Got a playtime dilemma? We’ve got some fun and simple solves! Well, not us, exactly. But our resident play expert, Tara Ient. Tara’s a paediatric occupational therapist, and a mum of two, and she’s full of magnificent suggestions to make playtime easier and less stressful. (And none of them involve bribing your children with lollies.)
"My kid has waaaay too much energy in the evenings! Ideas for calm, before-bed play?"
None. Abort mission. Sneak out the back door! Kidding. The answer is absolutely, there are plenty of activities you can do together to help slow those toddler engines down and get them ready for sweet sleep.
- Blow bubble monsters. Fill a little bucket or container with water and a few drops of dishwashing detergent, pop in a straw and get them to blow to create ‘bubble monsters’ – encourage long, slow blowing to help relax them. Then, pull the straw out and use it to blow the bubble monsters back down, again encouraging longer, steady breaths. (This is only for kids who can be trusted to not slurp up the soapy water!)
- Play with shadows. Turn the lights off in the bedroom (dim lighting can create an instant sense of calm) and use a torch to spot different things in the room and create shadow puppets with toys or your hands.
- Create a little cubby. Grab your books before bed, and use sheets or blankets to create a cosy little tent or cubby space to read them in. The enclosed space helps block out all the distracting stimulation and slow busy minds.
- No walking allowed. After they get out of the tub/shower and into their PJs, throw down a ‘no standing’ command! Little humans must crawl everywhere until bedtime. Being low to the ground is harder work on their bodies, therefore more calming for their nervous system. Create a path of pillows and blankets to crawl over that leads them to their beds for an extra challenge!
"I’m not a natural entertainer or a very sing-song-y parent. How can I encourage self play with a young baby?"
Playing doesn’t come naturally to everyone (we don’t all have an inner Play School character ready to burst into song!), but remember you’re still the best play partner for your child. A young baby’s favourite toy is their parent’s face, no matter what that face is doing!
Young babies love face-to-face time, cuddles and touch, talking (there’s no need for anything fancy, just tell them about your day or and the things you can see) and some floor time play together. Just making faces and reacting to your baby is good enough for them – but you can also choose toys that your little bub will love! Look out for...
- Toys or books with high contrast, like black and white and red. These will be the easiest and most attractive to baby eyes.
- Toys that are easy to bring to the mouth and munch on. This is all part of them exploring, learning and preparing for feeding, and can be particularly helpful when it comes to teething!
- Toys that are easy to grip. These are perfect for the development of hand muscles, proprioception (body awareness), hand/eye coordination and visual skills.
- Toys that easily make noise when they are kicked or knocked. These are fabulous to draw babies’ attention and understanding of cause/effect.
- Toys with mirrors. A mirror can satisfy a baby’s love for faces, support visual tracking and development of body awareness.
"Must all play involve arts and craft? Are toys cheating? (Please say no!)"
Arts and crafts are AWESOME! But they’re also time consuming, sometimes messy, require supplies and there are lots of kids who don’t love arts and crafts (or only love it for 2.5 seconds!). So, all play doesn’t need to involve getting crafty – and toys are most definitely not cheating! Toys have an important role in the development of many skills for children (except maybe those really annoying, loud toys, right?), particularly open-ended toys.
Open-ended toys are things that can be played with in a multitude of ways and have no rules. Things like blocks, dolls, cars, recyclable materials, nature pieces, lego, and animal figurines. They spark your child’s imagination, creativity and problem-solving skills. Choosing toys that are appropriate for your child’s skill level and interests is a great way to also develop their ability to play independently. No finger paints, required.
"We’re just having fun! Should I be trying to work on developing specific skills during playtime?"
Good question! Who doesn’t love having fun? Children learn best through play, whether that’s a perfectly planned activity or just in-the-moment mucking around – it is all learning. Sure, if you have time to create specific learning opportunities for playtime, that’s brilliant! But absolutely not necessary every day. Playing together fosters bonding and cognitive development while boosting physical, social and emotional development, so let the fun roll on. Children also learn so much from joining into your daily tasks, so include them where you can. It’s all ‘play’ to them!
"My child hates the tub. Any fun play ideas for bathtime to lure them in?"
Absolutely! A kid that argues to get in, then never wants to get out, sounds too familiar. Here are some fun activities to encourage them into the bath...
- Glow sticks. Pop those ‘80s neon glow sticks in the bath and turn the lights off for instant disco vibes!
- Frozen toys. Find some small toys that fit in your ice-cube trays or muffin tins and fill with water, then pop in the freezer. They’ll love melting them in the bath water to ‘rescue’ the trapped toys!
- Old toys, new location. Got sandpit or beach toys at home? Take them into bathtime and they’re magically the most exciting thing all over again. A tea set in the bath is often a hit, too!
- Coloured bath water. Add a few drops of food colouring (not too many or you’ll have Smurfs for kids) and a bunch of toys that are the same colour for some learning and fun!
- Paintbrushes and spray bottles. Sometimes super simple is best. Give the kids some paint brushes and/or spray bottles and let them ‘paint’ and ‘clean’ the bath, as they please! You can also encourage them to ‘clean’ the bath toys or their plastic animals/cars/trucks.
- Recycled plastic bottles. Keep that water, cordial, juice or milk bottle and add to bath time for filling up and pouring out. To level it up, poke holes in the lid so it creates a water spray.