Play Ideas

Building Without Blocks: 7 creative building materials for children

January 20, 2023
Preschool kids play with building bricks in while sitting on floor in daycare

Does your child love to stack and build with blocks? Maybe they build a tower just to knock it down – watching the blocks crash to ground. Maybe they’ll create an entire city, or a home for their favourite toys. No matter how your child likes to build, there are so many fun and interesting materials they can use. Here are 7 creative building materials for kids along with some of the skills they’re learning as they play.

All of these materials can be combined with one another and/or added to your child’s toys!

Rolls of Tape

Stacked blocks and rolls of tape, and kitchen tongs laid out on a carpet.

Rolls of tape are round and hollow, making them very different than your usual building blocks. Your child can stack the rolls of tape or try to balance them on the round edge. For an added challenge, try using tongs to pick up and stack the tape. This will exercise thier hand-eye coordination as your child practices moving the tape from one spot to another.

Containers and Lids

Photo 1: plastic lids of various sizes used to build small towers and three toy cars. Photo 2: six clear, plastic containers stacked together.

Containers and lids come in all different shapes and sizes! Try starting with some closed containers and some that are open, giving your child even more of an opportunity to get creative. They can start to explore ways to build with just the containers, just the lids or both!

Cans of Food

Cans of food used to build a tower.

The heavy weight of the cans makes them a unique building material. Your child will strengthen their large muscles as they use arm and shoulder muscles to lift and stack the cans. They also present an opportunity to talk about and practice safety, such as, having a tight grip before lifting the can or building short towers to avoid tumbling.

Packing Peanuts and Toothpicks

Child uses marshmallows, play dough, corks and packing peanuts to stick toothpicks together.

This is a great activity for exercising small muscle skills as well as practicing problem solving skills! Toothpicks and packing peanuts do not make the sturdiest structures and your child will have the challenge of finding a way to build that that works best for them. Instead of packing peanuts, you can also use corks, marshmallows, play dough, and Styrofoam.

Cardboard Boxes

Photo 1: five cardboard boxes and one plastic container of various sizes stacked in two piles. Photo 2: child lifts a box up high and reaches to add to the cardboard box tower.

Boxes big and small can be lots of fun to build with! Stack them high or line them up to create a path or wall. Your child will be using their large muscle skills when they pick up big boxes, reach up high to stack them or move them around the room. They will also be learning spatial awareness as they learn to move while holding the box, trying to avoid knocking down the tower or bumping into other obstacles, such as, tables and chairs.

Pillows, Blankets and Cushions

Photo 1: six pillows stacked on top of one another. Photo 2: preschool aged child (reading a book) and a cat inside a "fort" made with a comfortable chair and a blanket.

You can make the biggest structure of all with pillows, blankets and cushions! Make a cozy fort, or a giant pile to jump into and crawl over. Much like building with boxes, your child will be using their large muscle skills to maneuver the pillows and blankets, while learning spatial awareness. Once you’re done building, you can relax and snuggle into the blankets!

Paper Towel Rolls

Paper towel rolls (both empty and full) are great for building.

Stacked, unopened paper towel rolls.

Full paper towel rolls are soft, easy to stack and (most importantly) fun to knock down! When children knock down a structure, they’re learning concepts like force, and cause and effect. How hard do I need to push this to knock it down? How will it fall? Will it fall the same way every time? Try to explore some of these questions and concepts with your little one as they build!

Photo 1: child using empty paper towel roll, an egg carton, pine cones and other loose parts in play. Photo 2: craft paper tubes cut in half and taped together to make a ramp.

Empty paper towel rolls can be cut, ripped and bent in lots of different ways. This makes it an interesting tool to build with. Adding tape and other loose parts (like pine cones and egg cartons!) will give your child the opportunity to create a stronger and more complex structure.

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