1. Puppet show
“Basically we cut the front out of an old oven box, help the children paint and decorate the box all over, and fashion a simple stage curtain,” says Ms Gray. “The children use real and handmade puppets to put on their own shows, and they have just as much fun putting on a performance as watching their friends do one.”
2. Butterfly paintings
Put different coloured water-based paints into plastic containers, then get your child to spoon blobs of each colour onto some paper. Help your child to fold the paper in half and then to pat it down, squishing the paint. When they unfold the paper, a wonderful butterfly has appeared.
3. Crazy collages
Cut up pieces of material, cellophane, foil, and/or pictures from magazines. “Spread these out onto a large area in front of your child so that they can see everything and make choices about what to pick out,” says Ms Gray. “Use craft glue to stick their bits and pieces onto cardboard or old cereal boxes.”
4. Washing fun
Fill a plastic tub or bath with water and let your child pour in some bubbles. Now help your child to wash all their [waterproof] dolls and toys, afterwards drying each of them with a small towel.
5. Home corner
“Set up an area where your little one can make pretend cups of tea, talk on the phone, read the newspaper and dress up in big people’s clothes,” suggests Ms Gray. “Not only is this great for cognitive, language and social development, but it dispels early gender stereotyping.”
“Children can become very unsettled when mums are cooking, so make them feel part of the kitchen action by bringing out some old pots and pans and investing in some plastic food,” says director Aleks Grozdanov. “Let your child sit on the floor near you and discuss the meal you are cooking together as you go.”
7. Tents and cubbies
“Infants and toddlers love to play in confined spaces as it makes them feel safe and secure,” explains Ms Grozdanov. If you have a tent, set it up indoors or outdoors with cushions, books and rattles inside. Some littlies may need time to bond with their new setting; be patient and watch them explore this fun new environment.
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8. Highchair art
Place your child in their high chair and dollop various coloured water-based paints on the tray in blobs. Encourage them to swirl the paint around, with their hands or brushes, then place a sheet of paper over the tray to make a print of their design.
“Children love to imitate, and talking on the phone is one of their favourite ways to be like mum or dad,” explains Ms Grozdanov. “This simple activity also helps teach them the ‘rules of conversation’ – speaking then listening, and so on. Soft and plastic toy phones, however, just don’t seem to cut it. So don’t throw out your old mobile phone; instead, remove the battery and donate it to your little one. It’s just the right size, too.”
This is one for slightly older toddlers who can manage to lie still for 30 seconds. Get your child to lie down on a large piece of butcher’s paper (you can buy this by the roll from art shops). Trace an outline for them, then help your toddler colour themselves in, drawing in features and adding wool for hair if you like.
11.Garden in a cup
“This activity has proved such a hit with kids in our centre,” comments Ms Grozdanov. Take a plastic cup, preferably a clear, transparent one, then place some damp cotton wool at the bottom and have your toddler fill the remainder of the cup with soil from the garden. Guide them to make a little finger hole at the top of the soil, into which they can place a flower seed – marigolds, for instance, are hardy and grow quickly. They will then enjoy the routine of watering the soil each day, and ultimately seeing their little plant grow.
12. Making music
Nicole Taylor, director of Bambini Cottage, says you can make simple musical instruments out of just about anything. “For instance, pasta shells, rice and beads in a plastic container work particularly well,” she says. And it’s a wonderful way to stimulate all facets of a young child’s development.
13. Personal book
“It’s really easy to make your own books with one of those home laminators,” says Ms Taylor. “Help your child sort through and select their favourite photos of family members, friends and pets, as well as magazine pictures of things that they like, then help them stick them onto large pieces of paper.” Laminate the pages and use a hole puncher and colourful ribbon or string to tie them together.
14. Mix & mess
This guessing game will stimulate your child’s sensory awareness and help their language skills as well. “Place different types of food in individual plastic containers,” says Ms Taylor. “Then ask your child to feel each food and guess what it is. Then ask them to describe its texture and colour.”
15. Treasure bags
“These are fabric bags filled with various toys, books and materials,” explains Ms Taylor. “You can change the contents daily. Let your child pick out one item just before nappy time, then use nappy time to talk about the item they chose, what it feels like, what it’s name might be. Just taking the time to talk with your child, even during routine activities, can make their day (and yours!) more fun and stimulate their development.”
16. Lookin’ good
“Children love mirrors,” says Ms Taylor. “So we keep a mirror under the nappy change table so that the children can look at themselves and make all sorts of funny faces while we’re changing their nappy. This is also a good opportunity to encourage them to talk about body parts (‘Where is your little nose, Isobel?’) and to recognise just who they see (this is very good for self-awareness and identity).”
