Every Sunday, in addition to meal planning and scheduling outings and such, I come up with a list of games and activities to do with Evan for the coming week (I'm a nerd, I know). The goal is to try one new(ish) thing every day. In coming up with these activities I have the help of some great websites (like productiveparenting.com and playathomemom3.blogspot.com) and of course Pinterest, but more often than not I turn to everyday items for inspiration.
By and large, Evan prefers these everyday items to his toys. Therefore, so do I. Not only is it inexpensive (usually, it's free), but it opens the door to so many possibilities. I've read that the less a toy does, the better it is for children because they can fill in the blanks and use their curiosity and creativity to come up with ways to play with that item. It not only keeps their attention longer (bonus for mom!), it literally builds creative pathways in their minds and teaches them to think and explore their world without just taking things at face value.
Evan is still young (he's 18 months), so he's still fascinated by the things in our home, no matter how mundane they seem to me. Here are the top 5 non-toy toys he loves best, plus ideas for ways to explore these items with small children.
Pots and pans
I first pulled out the pots about six months ago with the idea that we'd throw balls into them. At the time, Evan wasn't coordinated enough for that, so we down-shifted to simply banging them together and then with a wooden spoon and metal whisk.
As you can see, it was a hit! We soon found enough ways to play with the pots that they ended up staying out in the living room for two months. He loves to stack them, fill them with toys and carry them around, sit and climb on top, stick magnets to them, and eventually he learned to throw and roll balls into the pots.
On a smaller scale, we've amassed a collection of tin cans he loves to stack, sort, fill, and make noise with. One of these days I'm having my husband help me make a little kid drum kit out of the cans and old pots. Stay tuned for that fun project...
Straws aren't just for drinking — there are plenty of ways for little fingers to practice fine motor skills and for little minds to get creative with plastic straws. I first made a cheap-o toy for Evan out of an old cottage cheese container by cutting holes in the lid and showing him how to poke straws of various sizes through the holes.
I was surprised at just how much he loved playing with this. It was by far his favorite toy. The play evolved, from finding other things to put in the holes (like toothpicks and suckers) and other objects to put straws in (like a colander and empty spice bottle). He also loves using pipe cleaners for the same purpose, but it's more of a challenge:
(And as a side note, buying those little fuzzy craft balls was the best dollar spent that month. He LOVES 'em, and we spend lots of time scooping them into bowls and trays with measuring spoons, and sorting colors and throwing them like confetti.)
This is really a no-brainer. It's like that old joke: You spend $50 on a toy for Christmas and all the kid wants to do is play with the box. With little kids, any container will do. From learning to stack them to building a fort, let 'em go nuts and you'll be quite amused by what they come up with.
One thing that always keeps Evan busy is my drawer of hair products. He loves twisting the lids on and off the empty ones, and finding the right little plastic lid for each bottle takes a lot of concentration. He also loves rifling through the Tupperware, as most kids do, and I help him find the right lids and we stack them like blocks.
As he's gotten older, we've found novel uses for other containers. I have a circular chip-and-dip bowl with an inner cup. It's the perfect size for putting in his squishy baseball and twirling it around until the ball picks up speed and goes flying across the room. That gets him laughing every time. It was also a great container for his older cousins to play ski-ball with. Evan also loves a multi-tiered dessert tray that I got at the thrift store for $2. He puts his little toy animals on the trays and spins them around until they fall off, then he starts again.
And of course, what you put into containers is just as fun as what they do with them. Last summer we'd go into the yard with a bunch of different bowls, cups, and spoons. I'd fill them with water and let him splash away. He loves this so much he tries replicating it whenever my husband leaves the toilet seat up (yikes).
My little boy has always been fascinated with how things work. Even as an infant, he was more interested in the mechanical arm of his swing than he was with the mobile. So we go with it and look for mechanical, electrical non-toys that are safe for curious little ones. That's why I was stoked to win an antenna TV/radio/CD player at a white elephant party last Christmas. It is one of Evan's favorite toys, and I don't have to worry about him breaking it because it's just for him.
Thanks to this non-toy, our budding electrical engineer has now figured out how to work the other radios in our home, including my CD alarm clock, the iPod dock speakers, a portable AM/FM radio, and the TV receiver (if we leave the cabinet open). I love the way his eyes light up and he gets a proud look on his face as he turns the radio on, twists the dials and makes music come out. It's worth the aggravation of having the occasional alarm go off in the middle of the night after he's messed with my clock.
While moms are fun, daddies are the best at playing — and boy, is Evan lucky. He has a very hands-on dad who starts play time the minute he walks in the door, every day. Evan just can't get enough wrestling, chasing, building, investigating, and yes, even couch potato-ing, watching "The Simpsons" side by side. As much as Evan loves mommy, his daddy is the fun one who always gets him laughing.
A child could have all the toys in the world, but what he'd want most is a parent who makes the time to play.