Give Kids Tools, Not Toys

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Give Kids Tools, Not Toys

My dad had a lot of great advice and wisdom. One of the many things I learned from him was the art of giving gifts to children. I remember it clearly. At that time I had three little boys, and Dad and I were standing in his workshop. While he was crafting something, I was holding tools for him. I commented that he and Mom always gave such great gifts to the kids. I told him how many of the moms at my women’s Bible Study were lamenting the amount of toy junk their children receive as gifts for various holidays and birthdays. They wanted ways to curb the toys and limit the junk.

Dad said, "You have to give kids tools, not toys."

That was the advice. He didn't really elaborate—which was unusual because he generally elaborated on everything.

Tools, Not Toys.

Dad is right, of course.

The reasoning is that we are raising kids to be well adjusted, functioning adults who will one day hold jobs, have families, and be responsible citizens. During the short time we have our children under our care, we prepare them to take their place in society. So they need to learn a lot along the way. They need to be molded and shaped and directed. They need the tools—we need the tools—to get them there.

My Dad was a history and shop teacher when I was growing up, and one thing he instilled in us from a young age is, "You have to have the right tool for the job." He would sometimes shake his head during my early married life when he looked at my husband's tools. Many times he would loan us the correct tool for the job. I mean, you cannot fix plumbing without a pipe wrench or work with electricity without a volt tester.

The same is true with kids. What kids need are tools, not toys. If folks could just get a handle on that, the junk found in the kid's section of most stores would be reduced by half or maybe even 90%. But, what is a tool?

Now that I have two toddling granddaughters, I have put together a list of sorts so that my husband I don’t become grandparents who give our sweet grandgirls junk and so that we don't give their parents the stress that comes along with it.

Tools for Kids

  • sports equipment—balls, mitts, bats, orange cones to mark off goals, etc.
  • blocks
  • dolls
  • small animal figures
  • musical instruments
  • flashlights
  • sandbox
  • wagon
  • bike
  • swings
  • picnic table
  • paper, markers/crayons, and scissors
  • construction blocks
  • games
  • backpack
  • fishing pole
  • compass
  • pocket knife
  • mess kit and other camping supplies
  • books
  • a screwdriver and hammer
  • wood-burning set
  • knitting, crochet, or any kind of handwork
  • magnifying glass
  • leathercraft tools and supplies
  • jump-rope
  • pogo-stick
  • baking and cooking utensils
  • puzzles
  • paddle ball
  • a big empty box
  • capes, hats, and costumes
  • gardening tools such as a shovel, a pail, and gloves

Tools encourage imagination and creativity. They often get kids outside where they can develop both large and small muscle groups. Tools stand the test of time and can usually be passed down from child to child in a family. Tools merge the best parts of both recreation and learning. Kids rarely get bored with tools.

When I helped Amy Lykosh develop Sonlight's Preschool Program, I relied on my belief that kids need tools, not toys. Together, we selected a great collection of tools for preschoolers.

Sonlight's Gift Guide

Toys for Kids

So what is a toy? Here are some tell-tale signs that you are dealing with a toy instead of a tool.

  • anything that has batteries and makes noise
  • something meant for the child to watch rather than interact with
  • anything made of cheap plastic which breaks easily
  • stuffed things that talk and/or entertain

Simply browse the children's section of any big box store. Most everything there falls into the toy category instead of the tool category.

Of course, I am not saying, "No toys ever!" What I am saying is that tools should be a child's main diet, and toys should be like a dessert. Dessert is nice, but you have it only occasionally, not at every meal.

So, the next time you want to give a child a gift, remember my dad's words and nourish creativity with tools, not toys.

12 Days of Giveaways

Find the best holiday presents and save with deep discounts in Sonlight's 12 Days of Giveaways and Gift Guide.

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  1. I completely agree with this post Jill. Tools, not toys. Even real tools.

    My husband's parents started a tradition with him that we are carrying out with our boys today - a real toolbox for their 5th birthday, and then one real tool for birthday and Christmas thereafter. You should see my boys light up when they open their screwdrivers, hammers, drills. My brother marvels at their reaction.

    And they feel so grown-up and needed when Dad is working on a household project and says, "Boys, get your tool boxes. We need a hammer, a Philips number 4 and a flat-edge to finish this job." (not that I know what any of this means, but they do!)

