Tag Archives: play

Gift Guide: Toys to Build Toddler Brains

photo showing toys like Duplo train, Quadro climber

Parents often ask me for recommendations for “the best toys for toddlers”. It’s a little tricky for me, given that I often advocate for owning fewer toys. But, if you’d like a few special items for a child to unwrap for their birthday, Christmas, or another holiday, here are some thoughts on how to choose the best toys. I’m going to sort them into categories based on ways to build a variety of skills and multiple intelligences. (I also recommend you check out my handout on activities and free items which also help to build their brains.)

Word Play (Linguistic / Verbal Intelligence)

We go to the library a lot! And when my son was a toddler, we went to story-time at the library every week. This means we get to “try out” hundreds of books a year for free! We only buy copies of the very best. Here are my favorites for books that toddlers love, preschool level books about inventors and makers, and books that sing. (For your adult reading enjoyment, here’s my recommendations for recommended parenting books and resources for teaching STEM to kids.)

It’s also helpful to play a lot with letters: I like magnetic letters for the refrigerator (which you can use all over the house) and duplo letters.

I also recommend a Kindle Fire tablet with Kindle FreeTime installed, which includes lots of ABC games and literacy building apps. (Here are thoughts on making screen time work for your family.)

Doing the Numbers (Logical – Mathematical Intelligence)

Everything you have more than one of is a math toy! You can count how many blocks you have, figure out whether you have more trains than balls, and so on. A few helpful specialty math tools are: a set of Duplo numbers, which you can use for counting, number recognition, while mixing them into your building tools, Unifix Cubes, and a great app called Bedtime Math. Every night at bedtime, we read a story problem and solve some math puzzles related to that story.

Putting the Pieces Together (Spatial Intelligence)

I like wooden puzzles for younger children and jigsaw puzzles for older kids. Melissa and Doug is generally a reliable brand. Babies 6 – 18 months like stacking toys and shape sorters. Toddlers love wooden train tracksto assemble and a big collection of wooden trains.

There’s tons of great building toys for older kids (I list many here in my STEM Gift Guide) but my all-time favorite is building toy to give is a basic Duplo set. For a 5 – 6 year old, choose basic Legos.

Moving & Grooving (Bodily – Kinesthetic Intelligence)

I would recommend several balls of varying sizes and textures, a Nerf style baseball bat, a Strider bike, and plenty of time to run and play indoors and out.

Rather than buying a pre-made climber that can never change configurations, I recommend a climber built of Quadro (Quadro is a fabulous combination of building toy and playground equipment! We’ve had ours for 20 years now, in near constant use.)

Playing Well With Others (Interpersonal Intelligence)

Imaginary play and telling stories with characters is one way to build interpersonal intelligence. Choose a few stuffed animals or puppets,  a collection of finger puppets to tell stories with, a toy picnic basket with fake food.

Learning about Myself and How I Feel (Intrapersonal Intelligence)

This category of intelligence isn’t about tangible stuff. It’s more about interaction and emotion coaching, and also making sure your child has time for quiet contemplation and down time.

Song and Dance Routines (Musical Intelligence)music

We have a box of miscellaneous musical instruments he can pull out anytime he wants. A few were purchased for him, but most are just items that have entered our lives over the years, like the plastic Yamaha recorder I had as a child, and the plastic Yamaha recorder I had to buy for my daughter’s class when I couldn’t find my old one… We also have a very old electric piano that’s in his room and he spends part of many “nap times” exploring the piano.

We listen to a lot of music together (one older sibling loves Broadway show tunes, one loves vintage jazz, Abuela loves classical and Spanish music) and sing songs A LOT, and enjoy circle-time songs at BC classes and library story times and hymns at church.

Fun with Flora and Fauna (Naturalistic Intelligence)

As you can guess if you’ve read other posts on my blog, we spend a lot of time outdoors. Camping, hikes, zoo trips, farmer’s markets, walks to the library and the pool. The only “tools” we use outdoors are a bucket and a shovel. (But, when we forget them, a stick and a rock can fill in as digging tools, and an empty Starbucks cup from the car makes a fine bucket.) Some day we’ll find our binoculars again, and pick up a new magnifying glass.

