When I was a kid, I learned not to question the mysterious garbage bags my parents brought home.
They would pull the heavy, misshapen bundles out of their trunk, one by one, and drop them onto the shaggy carpet of our family den. They issued specific instructions not to touch or open them. Sometimes, these bags would even be set up in front of the bath tub.
My brother Ash and I stared at each other. At first, our questions flew around the room like flies at a bake sale.
“Wait and see,” my dad finally acknowledged our steady inquisition.
My mom would not give in either. Eventually, a little smile would crack through her poker face and then I’d know she was on the inside of a good surprise.
It turned out that my parents loved garage sales.
Their occasional hauls were a thing of great pride.
Our island town had very few toy stores. Every factory-made item arrived on the island on the infrequent cargo ship from the US and other countries. They were sold to us for three times as much as the US price sticker and quantities were limited. The Black Friday shopping frenzy didn't exist.
And you can forget driving to the next state to see if you could acquire a highly-desired toy to treat your Honor Roll child. You might need scuba gear for that.
Once all the toys in the bags were ready for closer inspection, Ash and I jumped in. We were like freegans, dumpster-diving after Thanksgiving.
Some of the toys would be washed and bleached in the bath tub, tediously dried by my mom and sorted by my dad. They seemed to enjoy that as much as the actual shopping. When I was a toddler, I used to tear the pages out of my picture books (eh, these mistakes do not make you). My dad came up with a system of sewing plastic around every single page. I’m surprised my mom went along with this plan.
Ash and I took a page from our parents’ Book of Thrifty and Creative Ways to Stay Sane and learned to improvise. We piled up our bounty of toys and, like the Three Little Pigs, set out to build play homes for them. You should have seen the 3-D paper buildings we built! We treasured each creation. And tore up each others' work of art in a fit of anger if the situation arose.
Now that my parents have become grandparents, their secondhand shopping has new beneficiaries: my kids.
I'm grateful for that because, as a stay-at-home mom, I have to maintain tight budget constraints. You know, the kind that cause you to do strange things, like listening avidly to other people's vacation stories and asking detailed, multi-part questions. Then, you can play out an entire daydream in your head later, inserting your own family in the images.
Just imagine.....Virtual Vacation kiosks outside your neighborhood shops, accepting all forms of payment. Don't start looking for the Groupons yet.
Anyway, back to my parents. They actually pay attention to my children’s toy requests and keep them in mind during their weekend garage sale ventures. They later surprise the grand kids with what they've found. There are times I have to exercise great self-control with their choices though – we shall not speak of That Day When the Pogo Stick Came Home.
One day I was sorting through my son’s extensive collection of toy cars, some of which used to belong to other little kids. I thought back to my days of making my own villages and municipal structures for my toys to play on. An idea popped in my head.
We should make a toy play mat!
I searched online and found a few intricate felt toy mats but I had no patience to cut out and glue shapes onto felt. I was looking for something that I could get the kids involved in as well.
Here is what we came up with:
I had a tri-fold foam board lying around and I had once purchased some 'road tape' on a whim. I put the two together, had the kids draw their designs and voila, a new toy mat was born!
DESIGNING OUR VILLAGE
We laid out the grid of roads with the road tape. Then, we established a shopping area and an airport, per my son’s request. Of course, we are not all artistic so our layout is amateur. You know what? It doesn't even matter. My kids love this thing.
Here's his heliport:
We chose to create an urban look for our toy mat. Feel free to add a farm, lake or even a beach if you prefer.
- We chose a tri-fold board so it could fold up easy for storage and portability. That keeps moms and dads happy!
- We cut our board in half length-wise but you can keep it the original size for more design space on your toy mat.
- The road tape can easily be substituted for train track tape if you find that online.
- If you want to be even more frugal, you could draw the roads yourself instead of using tape. I like the contrast and the durability of the plastic tape.
- The board might even be water-proof if you cover it with contact paper. However, I wouldn’t recommend leaving it outside.
It's a blessing to be able to raise children who think outside the box, apply a positive attitude to problem solving and are willing to put a little of themselves into their work (i.e. making their own designs instead of having YOU do it, lol!).
Projects like these help achieve all those goals.
The next time you bring home your own stash of garage sale toy bargains, have your kids make their own companion toys like this toy mat while you’re sanitizing the toys. You know, in that big bath tub. Then, watch as they play for hours in their DIY creations.
No Virtual Vacation kiosk needed for you!
I can't wait to see the toy mat you'll create. Post your images in the comments below.
This post contains affiliate links for products I love and recommend. My Amazon.com links throughout my posts allow me to earn fees if you decide to purchase the products. It's also the easiest way for you to get exactly what I use, since Amazon is the magic box I use to get anything I want. Except a maid. Darn it!