real things that young kids love (that are not actually toys)
August 30, 2015 11:30 AM   Subscribe

My 18 month old nephew LOVES "real things" that are not toys. For older kids in my life, I LOVE buying them things like rock tumblers, microscopes, binoculars, swiss army knives (when they're old enough and with parental permission), digital cameras, or things to support their hobbies (like nice fins for snorkeling). We send them money from foreign countries just for fun (various small bills and lots of coins) and rocks and seashells. I've also had great luck with kids magazines and non-kid magazines (like Science, or National Geographic). I'm also rather good at getting experiences for kids and older teens - museum passes, or concert tickets, or a special fun restaurant where they sing, etc. But I've realized that I'd love to buy the younger set more "real things" because they seem to love them so much more than actual toys! This is roughly for ages 1-5. Would love some additional help of "real things" that toddlers and preschool kids like!

Things my 18 month old nephew has liked: gardening gloves from the drugstore, bits of rope tied in various knots, an actual harmonica, an actual tambourine, wearing mom's bags and shoes, pushing various pieces of furniture around the room, and the always-fun game of pulling everything out of the cupboards.

What are specific things that your kids have loved? A few considerations: nothing that is solely used to make a total racket. The musical instruments are fine and they are brought out at special times. I thought about a metal mixing bowl and spoon but they just make a constant racket. Their house is very small so nothing that takes up a huge amount of room.

Please assume they don't need specific toys like a play kitchen, or a play house outside, or books, or stuffed animals. The kids have lots of love in their life, but partially I just love sending small things as something we can use to discuss in our daily Facetime chats, or something new to keep him occupied while my sister works, etc.

I'm not in their city, but I visit as often as I can, and we talk on Facetime almost every day. Please keep the answers focused to actual things (not apps, not games) that I can send to him that kids usually love!

Other ideas:
- old remote controls or things with buttons (that are not toys)
- funnels or other "real" things for the bath or outside play
- silk scarves and pieces of fabric -- but he's a bit young still (or just not interested)
- cardboard boxes, yes I know :-)
- tiny bouncy balls (as long as they can't fit in his mouth)
- gardening tools for outside
- when he's a little older, a fish in a small tank (with parental permission)
- when he's a litle older, a map or atlas set, or globe
- would love other things for this period of 18 months - 36 months!
- things that I can easily buy and ship are especially helpful, but if I need to procure X thing, and do Y thing to it (I don't know...get a milk jug and stuff it full of styrofoam and toys?!) then that's fine, as long as it can still be shipped without tons of expense

Thank you!
posted by barnone to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (59 answers total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
An actual wallet, filled with business cards, expired credit cards or used-up gift cards that look like credit cards. A photo album filled with actual photographs of the family, him, his pets, you, or whatever -- but that doesn't need to be treated with care, the way a family's treasured album might. So he can drag it around with him, cover it with stickers, scribble on it, etc. (If you have digital photos you can order a photobook via Shutterfly or the like.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:37 AM on August 30, 2015 [18 favorites]

At that age, my son decided that a small can of tomato paste was the best thing ever. He carried with him everywhere for a week and even napped with it. He was also obsessed with toilet brushes.

You can buy a small ball pit with balls. That's a fun afternoon.

The best things are disposable, one or two use things, that won't add clutter, like playdo or paint.
posted by myselfasme at 11:40 AM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

Old-fashioned kitchen stuff you can probably find at thrift store:
-Colander - you can get a smallish plastic one
-Collapsible steamer basket for veggies
-Hand-crank eggbeater
-Hand-crank flour sifter
-Foley food mill
-ice cream scooper with moving part

-small bowls, cups, utensils - unusually small things of any type, and you can get inexpensive "real" ones (stonewear/ceramic).
-mini teapot, anything with a pour spout
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:45 AM on August 30, 2015 [5 favorites]

My nephew loved colorful beaded necklaces with big beads - I had a few that I ended up leaving with him. He liked to point out each bead and name the color.
posted by maggiemaggie at 11:46 AM on August 30, 2015

Also, for mailing: coffee can.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:47 AM on August 30, 2015

Soft retractable tape measure! Like this. This was my daughter's absolute favorite !toy at about that age.
posted by redfoxtail at 11:48 AM on August 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