Expanding Horizons (Magic / Imagination / Religion / Cultures)

We have a big box of miscellaneous dress up – old Halloween costumes from his siblings, sunglasses, silly hats, etc. In all of our books and the videos we watch together, we aim for showing lots of diverse cultures and experiences, and we go to a church that talks a lot about diverse beliefs and appreciation of the sacred in all forms.

All the Pretty Colors (Artistic Skills and Appreciation)

This is the one area we have an abundance of STUFF.

One cabinet in the kitchen is over-flowing with art supplies: Model Magic clay, no-spill watercolors, pom poms, pipe cleaners, paint, paper, glitter glue, stickers, markers, crayons, beads, scissors, and so on. When he and I are in a relaxed, mellow mood, we pull these out and get to work.

I try not to do much art when I’m in a cranky mood, or when I won’t have time to deal with any mess that arises. I have to confess that I can have a hard time when he’s being really messy or “wasting” art supplies, or “messing up” art supplies – like when he dips the red-paint-covered paintbrush into the yellow paint. Because I know that about myself, I make sure that he has plenty of opportunity to do art in spaces that are designed for kids’ art and where it’s OK to make a mess. So, this year, he’s enrolled in Creative Development Lab, which is all about exploring and experimenting with art.

Child-Directed Play

In addition to buying stuff for your kid to play with, also make sure they have some time to play with you that is child-directed – where they get to decide what they want to play. Learn more about child-directed play.

If you have an older child, check out my Gift Guide to STEM Toys for Ages 3 – 6.

(Note: this post includes Amazon affiliate links. If you click through and purchase anything, I get a small referral fee. I spend any income from that on doing outreach to encourage more parents and educators to come check out what I offer here on this blog.)

Fun with Toddlers: Pet Theme

This month’s theme was Pets, especially dogs and cats. Here are some fun pet-related things to do with your toddler:

Outings to Go On: Visit a pet store. Look at the fish, or the rodents, or the birds or reptiles. The pet store is just as educational as the zoo, and it’s free! It’s a great chance to talk to your child about animals, and to practice observation skills: “Can you find a yellow fish?” “Which is the biggest bird?” “These are all reptiles. What makes them different from the rodents we just looked at?” If you don’t have a pet at home, don’t feel like you have to buy anything. Most pet stores are used to parents coming in and hanging out with their children for a while. If you want, you could buy a bag of pet food to donate to the store’s pet food drive. (Look for a donation bin at the front of the store.)

Toys to make for your child

Balloon Puppies. Take a balloon. Blow it up. Draw animal features on, add a string and you have an instant pet for your child to take on a walk! If you want to be fancy, you could use a helium balloon and fasten on “legs” made of accordion-folder paper – the home made version of the toy pictured.

petsDoggy ears (or kitty ears). Make a circle of paper that fits around your child’s head and add ears, or turn a child’s headband into the base for ears.

Imagination Games to Play

The Dog House. Take a big cardboard box. Cut an arched doorway in it. Decorate it like a dog house. Add things to represent dog food dishes, dog bones, dog toys and more. Add stuffed puppies if you have them, and then let the play begin.

Pet Store. Set up a pet store with stuffed animals, and accessories for animals (food bowls, collars, treats, toys, and so on, and go shopping.

Songs to Sing / Rhymes to Say

Where has my little dog gone?
Oh where, oh where has my little dog gone?
Oh where, oh where can he be?
With his ears cut short and his tail cut long,
Oh where, oh where can he be?

How Much is that Doggie in the Window
How much is that doggie in the window? The one with the waggly tail?
How much is that doggie in the window? I do hope that doggie’s for sale.
[Search on YouTube for many videos of this song!]

