Simple Homemade Toys

Excerpt from Practical Skills 1985

The toys most of us really remember playing with as children weren’t really toys but things we turned into toys. My earliest recollection is a matchbox of multicolored and multisize rubberbands I played with by the hour when I was about two. I don’t know why they fascinated me only that they did. Even the matchbox was a wonder — the way it slid so neatly open and closed.

My next favorite toy was a big tin box full of all kinds of buttons that my mother gave me occasionally after I was old enough not to try to eat them. I sorted buttons by size and shape and color for hours — my first crude notion of what would later help me understand the idea of classification by genus and species.

At the age when children like to have a playhouse or any small place to hide in or feel secure in, corn shocks in my father’s fields were the perfect answer. They looked like tepees. We could push aside the stalks tied upright together and hollow out a room inside. When my children were that age, I shocked the sweet corn stalks after harvest in the garden into a tepee. The kids discovered it without my saying anything and spent hours in this playhouse that cost me nothing.

Marble Raceway

My favorite all-time toy when I was nine years old was the living room floor and a handful of marbles. In our old farmhouse, the floors were far from level. A marble would roll down one side of the living room, gaining speed, and then gradually slow down as the floor sloped up the other way. The marble would come to a halt near the far end. The space between the baseboard and the carpet (which in those days was laid only to within about a foot of the baseboard formed a perfect raceway. I’d let gravity fuel the marbles down the “track” and bet on which marble would win. If one rubbed on the carpet side or even the baseboard side or hit an obstacle I might place on the track or get boxed in by slower marbles as in a real race, then the others had a good chance of rolling the farthest before coming to rest at the far end.

This game is so much fun that you might want to build a raceway that easily duplicates the down and up slope of our old farmhouse floor. If your family room is 20 feet long, you can use two 1 by 12-inch boards each 10 feet long, or use Masonite of that width and length instead. (The Masonite can be bent slightly to put tilts into the raceway.) The slope you give your track is somewhat optional. The first portion of the course, for example, might be sloped and the rest level, if the course is long enough so that the marbles’ momentum is naturally stopped before they reach the end of the course. Obstacles can be put on the track to slow or divert the downward progress of the marbles and make the race more interesting. Both edges of the race board need to be framed with quarter-round molding to keep the marbles on the track. When you have the boards sloped and tilted properly, in order to keep them that way, blocks should be nailed to the underside of the boards. The boards can be butted against each other and require no special connection. Occasionally an enthusiastic player will bump the track apart, but it can be realigned manually.

Burdock Basket

Children today have wonderful building toys like the Lego plastic building blocks that fasten together to make any shape the imagination can inspire. An adequate substitute is the burs from a common weed, burdock, which looks like rhubarb because of the size of its huge leaves. On a spike on top of the plant, seed burs form toward late summer, and they catch on clothing, sheep’s wool and in the hair. The burs also stick to each other easily if squeezed together gently. Yesterday’s children used the burs to form all sorts of fanciful shapes. A tiny basket, complete with a usable handle, was a favorite. In the baskets we often carried our favorite acorn “tops” for spinning, at least in our area, because the stem of the acorn is usually straight and long enough to manipulate between thumb and forefinger.

Button on a Loop

Another homemade toy that will charm a child now as in times past is made from a button and a loop of string. We called it a buzz saw, because the button, by the action of the string, whirls like the blade of a cut-off saw. You need a large button with two or four holes in it. Run the piece of string, which should measure about 3 feet long, through one hole in the button and then back through its opposite hole. Next, tie the two ends of string together to make a continuous loop. Hook one end over one thumb and the other over the other thumb. Jiggle the button down to the middle of the string. Now twirl the button around in the air by revolving your thumbs so that the double strand of string wraps around itself several times. As the string wraps around itself, pull outwards gently with both thumbs, tightening the string. Immediately let the string slacken a bit and then pull out tight again. It takes a bit of practice, but very soon the twistings and untwistings of the string will start the button turning like a little flywheel, and its speed will increase as you rhythmically pull out and let up on the string. Soon you’ll have the button humming prettily. (If the button is of a material you can notch around the edges, you can run the humming button against a hard surface and create a tremendous racket that will drive parents crazy.)

Tube Sled

Sometimes you can buy a used tractor tire inner tube from a junk yard or farm machinery dealer for a few dollars. Patch any holes, fill with enough air so that it doesn’t give too much, and you have yourself a very exciting sled that won’t hurt you or anyone else if you have a collision or upset going down a snowy hill. Some tubes slide better than others for mysterious reasons, so you may want to experiment with more than one.

Hoop and Push Stick

As kids we rolled hoops with a T stick by the hour. An old steel wheel or steel ring of about a foot to 18 inches in diameter works best, but they are hard to find, even in junkyards. You can use a bicycle wheel so long as you cut out the spokes with a wire cutter. The push stick is a 3-foot lath with a short 6-inch piece of lath nailed crossways at one end. Start the wheel rolling by running it down the lath then run along, “pushing” the wheel by exerting just the right amount of pressure behind it with the crosspiece of the push stick, at just the right height on the wheel. You can chase the wheel around the block till you run out of wind. When you get good, you can make it jump low obstacles. Careful, though. As you run along, the action of the stick on the wheel sort of hypnotizes you, and you may forget to watch where you’re going. Hold the stick out to your side a bit so that if you run it in the ground you don’t jab yourself with the other end.