A flashlight has been one of my go-to small kid presents. Check out the 'For Small Hands' catalog - its Montessori, so full of small real things - tool kits, kitchen gear, shoe polishing kits...
posted by munichmaiden at 11:50 AM on August 30, 2015 [7 favorites]

Seconding small flashlight!
Small magnifying glass too.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:52 AM on August 30, 2015

My boys loved flashlights and since they easily became light sabres, saved the galaxy many, many times from evil overlords. My dad gave them each a water activated LED. Bath time in the dark: YAY! And my mother-in-law had an old hand-cranked coffee/spice mill which the boys would use to grind crackers into enough crumbs to coat entire flocks of fried chicken.
posted by angiep at 11:52 AM on August 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

A sturdy (plastic) magnifying glass or page magnifier

A set of measuring cups and a plastic bin (with lid) filled with rice. Color the rice for extra fun. My kids played with this for hours & hours. Add small toy vehicles, dinosaurs, etc. for extra fun.
posted by belladonna at 11:52 AM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

A compass.
Binoculars and/or telescope.
Piggy banks.
posted by Crystalinne at 11:53 AM on August 30, 2015

When I had a bunch of kids of that age at my house over the summer the big hit was an old telephone (cords and all). Other popular thing, various Rubik's cube things. They're not very goal-oriented but like to mess around with them. When I was a kid it was a hand-crank egg beater (as LM says). Also seconding the older wallet with pictures and misc stuff inside it (or currency from other countries). Old postcards with old "stamps" that might not even be real postage (we had a lot of random stickers in the house like from publisher's clearinghouse). As I got older looking up coins from other countries and sorting them into ice cube trays was something I liked. Old DYMO labelmakers if you can find them are fun for kids once they get the hand strength to operate them. We made ring toss games out of those old rubber canning seals.
posted by jessamyn at 11:55 AM on August 30, 2015

My dad got my son a flashlight from Ikea that you crank to power (no batteries) and he loves it.
posted by amro at 11:56 AM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

My kid got so many hours of joy out of a pocket calculator, it seemed impossible.

He also loved / loves retractable tape measures, a hand-crank egg beater, and bubble wrap
posted by Mchelly at 12:00 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding tape measures (the soft sewing kind)
child size broom, or cut down a big one
anything cart-like he can push around
my two year old loves cards - playing cards, sports cards, flash cards, anything
scarves/bandanas/hats and other dress up things
bags and baskets to carry things around in
anything that can be safely filled/dumped - my kid loves putting all our gaming dice in a little bucket then dumping it out again
posted by arrmatie at 12:04 PM on August 30, 2015

At the same age I gave my nephew & old computer mouse & keyboard with the cables cut off, he'd sit in front of the TV & copy me. Also an old wallet with notes from other countries I'd visited.

nthing Flashllight, I got him one that had a magnet in it he loved that. Make sure the on/off button is easy enough for little fingers.

Plastic kitchen bowls/spoons etc are fun to play in the kitchen. I had an antique toy stove and he loved "cooking" on that I gave him various dried pastas & baby rusks to cook. He also added some dog treats to the mix when he realized how much my dogs liked it when he "cooked.

Dust buster vacuum to help around the house & a mini broom. I didn't have to sweep under my kitchen table until he was almost 5 & lost interest it was awesome.
posted by wwax at 12:05 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding wallet/purse and keyboards. Kid-sized umbrellas. Clipboards (with my kid this may have been because all the teachers at daycare had them.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:13 PM on August 30, 2015

-rolling pin (that's a kid-size one, but an adult one would work)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:21 PM on August 30, 2015

When I was around 3, I had a film camera (it was made for preschoolers, but it wouldn't necessarily have to be) that I loved.