    Thanks for the reminder,

  2. Jill Jill


    I love your tool box at five tradition. I think this will be a great one to start with my granddaughters in a few years. We got each of my two youngest children a real tool belt when they were about four and six. My husband was building a shed and little play house. They loved to help Dad build and they were really pretty good at nailing down the floor boards!


  3. The Reader

    This is a great post and so true! I don't think I can add much to your list, other than perhaps expanding the art supplies or following a child's hobby with tools for that, whatever it might be. Expand the cooking tools for a child who loves to be in the kitchen, or upgrade a camera for a budding photographer (a single-use camera and inexpensive scrap book can be a great intro, and as the child shows interest and maturity, upgrade to an inexpensive digital camera, for ex.). That sort of thing.

    The great thing about tools, not toys, is that they grow with the child and can often foster a love for an activity that just can't be there without exposure. A little exposure, and don't feel the need to stick to gender roles!, and a child might develop a life long hobby, skill, interest that will truly serve him or her.

  4. ps3 headsets

    Anything that has batteries or makes noise that drives a mom crazy, if it is meant for the child to watch it rather than interact with it, many video and computer games--even educational games??

  5. Jill Jill

    Hi The Reader--I love your additions. I am making notes.

    ps3 headsets: What I mean is that if something is meant to entertain rather than interact with it may be more of a toy than a tool. And, not all toys are bad. I just caution about lots of toys opposed to mostly tools with some toys. I have seen some children than are so wrapped up with various electronics that they miss out on large motor activities, interacting with others and learning everyday skills. It is just something I try to be aware of so that there is a nice balance of activities.

  6. I agree! I am constantly weeding out the things that I consider 'junk' from the kid's toys. We have a few tubs for certain kids of toys (dollhouse, blocks, dress-up, cars and trucks, kitchen set, small animals, and baby doll things.) if a toy doesn't fit into one of these categories, we generally don't keep it around.

  7. Oh, I love that phrase "tools not toys". Only 4 years into the parenting circuit and I am seeing so many reasons for limits. I just placed an order from Sarah's Silks - I think I'll have some happy tots on Christmas morning :)

  8. C. J.

    While I'm sure this may be a wasted comment, but don't underestimate things that make noise.

    My mother had a bit of a tradition of giving away the noisiest toys she could find as revenge for recieving so many for us, many of which included musical instruments.

    Musical instruments are fantastic things that can develop a number of skills and intrests.

    • Arley

      I don't think musical instruments count as "toys that make noise." What!? Yes! The type of noisy toys that were referenced are the push-a-button-and-it-talks-to-you type, or like the toy cars that make irritating engine revving and siren noises when you push a button (side note, the engine noises my boys make while playing with their non-battery-operated toy cars is cute!).

      Musical instruments are great, in my opinion! My parents let me play with an old keyboard and I would play for hours, trying to make the right sounds for whatever song I was trying to play. I believe it helped me develop an ear for music. Even if it didn't, it still made me use my brain in a way that a talking baby doll never could!

      • I would count musical instruments as Tools. They are wonderful for teaching all sorts of of course, but also coordination, imagination, following directions and for giving a child as sense of accomplishment and discipline. I think musical instruments are wonderful tools and I wish I would have thought to include them as tools in the orginal post.

        Thanks for the reminder.

  9. Australia

    Wonderful Post.

  10. Pingback: The Gift of Play | Sonlight Homeschooling Blog

  11. Oh yes! I love this! As a mother of three boys I am so over the toys! Great ideas too. Though my boy could not have made it through childhood without tons of construction trucks and toy cars.

  12. Heidi

    This is great! Straight from the beginning when we started having kids, we did not allow any toys that require batteries, make noise, light up, etc., or are books/games that are visually very busy. My two exceptions are walkie-talkies and snap circuits, because they allow the child to safely play and experiment with radio waves, electric current, capacitors, insulators, transistors, etc. Tools I would add: kite, bug jars (from the recycling bin), binoculars.

  13. Katie A

    Such great ideas that I wouldn't have thought of!

  14. Sydney Joy

    This is a great article! Often when I watch the news they talk about the lack of individuals going into trades such as plumbing, electrical, construction, etc. And, if girls are given some of the 'traditional' tools that boys are often given, I think we will see more girls becoming interested in these male-dominated fields. Starting early for both boys and girls allows them to know the many possibilities out there for their future work/careers.