Playing With Household Objects Can Boost Your Baby's Development

Baby hiding in a cardboard box

Charles Gullung / Getty

For toddlers, play isn’t just about having fun, it’s a crucial part of learning all about the world around them. 

However, a new study has found that allowing your baby to safely play with household items—such as wooden spoons, cardboard boxes or plastic containers—can encourage their development just as much as toys. “Children are just as happy to play with tupperware and boxes and paper and pillows,” says Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, PhD, the study’s lead author and Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University. 

What the Study Found

As opposed to most studies conducted on children and play, this study took place outside of a lab setting with pre-selected toys. Instead, researchers at New York University observed 40 young children–made up of twenty 13-month-olds, ten 18-month-olds, and ten 23-month-olds–in their home environment. 

The team discovered that, given the opportunity, infants age 23 months and younger will spontaneously play with any object in their home environment to help fuel their understanding of themselves and their environment. The babies will flit between toys and household items, spending approximately ten seconds with each object.

For the babies included in the study, "play" included opening and closing closet doors, emptying drawers of tupperware, fiddling with the TV remote, and pushing stools around the floor.

Far from being destructive or distractible, playing with a wide variety of "toys" in short bursts is hugely beneficial to a baby’s development, says Dr. Tamis-LeMonda. “Number one to parents, this is not a bad thing,” she says. “Exuberance in babies is very adaptive, it’s how they are learning about their environments and that is something that you should expect.”

While this doesn't mean you need to swap all your baby's toys for cardboard boxes, there are practical ways to harness these findings to support your baby’s development and encourage their curiosity. This child-driven, open-ended play is called free play or self play.

What Is Free Play And Why Is It Important?

Free play is a term to describe unstructured play outside of pre-selected toys. Basically, it means your child decides what they want to play with and for how long. Screen time or any adult-led activity is not classified as free play. The Society of Health and Physical Educators (Shape America) recommends that preschoolers engage in some form of unstructured play for at least an hour each day.

For older children, free play is an opportunity to use their imagination and feed their creativity. For babies, it’s a vital step towards understanding how their bodies and the things around them work. 

“Open-ended play is important to the growth and development of young children,” says Laurel Bongiorno, PhD, dean of the Division of Education and Human Studies at Champlain College in Vermont. “Allowing [the child to dictate their own play] allows the child to follow their own interest, use their imagination, explore with their senses, and build their sense of self, their autonomy.”

Peter Gray, PhD

Play is, by definition, a self-chosen, self-directed joyful activity.

— Peter Gray, PhD

Some parents fall into the trap of fighting their baby’s natural instinct to explore lots of different objects in short bursts of interest. They believe instead that they need to teach their child how to focus, says Dr. Tamis-LeMonda. She argues that some parents impose the same expectations we have on preschoolers—to sit still, to listen to this book, to move on to the next activity for the following twenty minutes—on babies and toddlers. 

“That is the wrong expectation,” says Dr. Tamis-LeMonda. “We should be welcoming of how babies are learning about how to move their bodies, what things are, and what they do. [This is] rooted in this very exuberant-like activity.”

Instead of encouraging your baby to play with one "toy" for longer, safely exposing them to a wide variety of objects for the purpose of exploration could better help support their development, says Dr. Tamis–LeMonda.

Exploring a variety of objects in different weights and sizes teaches your baby how to adjust their grasp, which will become important when learning other skills, like how to hold a pencil. "The more varied the things they like to play and explore with, the more they are actually learning fine motor skills and gross motor skills, which are important for school,” says Dr. Tamis-LeMonda.

How To Encourage Free Play

While free play is an unstructured, child-driven activity, there are techniques that parents can employ to encourage this kind of play. "Offering choice rather than giving them one item to engage with is a way parents can encourage free play," Dr. Bongiorno explains. Lay out a selection of different toys or objects for your baby to safely explore, at their own pace. For infants, this could be a variety of colorful stuffed animals outdoors For toddlers, this might mean a selection of playdough, toy cars, blocks, and magnetic tiles. Then, just let them self-direct.

Think about offering toys and objects with different weights, sizes, sounds, and textures—such as water, playdough, or sand—to stimulate your baby's interest and senses. Be careful not to disrupt their play. Instead, you can point out what your baby is playing with as they hold it in their hands to encourage their understanding of language, says Dr. Tamis-LeMonda.

Ultimately though, playtime for your baby should be about fun. "Play is, by definition, a self-chosen, self-directed joyful activity," says Peter Gray, PhD, a research professor of psychology at Boston University and author of the book "Free to Learn." "Children naturally play from essentially their earliest baby days on."