Kitchen utensils (measuring cups, garlic press, strainers....) to use in the tub or sandbox
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 12:23 PM on August 30, 2015

> ice cream scooper with moving part

The scar just inside the top of my right ear, acquired 43 years ago by playing ‘telephone’ with an ice cream scoop and getting the moving part and mini-scruss flesh too closely intertwined, suggests care. (But then, phones don't look like they did 43 years ago, so maybe go nuts. Devices are the best!)
posted by scruss at 12:32 PM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

When my daughter was about 5, I took her to Chick E. Cheese for a birthday party. She loved playing all the games and getting those little paper tickets to redeem for prizes. When she saw how many tickets she'd have to fork over for a little rubber eraser, she got her first lesson in economics--I gave her the option of keeping the 200 or so tickets. She had WAY more fun with those than with anything she couldn't gotten for them.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:37 PM on August 30, 2015

A jar of rocks or beads or buttons. They'll get everywhere but I know I loved playing with mine.
A large magnet.
A set of measuring spoons/cups, especially the kind that clip together.
posted by irisclara at 12:37 PM on August 30, 2015

an old flip phone

clothes pins - both pegs and the spring kinds

a tape measure - my kids liked the big metal ones but needed help not slicing themselves on the edges, the smaller sewing oriented ones can be used independently

a couple really big nuts and bolts

a nutcracker and a bucket of things to experiment on (various inedible nuts, frex acorns, pebbles, crackers, dead toy parts)

my nephew entertained himself for two days with a pair of pliers, a bucket of small pompoms and two containers to put the pompoms into

A word of warning about magnifying glasses - we managed to singe a hole in the back seat of the car using only the power of the sun... and we were not trying. Singeing things is a definite possibility, and sometimes of mixed utility.
posted by old gray mare at 12:43 PM on August 30, 2015

Old wooden spools, the bigger the better, lots of them, and a long piece of string. Stacking, sorting, stringing, snake-making, rolling, building. They filled a drawer and we played with them for years.
posted by SLC Mom at 12:46 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Grabbing hand for things on high shelves.
Promotional floaty pens.
Massage roller balls.
posted by Scram at 12:49 PM on August 30, 2015

Pop-up tissue boxes
In the same realm as a calculator, an old adding machine, with or without the rolling tape
Multi-color pipe cleaners
Paint rollers w/handles
Cookie cutters (plastic, preferably) in weird shapes
Cheapie plastic pedometers -- pushing the buttons changes the display
Small change purses with fun designs and weird snaps/closures
Little toiletry/cosmetic bags like they give away with purchases in department stores (which kept me busy forever!)
Pipes (like the kind for smoking, clean, old wooden ones, but never used -- we were much older before we had an idea they weren't weird spoons)
Small, cheapie notebooks (glued, not spiral, so no ouchies), as much for the sound effects of riffling or tearing as for the ability to write on them
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 12:57 PM on August 30, 2015

Cassette recorders.

Colour cosmetics (include a set of brushes).

A collection of business cards (bonus points for interestingly printed ones, ones from other countries, ones from people s/he knows).

A lightweight but enormous piece of fabric, suitable for fort-making, Statue of Liberty-inspired attire, etc.

Printing calculators.
posted by kmennie at 1:07 PM on August 30, 2015

I was born a few years before cell phones became a thing, but I think I would have really gotten a kick out of being able to play around with an old cell phone. A flip phone, something like that. It doesn't even have to be able to turn on, but it could be a fun thing to mess around with.

I had fun making rubber band balls so how about a bag of rubber bands, and you can show them how to get started with the rubber band ball. This probably isn't safe for the youngest age, but maybe the 4 or 5 year old age range.

This may be too toy-like, but if they like rocks, they might enjoy marbles. They're fun to play with, and they're also cool to collect. Again, this is only once you don't have to worry about them swallowing them.

I enjoyed playing "doctor" with my stuffed animals/toys as a little kid, so maybe some bandaids, gauze, that kind of thing. I had a toy doctor kit, but I'm sure I would have absolutely loved an actual stethoscope to play with.

Also, I'll nth anything else that is small and collectible. The coins and rocks are great start, as are beads, buttons, that kind of thing.

Lastly, I don't want to derail, but I would really encourage you to rethink the fish thing unless you know that the kid and parents are on board with the kind of care that a fish actually needs. I'm not an expert, but from what I've read online, including here on askmefi, the stereotypical gold fish (or betta fish, etc) in a small bowl is really not a good environment for them. Of course, if you have the resources and knowledge and parents are on board with getting a large enough aquarium, changing out the water on a regular basis, etc, then definitely go for it.

