That Obscure Object of Desire, you know, for kids.
February 13, 2014 12:22 PM   Subscribe

What is the best special toy or activity to keep at my house to occupy or entertain my friends' little kids when they visit?

Most of my close friends have small children right now, but I do not. However, I have a pretty kid-friendly house and attitude, and they know their wee ones are always welcome here. I think everyone, us, parents, and kids, would be happier if the kids had something to appeal specifically to them when they're over. I'm remembering various awesome!! toys or activities that I looked forward to when going to Aunt X's house, etc. What is a killer indoor toy that can captivate and mollify most any kid, leaving mom more attention to devote to the other grownups?

I'm thinking of one, big, durable object or playset, but a basket of varied tricks would be acceptable also. For example, I'm considering an elaborate play-doh set, because I have easy-to-clean floors and furniture, but I'm not sure that's got the other criteria well-met.

I'm looking in the 2-5yo range.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur to Human Relations (61 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: iPad with kids' apps installed.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 12:23 PM on February 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

huge pile of crayons and blank paper
iPad with kid apps (I hate to agree but it is true)
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:25 PM on February 13, 2014 [8 favorites]

durable yoga ball - needs a crash proof room, preferably carpeted
posted by benzenedream at 12:26 PM on February 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

A huge cardboard box!
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:28 PM on February 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: A drawer full of cheap coloring and activity books (like, dollar store cheap) and washable markers. Emphasis on washable.
posted by jbickers at 12:28 PM on February 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Seconding the yoga ball. A couple I know has frequent parties and has a yoga ball, and three other families-with-small-kids (all boys) always send 'em into the room to play with the big ball.

Kids' play music instruments always work too, if you can stand a bit of noise.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:29 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Legos and a Swoop Bag.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:30 PM on February 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: 2-5: Duplo (Thomas the Tank Engine sets let kids build track and then run trains)
Huge cardboard bricks for construction
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:31 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

tons of crayons and tons of paper and stickers
activity books (esp ones that come with stickers)
wood block set (with various block sizes and types)
posted by bottlebrushtree at 12:32 PM on February 13, 2014

Little kids love applying stickers, in my finding. A book with a bunch of stickers that go in it would be my suggestions (it goes without saying that you should give the stickers a test-drive to make sure they do not become permanently affixed to anything of they should get pasted on a wall or something). Lego might be a little out of the age range for the 2-5 yos. I remember being a little hesitant buying my godson his first Lego set when he was a month or two shy of four but he assured me, "Uncle Ricochet, I can act like a five-year-old." There are similar but larger blocks made for younger kids.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:33 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Similar to the yoga ball idea - get some of those big, thick walled punch balloons. I last bought mine 3 for $1. You can pop them when the kids leave.

Remote controlled car.
posted by MadMadam at 12:37 PM on February 13, 2014

Squishy Fort!
posted by SamanthaK at 12:38 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used to have a bucket of McDonalds Happy Meal toys that I got from thrift stores. Babies love to reach in a pick one out and then fiddle with it and older kids will make up stories and use the toys as actors in a play. They are big enough so they aren't a choking hazard.

The problem with having a universal toy box is that ALL toys have to be choke-proof to factor in for the lowest common age denominator. So in my mind legos are out. Unless you can be sure no babies will show up. You need to be able to look away for one minute and not have a baby choke on a toy.
posted by cda at 12:38 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

A play tent. I think IKEA might sell pretty inexpensive ones. Kids love hanging out inside tents. You could put some ball-pit type plastic balls in there to make it even more fun for them.
posted by Dansaman at 12:40 PM on February 13, 2014 [11 favorites]

Maybe find someone that's craiglisting an old Little Tykes kitchen or Playhouse? Cleaned up it can sit in your living room or, if the weather is nice, it can go in the backyard.

You can fill it with household objects and return them to normal use when the kids are gone. They will self-assemble into all kinds of group activities (let's play restaurant!) when they see one of these things.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:40 PM on February 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

I had a set of Childcraft blocks when I was little. My brother and I got years and years of use out of them.

