In 2006, I took my boyfriend (and future husband) to Kenya for the first time. We were in the middle of what felt like a never-ending tour to meet Aunties, Uncles, and Cousins. One afternoon, we visited one of my favourite cousins, her husband, and their 10-month old daughter.
At this point in my life, I had had very little experience with babies and wasn’t quite sure how to entertain them. When the introductions were done, my cousin put the baby on the floor to entertain herself. She soon cried out of boredom. My cousin ran into the kitchen and came back with a set of wooden spoons and plastic cups, laying them at the baby’s feet. She eagerly grabbed the spoons, banging them against each other and then banging on the cups. The baby occupied herself this way for the rest of our stay.
I often reflect on that visit and remember how happy and engaged the baby was. The experience taught me one of my most important lessons of parenthood: everyday objects can be fun, educational playthings for young children. What may seem mundane to grown-ups can, in fact, fascinate little kids who are trying to learn what the world is all about.
Once I had my own children, I tried to apply this learning to our own environment at home. I rarely buy a toy if something around the house can serve the same purpose. And there are some activities that are just so fun or interesting that no toy could replicate it anyway. Here are ten easy ways I’ve found to create a fun and educational environment for children at home:
What: Light and Shadow. Good for ages: 6 weeks and older.
From the moment that babies can see beyond the first few inches from their faces, their world becomes a study of contrasts. Light and shadows are a very common way that contrasts are observed, but as adults we take this for granted. We know, for example, that when babies look at people’s faces, their eyes trace the boundaries of light and dark areas within a human face. From around three months old and up, babies also become interested in smooth transitions. Observing shadows moving across the wall, or watching light fade to darkness are some examples of transitions that fascinate little minds. Any activity that will draw a baby’s eye to such transitions is likely to grab their attention. My own little one has been obsessed with the lights in our ceiling and the shadows they cast. She loves them so much that I’ve made a game of turning the lights on and off, or using the dimmer to slowly dim or brighten the lights.At the other end of the spectrum, my four-year-old is still obsessed with lights and shadows. She will go into her bedroom, make her room as dark as possible, and use a flashlight to cast shadows on the walls.
Pro-tip: if your mobile phone has a light on it (for example, the flash light that a phone’s camera may have for taking photos) you can use this light to cast super sharp shadows on the wall. You’d be amazed at the shadow-art you can create with this technique – you’ll be the most popular parent on the block for weeks.
What: Water Play. Good for Ages: 6 months and up.
Water is universally beloved by babies and children (note, however, that this does not necessarily mean that they will love taking baths!) Whether it’s feeling water run through their fingers, splashing in it, pouring it, or stirring it – getting your kids to play with water is likely to bring a smile to their face. You don’t need a lot of water to keep your little one entertained – a little bit goes a long way. When my first-born was a year and a half old, I could keep her occupied for an hour simply by putting her on the bathroom floor and giving her two bowls and a cup – one bowl filled with water and other one empty. She would fill the cup with water from the full bowl and pour the water into the empty bowl. Once she had transferred all the water from one bowl to the other, she would start again to move the water back to the first bowl. When she was done with this activity, I would be sure to pour the water onto plants in my garden so that the water wouldn’t go to waste.
What: Textures. Ages: 0 – 12 months.
The sense of touch is the oft-forgotten sense when it comes to how we stimulate young children. And yet, it is as important as any other sense, aiding in neurological development and building motor coordination skills. Soft, scratchy, smooth, sticky…there are endless sensations that your little one can derive from feeling and playing with different textures. When my kids were 3-9 months old, they loved it when I would strip them down to their diaper and let them roll around on a furry blanket that I would place on the floor. Around the same age, I would also give my kids a little bit of food to hold or feel as I was preparing dinner (being careful to make sure they didn’t ingest something that was a choking hazard.) This works especially well with ugali, which is tacky to the touch before it is fully cooked. It offers a fun, tactile experience, and they can eat it too! Just be sure you cool the food enough before you give it to little hands to hold, so you don’t burn them.
What: Cooking. Ages: 18 months and up.
Cooking and baking will forever be my favorite activity to do with children at home. It combines lots of learning into one activity. Cooking teaches counting, process, motor skill development, coordination, and most important – patience! Cooking stimulates the senses of sight, smell, and touch all at once. Kids can start to bake and to cook much earlier than we usually think. Just be sure to pick an age-appropriate dish, provide a safe environment, and adjust your expectations that your kitchen will be a mess when done.
For young children, my two favourite dishes to make are pancakes and pizza. Pancakes are usually simple to make – they involve a few key ingredients and lots of stirring, which is fun for 2 to 3-year-olds. You probably want to leave the frying to the adults, though! Pizza is great because there is a distinct order that kids must learn to follow when making a pizza, and the process of layering ingredients on to a crust is very fun (who doesn’t love sprinkling cheese on things?) My older daughter used to love playing with pizza dough and spreading tomato sauce on top of the pizza crust using a wooden spoon.
What: Painting. Ages: 10 months and up.