Encouraging free play doesn't mean leaving your baby unattended. Although your baby is in charge of choosing what they play with, you can establish safe boundaries for them to play within.

Offer More Than Just "Toys"

As evidenced in this latest study, both toys and household objects can facilitate learning and development in toddlers. Offering a variety of objects for your baby to play with has been shown to improve their cognitive development, fine and gross motor skills, as well as support their emotional well-being and understanding of language.

Dr. Tamis-LeMonda maintains you can do this without spending a fortune. “We think our child has to sit down with the latest gadget and play with the latest toy and guess what? That toy lasts for five minutes,” she says. “And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Instead, babies want to explore novelty and learn new things about their environment by going from thing to thing, says Dr. Tamis-LeMonda. This could be emptying out the Tupperware drawer, fastening the lid back onto a pan, or scrunching up paper in their hands.

“Toddlers love to play with real things; it is part of imitating adults,” says Dr. Gray. “Beyond that, they play longest with objects that permit much flexibility in how they are used. That's why they often prefer to play with the box over the toy that came in the box.”

In fact, you'll likely find that your baby is drawn to the objects that they see you interact with, says Dr. Bongiorno. "Sometimes they play with the mail on the table," she says. "Sometimes they play with pizza or bread dough. Sometimes they stack boxes. Edible playdough can be made at home. Pots, pans, plastic containers, wooden spoons, and so many other kitchen items are exciting for children to explore."

Household Items That Make Good Toys

Along with age-appropriate toys, making the following nontraditional objects accessible to your baby will help encourage their natural instinct to explore and play:

  • Pots and pans
  • Paper towel rolls
  • Cardboard boxes
  • Plastic containers
  • Pillows and cushions
  • Hats, shoes, mittens, and other clothing
  • Wooden spoons
  • Silk scarves or other colorful fabric

Health And Safety Tips

For your baby, every object is a viable play object, which is why it is important that objects that pose a safety risk are kept beyond your little one's reach. "[The study] does highlight the need for safety because a child will pick up a penny off of the floor, or a little nail or they will put their little fingers in a socket," says Dr. Tamis-LeMonda.

Keep sharp objects such as keys out of their grasp and safely store any cleaning materials to avoid accidental injures. Be mindful of the fact that in their quest to imitate the grown-ups in their lives, babies will often attempt to drag hot coffee cups off of the table, pull heavy objects off of a shelf and onto themselves, or topple off of furniture.

Be especially wary of choking hazards. Babies explore the world by putting objects in their mouths. However, children under the age of 5 made up 75% of all reported cases of foreign body ingestion between 1995 and 2015. Bear in mind that extra caution is required if your little one is handling small objects like marbles or LEGO bricks. So let your little one explore, but keep an eye on how they're doing so!

A Word From Verywell

Whether it is with toys or household objects, playing should be an integral part of your baby's life. Encourage your little one to, safely and independently, explore their environment—it's a crucial way for them to learn about themselves and their world.

While toys can feed that curiosity, so too can many of the objects you have at home. Get creative with what you already have. Playing doesn't have to be expensive, but it should always be fun!

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6 Sources
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  2. Herzberg O, Fletcher KK, Schatz JL, Adolph KE, Tamis‐LeMonda CS. Infant exuberant object play at home: Immense amounts of time‐distributed, variable practice. Child Dev. Published online September 13, 2021:cdev.13669. doi: 10.1111/cdev.13669

  3. SHAPE America. Active Start: A Statement of Physical Activity Guidelines for Children From Birth to Age 5. 3rd ed. Published 2020.

  4. Herzberg O, Fletcher KK, Schatz JL, Adolph KE, Tamis‐LeMonda CS. Infant exuberant object play at home: Immense amounts of time‐distributed, variable practice. Child Dev. Published online September 13, 2021:cdev.13669. doi: 10.1111/cdev.13669

  5. Herzberg O, Fletcher KK, Schatz JL, Adolph KE, Tamis‐LeMonda CS. Infant exuberant object play at home: Immense amounts of time‐distributed, variable practice. Child Dev. Published online September 13, 2021:cdev.13669. doi:10.1111/cdev.13669

  6. Bekkerman M, Sachdev AH, Andrade J, Twersky Y, Iqbal S. Endoscopic management of foreign bodies in the gastrointestinal tract: a review of the literature. Gastroenterology Research and Practice. 2016;2016:1-6. doi: 10.1155/2016/8520767