I think they'd be great for this because they're extremely durable, can be played with by a fairly wide age range, and they're adaptable. The kids can bring a few toy cars with them, or some army men, or some stuffed animals, whatever, and play with them in whatever magical block land they build for them. And as a bonus, they're not going to be the lame, dated toy when your friends have their next set of kids or when you have kids.

Blocks are awesome. And the Childcraft ones I had were by far and away nicer than the ones other kids had.
posted by phunniemee at 12:42 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Trains. A good set can stay in a medium-sized box when not in use, then turn into whatever shape the kids want when they're there.
posted by Mchelly at 12:45 PM on February 13, 2014

Best answer: I try for the same thing and my (dad's former) house has a bunch of random stuff in it and it's been interesting to see what kids go for. Here are the things that have turned out popular

- sidewalk chalk and a brick patio "Go nuts kids!"
- giant stuffer bear, bigger than ones they might have
- nets and a frog pond
- one of those magnetic fishing games
- soccer ball and a yard
- hammock and joke books
posted by jessamyn at 12:46 PM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

My mom kept a few packages of Dixie cups around so when she had my son he'd spend hours stacking them up and making structures with them.

Also, a box or two of random Lego bricks would work for most kids.

Kids get bored easily, so I think a basket of toys would be best. A few Matchbox cars, some Lego, art supplies, etc.
posted by bondcliff at 12:47 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh I forgot, the remote control forklift with little cardboard boxes that you could move all around the floor!
posted by jessamyn at 12:51 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you want something they might not have at home, something that will last forever, look into getting some Quadrilla.

There are less expensive marble run sets out there, some that kids would enjoy just as much, but the Quadrilla is quality stuff and is really easy to put together.

It's not cheap, but it's on par with Lego in that you're paying for quality. It's mostly unbreakable.
posted by bondcliff at 12:55 PM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

A few Bilibo shells might be good.
posted by SLC Mom at 12:57 PM on February 13, 2014

A room with chairs and a stack of sheets to build a fort. A bunch of wacky hand-me-down clothes for dress-up (pretty old nightgowns, bandanas, hats, button down shirts, etc.). Legos. Crayons and paper. Giant cardboard box with some holes cut out like windows. Random tissue paper. Scotch tape. Wooden blocks. Tinker toys. Kid sized pots and pans. Toy cars. Toy Trains. A disposable camera.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 1:02 PM on February 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Magnatiles are less commonly encountered than Lego or wooden blocks, totally irresistable to all ages (my son got them for Christmas and visiting adults play with them as much as he does), and can fit in a small box when kids aren't around.

But the thing that made me love going to people's houses who didn't have kids? High quality art supplies. Fancy paper, nice fluid markers, glue sticks that hadn't dried out or been mashed to bits.
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:03 PM on February 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Came in to suggest Magnatiles. They are expensive but *awesome*. No kid or adult can keep their hands off them. Super, super cool.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:06 PM on February 13, 2014

A roll of butcher paper, with a long length of it masking taped to a wall. To go with it: two boxes of crayons. That would be awesome.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:11 PM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Can't ever go wrong with a whiteboard, provided you're prepared to have a situation where you keep an eye on them to make sure they limit themselves to it. One on an easel at kid height and it folds up so you can shove it behind some furniture. Or get one w/o any lip for markers so you can lay it down flat.
posted by phearlez at 1:12 PM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

For the older end of the age group (and for gentler temperaments) stereoscopic books might be good. Some of them might be pricey, but others not as much.

