Toddlers are a curious and explorative bunch. Their entire external environment fills them with great curiosity that there is hardly anything out there they won’t explore. The World of Make-Pretend is their oyster. That is why, as a mother, I believe that the best learning tools out there for toddlers are not store-bought toys or the latest V-Tech or Leap Frog gadget. Instead, look around the house for cardboard boxes; inexpensive arts and crafts items such as paper, scissors, glue, crayons and markers; common household items like dishes and pots and pans; and old clothes and accessories.
1. Cardboard Boxes
To a grown-up, a cardboard box is perfect for storing things. To a toddler, it holds a world of imaginative possibilities! The best boxes are the huge ones that have housed appliances or large paintings. Toddlers love to use household appliance boxes as boats, cars and trucks, forts, houses, and buildings, and best of all, hiding places. Recently, my mother-in-law received an enormous painting that she won on an Alaskan cruise. The painting hangs beautifully in our living room; the box, however, has become another canvas for my three-year-old and my husband. They enjoy sitting in it together, drawing and coloring the hours away. And my ten-year-old son is short enough to hide himself in it!
Smaller cardboard boxes have their creative uses as well such as: skates, hats, baby doll beds, a basket for basketball, or storage to throw just about anything. A toddler will surely find use for a box as long as any item can fit into it!
2. Simple Arts and Crafts with Paper, Scissors, Glue, Crayons, and Markers
Good old paper, crayons, and markers are always a hit with toddlers. Two to four-year-olds are just developing their fine motor skills. At this age, drawing is the perfect venue for them to learn how to hold a writing tool and move it about on paper. Toddlers simply enjoy scribbling and coloring!
Speaking of fine motor skills, if there are plastic safety scissors or youth scissors with the rounded tip, toddlers will have a ball cutting paper into strips, of course, with supervision. It’s a great opportunity for them to practice because that is one skill they’ll need to know for kindergarten. Straight lines are the easiest. The repetitive movement strengthens their fingers and hands. My daughter’s face lights up when she is able to cut a piece of paper into strips.
After the cutting, comes the gluing. What better way for toddlers to display their “strip-cutting artwork” than to help them glue it onto paper? When toddlers witness the profound effects of glue, they are amazed that something liquid can make things stick together. The whole process of squeezing the non-toxic glue bottle, watching the glue ooze out, and seeing the strips stick brings them excitement and joy because they helped to create that masterpiece.
3. Household (Preferably Plastic) Dishes, Pots and Pans, and Utensils
Toddlers like to mimic the cooking activity that they watch their parents do. Give them some dishes and they will stir, chop, and mix an entire imaginative meal. They don’t even need a conventional stove or oven; a cardboard box will do just fine! It’s not at all necessary to go out and buy play dishes or a kitchen set or even play food. What cooks up in their imagination will reveal itself during play.
But dishes, pots and pans, and utensils are not just for cooking in imaginative play. What else are they famous for? Banging and clanging as musical instruments! Toddlers enjoy noise, lots and lots of noise! If the ears are able to tolerate such boisterous sounds, then go ahead and give them the metal pots and pans. However, the noise from plastic bowls and spoons make for pretty good musical clamor.
4. Old Clothes and Accessories
Toddlers love to play dress up. And who do they like to dress up as? Grown-ups of course! The best way to make use of old clothes without donating them or throwing them out is to give them to toddlers to have their imagination way with. Toddlers emulate their parents and other grown-ups not only by acting like them but also by dressing like them. Dresses, jackets, coats, and ties allow them to play their grown-up roles in pretend play. Throwing in hats, necklaces, suit ties, and old shoes make their outfits complete.
It doesn’t take a lot to entertain and keep toddlers busy. Expensive toys and games are entertaining. But in reality, they are unnecessary because all the items mentioned above do enough to spark their creativity and allow it to run wild. So save those boxes, stock up on paper and glue, and search the house for old items because there are toddlers who are ready and waiting to use their imaginations!