I hope this doesn't come across as condescending or like I'm trying to be preachy. It's just that this is something I was unaware of when I had fish growing up, and I've only become aware quite recently.
posted by litera scripta manet at 1:10 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Real things my two year old likes:
Tape measure (the big clunky one, she refuses the small one)
Old cell phones with the battery taken out
Mini flashlight
Ear plugs (we bought a huge pack of bright pink ones, so it may be that she likes the color most of all but girlfriend is kind of obsessed with ear plugs, she carries them around everywhere, little weirdo!)
Corks (washed off and dried)
Plastic colander and wooden spoons
Throw pillows (to build a fort with)
Baskets (the big kind, to sit in and to put toys in/take them out). Can also substitute laundry basket, which to her is a vehicle in which she climbs and gets pushed around in.
Photographs of family members and friends
My hair bands and hair clips (but not her own)
Anything with buckles and latches - although she needs help unbuckling and unlatching
posted by echo0720 at 1:18 PM on August 30, 2015

My kids loved different sponges. We would break out the pots of water either in the kitchen or outside and they were busy for almost an hour.
posted by AugustWest at 1:20 PM on August 30, 2015

Oh, just thought of a couple things:

Popsicle sticks!

Also plastic cups (like those red solo sticks). They can be fun to stack in various shapes as a "fort" or to knock over, or fill with water, etc.

I'm not sure if this exactly fits, but when I was around 5 or so I first started learning some basic origami. I also remember my grandfather showing me how to make paper airplanes. Even if they're too young to do the folding themselves, I'd bet they'd enjoying having some pre-folded things, like a paper airplane.

One of my go to tricks for entertaining young children is making paper airplanes and other origami things, in particular this frog. Kids tend to like them because you can throw the airplanes and the frog can be made to hop, as shown in the instructions. For now you might want to fold these things for them yourself, but eventually you can teach them how to do it.

This is more experiential than anything, but once they're 4 or 5 they would probably enjoy helping you with some scientific "experiments." One of the classics that I did as a kid (which isn't really much of an experiment, but still fun) was dropping various things from various heights and observing how they responded to the fall. For example, eggs are good, tomatoes, water balloons, etc. Obviously this is the kind of thing you want to do outside. I also once did a science fair thing when I was like 9 or so where I made various types of paper airplanes, and then tested out how far each of them flew, and I used this as a jumping off point to learn about concepts like lift and drag to try to figure out why some planes flew longer/farther than others.
posted by litera scripta manet at 1:21 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Their own furniture that is to scale - eg, kindergarten desk and chairs. The inexpensive bookcases that you get to assemble are not practical as the books at that age are large and those bookcases are for paper-backs, however a small bookcase can be used as a storage shelf.

Their own special real mug, with their favourite thing on it or with their name. (As kids we had totem animals. Lions were always my sister, I was a bear, my daughter likes dolphins.)

Sewing and knitting and other handwork supplies. This is dependent on the age of the child and will work best if their is an adult in the house who does handwork. The little ones use yarn and a plastic needle for sewing materials like burlap.

Their own nursery lamp.

Construction boots, rubber boots if they don't have them and if their caretakers will take them outside in mucky weather to use them.

Real masking tape and real tools.

A dollar store tarpaulin and rope and hooks to put it up with (Rope requires parental supervision.)

Real musical instruments such as a recorder or drum or xylophone. The percussion instruments seem to be better as you don't need to learn to blow them and you can learn to play tunes based on the xylophone key.

If you give a whisk also give a mixing bowl, a measuring cup and a package of instant pudding.

Simple tools like a tire pressure gauge, carpenter's c-clamp, stud finder etc. Sharps are inappropriate.

Their own clock or watch, if the people around them use those things rather than just their cell phone.

Their own electric fan or cheap version of an iPod or whatever sort of music player is in use now.

Pencil box or tool box or tackle box.

Their own white board or bulletin board especially if there is one the adults use.

Fridge magnets.

A wastebasket.

A big padlock and key

An battery powered tea-light candle as an alternative/ addition to a flashlight. The tea light can go on the table for an intimate dinner, or be used as a campfire by the action figures, etc.

Carpenter's measuring tools, such as a square and a big protractor, to be used with sidewalk chalk.

A spray bottle and cleaning cloth.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:25 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

An old kitchen timer - the kind that ticks. Or, when he gets older and if you can find one that works, an old stopwatch.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 1:29 PM on August 30, 2015

I once entertained my preschool-aged niece and nephew for an afternoon by giving them a bathroom scale and a measuring tape, and showing them how to weigh and measure things. These were at least as big a hit as any toys I've given them.