I make this recommendation based on my purchase of A Village Lost and Found by Brian May (yes, the Queen guitarist.) I bought this just for my own enjoyment, but when a friend's daughters visited (aged about 5 and 8) they were fascinated by it and looked at every single photo in the book. (Something which I have still not done!)
posted by The Deej at 1:37 PM on February 13, 2014

I keep on hand:
Stickers and tattoos (Tattly has really cool ones)
Big roll of paper
Stamps and ink pads
Play-doh and other messy projects (glitter and glue) for outside

Things I already own that I let visiting kids play with:
Record player (I have all my childhood records to let them use)
My tiny food collection
Old point an shoot digital camera
Old film camera
posted by Swisstine at 1:40 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

In my neighborhood, a lady we'd visit maintained a drawer with various small objects of amazement that we could play in. Since I remember that 40+ years later, I guess I liked it.
posted by thelonius at 1:42 PM on February 13, 2014

If you want them outside you can't beat sidewalk chalk.
posted by Gungho at 1:45 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

various small objects of amazement

Well okay thelonious, so answer the OP's question: what were these amazing objects?
posted by Rash at 1:49 PM on February 13, 2014

I hate to say it, but anything they can play Minecraft on.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:51 PM on February 13, 2014

If you're okay with thrifting stuff, you can put some cash toward a nice big basket with a lid then fill it with every hard plastic toy you can find. Disinfect the toys (cars, dinosaurs, horses, action figures, dolls--anything that's not a choking hazard).

Most kids have Legos at home, but friends of ours keep a basket like this, and when my son was in the age range you mentioned, he couldn't wait to go dig in.

The magic is that the stuff is different than what they have at home. So you can drop big bucks on The Coolest Toy ever, but attention spans are what they are, so even that toy may only entertain for several minutes.

Oh, and some low-tech oldies but goodies that come to mind are pop-up books, a View-Master (seriously), Koosh Balls, and Lincoln Logs. My parents still have stuff like that at their place, and grandchildren love that stuff.
posted by whoiam at 1:53 PM on February 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Some of the Amazing Objects that I remember from being the visiting child:

A small toy mouse made from rabbit fur - so soft!
Odd shaped rocks, including one that looked like a sliced loaf of bread and one that looked like cheese.
An Audubon bird call
posted by moonmilk at 2:32 PM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Straws & connectors to build with are irresistible for all ages. They can build things of all sizes. If you put them out even grownups will start fiddling with them.
posted by not that girl at 2:45 PM on February 13, 2014

Matrioshka dolls! Fred has a great set of measuring cup matrioshka dolls- sturdy plastic, $10 ish, and you can use them in your kitchen when the kids aren't around. I got a set for Christmas and my two-year-old son is in bliss when I pull them out.
posted by arcticwoman at 2:46 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Action figures, dinosaurs, matchbox cars, a few stuffed animals, tennis balls/ kooshes, a magnifying glass, chalk, squirt guns(outdoors). Stamps & pads, glitter, paper, markers/ paint/ colored pencils/ glue/ kids' scissors. Glitter is astonishingly messy and therefore quite fun. I used to cut masks out of old manilla folders(card stock) for kids to decorate. Card table + pillows + sheets & blankets = fort. I Spy and other books.

Parents can bring iPad/ computer game, etc. I do have some kids' movies for quiet times - movies I like to watch, too. Want to be the favorite friend? Pay attention to kids, listen, involve them in what you're doing, like cooking, bathing the dog, going for a walk. Kids are all so different that they will have varying favorites, but attention is always good.
posted by theora55 at 2:51 PM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Duplo for 2-5 years rather than lego.
Crayons, paper, coloring books.
A train set (one of the ikea wooden ones is pretty cheap), then pick up some used Thomas trains from craiglist.

Even if the kids have a train set, duplo, and coloring at their house, these toys are great because they are irresistible. Especially the train set for that age - both genders. And its nice because it all goes back in a box afterwards, is configurable in many different ways, doesn't require a specific space to play with - the floor in almost any room works.
posted by Joh at 2:54 PM on February 13, 2014

The yoga ball might draw more attention to the kids rather than the grownups. There is, in my opinion, too much potential for head-bonking in the 2-5 yr old age range.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 2:56 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

nthing crayons and paper, especially nice sharp fresh crayons and higher end markers than kids are used to like these or in pastel. They feel 'special' and a little more grown up. They're used to the fat Crayola washable markers, so these, that have kind of a soft fancy tip on one side and a very fine detail line on the other are pretty fun. There are some pencils and pastels that kind of have that 'treat' like impact too.