I have a cat
I have a cat (stroke your fist); My cat is fat (arms form a stomach)
I have a cat (stroking); My cat wears a hat (hands on head)
I have a cat (stroking); My cat caught a bat (clap hands together above head)
I have a cat (stroking) Purrrrrr, Meowwww

Circle Time Ideas

Poor Kitty. There is a game that elementary school aged children love called “Poor Kitty”. One person pretends to be the kitty and goes around a circle, trying to make the other kids laugh (by purring rubbing against them, licking them…). The others are supposed to keep a straight face and just pet the “cat” and say “poor kitty” without laughing. You can adapt this for a one-on-one game with toddlers or preschoolers. (Though they probably won’t get the whole “you’re not supposed to laugh” idea.)

Puppy puppet. Bring a puppy puppet and some dog treats (or dog toys.) Give a treat to each child. Bring the puppy around the circle and have each child give the dog a treat. Have fun with pretending to be a happy puppy.

Purple cat, what do you see. Make a felt board collection of pets – brown dog, black cat, yellow bird, gold fish, etc. Give one animal to each child. Do the rhyme, similar in style to Eric Carle’s Brown Bear. Go around the circle to each child in turn, having them place their animal on the felt board. So, if you started with brown dog, and the first child has a black cat, you’d say “Brown Dog, Brown Dog, what do you see? I see a black cat looking at me.”

Books to Read

Roly-Poly Puppies by Elaine Moore. A counting book with a nice rhyming structure.

Pete the Cat by James Dean. There are lots of fun Pete books, but the best is I Love My White Shoes. (Check out our Pinterest page for lots of activities to go with Pete books!)

Aggie and Ben by Lori Ries. Ben’s dad takes him to the pet store to pick out a pet.

More ideas (and source citations) at: www.pinterest.com/bcparented

For my full collection of theme-based “Fun with Toddlers”, click on “Fun with Toddlers series” in the right hand side bar. Or if you would like them in printable handout form to share with students, click here.

Engineering and Preschoolers

Engineering challengeI loved this post on “The Educator’s Spin on It” which gave an idea for an engineering experiment to try with a preschool age child, and also included broader tips on how to build Engineer-Thinking skills in your child, book recommendations about engineering, and so on. But when I read it yesterday, I didn’t expect to try the experiment today!

Then today, we had one hour before nap-time, and needed a new idea for an activity. My son asked for fizzy science experiments, and we played for a while with vinegar and baking soda. Then he asked for a new science experiment.

I remembered the post, and said: “Let’s build a rain shelter.” We made a bunny-like object out of a paper towel and talked about how we could keep it dry. First, I asked my son how to keep dry, and his first idea was to wear a raincoat and rain pants. (He goes to an outdoor preschool in Seattle, so is well practiced in this method!)  We put bunny in a ziploc bag (aka his raincoat – my son is not quite savvy enough to realize how bad a plan a ziploc would be if the bunny actually needed to breathe!). And then we ran bunny under the faucet. Sure enough the “raincoat” kept him dry.

Then we took off the raincoat, and practiced having bunny hide under a flat roof. (The lid off a bistro box from Starbucks.) That worked for a little “rain” but when we had a lot of rain the flat roof spilled over. But the “roof” we were using had “gutters”, so we cut out a section and added a straw for a downspout. (Then we had lots of chances to sing the Itsy Bitsy Spider and talk about waterspouts.) We then folded the lid in half to see the advantage of peaked roofs over flat roofs.

Then we made a “tree” out of shredded up plastic bag… that also shielded our bunny till there was just too much rain and the “ground” (the plate the bunny was on) got so wet there were big puddles that ran under the “tree” and soaked the bunny.

After that we walked around our house and looked at our gutters and rainspouts. We tracked where the rain would flow out of the spout, down the driveway, out to the road and down the street to the storm drain, and talked about how it goes to the lake from there. We looked at the flat roofs and peaked roofs in the neighborhood.

In the end, it was a fabulous hour of interactive discovery inspired by a blog post I read yesterday morning. I would have never thought of this project on my own, and am so glad that I get to benefit from the shared creativity of other educators and parents!


Schemas of Play

large_7461108728 (2)Have you ever known a child who was continuously filling up a basket and carrying it around the room? Or a child who loved to take objects and line them up in long lines? Or one who had a passion for throwing objects and would do throw all objects whether or not it was appropriate? Or one who only played with things with wheels? Those patterns of repeating behavior can be organized into “schemas” of play.