My nephew was also obsessed with keys and locks when he was about 2. We gave him a padlock with a key and he loved it. (Obviously with little kids you have to supervise because of choking hazards.) [jinx Jane the Brown]

A friend of mine made an activity centre for her 18 month old grandson by attaching levers, switches, deadbolts, and other fun things to turn, pull, push, etc. to a wooden board. He loved it.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:30 PM on August 30, 2015

Definitely measuring spoons and cups.

My son also likes a little scoop I bought him. And a melon baller. There's kind of a spoon theme. IKEA has nice kid sizes baking and kitchen stuff too.
posted by JenMarie at 1:57 PM on August 30, 2015

My favorite toy as a child was a working wooden cash register that my mom got from Hearth Song. It straddled the divide between toy and real thing for ages and I used it into middle school as a real register whenever I had a bake sale or lemonade stand.
posted by Hermione Granger at 2:03 PM on August 30, 2015

A real (but cheap) stethoscope, flashlight, roller bandages (tensors are more reusable than gauze, cut to a shorter length to reduce entrapment potential) and some syringes (without needles obviously) for 'playing' vet or hospital. My DD loved 'her' cell phone (old flip phone with battery removed for safety) at age 2 or so. Otherwise, kitchen things were all a huge hit.
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 2:03 PM on August 30, 2015

You might find inspiration from some of the materials used in a Montessori Classroom.
posted by oceano at 2:55 PM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

Hey please don't get an 18 month year old anything like a jar of beads and buttons. If you got my 17 mo old a giant tub of choking hazards I'd have some rude things to say.

Anywho, my dad sends us these hard backed photos of various members of our family including him. I thought they were silly but the kid carries them around and they don't get beat up destroyed like regular photos and one of her first words was Grandpa so that's a good bet if ingratiating yourself is the point.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:03 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

First aid kit.
posted by Dragonness at 3:28 PM on August 30, 2015

posted by apparently at 3:41 PM on August 30, 2015

My grandson is three now and he loves thick walled cardboard tubes which become firehoses, materials for building a scarecrow, a golf club and on and on. Before that he had PVC pipes which became leaf blowers. And kid-sized ear protectors!

Silk scarves are great for dance time (running in circles to music) and using to tie a small pillow to his back as a firefighter's airpack.

He loved to sit in cardboard boxes which became a car or rocket. He also loved the round plastic basins his mom used for handwashing clothes. He liked to sit in them or put his collection of balls in them. And dump them out.

The colored dots you find in the office supply store. So cool to stick them on paper endlessly.

One of the best things is a pop-up tent. His has a detachable roof. He can put it up himself. All the little stuffed animals go inside of it with him!
posted by goodsearch at 3:48 PM on August 30, 2015

The two "real" things my kiddo loved were a ring of keys (old keys found here and there on a large metal ring) and a cheapo tool box of bungee cords for "hootching things up."
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit at 3:55 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

A flashlight that you shake to charge is fun.

A handcrank milkshake mixer (has some small parts so over age 3 is best).
posted by gudrun at 4:26 PM on August 30, 2015

My almost one year old will happily spend tons of time looking at our herb garden (basil, sage, lavender, etc). All edible, so no worries!

The last few days he's been carrying around an empty plastic milk jug with some pebbles in it. To be safe, you could gorilla glue the lid on. Noisy, but less grating than metal kitchen stuff.

A beach ball. I think he likes carrying it around because it's BIG.

His daycare has clear plastic water bottles full of water and glitter/sequins/buttons and the lids glued on. He loves those; kinda like a custom snow globe.
posted by jrobin276 at 5:16 PM on August 30, 2015

Fishing for keys over the landing banisters was the world's absolute best game aged 2-4. You just need a traditional U-shaped magnet on a long string (maybe wrapped around a pencil or something) and some old keys.

Other fun games were playing with a big deep tray of water or sand (depending on the sort of mess you're happy with) and a selection of colanders, sieves, whisks, jugs and funnels. Literal hours of entertainment in playgroup (aged 2-4). There used to be actual queues for that play area.
posted by tinkletown at 5:43 PM on August 30, 2015

We got a nylon shoulder bag with some kid-size tools (of surprisingly non-craptastic quality) from, I think, Lee Valley Tools. I don't see them on their web site anymore, but both of my boys got ENORMOUS JOY from pounding nails into a piece of 2"x4", and driving screws into the same board, and pulling out nails, and un-screwing the screws.