It's like getting to use someone's cool stuff.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:51 PM on February 13, 2014

N-thing Lego, Duplo, Magnatiles, IKEA trains, a giant cardboard box, an astonishing number of Solo cups, or some Hot Wheels and rolls of masking tape or road tape.

If you can let them outside: bubble gun and sidewalk chalk.
posted by a fair but frozen maid at 4:07 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love you for the Hudsucker Proxy reference OP! And I second the sidewalk chalk.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 4:29 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Perplexus - a ball with fun/maddening mazes inside and you try to get a marble from point A to B. They may fight you for it.
posted by rubster at 5:30 PM on February 13, 2014

N-thing Lego, Duplo, Magnatiles, IKEA trains, a giant cardboard box, an astonishing number of Solo cups, or some Hot Wheels and rolls of masking tape or road tape.

If you can let them outside: bubble gun and sidewalk chalk.

posted by lakersfan1222 at 5:31 PM on February 13, 2014

Someone mentioned dress up clothes; if you hit the stores the day after Halloween (and often the dollar aisles at the front of Target) you can find dress up stuff for cheap. Wings, headbands with antennas, random hero capes, masks.

I would avoid paint/glitter/makeup or really anything that can spill or be eaten. Playdough too; you never get that out of carpet and some kids will cram it into furniture crevices or other impossible to clean places.

Old funky furniture can be fun. My grandmother had an ancient 1940s school desk in her spare room and we loved to play on it.

A giant box or two would have made you my favorite person to visit as a kid.
posted by emjaybee at 6:31 PM on February 13, 2014

Oh man, this is probably a crazy idea, especially if you don't have kids of your own but...

An amazing friend of mine bought her kids a bouncy castle. It's in their unfinished basement, snugly fit in the corner. You turn on the generator and bam. Hours of fun and amazement. It cost her about $300 and it does take up an ungodly amount of space, but her kids loved it and it was the go to toy every time we went to visit. She bought it when the girls were 2 and 3, and at 4 & 5 they're still playing with it.

I believe they have this model.

p.s. The weight limit is 250lbs, so you could also say you were buying it for the kids, and maybe take a spin on it yourself :)
posted by valoius at 6:31 PM on February 13, 2014

My kids love playing with the playmobil figures at a friend's house. Big plastic box with several assorted sets in it-circus, village. They get lost immediately at our house-having all the cunning little pieces to play with is a total treat.
posted by purenitrous at 6:50 PM on February 13, 2014

Preschool teacher here. Absolutlely get some good art supplies. If you've got the space, you put a paper roll on the floor for them to make big pictures. You can get stickers for cheap at Staples. Something for them to build with, whether it's blocks or magnatiles or something else. Matchbox cars, especially older ones. A box of scarves--great for dress up or can become picnic blankets. A container of play jewelry. A tea set or other play dishes. Beads and string, or let them make macaroni necklaces. If you give younger kids beading, it's a good idea to tie a bead to one end of the string to prevent disasters. Anything they can sort and categorize, maybe with an egg carton for organizing.

You can also get creative and raid your recycling bin. Empty cereal and pasta boxes can become blocks. Coffee and oatmeal canisters make great drums and shakers. I once made a play sink for my own kids from a Harry and David box and a toilet paper roll. I taped paper circles on the other half of the box to make a stove. My daughter played with it for months. Make them newspaper hats and send them off on adventures.
posted by SobaFett at 7:09 PM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's presentation that makes a big difference. A nice cleared space where you have a single special box of toys, and a tent/playhouse (pop-up ones are reasonably easy to store) with small shelf of good kid books (comic books are great for a wide range of ages and you can get decent board books cheaply) for them to read.

If you can handle it inside, bubble mix and bubble wands of different shapes are awesome, and you can buy or make gallons of bubble mix cheaply.

