Parenting a toddler is a challenge, even more so if you already have older or younger children in your home. Many parents often wish that their children ages 12-36 months would just “stay still” for a bit so they could catch a break. Unfortunately for parents, toddlers are active creatures by nature, they are not hyperactive, nor are they showing early signs of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). They are quite simply active little learning machines!
Daily Guidelines for Structured Play & Free Play
For children 12-36 months old, the current National Association for Sports and Physical Education (NASPE) guidelines recommend at least 30 minutes of structured physical activity (adult-led) and at least 60 minutes unstructured physical activity (free play). And, as a general rule, toddlers should not be inactive for more than one hour at a time, except when they are sleeping. That’s a lot of work for parents! But remember, your young child is learning continuously through activity.
Technology as a Learning Tool for Toddlers?
In today’s fast paced, technology driven world parents are apt to let children spend far too much time playing with iPhones, iPads, computers & television. While there are good apps out there (do your research) and ways for children to learn through all these mediums, very young children still learn the most and learn the best through hands on play with toys & household items. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under age 2 do not engage in entertainment media use at all! Would you then be surprised that the average child today engages in at least 7 hours per day of entertainment media use (TV, cell phone, computer, tablet, etc)?
A child’s brain develops rapidly during the infant, toddler & preschool years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens. Studies have shown that excessive media use by children can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity.
Simple Toys Can Help Develop Imagination and Engagement
You may also notice that the majority of today’s toys “DO something” for a child. Rather than requiring a child to use his or her imagination and engage with a toy, a toy is designed “to entertain” the child with all the latest technological bells, whistles, lights & sounds. Did you ever buy a toy for your one year old that works on ABC’s, numbers, colors and shapes? Of course your one year old likes pushing the buttons, hearing the sounds, and seeing the lights…but are they really learning their ABC’s, numbers, shapes & colors while playing with this toy? Probably not. Why not? Because one year olds are not developmentally ready to learn such concepts yet. Learning shapes, colors & number concepts typically begin closer to the 2-3 year old level, and the concept of learning letters usually begins around preschool. Just because a toy is labeled “educational” does not make it so. Be aware of what is developmentally appropriate at ages 12-18 months, 18-24 months, 24-36 months and this will make choosing toys for learning easier.
Keep in mind that toddlers do not NEED fancy toys at all in order to learn the important skills they need to be developmentally on track. Here is a list of common household items that your child can learn from & may spend more time playing with (gasp!) instead of store bought toys:
Common Household Items Used as Toys for your Child
- Empty shoe boxes can be stacked as large blocks
- An empty laundry basket is great for throwing balls into as a target & fun if Mom or Dad will pull them around for rides in it too.
- An empty egg carton or ice cube tray can be used to work on a neat pincer grasp for young toddlers by placing one Cheerio in each slot and encouraging them to reach in & retrieve them. For older toddlers you can sort Fruit Loops into colored piles by using the slots, or drop cereal in and count and work on concept of numbers.
- An empty large appliance box makes hours of fun as a playhouse if Mom or Dad cuts a door into it & allows the children to color or paint the outside
- Old cds or dvds can be used to stack on a post like a ring stack toy
- A colander in the kitchen can be used with craft pipe cleaners or shoestring for threading much like sewing cards
- Dry rigatoni or wagon wheel pasta can be used as beads to string on a shoelace. You can even color the pasta with markers to work on sorting and pattern making with older children.
- Old pots & pans with wooden spoons provide hours of fun for many toddlers
- Saving butter, yogurt, cottage cheese & other empty containers with lids save you from buying pretend food items for your child’s make believe kitchen
- Make an indoor obstacle course with pillows, couch cushions, blankets, etc.
- Music is a great motivator for movement, language and imitation. Sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and use gestures with it to encourage imitation of motor movements or put on your favorite music and make up a dance for your child to imitate or let them create their own.
What is important is that you do spend some time engaging with your child in play. But, always remember to not be intrusive. Let your child take the lead and follow him, do not demand he plays how you think he should. You can expand on his creativity, language and ideas by playing alongside him. For example if your child has a car and says “car” you can expand on his single word by saying “Car go” or “Red car” helping him to learn new words and putting his single word into a sentence. It doesn’t mean he will repeat you, but he is absorbing what you say and he is learning. If he is building with blocks, you can build alongside him and see if he will imitate you, maybe adding new blocks to his own structure in a new way. If your child insists on throwing a ball inside the house, make a variety of bins and baskets using laundry baskets or Rubbermaid containers so he has a target to throw into, instead of throwing randomly.
Children also learn by helping you & most toddlers are eager to help out & please you, so take advantage while it lasts! Let your toddler find pairs of colored socks in the laundry to work on color matching. For example, give your child one red sock and a pile of clothes and let him search for the other red sock that looks “the same” as his. When washing dishes allow your older toddler to stand on a step stool at the sink with you or let him sit on the floor with a dish bin with some soap and wash dishes (use a plastic table cloth the protect the floor). When grocery shopping ask your child to find the bananas (talk about them being yellow) and then the apples (talk about them being either red, green or yellow) or have him pick out the milk with the blue label, etc. When wiping up spills or cleaning & dusting give your child a cloth or broom and let them help.
All this is learning by doing!