A smaller hammock -- just $5 at the store Five Below! -- lets them relax in comfort in a shady part of the yard (and I will probably have to figure out how to hang some indoors this winter).

A flat magnet with a small hook on the back lets them add string and create as large a crane as they like.

Small pots and pans let them emulate the cooking that they see grown-ups doing. (To be honest, a plastic Fisher Price grill -- with lights and sizzling noise -- made all of my kids delirious around that age. My oldest brother sent it to us after his own kids also went ga-ga over it. I am still trying to figure out that one, as our grill doesn't even look like it!) And plastic food in general was popular.

Stickers, man, stickers.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:16 PM on August 30, 2015

Stuff my 20 month old loves: wallets, his own small backpack to carry treasures in, solar powered flashlight, sea shells, pennies, chap sticks and lotions of various kinds, assorted pens and pencils, old tape player, notebooks to scribble in, laminated family photos, magnets, old padlocks and keys, buckets or dishpans (filled with water), and especially, tiny stainless pitchers and bowls intended for condiments - these have been everywhere from the beach to the kitchen.

Oh and I can't believe I almost forgot: CLOTHES PINS.
posted by Cygnet at 7:19 PM on August 30, 2015

Silicone muffin cups
posted by Leona at 7:49 PM on August 30, 2015

Measuring cups and a big plastic tub full of dry pasta or rice
A bucket and paintbrush for "painting" with water outside
A crank flashlight
posted by Ostara at 7:50 PM on August 30, 2015

Whenever we get a baby or wedding announcement in the mail (the kind on nice thick cardstock) my almost 2 year old immediately steals it and carries it around for days on end before it just disappears. I think he loves the fact it's mail that magically appears and also that it's a new interesting thing. So, send the kid postcards. If you are feeling ambitious you can have real photo cards made, but even a simple store bought postcard of a funny cat with "C FOR CAT" written on the back would be loved a lot by my kid.
posted by gatorae at 9:12 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Visit you local white-goods store and see if you can get a washing-machine or fridge carton. Being able to play in a cardboard box the size of a house is great! Kids love them - you can make forts, or be in TV. You can cut out windows (with adult help) or colour it in!
posted by ninazer0 at 11:18 PM on August 30, 2015

  1. A bank and a safe. Mom quietly keeps copies of keys and combinations just in case, but the kid thinks he's the only one in the world who can open these things. Maybe a big jar full of jingly money with the potential to get cool stuff if you're patient and keep saving. Maybe a box full of secrets only you know about.
  2. A cape. A person could be Dracula, Superman, Batman, Sherlock Holmes. Who knows? Just make sure the cape has a breakaway collar (easy snap or velcro) in case it gets caught while the wearer is leaping from a tall building or dashing after a villain. And a cape is an excellent start for a dress-up box full of hats, gloves, and masks.
  3. A pen pal. Maybe you know someone (maybe it's you?) who lives far away (or not) who could write real letters to the kid, send little gifts, etc. There's nothing better when you're a kid than getting a surprise in the mail addressed to you. And the kid can write to you!
  4. A science sampling kit. Vials, nets, match boxes, plastic organizer boxes with compartments, tweezers, etc., for catching and storing scientific samples (pretty much anything) that you can take home and examine under the digital microscope. Every time you go on an expedition, take a bunch with you. If you have enough containers and display cases, you can get up collections of soil samples, rocks, seeds, beetles, etc. You learn best about a general type of thing by building a collection of three or four different examples and then noting the differences. "It's not just a beetle, because these are all beetles. This big fat black one with the iridescent shine is a dung beetle. It loves poop but it finds its way home at night by the light of the Milky Way..."

posted by pracowity at 2:41 AM on August 31, 2015

Seconding a key ring--little kids love keys because they're something grownups have, they represent travel, and they jingle (but not too loudly). Maybe on a nice chunky key chain from your city?
posted by Nibbly Fang at 8:03 AM on August 31, 2015

Response by poster: Awesome ideas, everyone. I especially appreciate the ideas of things that I can mail or have shipped. I'm usually very creative in-person (with blankets, and forts, and boxes, and being able to supervise using tiny objects) but it is wonderful to have an arsenal of ideas for many years to come.
posted by barnone at 8:07 AM on August 31, 2015

I love this question!

