys I had not yet thought of giving her. She is almost one year old, and right now some of the things I give her to play with are: wooden spoons, toilet paper rolls, pieces of paper or card stock, lemons or limes, mixing bowls, Tupperware containers, small cloth bags, pieces of felt, etc. I just purchased the jars and I am interested in seeing how she plays with them. Thank you again!

  11. For our girl, the most surprising favorite has been masking tape. It’s easily removed but seems to satisfy her desire to build big. spider webs, bridges, hinges, books to name just a few. When she was 1 1/2 or so she would ask for a series of strips trimmed for her but once she started using scissors it’s something she can do on her own.

  12. Oh! these are wonderful! I was given a set of tea samples at Christmas that came in perfect, 1.5 inch diameter tins with screw-on tops. As I’ve finished the tea, I keep adding the tins to my daughter’s shelf in the playroom. They are by far her favourite item of exploration at the moment! I love the rest of these non-toy ideas too. My husband and I always joke that our children never play with toys 😉

  13. Patty Agacki says:

    my infant room is stocked with these types of objects and is empty for the summer….2’s,3’s and even 4’s and 5’s have used the room on rainy days and been totally engaged…

  14. toddler teacher in Jersey says:

    I SO wish these jars were still available…they’ve been replaced with pull off lids
    ….looking for something similar? anyone?

  15. I am looking for basic blocks for my son to play with, nothing fancy, just to help him learn to stack, etc….is there something you recommend for this?

  16. My 15 month old son loves cleaning and doing everything we do (obviously :)) Cloths, brooms, brushes are his favorite ‘toys’!
    It is such a joy to watch him practice these skills with such determination! His latest interest is power cords.. He wants to plug them in the way he has obviously seen us do it.. I’m not really sure how to handle this as I don’t want to stop his curiosity?! (all plug sockets that aren’t being used are sealed) I thought of putting out an adapter that he can explore but I have a good feeling he will still want to use the real deal. 🙂 Any thoughts?

    1. I don’t recommend allowing him to plug in the power cords. It will not discourage his curiosity if you acknowledge nonjudgmentally, “You really want to experiment with the power cord, but I can’t let you. That isn’t safe.” I would be very clear and confident about setting these reasonable limits. Children don’t need free rein to do everything they want to do.

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