“It doesn’t matter what your voice is like, children just love to hear singing,” Ms Taylor advises. “We like to sing all sorts of nursery rhymes but we always think of ways to change the words a little to keep the children listening.” Singing is also a great way to comment on what you’re doing. “Sing your way through washing hands after mealtime, going for a walk outside, cleaning up toys… anything, really.”
18. Easy does it
Setting up an easel is a great way to make a grand production out of your child’s artwork, says Ms Taylor. Posture-wise, it’s also better than having them sit or lie on the floor hunched over pieces of paper. “We find that all kids love to create drawings with crayons and pencils,” she says. “It’s an activity that can be done inside
or outside and never goes out of fashion.”
19. Bubble fun
Blowing bubbles, either with a pre-packaged bubble set or simply with detergent and a homemade ‘blower’, is an activity that never fails to mesmerise young children. As Lisa Blue, group manager of Platypus Junction, says: “Besides being lots of fun, bubble-blowing increases toddlers’ visual awareness and is a good sensory experience for them.”
“A big pile of shredded paper within a contained space (such as a plastic clam shell or old bath tray) can hold a great deal of fascination for young children,” says Ms Blue. “They love to throw it up in the air and have it land on them just like snow, or wade through it if there is quite alot of it, and this is great for their sensory development too.” Many big companies throw out reams of shredded paper each week, so try asking them to keep a large box aside for you.
20. Ice magic
“Fill up old ice-cream buckets with coloured water (just add food dye) and freeze them,” suggests Ms Blue. “Place the frozen ice blocks in the bath tub for the children to feel. They love the way it slips and slides around in their hands; and it’s also a good cognitive exercise, showing children that ice melts into water. Be sure to talk about the different colours, too.”
21. Finger painting
“Rather than using standard paint, simply mix some cornflour and hot water until you have a gooey substance,” advises Ms Blue. “Divide it into separate amounts and add a different coloured food dye to each. Place dollops on to a table covered in some plastic, or on to a tarp spread outside. Encourage your little one to smear, poke and explore the goo – great for their fine motor skills.”
22. Cotton bud painting
This is the least messy option for home painting experiments with young children. “Simply place various food dyes into plastic jars and place a cotton bud beside each one,” explains Ms Blue “The cotton buds become your child’s ‘paintbrushes’ and are easily manoeuvred around paper and cardboard.”
23. Crazy contact
This activity is a little sticky but lots of fun! Cut out a large piece of contact and place it in front of your child with the sticky side up. Have some bits and pieces on hand for your child to select and place on to the contact – ie, string, cellophane, scraps of material, cottonballs and so on. When they have finished making their creation, place it on to a window where they can proudly admire their lovely handiwork.
24. Sand play
Setting up a simple sandpit outside can be a great investment, says Ms Blue. “Use buckets, spades and different-sized containers and saucepans for making ‘sand cities’. Help them pour, dig, build and knock down their creations.” Sandpits are also a good way to bring ‘inside’ toys outside, such as pick-up trucks and plastic blocks.
25. Sensory boards
Demelza Squires, assistant director of Brambly Cottage, suggests making ‘sensory boards’ – solid cardboard squares with various textured items stuck on the front. “We let the children help choose the items – things such as silk fabric, hessian, sandpaper and so on,” she says. “If stuck on with heavy-duty tape, they will last for ages.”
26. Paper plate puppets
“Puppets are a great craft activity and a fun and subtle way for children to express themselves,” says Ms Squires. To make paper plate puppets, just stick two paper plates together with a ruler or paddlepop stick in between, then help your toddler draw two different faces, one on each side. Try drawing emotions – sad one side, happy on the other.
27. Finger puppets
“These can be made out of just about anything – from pieces of felt material and old socks through to simple paper designs,” explains Ms Squires. Generally, the simpler the design, the better. With any design, the key points are to include two eyes, a nose and a mouth – usually the first parts of the body children learn.
28. Fun with boxes
“There is a world of play in recyclables,” says Ms Squires. “Big boxes (such as a microwave box) are especially good to keep. You and your toddler can make pretend cars with paper plates for wheels, robot suits (just cut out some armholes for your little one) or even a pretend computer.
29. Making playdough
‘Cooking’ playdough can be just as much fun for children as the end product, says Lara Gray, the co-ordinator of Mulberry Tree. “Parents can find the cooking instructions on the side of most cream of tartar packets. They may need to do much of the pouring for younger tots, but all children will gain an introduction to the concepts of measuring and mixing.”
“This is a good one for encouraging a toddler’s concentration and their fine motor development,” says Ms Squires. “Make a small hole in a number of patty pan cases, cut up some straws into smaller pieces, add some uncooked macaroni shells if you want; then help your toddler thread wool through all the items in any order they like. They can make necklaces, decorations or mobiles. It’s all up to their little imaginations.”