Here are four ideas for homemade toys you can put together yourself with a little manual dexterity and a minimal investment in materials.
"Yipee-I'm Bigger-Than-You-Are" Tin Can Stilts
They're a little noisy, maybe ... but these down home walkers will occupy children for hours at a time. To make them, you'll need a couple of large vegetable or juice cans. (The institutional-sized metal containers are best ... you might be able to find some free-for-the-taking leftovers at a local restaurant.) Cut one end completely out of each can and leave the other intact. Then using a large can opener or a screwdriver punch two holes (opposite each other) in the sides of the container, at its closed end.
You can then make simple handles for the stilts, using two pieces of rope, each of which should measure about four feet long (the length will vary, depending on your child's height). Thread each line through the holes in the can, tie its ends together in a loose knot, and see whether your young "skywalker" is able to grasp the ropes while standing up straight on top of the cans. When the length is right, just tighten the knots, and presto, you have a custom made pair of stilts.
An Indian Game
This traditional native American toy is easy to make ... and it's bound to have everyone in the family trying his or her luck at it.
You'll need a straight stick (about one foot long), a four foot length of heavy twine, and seven large rings. (You can make the hoops—which would measure about three inches in diameter—by bending thin rawhide strips or pliable tree branches into circles, and tying each one up with string ... or you might want to use canning jar rings and open metal screw lids to save time.) Secure one end of the string to the stick near its tip and then thread six of the rings onto the cord. The seventh hoop should be fastened to the end of the line ... so it will keep the other rings from sliding off.
The object of the game is to swing the string out and cause the hoops to fall onto the upright stick. Allow each person two or three tries ... and the winner will be the one who scores the most "dead ringers." Sounds simple, huh? Well, just wait till you try it!
A VARIATION: To help the smallest members of the family exercise young muscles and develop coordination, you can make a simplified version of the toss and catch game that's just right for tots.
Wash out a plastic gallon jug, cut a section from its side below the handle, and punch a hole in the opposite side at a point near the bottom of the container. Then make a fuzz ball out of short pieces of knitting worsted, glue it to the end of a foot long strand of thick yarn, run the other tip of the line through the hole in the jug, and knot it so it'll stay put.
Holding the bottle by its handle, each player swings the yarn in front of him and tries to catch the fuzz ball in the plastic "scoop." (Since the ball is very light, the game isn't quite as easy as it looks!)
So when the screamin' meemies (or the lazyday blues) hit the young folks in your family make an old time toy, serve up some tall glasses of fresh lemonade ... and then watch the smiles appear!
Good ol' Play Clay
Instead of buying artificially colored, mass manufactured "clay" that either melts into the rug or turns rock hard after one use ... why not whip up a batch of natural modeling dough in your own kitchen?
Begin by combining 2 cups of flour and 1 cup of salt ... with enough water to bring the mixture to the consistency of biscuit batter. Then sprinkle some extra flour on the kitchen table, give the little ones a rolling pin and several cookie cutters ... and watch 'em go to work!
If you want to preserve your young artists' creations, lightly brush each "sculpture" with melted butter and bake it in a warm oven until it's dry. (You can also store the dough for future play sessions if it's enclosed in a plastic bag and left in the refrigerator.)
A Gen-Yoo-Wine Blue Denim Hobbyhorse
Is your sewing basket crammed full of worn out pairs of jeans that you've been saving to cut up into denim patches? Well, put some of the old dungarees to work ... and create a hobby horse to make your pint sized cowpuncher happy.
To shape the animal's head, cut off one pant leg near the crotch and turn the material inside out. Use sturdy yarn or string to tie one end of the leg closed ... and then turn the cloth right side out again. Stuff the denim tube until it's about halfway full with rags, cotton, or whatever scrap material you have available. (I've even used scrunched up newspapers.)
Next, turn the remaining (empty) half of the "head" at a perpendicular angle to the stuffed end and insert an old broomstick, mop handle, or tobacco stake ... or even a straight tree limb. Once that's done, continue stuffing the horse's neck (holding the stick in place) until it's almost full. Then gather the open end around the pale and tie it off.
You can make a bridle and reins for the toy steed by circling a length of rope around the stick and bringing the ends forward to loop tightly around the animal's muzzle. Finally, give the little dobbin some eyes, ears, and a fringy mane (you can cut them from felt scraps or colored construction paper) ... and it'll be ready to ride!