Treasure Baskets: Open-ended thinking and learning can be encouraged from a really young age and doesn't require any expensive toys or take up loads of space! It's really easy to make your own treasure basket for a baby to play with as all of the items can be found around the home and are better for baby to play with than brightly coloured, noisy plastic which offers only a couple of different stimuli. Treasure baskets encourage investigation and exploration using the senses of touch, sight and taste. They also help to promote thinking skills and curiosity by challenging the baby to wonder "what should I do with it?" or "what happens if I combine these two materials?" etc.
Discovery Boxes: These are the term I've given to a toddler version of the baby treasure baskets. Every now and then I collect some simple materials such as cardboard tubes and beans, sellotape and scoops and put them into a large box for the girls to get stuck into! As with the treasure baskets, the idea is to step back and watch them play without interfering or suggesting what they should do, only joining in if asked. I find they can stay engaged with these simple items for so much longer than with their usual toys and they spend a lot of time thinking, collaborating, experimenting and having great fun! I've got a collection of the different items we have put into our Discovery Boxes on my site, if you need some more ideas!
Musical Instruments: Following along the same principles as the treasure baskets and discovery boxes, it is so easy to put together some makeshift musical instruments for plenty of hands-on experimenting with noises and sounds! Music making is crucial for building listening skills, distinction and perception and investigating cause and effect. It's also one of the vital building blocks for pre-reading so that one day they will be able to hear and distinguish sounds in words, pick up rhythm and hear intonation. Making "music" is as simple as opening the kitchen cupboards to pull out the pans, wooden spoons and metal utensils! Then have a great bash-a-long to some nursery rhymes or chants! If you want something more "sophisticated" you can make shakers easily using dry rice or pasta in a plastic bottle, stretching a balloon over a tin can for a drum or even make your own rain sticks!
Messy Play: Last (but probably BEST!) comes the delightful messy, sensory play! Again, no money is really needed for this apart from a few essentials from the kitchen cupboard. Make your own play dough and keep it for 6 months or more, using it to strengthen hand muscles and as a tool for learning letters, numbers and more. Making Goop like Blondie did is cheap and easy, too. Create sensory tubs filled with dry rice, pasta, lentils, pom poms and allow your little one to investigate with hands, scoops and spoons. (Watch smaller toddlers so that they don't put anything in their mouths.) Other ideas for investigating in deep table trays are water, sand, shaving cream, jelly, wood shavings, beads and lego! Whatever you have on hand will be of interest!