From the Blog

Avoiding Tacky Plastic Baby Toys: Making A Homemade Baby Gym

For the past two or three years, Dave and I have spent a lot of time downsizing and getting rid of stuff we don’t need. I’ve written about this quite a bit. Part of our plan to stay downsized was to avoid buying more stuff. It seems obvious, right? Get rid of crap. Then, don’t buy more crap. Easy!

Downsizing has worked wonders for us. It feels fantastic to get rid of stuff you don’t need. It really does. I have a review coming of Tammy Strobel’s book You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap): How One Woman Radically Simplified Her Life and How You Can Too. Clearing out clutter in your life is totally doable, and it’s super rewarding. We are still diligent about avoiding accumulation, and we are still so, so happy to not be ruled by our “stuff.”

So imagine the horror, the impending doom, the approaching shit storm of tacky plastic crap headed our way when we found out we were having twins. Holy crap. It just seemed an insurmountable frenzy of consumerism: all the stuff you have to buy for babies. It’s an avalanche. A tsunami. A goddamned belching volcano of tacky, awful, soulless plastic crap for babies.

You might be able to tell, I have rather strong feelings about this. Dave and I dreaded hearing about all the stuff we would “need” for the babies. We had spent so much time painstakingly eliminating the¬†excessive junk from our lives. And now we would have to fill our space back up. It actually pissed me off. It wasn’t even stuff we wanted. It was thoughtless, mass produced, big box “cutesy” crap meant to “stimulate” baby’s tiny, mushy brain.

So Dave and I decided from the very beginning NOT to get any of that crap. We would withstand the pressure. We’d reject the hype. The only plastic stuff I was excited about was getting Legos, and that is still years down the road. All the other crap could bite my ass.

Right? So. Here we are. We have three and a half month old twin boys. They are starting to “wake up.” They can clearly see past their noses and out into the world. Their eyes follow me around the room. I can see them actually starting to figure things out. They are starting to need…toys. Goddamnit.

I asked my pediatrician what she recommended for this stage, since I can’t be hovering over them during their every waking moment. She said “A play gym!” This is a mat with arms that arch overhead, loaded up with lots of plastic toys and noisemakers. Awesome!

I realize I may be sounding snotty about all this. Maybe I am sacrificing our babies’ development and “stimulation” because all the consumerist baby crap offends my aesthetics. But then, babies don’t fucking know any better. Babies could be stimulated by a poorly designed $57 gizmo that parents are convinced they must have. Or they could be stimulated by a can of creamed corn. Honestly.

But yes, I get that the babies need something to keep them entertained. Right now, that has been me. And I can only be in one place at one time. Last week, I boiled over my oatmeal three times because I had two fussy babies, and I made the mistake of also getting hungry at the same time. Silly me.

I was not going to go to a big box store and get a tacky play gym. And I didn’t want to spend over $100 on some beautiful wooden thing from Germany, either. And almost everything I saw wasn’t really big enough for twins anyway.

I began to think about how stupid easy it would be to make something myself. So that’s what I did. I got some PVC joints from the hardware store. I got some wooden dowels. I got some enamel paint.

I got four dowels at 3 feet long, and 4 dowels at 2 feet long for the legs. The idea was to make a cube, so that both boys had enough room on either side to keep them entertained without feeling cramped.

I soon realized that 3′ x 3′ was huge. And it had a big stupid empty space in the middle.

I thought the empty space in the middle would be a waste. I could have secured the whole structure with bungee cords in the middle, but this whole project was already low rent. I was trying to avoid full-on trashy. I figured it would be better to maybe make it as a cross.

But then, I realized I’d need different PVC joints than the ones I had picked up. I already needed different paint because the paint I bought at a goddamned unnamed big box craft store sucked. I hate goddamned craft stores.

So I needed new joints. And I needed new paint. My enthusiasm was beginning to wane.

Then my dad came over, and I explained the whole thing. And he’s an engineer. And he said I ought to try doing it as a triangle.

Smart, right? My dad is smart.

So that is what I did. I got different paint for the plastic pieces. I cobbled the wooden pieces into the joints and made them snug with masking tape. I hung a bunch of soft toys and mostly inoffensive stuff on it.

They actually seem to like it. The boys don’t have full control over their hands yet. But they bat at the toys, and you can watch them, they are almost figuring it out. Hey! That toy moves if my hand touches it! Wait! Is that my hand?¬†

But what they are really saying is, Ma, stop eating your oatmeal and come play with us.


  1. It came out really good! You may be able to make, AND eat dinner now! You could sell these by the way.

  2. This reminds me of one of my kids’ favorite toys — it was a squishy cloth bug that could be pulled down and it would jitter on its way back up. Super cute and it always got a giggle out of my boy.

    Great job on the gym!

  3. NB: Heather’s very smart, but the stuffed tiger buttoned into Loyal’s pajamas was my idea.

  4. Genius. Our twins are 3 months old and using a too small hand me down play mat… I didn’t want to get a second due to space issues, so if I get it together maybe I will use your post as encouragement to make my own.

  5. Wow- that’s awesome! Congrats on not buying into the baby consumerism! You don’t need 95% of what they try to sell you!

