If you read The Informed Parent regularly, you know that I strongly believe in the necessity of creative play for children's optimal development. Unlike games or toys that come ready-made with a purpose, creative play requires very little. It does demand time for the child to use his imagination, space to engage in the play, and sometimes your participation.
I was reminded recently about how little our young children need to stay entertained for extended periods of time. I had the opportunity to spend several months with my two-year-old grandson. Watching him play, whom he chose as those to model, and how he expressed his imagination heightened my own awareness of how rich life can be when we keep it simple.
This little boy's heroes were the neighborhood gardeners, the trash man, and the cleaning woman. What made them interesting were the fascinating tools they used--blowers and lawnmowers, vacuum cleaners, and trucks with large arms that picked up the trash barrels. His favorite outdoor play was pushing leaves out of the garden, then "blowing " them back with a stick he used as his blower. Inside he used a wrapping paper tube going back and forth across the carpet as if it was a vacuum.
Adults might wonder why these simple activities hold such interest for a toddler, and why taking him away from his play often causes tears. In his mind he is the gardener, the trash man, or the cleaning woman. You may have heard the saying that work is a child's play. As a child models those he sees doing jobs he finds interesting, he is developing observational skills, motor skills, and attention span. He is learning how to be in the world.
Toys that serve no particular function can enhance creative play, especially that of older toddlers. While younger ones are content with sticks as blowers and tubes as vacuums, older ones are more sophisticated. They gravitate toward blocks, Legos, dolls, pots and pans, cars and trucks. They create roles for themselves and their toys. Toddlers use dolls to model what they see you do with a younger sibling, or pots and pans to imitate work in the kitchen. They need to be shown how to use blocks and Legos. You can construct building towers, roads or houses with blocks. You can show them how to hook Legos together. After demonstrating and playing for a short time, step back and see how they use the toys. Often they might say, "Mama, help" or "Daddy, play." This is your invitation to join. If they do not want you to help or play, you will know. "Mama, go", or "Daddy, no!' are commands that are serious.
Bath time is fun for most toddlers. While they may resist getting into the tub, their resistance will be just as great when it is time to get out. Allow plenty of time for baths. Do not leave a toddler alone in the tub. Since this may not be your favorite activity, spend this time reading a book or magazine, knitting, working Sudoku, or crossword puzzles while your youngster is playing as long as he is clearly in your sight and reach. You will be interrupted to watch the play and check on safety, but with an activity of your own, you are less likely to hurry this special time. Fun bath toys include sponges, plastic cups and sieves, tub crayons, and small rubber bath toys. Fill the tub minimally and allow the water to continue running in a very low stream. Filling and dumping from the faucet or squatting and using the stream like "my own shower" provides enjoyment. Do not let the water rise to more than four or five inches.
While you need to have child latches on most low kitchen cabinets, leave one available for your toddler to open. Put lightweight pans, plastic bowls, wooden or plastic spoon in the cupboard. This will keep your little one busy while you prepare meals.
The sandbox provides excellent space for creative play. Again, cups, sieves, spoons and small dishes serve as tools to spark the imagination. If you don't have a sandbox or do not live near a park that has one, a large plastic tub filled with rice or cornmeal works just as well. It can be used in the kitchen or another room that does not have carpeting. Spread a sheet or large piece of plastic under the tub to make cleaning up easier.
A small piece of soft fabric and a child-sized broom allow your youngster to help you clean house. He will happily work right along with you and beyond. You many have certain off-limit cleaning spaces. If so, mark his areas for cleaning with pieces of colorful tape. Remember to be consistent about reinforcing where his spaces are.
When you watch a toddler, you quickly learn what is important to him. Filling and dumping often top the list. Provide a small plastic bucket with colorful fabric scraps. Include a variety of textures for him to feel. He will dump and then refill the bucket piece by piece. You can create a similar activity by using small colored blocks or colorful plastic letters or shapes.
Pay attention to your child to see what he gravitates toward. Then be creative about providing him with items for play. Remember, it does not take much to entertain a toddler. Find some time each day for creative play. To be fulfilling it cannot be hurried. Give him a chance to completely engage himself in the play and time to enjoy it. Expect that he may not want to transition to a nap, dinner, or errands. Offer ample warning when playtime is about to end. Say, "Soon the buzzer will go off. When you hear it that will be time to stop playing so we can go to the market." Or, "I'm going to slowly count to ten. When I say ten it will be time to stop playing and have dinner." If tears start or he says, "No! Want to play more," remind him of what you said as a warning. Then gently pick him up to move him to the next task.
Toddlerhood is a fascinating time for parents. It can also be challenging. This stage passes very quickly, so participate as fully as you can with your youngster. While outings such as story hour, parks, and play groups are important, creative play at home is equally as enriching for the child. It can also be a special bonding time for you and your little one.