My kid would adore a small box full of junk toys. At a junk sale, we bought a big plastic bag of dinosaurs and Happy Meal type toys and random small things and she adores diving into that toy drawer. If you threw in some matchbox cars and a couple of baby dolls, you have child paradise.

I would not do art supplies because they get busted up, replenishing and cleaning up is a hassle and glitter. Glitter never goes away. Let the parents deal with that.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:36 PM on February 13, 2014

Best answer: I had friends with a six year old, a four year old, and a ten year old come over the other night. I put out some lego and a set of geomag. The kids all love lego at home, but they weren't at all interested in it at my place. Instead they were mostly fascinated by the geomag and spent 90% of the evening on that. Other hits included the cat, a lava lamp, and (yes, sadly) the apps on my phone.
posted by lollusc at 8:22 PM on February 13, 2014

Definitely Lincoln Logs. My grandparents had a set of them at their house for me to play with, and I always made a beeline to them when we went to visit.
posted by SisterHavana at 12:42 AM on February 14, 2014

Seconding the tub of matchbox cars and various hard plastic dinosaurs and animals.

For art supplies: some printer paper, crayons, safety scissors, post-it notes, glue sticks and construction paper. Add to that some stick-on googly eyes and a couple of tubs of stick-on foam shapes and letters. Keep it all in a tub. No glitter and no play dough. It's hard to relax when either of those are out.

These two tubs have seen me through 8 grand kids. If there are babies, a tub of snap together rings, stacking rings, a fake phone toy and a few stuffed animals.
posted by tamitang at 3:12 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A Viewmaster and dozens of reels.
posted by mcbeth at 6:19 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Legos, Legos, LEGOs
and take a photo of the child holding her creation(s) at the end of the stay--then email those photos to the parents, or print it up and send it to them for their photo-album/fridge.

Please no iPad unless it's games are things that honestly spark/enhance the kids creativity--apps to help them make their own music or something--and no "freemium" (buy "coins" to unlock needed things) apps.
posted by blueberry at 7:40 AM on February 14, 2014

Can they get messy? Fingerpaint or on the safer side, you can squirt a pile of shaving cream on a table and let them mush it around and draw in it with their fingers.

Drawing supplies
Matchbox cars
figurines of all types
for the more towards age 5 kids, an old digital camera you no longer use (like some 3 megapixel!! dinosaur) empty paper towel rolls, play doh, Gak (if they still make that sweet chemically stuff), blocks
posted by WeekendJen at 10:07 AM on February 14, 2014

Here are two more suggestions for you:

1. Cost = free. Grab some plastic produce bags and twist ties at the grocery store and blow them up like balloons. The kids can have a great time swatting those things around. Even though you are filling them with air and not helium, they almost float in the air because the plastic is so thin and light (unless you use the thicker bags that some higher end stores use - those are less fun). I call them balloon bags.

2. My daughter likes me to put a cooking pot on the dining room table and she make what we call "sloppy gloppy". Basically just some water plus whatever powders, liquids, spices, etc. in you fridge and cabinet that you don't mind the kids using in small quantities. I always tell my daughter the name of each thing and have her smell it before she pours it into this vile witch's brew.
posted by Dansaman at 11:09 AM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Marble run, but I would say the (cheaper!!) plastic kind is just fine--the kids in my experience mostly seem to care about quantity in terms of buildable stuff, rather than how awesomely wooden or durable stuff is. Marbles are approximately age 3+, and maybe supervised only for some of the younger 3s.
posted by anaelith at 9:20 AM on February 16, 2014

My 5 year old still looks forward to visiting the uncle who has a big old stack of these cardboard blocks.

Duplo/ Lego are also generally a big hit for kids of all ages. If there are truly 2 year olds playing you should only get Duplo, NOT Lego -- choking hazard.
posted by waterisfinite at 10:28 AM on February 16, 2014

I was going to suggest a hula hoop but somehow I get the feeling you have thought of that already.
posted by phearlez at 7:01 AM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

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