  6. Hey in a couple of months they could us it as a chin-up bar, and later put a sheet over it and presto a tent, and ultimately they will hang a chain off it to be able to remove engines.

  7. i have wondered about toys for the kids. when i was a kid, we had your basic barbie/ken combo, legos, lincoln logs, army men and an assortment of tonka-type trucks. and we did fine. we figured it out and entertained ourselves. I don’t understand the push to stimulate our children at a super young age. let them be children for goodness sake! They have to make decisions at 10 yrs old now that I didn’t have to contemplate until i was 18. let them play and enjoy mushy brain for a bit longer. love the gizmo. i might make one for my cats….

  8. One of William’s favorite toys was a set of aluminum measuring spoons (“ma ‘poons!”). They jingle and make a nice sound, feel good on teething gums and almost everyone has a set at their house if you forget them at home. Lauren always loved rubber spatulas (“fatulas”). And of course pots & pans for drums.

  9. Aimee Wynhausen says

    That is pretty stinking awesome! Good work! :)

  10. Nice work, Heather! I hated all that plastic crap too. It’s offensive.

    They are so cute!!

    Love the hair~

  11. i wish your twins were older than mine so i could learn from you. but they’re not, so i’ll just have to regret all the stupid purchases i made. DAMNIT.

  12. Aunty Laurie says

    Great Job Heather, and Dave Kudos on the Tiger in the Jammies!!!!

  13. What a brilliant idea! As a neuroscience graduate, I have to say it bugs me all the stuff about these plastic toys. If you give your child a few simple pieces, they will make their own toys out of them – e.g. a box is a box, a hat, a spaceship, something to tow, something to push. On it’s side it’s a cupboard and upside down its a table… and if they learn to make simple items into toys, their brain matter will actually be more connected. Simple items that teach skills like creativity are more important, in my opinion, than lots of items that each do one/two things. The more the brain is used to work things out, the more connected it is and thus, the denser the matter. (i.e. learning is easier)

    Wood also outlasts plastic, and I love how you’ve made your own gym. The only normal toys I’d say are useful are building blocks /construction items like Duplo or Lego, because they’re harder to reproduce and never break.

    Oops, this was a long comment. it’s such a big thing for me, as a 22-year-old whose parents still have my old plastic toys that I just have to throw away because they’re broken/too old for people to want – and you can’t even break them and reuse them like wood.

  14. Guruswamy Basavaiah says

    Thank you very much, i was trying to make one. Got good information.

  15. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Not only do I hate tacky baby stuff- (everything on my registry is beige- will that send any hints?) but I live in an apartment and I just don’t have room for that crap. I look forward to reading the rest of your posts about this- and maybe making one of those DIY play gyms if I’m crafty enough :)

  16. Great Idea Heather and thanks for sharing the idea. I just hope the Consumer Protection Agency doesn’t see this and fine you for endangering your children by letting them play with a non-government approved device.

  17. This is just perfect and your fathers design is brilliant. I hate clutter, too. Everything for infants always seem to take up so much space and it is so hard to store it. Have you thought about ever make a mobile with items like on your gym?

  18. Dinah Carolipio says

    Hello, thank you for posting. Your gym turned out beautiful. I know this is an old post, but I just had twins and have been thinking of getting one of these things. Now I’m convinced I can just make it. What were the final measurements of the dowels that you used after your design changes? Thank you!

    • Hi Dinah,

      I think I got three dowels that were 4 feet long. I cut two in half. So, the legs were two feet long, the bar was four feet. I think. It’s really up to you. You might want to make the legs into an upside down “T.” We did trip over the legs here and there.

      • Dinah Carolipio says

        Thank you so much! I can’t wait to get started. :) I’m so glad I found your blog. Honestly, I don’t know how you find the time, but I’m sure glad you do.

  19. Pamela Fletcher says

    I should have searched for you sooner..aaaah. I just came home 3o min ago with a cheap, plastic, made in china Play n Go mat for my 12 wk old son. My husband and I have avoided these kinds of toys so far, but I was starting to feel that he was missing out on some important development exercises. I’m a “baby wearer” and if he’s not sitting in his bouncy chair he’s wrapped up nice and snug with me. I needed a place to lay him down and hang some toys over him to work on some of his muscle tone and coordination…hence the awful looking Play n Go mat. I may try and return it, but if i can’t you’ve inspired me to build one myself anyway. Thank you!

  20. Love it! :)
    I’ll try to make my own too… let’s see if it goes well!
    Any advice on stability issues, or height recommendations??

  21. Thank you for the post!! We’re staying with my in laws who want to get our babe the over stimulating plastic stuff and I had a wooden gym on my registry that, big surprise, no one bought. They probably didn’t understand what it was. Now I can make one without needing tools, fast cheap easy and not made in China . Ah so glad I found this post.

  22. What length dowels did you cut for the four legs? Would recommnd that, or shorter or longer?

  23. I just found this via Pinterest and I love it! I have a 2 month old and am determined not to get all the plastic baby crap. This is a perfect diy solution, thank you for sharing!


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