Grass Whistle

The simplest (and loudest) whistle requires only your hands and a strong blade of grass. Choose a blade about ¼ inch wide, although one a little narrower will work well, too. Hold it vertically and as taut as you can between your thumbs, which you hold as you see in the drawing. You’ll notice that even when your thumbs are tight against each other there is a slot below the knuckles. The grass blade should stretch down through that slot tautly, the edge facing you. Cup your hands behind your thumbs to create a sort of noise chamber. Place your thumbs against your mouth and blow hard through the slot. The whistle varies with the kind of grass you use and how tightly you hold it. Often, you can simulate the distress cry of a rabbit or the hunting cry of a hawk or the cry of a baby crow and lure curious birds close to you.

Twig Whistle

A twig whistle is made in early spring when the bark is still loose enough to slip on the wood. Willow wood is ideal, but other woods also work. Cut a twig about 6 inches long, free of knots or side twigs. The twig should be about ¾-inch in diameter. The fattest end is your handle.

Cut out a narrow ring of bark about 2 inches from the fat end (more if your twig is longer than 6 inches). Then, with your pocket-knife handle, knock on the skinnier portion of the twig all around, until the bark begins to loosen. Then twist the bark and slide it off the twig, being careful to keep it all in one piece. Put the bark back on and cut a slant onto the skinny end, starting about 1 inch back from the end. Cut through bark and wood as shown in the drawing. This is your mouthpiece. Next, cut a notch on top of the whistle about ½ inch in from the mouthpiece. The notch is cut to the middle of the twig, straight down on the back side, slanted about the same degree as the mouthpiece is slanted on the front side. Now slide the bark off again and slice out the top half of the twig, beginning at the notch and back for about 1½ inches. Cut just a thin sliver off the top from the mouthpiece end to the notch. Replace bark and bow. If it doesn’t whistle, slice off another thin sliver above the mouthpiece.



As a child, I often played with toys such as this, and I’m only 43 years old. We commonly made whistles out of twigs and grass.

I had to share this with you: The button on a string, we called (phonetically) “schnewer-katza” which is low German for snoring cat. There is no exact translational spelling, since it was from a dialect. When my dad was born in my hometown just after WWI, and during his childhood, people were still commonly speaking German.

Adrian, you remind me of a great memory from childhood. At Christmas time, my younger siblings often played with the boxes that the toys came in more than they played with the toys. Gene

My kids (ages 2 and 5) love playing hide and seek with torches around the house at this time of year when its dark or making inside dens. I’ve always made little dens, garages for cars, dolls houses out of cardboard for them. I’ll try out some of these simple toys with them too – I do like making things! Making things out of cardboard has become so popular the kids never allow me to throw a cardboard box away (composted usually!) with howls of protest! and will sometimes pick up any bit of rubbish saying we can make something out of that daddy!

btw. I find this time of year difficult. My wife is buying Christmas presents while I try to reject consumerism and make things. Though I never manage to make much. Its hard to compete due to time, ability and effort 😦

Thanks Gene. I do love you postings in almost any topic you choose. This one I will be coming back to.

Also brings back memories even down here in New Zealand Gene.

I believe that making do with simple things made from items lying around at hand and with only books, the landscape and a public service radio station when I grew up to offer alternative entertainment the mind was pushed into imaginative and enterprising activities that today’s kids, sadly, do not have the readily available option to take. Of course they could if pushed or made to do so but that is rather sadly rare by today’s parents. This early training in innovation has led to a lifetime of “McGyvering” things up and even now some of my close friends wonder where I dream these things up. Should I tell them??

Always get such a buzz from making something work or replacing it with items on the spot, at hand and that do the job just as well if not better … and its free. Almost getting tired of saying it but please don’t stop these wonderful blogs. They make the world almost seem sane again and certainly more beautiful.

Cheers my friend.

This essay brought back very pleasant memories of my daughter’s early years – (she was born in 1987).
Her favorite things at the age of 2 and 3 was a bag of fabric scraps from my collection and my grandmother’s button collection that I had inherited. Yes, once I knew she would not eat the buttons, I provided her with a large plastic sewing needle and jute string. for hours she would string the buttons, creating beautiful strands of various colors and shapes. She would hold them up with glee when she had come to the end of her knotted string.
And yes those fabric scraps – pulled from the bag, sorted by color? design? flower? pattern? I had no idea but each pile meant something to her; she would spread the 3, 4 and 5 inch pieces carefully and would often drape her favorite selections over her arms as she sorted the pile.
Parents of wee ones….do them a favor and TURN OFF THE TELEVISION. Let your little ones’ minds have their free play and be creative and interactive with their awesome environment. You will be so glad you did…
Thank you Gene.

My kids get endless amusement from blankets and sleeping bags- they make forts or walls, wrap up in them to become hatching eggs or monsters, crawl around in the sleeping bags like caterpillars etc.

Daisy chains are still a spring ritual around here. My girls are teenagers, but still get out there and make a few, just to keep their proficiency level up. The grass whistle too is a source of pride, as visiting kids are indoctrinated throughout the green grass season. Our kids also have a Wii, iPods, and a trampoline, but these came long after they had learned to amuse themselves without gadgets, and I’m so grateful. Last year, my teens and a few friends spent a week, every day, building an aerial obstacle course in our orchard, using bits and pieces found in the barn – usually cool, hair swishing, cell phone glued to their ears kids that some of them are on their “cool” days, they still have it in them to climb trees, get dirty, and get creative – the course didn’t work, but they didn’t care – the fun was in the journey.

Gene, you have done another excellent post and brought back lots of memories! Right now the grandkids’ favorite toy is the old mattress we took off the bed when we got a new one. It has so far been a trampoline, surfboard, exercise mat and suntanning bed. My husband grumbles that it looks tacky; I answer that it’s a free way to keep ’em occupied while i get some work done.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s