Toys and activities for kids that are free

Forget gadgets and battery-operated toys - small children have simple tastes and you can have a world of fun without spending any money just by using everyday household objects.

Cardboard boxes

It's an old joke but it holds so much truth - buy a child a large toy and they'll have a lot more fun playing with the box it came in. A nursery in Ohio even went so far as to get rid of all of their toys and replaced them with cardboard and other basic materials and found that the children were much more engaged and happier as a result. A box can be a castle, spaceship, fort, robot - anything a child's imagination decides. You can draw some buttons on the side and turn it into a machine or cut out holes for windows. A favourite box can provide entertainment for weeks until it falls to pieces - and then you can cut it into bits and use them to construct models for even more fun.

Build a den

My children frequently build dens and nests in their bedrooms. A blanket thrown over the back of a chair immediately provides a tent and you can add and extend as many blankets, cushions and chairs as you have space to build a multi-roomed palace that will entertain your children all afternoon.

Make a nature picture

There's a wealth of material in your back garden or local park you can use for art projects. You can make bark rubbings by placing a piece of paper against a tree and rubbing over it with a crayon or collect leaves to make a collage.

Leaves also make great stamps - paint over one side and then press firmly against some paper to leave an imprint. Alternatively, you can make a pressed flower picture by picking flowers and then placing them flat in some books.

Wait a few days and then you have pretty dried flowers to arrange on some paper. Pressed flower pictures also make great presents - when I was young, I made a flower picture on some card, which I then stuck onto a large matchbox and gave to my dad for Father's Day. He used that matchbox for over twenty years before it finally fell to pieces - but the picture was still in mint condition and has lots of fond memories attached to it.

Put on a show

My children frequently put on plays, dances and puppet shows for me. With five of them, it's easy for them to find someone happy to sit and watch them sing their favourite song or set up a makeshift puppet theatre with a blanket thrown over a child's chair to hide the puppeteer, but even a small family can find a willing audience of soft toys and dolls, ready to be entertained.

Make some kitchen music

Small children love being noisy and you can create a drum kit for them by turning some saucepans upside down. Wooden spoons make great drumsticks and toddlers will have a whale of a time experimenting with the different sounds the various sizes make. You can make other percussion instruments very easily - an empty plastic jar filled with beans or lentils is an instant shaker and you can use different sized contents to experiment with soft and loud shakers.

Lentils

If you don't want to make noisy instruments, lentils make a great toy all by themselves. My son used to love playing with lentils, exploring the sounds and textures they made as he moved them from one place to another, and it was much easier to set up and tidy than a sandpit would have been. Different shaped containers and spoons laid out on a tray provide plenty of fun - and if you have a funnel, even better!

Cooking

Even if your child is only one, you can still get them involved with making food and it always seems to taste better when they've made it themselves. Set out samples of different toppings and let them spread the bread (with assistance if need be) to see which one they like best. Make a fruit salad by letting them choose their favourite fruits, mixing them up in a bowl and adding a few tablespoons of orange juice to finish it off. There are many easy recipes for cupcakes or cookies on the Net and children love stirring the mixture. Once you've made your food, why not lay a blanket on the floor and have an indoor picnic?