From the time that babies can sit up on their own, they can paint. Put some watercolors in front of a young kid and watch their faces light up as they let their imagination take shape right before their eyes. Babies under 2 will have more fun with finger paint, as they will get both the tactile sensation of working with the paint as well as the visual stimulation of playing with lots of colors. Older toddlers who have more advanced fine motor stills (around age 3 and up) will likely prefer painting with a paint brush. Keep in mind when buying paint to get non-toxic water color paint (it’s easy to clean up and your kid won’t get sick when some of the paint inevitably ends up in their mouths).
Also, you don’t need fancy paper for kids to paint on. Almost any medium will do. I like to use the cardboard from used boxes and old newspapers for my kids to paint on. Last, I prefer notto give kids coloring or painting books until they are at last 4 or 5 years old. Coloring books require a level of fine motor skill that most kids don’t have until they are least 5 years old, and I find that free painting is more fun and creative anyway.
What: Kitchen objects. Ages: 6 months – 2 years.
Anyone with a child has had this experience: your toddler goes into the kitchen, finds the one drawer that seems to contain the most amount of stuff, and empties it on to the kitchen floor. You swear you will find a way to lock the drawer, or maybe re-arrange your kitchen so that these things are out of reach to your little one. Before you do, it’s worth considering how to leverage your child’s innate curiosity for their own benefit. In our house, we child-proofed all but a few select drawers in our kitchen. We left a couple of lower drawers un-locked and filled with “fun” things – mixing bowls, serving spoons, measuring cups, and the like. We knew that our toddler would find the drawer, unload it, and play with the kitchen items for a good amount of time. Getting her to put the items back into the drawer took a lot of effort, but at the end of the day, a little kitchen mess was a small price to pay for having a toddler who would play autonomously for long chunks of time.
What: Forts. Ages: 9 months and up.
Every child loves a good fort. From the instant that babies learn how to crawl, they will look for things to crawl through, under, and around. Making a simple fort or an obstacle course is a great way to get kids to be explorers inside their own house. Once your little one is older (say, 2 years old and up) you can get them in on the act by encouraging them to build their own fort. All you need are some chairs, bed sheets, blankets, and pillows. It’s fun, creative, and gets kids to think about three-dimensional design and spatial relationships (really!)
What: Playing Dress-Up. Ages: 2 and up.
Playing dress-up is a classic childhood activity, but one that I fear parents try to get their kids to stop doing much too early. Although it often creates a big mess, I am happy to sacrifice an orderly closet in the name of self-directed play. My little one’s first love of playing dress-up came from trying on my shoes, or raiding my dresser drawer to pull out all the scarves and hats that she could find. After a few exasperating episodes of this, I decided to be a little less precious about my things (I moved the can’t-be-damaged items out of reach) and to let her play dress up with my clothes. Why not? It’s better for her to practice creativity by exploring my closet than it is for her to pester me to buy a Disney princess costume.
Playing dress-up also leads naturally to other great pastimes, such as dancing, singing, or putting on plays.
What: Putting on Plays (aka Playing Make-Believe.) Ages: 4 years and up.
The companion activity to playing dress-up, of course, is engaging in dramatic play. By the time your little one is 4 years old, you may notice their dramatic flourish emerge. With my daughter, I noticed that her independence and her flair for playing make-believe took off at the same time. The first time she ever disappeared long enough for me to go looking for her, I found her in her room, dressed up like a fancy Jedi Knight (of course) pretending to be a Princess Leia-Sleeping Beauty hybrid. Does this make sense? No. Was it adorable? Absolutely. You may find, like I did, that your child will want to play make-believe all by themselves. Others may want their parent’s involvement. Both options are fine so long as your child is engaged and having fun.
What: Music. Ages: All ages.
You don’t have to spend a fortune on music lessons for your children to reap the benefits of music exposure. Children of all ages, including newborns, are innately musical. Listening to music helps a baby’s brain develop, which in turn supports learning, growth, and speech development (just to name a few benefits!) And studies have shown that active listening (listening coupled with movement, playing, singing, etc) further boosts brain development. I almost always have music on in my house, and I try to rotate between different genres so that my kids get to listen to and experience different types of music. When I don’t have music on, you will likely find me singing to my baby (my 4-year-old now prefers to sing to herself, but if she’s in a good mood, she’ll ask me to sing a duet with her.) My baby LOVES it when I sing to her, and she loves it even more if the singing is accompanied by movement or dancing.
Whether there is music playing in the background or I am singing to my children, I try to incorporate other elements to make things interesting. If my baby is lying on the floor, I will move her hands and feet to the beat of the music. If I am holding her, I will move or dance around the floor. My 4-year-old and I dance around the living room regularly, much to the amusement of our neighbors, I’m sure. Once your baby can grasp and hold objects, it’s fun to get an instrument or a noise-maker into their hand (an egg-shaker or a rattle make an excellent first instrument for little babies.) Older babies can begin to drum and practice making their own beats with the power of their two hands. Anything that makes noise can be an instrument for your child to explore. Try different things out and watch them have fun along the way.
What fun, creative things do you do at home to create an educational environment for your children? We’d love to hear from you – be sure to leave your comment below.
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