Between sounds, lights and electronic capabilities, the “latest and greatest” baby toys come complete with so many bells and whistles, it almost seems as if they could play themselves as your little one looks on with wide eyes.

With increased societal pressure to “prepare” your child for his upcoming milestones, panicked parents are turning to expensive store-bought toys that tout educational benefits for even the youngest babies. While experts agree that babies need a variety of toys to enrich their lives and encourage learning, it’s not necessary to break the bank on gadgets. Your budding learner can get as much enrichment and entertainment from a crumpled piece of paper, a set of measuring spoons, an empty box, or a leaf as she can from the latest Toys ‘R Us offering.

Everything is new and interesting to a baby, and if you open your eyes to seemingly “boring” trinkets and trash, you’ll realize that you don’t have to spend a fortune to keep your baby happy, interested, and learning. Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to provide eco-friendly stimulation for your baby’s five senses as well—helping him grow and learn as you do your part in helping the planet. As you view ordinary objects as potential playthings, here are some tips to consider:

  • Provide variety. Search for items of different weights, materials, textures, flexibility, sizes, shapes, colors, and smells. Most store-bought baby toys are primary-colored plastic; that’s why your metal keys on a leather key ring are so very appealing—they’re different!
  • Keep it consistent. Babies are generalists, so prepare yourself: your little one will apply what he learns from one object to any other that’s similar. Therefore, don’t give him an old book or magazine to scribble in unless you want all of your books to be potential notepads. A sealed bottle may look fun, but your baby may then think he can play with your pill bottles. Be cognizant of what you offer up as a plaything, so he’s able to distinguish what’s okay to toy around with—and what’s not.
  • One man’s trash… Take a closer look at the things you consider garbage—some may be valuable toys! Empty boxes, egg cartons, and tin containers are just a few examples of everyday castoffs that, once cleaned, can provide endless hours of play.
  • Kitchen entertainment. Once your little one begins to crawl, it’s time to rearrange the room at the heart of your home. Put all your baby-safe items, such as plastic containers, pots and pans, potholders and canned goods, in your lower cabinets and let your baby know where his “toys” are. You’ll have to relax your housekeeping standards and deal with disorganized cabinets for a while, but the play potential is so fantastic that it’s worth it!
  • Make a splash. Young children love water play, and a bowl or pan of water along with spoons and cups of various sizes make a fabulous source of fun. You can put your baby in his high chair, sit him on the floor on a beach towel, or take him outside in a shady spot if the weather’s warm. He’ll be soaked when the play session is done, but cleaning him off will be well worth the wet ‘n wild fun he has. While water can provide endless entertainment, it also poses a potential risk: never leave your baby unattended with water, as it could present a drowning hazard, even if it’s shallow.
  • Fill ‘em up. Containers to fill and empty are lots of fun for a baby. You can safely fulfill your older baby’s desire to manipulate small things by filling a large bowl with a variety of colorful children’s cereals (nothing hard or ball-shaped) and supplying spoons, measuring cups, and other containers. Since you’re using cereal pieces, it’s okay if some end up in his mouth. Don’t try this with beads, seeds, macaroni, or other items that pose a choking hazard.
  • Keep it simple. Often, toys that are meant to simply stimulate a baby can be overwhelming with a string of musical notes, dings, buzzes and flashing lights. These bells and whistles are fun for a while, but if that’s all that is offered, your little one will likely tire of the toy quickly. The simpler the plaything, the more your baby has to use his imagination to make it fun. A toy sword is simply a sword, but a wrapping paper roll can be a knight’s sword, a hiker’s walking stick, an astronomer’s telescope, a flagpole, or a super-secret telephone—the possibilities are endless.

The next time you feel pressured to buy your baby the latest “smart” toy, remember that it’s the benefits, not the toy itself, that will help shape your child’s creativity, physical coordination and cognitive development. By presenting your budding Einstein with an array of simple objects, you’ll give him the opportunity to problem solve, figure out how things work and use his imagination. Go green—and save green—with a DIY toy box that provides hours of fun and a little extra cash to put toward his college fund.

Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company. She is also the author of twelve parenting books, including the popular "No-Cry" series.