What is a schematic behavior?

Schema are building blocks for the brain. When a child is able to guide his own play, you’ll often see him exploring things in a predictable, repeated method, testing and experimenting with several objects in turn. This process helps him forge connections in the brain, helps him predict what might happen, and refine his understanding based on the results. Some children cycle through all of these schema every day.

But some children will focus intensely on one schema for a period of days or weeks (or months). Parents may worry that their child is obsessed, or that she will never let go of this one way of interacting with the world, but this is normal developmental behavior.

If a parent of caregiver can  recognize which schema a child is currently most focused on, they can tailor learning experiences to appeal to those interests while still providing a breadth of learning experiences. Sometimes children will pursue their schema in ways that are inappropriate (like throwing things in an enclosed space, or climbing on the furniture) so it is helpful to have other ways to direct that “trajectory” urge or the “positioning” desire.

Activities that Support, Extend, and Re-Direct Schema

Transporting. If you have a child who continually picks things up and carries them from place to place, here are some activities they may enjoy: Easter egg hunts or other gather-things-in-a-basket games; play in the bath with floating toys and a boat or basket to load them into; let them help with putting clothes into the washer and taking them out of the dryer; or helping to clear the table after a meal. Ask them to deliver items around the house (e.g. please put this cup next to the sink). Provide plenty of baskets, bags, boxes, and wagons to move things around in. It may help to put the majority of your small toys away while a child is in this phase so they have fewer total items to clutter the house with.

Transforming. If your child mixes all their food together, and mixes paints together, and likes to get things wet to see how they change, here are some positive ways to play with transformation: containers of colored water they can mix, fingerpaints they can smear together, a container with baking soda in it and eye-droppers with vinegar they can drip in and create “fizz”. Let them help you with cooking – mixing up muffins and seeing how they transform when cooked. It may help to find ways to minimize mess – for example, instead of giving them four containers of fresh paint, you could put four dabs of paint onto a “palette” or dish of some sort where they can mix to their heart’s content without “ruining” the full containers of paint.

Trajectory. If your child throws things, kicks balls, and drops things all the time, she is exploring trajectories – how things move through the air. She’ll probably love: paper airplanes, watching you play tennis or badminton (and fetching back errant balls), blowing feathers or scarves through the air, shooting baskets (tossing crumpled paper balls into the trash can), flying kites, chasing bubbles, bowling, splash painting (go outside with a bucket of water and a paintbrush – she dips the paintbrush in the water and swings it hard so the water splashes onto a wall or fence). If you know a friendly dog who likes to fetch, it may be a match made in heaven. (Although be aware of pet safety issues.)  It may help to put away many of your breakable valuables while your child is in this phase, and/or to provide him with only soft whiffle balls to throw.

Rotation. If your child loves cars, trains, and anything with wheels, and also loves to spin around, they enjoy rotation. He may like: unscrewing lids from empty water bottles, playing with a kaleidoscope, riding on a merry-go-round, spinning in an office chair, playing with water wheels, spinning things dry in a salad spinner, whisking scrambled eggs, playing with hula hoops, and drawing circles. These children may like playing with volume knobs or other knobs, so think about whether there’s anything you need to childproof. They also may like taking lids off containers, they may even figure out “child-proof” containers, so make sure medicines and chemicals are out of reach.

Enclosure and Enveloping. Does your child love to hide under blankets, bury toys in the sandbox, and put things in boxes? Those are enclosure skills. Build forts together, save large boxes for them to hide in and to pack things in, set up tunnels, set up a tent to sleep inside, play with a parachute, give her a shovel and take her to the beach or a sandbox to bury things, save small boxes to hide things in. Play lots of peek-a-book or hide and seek. These children often hide objects, so be careful not to leave essential items (like car keys!) in their reach.

