Growing up in regional Victoria in the 1980s and blessed with a lake on our back doorstep and playground next door, it’s not surprising that I spent most days playing outside. If my sisters and I weren’t hanging from the monkey bars, we could be found climbing the trees in the park or looking for gnomes in our garden.We had so much to do outside we simply didn’t need many toys.

These memories are from my tween years in the country but my early childhood in suburban Melbourne wasn’t overly different. Riding our tricycles in the backyard, making mud pies and playing mothers and fathers was all in a usual day’s play. Screen time was non-existent and role-play and dress-ups (my mother’s wardrobe caste-offs rather than a child’s costume) were in fashion. Of course, my sisters and I longed to have an ATARI video game device like some of our friends, but we weren’t overly upset when the answer was no. We were having too much fun playing together.

I’m not sure if it is the comparative cheaper price of toys nowadays, parents working longer hours or the fact children spend more time indoors than those of previous generations, but children today seem to have more toys.

Given over $1 billion is spent in Australia annually on retail toy sales, it’s not surprising that many homes (and landfills) are overflowing with toys. Many commercial toys are designed to be short-lived and are easily broken and then discarded soon after purchase. Surely there are more sustainable ways to entertain our kids?

Moving from relying on commercial toys to eco play does require creativity and planning, but the benefits for your children, home and environment are worth the effort. A few ideas are listed below. Also let your imagination help you come up with your own.

Create Play from the Everyday
Kitchen cupboards often hide the best toys in the house. My 18 month old son currently loves nothing more than placing all the lids on the saucepans, matching lids to different colour and size plastic containers, or stacking the mixing bowls and measuring cups inside each other. Of course I don’t want him doing this at my feet while cooking and he’s not able to access cupboards containing breakables and sharps, but the Tupperware cupboard can keep him entertained long enough for me to cook dinner in peace.

Both my sons love cardboard boxes and I also remember playing with them as a young child. They can easily be turned into cubbyhouses, trains, tunnels or boats and provide hours and hours of entertainment.

Get Outdoors
Many children these days are nature deprived. The local park, beach, lake or even your backyard are obvious locations where you and your children can connect with nature. Even children living in major cities can play with sticks, roll in the grass, make mud pies and jump in puddles!

We recently reacquainted our two boys with our organic vegie garden (it was a little unloved for a while there after baby no.2). They both enjoy collecting eggs from our chickens, watering plants and picking and eating the fresh produce.

Go For Eco Craft
My eldest son loved water painting when he was a toddler and I’ve recently let my youngest loose with the paint brush. Water painting simply involves giving your toddler a pail of water and a paint brush and sending them outside to paint anything they wish. It’s the perfect toddler parent win-win; a fun craft activity with no mess to clean!

Another eco craft activity requiring minimal materials is collages. Most pre-schoolers love collages, and you really only need glue and a paint brush to get started. Why not help your child create a nature collage from leaves, gumnuts, feathers and sand? Shopping catalogues, greeting cards and magazines can also be cut up to make colourful masterpieces and give new life to preloved items in the process.

Try Libraries and Garage Sales
I have saved the annual membership fee for our local toy library many times over by borrowing various toys. I especially love the fact that as soon as my sons tire of a toy I can replace it with another. Storage solution solved! We’ve also picked up a few toy bargains at local garage sales and our town’s Buy Swap and Sell social media site. We’ve enjoyed knowing that we’re giving a second lease of life to a toy that may have otherwise been tossed.

Address the Source
Like many families with young children, the majority of our toy collection has come from well meaning grandparents, aunties and uncles. We’ve almost got the message through that we’d prefer one quality toy for our children’s birthdays and Christmas or better still, experiences such as zoo outings and concert tickets instead. Perhaps if we lived a little closer to our relatives where they could easily spend quality time with our children this one may be easier to achieve.

While your child may never know the thrill of hanging upside down on the monkey bars, with a little imagination and planning, you can give them a taste of some common eco play activities from generations past and in the process gain a tidier lounge-room floor.

This article was featured in Issue 31, Summer 2013/14 of My Child Magazine