As a developmental therapist I am always amazed when parents tell me that they weren’t aware that their young children would enjoy such “old fashioned” toys as stacking blocks, nesting cups, ring stacks & stringing beads. Not only do toddlers enjoy these activities, but they learn a lot of important cognitive, fine motor skills and other developmental skills by playing with them. These days it seems like most toys are designed to be “tech gadgets” and because we are so high tech ourselves many parents think that this is what is most appealing to their children. Many toddler toys require batteries and they use lights, sounds or music to entice children to play with them. Batteries are expensive and what usually happens when the batteries run out? No one replaces them and the child no longer plays with the toys.
Let’s consider some fun, simple alternatives to battery operated toys that your child will love and will teach him some important developmental skills.
Wooden blocks: A lot of parents buy their children Mega Blocks or Legos instead of wooden stacking cubes. But what I find as a therapist is that little ones who start out with blocks that always “stick” together don’t learn the important fine motor skills of voluntary release (being able to let go of something in a controlled manner), balance or good hand-eye coordination. In fact many toddlers who see regular wooden stacking blocks for the first time often try to press one block into another, causing the blocks to fall down rather than being able to gently release a block and balance it on top of another. And how much fun is it for a toddler to knock down a stack of blocks once they built a tower? Listen for their giggle and you’ll know, as they repeat this task over and over. Sets of wooden blocks are typically sold in a variety of colors, so you can also work on skills such as matching colors, sorting colors and later building more complex structures as a child gets older.
Nesting Cups: This is an item that exists in your kitchen…measuring cups! You can buy sets at your local dollar store and they work just as well as store bought toy versions. Toddlers love to play with kitchen items! Nesting works on perceptual motor skills, as well as the concept of size as young children use trial and error to make the cups fit together. Store bought versions can also be stacked according to size and many have little holes at the bottom so they double as bathtub toys. You can work on speech skills such as the prepositions “in” and “out” during the activity too.
Ring stacks: Forget the Fisher Price graduated ring stack that everyone buys for one year olds. The problem with that ring stack is that the rings only fit on the post according to size and most children don’t start to understand the concept of size (biggest to smallest) until they are 3 years old or older, so no wonder your one year old doesn’t play with it! Look for the old fashioned wooden ring stack with a dowel post, where rings can be placed on the post in any order. This is a fine motor and perceptual motor task. The rings are typically various colors, so again this toy can also be used for color matching and later on as the child nears preschool age you can start to work on getting the rings onto the post by size. I find that many toddlers will repeat this task over and over again. They also make this toy with several posts with different shapes that go on each post, so again shape matching and sorting can be encouraged. And don’t forget you can work on speech skills too by using the prepositions “on” and “off”.
Bead stringing/lacing cards: Bead stringing is another old fashioned task that three quarters of families I visit have never tried with their toddlers. They are often surprised to see their children pick up this skill after a few minutes of help from an adult and then repeat it over and over. Bead stringing works on two handed fine motor skills. Think about how a child must be able to hold the string in one hand and the bead in the other, find the hole in the bead, push the string through and then switch hands to pull the bead onto the string. You can work on speech by emphasizing “push” and “pull”. When children can master large 1-2″ beads, move down to smaller beads (be careful as smaller beads pose a choking hazard so this should be a supervised activity). Later you can work on patterning beads by color, placing 3 red, 3 blue, 3 green, etc. There is also no need to buy a set of beads, you can simply use any shoelace and rigatoni pasta or wagon wheel pasta. If your child is having difficulty at first, tape about a 1/2″ of the end of the shoestring with masking tape to make it firmer to grip, or start by placing pasta or beads onto a pipe cleaner before moving to string.
If your child has mastered bead stringing and gets bored with it, move onto lacing cards. This is almost like “sewing”. The cards usually have pictures printed on them and a child starts with one hole and laces the string in and out of the card until all the holes are filled. You can easily make this at home, by drawing various shapes on cardboard and using a hole punch to make your own lacing cards.
Sidewalk chalk/paint with water: This is a great summer fun activity if your home has a sidewalk or driveway where children can safely color. Sidewalk chalk is fat and easy for toddlers to grip and it’s fun if mom, dad or siblings encourage imitation of circles, lines and other shapes. Toddlers also love to paint, but if finger paints & water colors prove too messy for you then in the summer time try giving your toddler a small container with water and a large (think household painting) paint brush and let them go to town! If you have a chalk board you can bring outdoors let them paint with water on the chalkboard, but otherwise they can paint anything outside without worry.
Using household items for play: Remember, some of the best toys are not store bought. Here are some ideas for using things you most likely have in your house right now:
Toilet paper/paper towel tubes: Collect a bunch of tubes and set them on end and use them as bowling pins indoors or out. Let your child paint them if they like. Use them as telescopes or megaphones too. Some children with speech delays will be more likely to imitate sounds when projecting their voice through a toilet paper roll.
Empty food containers: Kids love playing with pots & pans and pretend food right? Some of the store bought pretend food is so expensive so why not just save your own empties? Wash out plastic ketchup bottles, Chinese take out boxes, syrup, milk or salad dressing bottles. Kids will love playing with the “real” adult versions rather than the tiny child sized ones. You can also use them in the tub or pool.
Empty egg cartons: For little ones working on using a neat pincer grasp (thumb & forefinger) to pick up tiny items, place one single Cheerio into each egg slot and encourage your toddler to reach in with his fingers to get it out.
Empty trial sized bottles: Travel bottles or trial size shampoo bottles can be great entertainment for toddlers, especially at restaurants. Kids love putting things in and out and I have seen some toddlers spend 20 minutes entertaining themselves by dropping Cheerios or Puffs into a bottle and then dumping them out again, all the while working on their fine motor skills of a neat pincer grasp and wrist rotation (dumping).
Cardboard boxes: If you’ve never offered you child the chance to play in a large cardboard box, watch out! Use any large storage cartons, or better yet find an empty stove or refrigerator carton. Kids can color on the outside and create their own “club house” and most children from toddlers up to school age will find these very large boxes provide hours of fun.
Old socks: Remember sock puppets? You can use Sharpie markers and draw faces on them to make hand puppets or roll them into balls to make an assortment of soft balls that can be thrown in the house (use the garbage can for a basket).
Piggy banks: This is also a supervised activity for toddlers since coins present a choking hazard. Let children drop coins or bingo chips into a piggy bank, this also works on fine motor skills and requires them to turn the coin in a certain way to make it fit into the slot. Most toddlers can master this after they are able to drop Cheerios into a tiny opening in a trial sized bottle.
Old pillows & blankets: Push some chairs together and throw a bunch of cushions, pillows and blankets on the floor and help your kids create a tent or fort indoors or out. Most children love doing this as much as playing in a large cardboard box and it’s a great game for rainy days too.