Connecting. Some children love to build puzzles, assemble legos, and tape things together. Here are some ideas for things they can connect: tape together items from the recycle bin, make paper chains, punch holes in something and let them lace a ribbon through it, loop weaving looms, paper trains, construction toys of all sorts, dress-up clothes with buttons, zippers, snaps, and more. If you have a connector, be prepared to spend time untangling, untying, and prying apart! You may find it best to keep string, tape, and glue out of sight and out of mind.

Disconnecting. Other children go through a phase of destroying things: knocking down block towers, scattering Legos, tearing apart books. Give them a bin full of paper they’re allowed to tear apart, try to re-frame your way of playing with blocks – know that it’s all about building something that they will enjoy knocking down, teach them how to use the dustbuster to clean up their messes, put them inside a big box with some styrofoam sheets to break up (the box contains the mess). Now is a good time to put away toys with lots of small parts (e.g. train set or the collection of toy food) for a while, because all they’ll do is scatter them.

Position. Some children really like order: lining things up just so, and believing that everything has a proper place. They love “sets” of things that have a certain order they can be arranged in: alphabet blocks, number magnets, planets, and pictures of shapes with three sides, four sides, etc. They like peg boards, and stacking cups, and shape sorters. Putting things in order often calms them, but having someone mess up their order can be very upsetting, so help them learn to manage those upsets.

Orientation. Some children love to look at the world from a variety of perspectives: hanging upside down, turning their heads sideways, or climbing high to get a better look. Spend lots of time at the playground, or in gymnastics / tumbling classes. Give them binoculars and telescopes or even just cut a hole in a box for them to look through, give them an unbreakable hand mirror for exploring reflections. They will often climb on things not meant to be climbed on, but rather than just saying “no”, say “I can’t let you climb on that, but you can climb on this” or “there’s nothing safe for climbing here, but later today we’ll go to the playground and climb.”

If your child is currently “obsessed” with some schema, it can get tiring and frustrating to deal with, but remember that they are growing their brain, and organizing their ways of thinking about the world as they explore this schema again and again.

Sources for more information:

Schemas in Areas of Play  – suggests several types of activities a child might enjoy while working on a particular schema, also addresses problems a schema might create for parents and caregivers

What is a schema – includes descriptions of the schema, and then for each one offers activities to support that schema and key words to keep in mind while planning activities for kids working on that schema.

Schemas – How to understand and extend children’s behavior. Includes examples of types of activities a child prefers based on schema and how to help an activity (e.g. cooking) appeal to kids depending on whether their focus is on connection, rotation, etc.

Also, click on those three links in the first section of this post on “What is a schematic behavior” to learn more about brain development and play-based learning.

Resource for parent educators:

I have made up a set of printable postcards describing these schema that you could hang about a children’s play area for parents to read while their children play.

photo credit: Megan Hemphill (Prairie & Co) via photopin cc

Stages of Play

Children’s play evolves as they get older. Mildred Parten developed a theory in the 1930’s that is still used today, although some of the details and timing have been re-interpreted over the years.

  1. Unoccupied Play—birth and up. Babies gaze at the world and absorb information, but don’t seem to be doing anything.
  2. Solitary Play—3 months and up. Babies or toddlers explore toys and their environment. They don’t really notice other children.
  3. Onlooker Play—9 months and up. They watch other children play but don’t join in.
  4. Parallel Play—18 months—3 years. Children play side by side. They often look like they aren’t paying attention to each other, but one will mimic what the other one is doing.
  5. Associative Play—3 years and up. Playing separately but on the same project (building a block city  together). Talking together, problem-solving together.
  6. Cooperative Play— 4 years and up. Playing WITH a friend. Some examples:
  • Dramatic / Fantasy play: Dress-up, school, etc. Pretending to be characters in the same scenario.
  • Competitive play: Sports, board games, tag, hide and seek.
  • Constructive play: Building with blocks, making a fort, sculpting a sand castle.

Note: Ages given are for kids playing together with peers. If they are playing with someone of a higher developmental level, they can achieve more. (e.g. a one year old can parallel play with an adult, a 2 year old may be able to do cooperative play with an older sibling.)

When watching children play on the playground, or in the classroom, can you identify each of these types of play?