I love playing with toddlers. Watching their faces light up, with eyes wide as they discover something new, I’m instantly reminded of what a wondrous world this is. Even plain objects in your house become fascinating to a toddler. A rubber spoon with an airplane on it may delight them as they feel its texture, gaze at the colors and move it up and down and pretend it can fly.
While there certainly are lots of videos, contraptions, and gadgets on the market to stimulate your child, experts and veteran moms say there is no need to go to such extremes. There are many ways to inspire your toddler and surprisingly, you needn’t look too far.
“Toddlers are very interesting creatures. Personally, my favorite age is six months to two and a half years. They are very receptive, particularly to stimulation of the senses. … They love water play, or washing baby dolls in soapy water. I would change the sand in the sand table for wet sand, then rice, then mixed dry beans, of course being watchful of any chokeable items,” says Barbara Petrie, a former preschool director, babies and toddler teacher, and the mom of four from Vermont.
Another good ole favorite costing about $5 is finger painting.
“Finger painting is always a treat. Forget trying to get them to make something. Let them freely create and be sure that the place where you are doing it is not one you will mind terribly having totally mussed!” Barbara adds.
Tactile sense—touching varying textures is quite fun and Barbara suggests that moms play around in the kitchen to make various forms of oobleck or goop made from corn starch and water. The substance is gooey and then hard when hit or touched. It can fascinate toddlers and older kids alike. Handling something like this is “incredibly exciting and can be relaxing and therapeutic to the touch as well,” the former preschool teacher explains.
A recipe I found on a teacher’s Web site called for 1 ½ cups corn starch put into a pie crust container. Add a half cup of water slowly while stirring. If you want colored oobleck, add food coloring to your water, then add the colored water. Continue to add small amounts of corn starch and water until you get your desired thickness. It will be soupy and remarkably firm when touched and then soupy again when you remove your hand or finger.
Another fun tactile exercise is playing with shaving cream, but of course, monitoring closely so your child doesn’t eat it! An alternative is playing with whipped cream—just watch out for the sugar high!
Paige Luth, a mom of three aged seven, four, and four months from Alpharetta, Georgia says her kids loved to thumb through books, so she would let them lay around the house on the floor and change them so her kids would discover new ones. But she also found plenty for her children to play with that she already owned.
“There are TONS of things around your house the baby can play with already. Measuring cups and spoons are a favorite, as are cookie cutters. Really almost anything safe from the kitchen makes a great toy,” Paige says.
Most of the time, Paige’s children discovered these “toys” on their own.
“They see something interesting and explore and play with it. I keep all of the “dangerous” stuff in a locked cabinet, but they have free reign to explore all other cabinets. They also love to collect anything from outside (acorns, rocks, etc.) My four-year-old loves to take used gift bags and make “purses” out of them. The old standby is the card table and blanket fort. They will spend hours playing in there!” she remembers.
There are inexpensive items one can buy that will be enjoyed for years as well. Erin Fetzer, a mom of two aged six and a half and five months says her best such item was magnets.
“The Leap Frog fridge magnet set is great. I have so many friends that swear their kids learned the alphabet with this toy. They can play while you are making dinner,” Erin explains.
While letting your children play in the kitchen, don’t be surprised of their “musical” talent.
“Don’t forget the pots, pans, and spoons! Talk about making music. Staple two paper plates with some beans inside and some pretty dangling ribbons outside and viola: you have a tambourine! A well washed 35 mm film canister with rice in it and then taped securely together with electrical tape and suddenly, you have a shaker,” suggests Barbara.
Let your imagination go wild and help your child discover what fun can be had. The key to doing this, however, is obviously having a house that is safety proofed. Allowing a child to open cabinets, closet doors, and to touch things safely inspires their curiosity and helps them delight in their discoveries.
“In the end, barring safety issues, there are no toys I would avoid. Anything is worth a shot. The world around us is so full of possibilities for helping our children express themselves and helping us to get to know them,” says Barbara.
And I’d venture to say, these explorative games help us too—since we see our surroundings in a whole new light! Moms of toddlers can now walk into their homes and instead of thinking, “here we are again,” it’s: “what can we find today?”