Colourful pieces of interesting fabric, about 12-18 inches square (I gave a toddler some very colourful fabric scraps and she looooved them)
Cool remote control from the thrift store (batteries removed)
Stack of paint chip samples
Old credit cards or photo IDs, in a wallet (my mom used to give me her old bus passes and I loved them)
Watch (metal ones are probably more indestructable)
World globe (sometimes these have little metal things at the north & south pole, might wanna remove those)
Flyers and catalogues
Receipts and credit card bills (ha! - just avoid the powdery heat-printed ones, as that stuff is toxic)
Small electronic piano
Ukulele (makes nice sounds even if played haphazardly)

First-aid kit, with tons of band-aids, tensor bandages and sling, etc, in a neat little case)
Old-fashioned balance scale
Voice recorder (I don't know what these look like now since we all use phones, but as a kid I had my own little cassette recorder and I LOVED it)
Book of fabric swatches (just be careful of staples)
ZoomGroom if they have pets (it's a very soft silicone brush that can't hurt the pet, and my cats are a data set of two that give an enthusiastic HELL YES to this item)
Envelopes and one-cent stamps they can lick and seal
Eyeglasses / sunglasses (drugstore plastic reading glasses)
Cordless beard razor (the non pokey kind with the smooth foil blade surface)
Little garden shovel / trowel
Paint roller (the kind where the roller part slides on & off the handle)
Adult purse or briefcase similar to what their parents use
Old suitcase with rolling wheels (make sure it has air holes if it's big enough for a kid to get into!)
Old camera

Tiny workout weights (like 1-lb weights with soft foamy coatings, or 1-lb ankle weights)
Little shopping cart that folds up
Umbrella (not too pointy on tip and ends of arms)
Lunchbox full of tupperware
Pencil case of cool clicky pens and mechanical pencils
Roll of painter's tape (won't damage surfaces)
Slide whistle
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:00 PM on August 31, 2015

My son loved all kinds of non-toys when he was a preschooler - scarves, retractable badge / name tag holders, small tools, hand crank egg beater, bags of all sizes, catalogues (didn't matter if they were for toys or seeds), spatulas, bowls, egg cartons, the belts from house coats, measuring cups, anything made out of silicon, small guidebooks, masking tape, coins, you name it...

For the dauphin's 3rd birthday we threw him a "box" party. We collected dozens of boxes and encouraged everybody who was invited to bring a box. Laid them all in the backyard and we let the kids (with a little parental help) to do whatever they felt like with the boxes. He still talks about it 3 years later.

When I was a little kid my absolute favorite toy was a tobacco can that was filled with buttons that my great grandmother had collected. My wife loved a cabinet that her great aunt owned which has a very simple straight line design on it. She'd spend hours playing in it and tracing the patterns imaging herself going through a maze or on some kind of adventure.

One of the consistently best gifts we get from others is either the membership to our provincial parks (gets us in free for swimming etc.) or the membership to the local museum/pioneer village. One year my in-laws gave us as a gift a tour of a maple sugar bush.

A crazy hippie family we know gives their large family of kids packs of cheap Scotch / cellophane tape on long family trips to play with (a la Pee Wee Herman).
posted by Ashwagandha at 6:04 PM on August 31, 2015

This may skirt the edges of your request, but allow me to suggest plush toys that can't be had in the region where the child lives.

I went on vacation to the East Coast when my niece and first nephew were quite young. I happened upon plush lobsters while in Portland, ME. There are no plush lobsters in the Great Plains states, so I sent a couple of the lobsters to the Greater Kansas City Metropolitan Statistical Area for the tots. Once their parents explained (education!) what a lobster was, the kids spent hours upon hours with their lobsters, and they had fun showing them to their lobsterless friends.

Also, nthing flashlights and stickers.
posted by bryon at 4:15 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

For $5, I got a used square dance petticoat--very full and ruffly--at a thrift store.
This was my daughter's favorite play thing for years. Initially, it was a neck-to-floor dress, then a skirt, a play blanket, a veil, hair, a cape, and lord knows what else, from about age 3 to well into junior high.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:33 PM on September 1, 2015

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