Routines: Playpen time

What is playpen time?

Time when a baby or young child plays in a safe environment within a set boundary with a selection of age appropriate toys for a set amount of time.

Why have playpen time?

Playpen time is introduced as a regular part of a flexible daily routine. Independent playtime away from all other distractions teaches a child how to focus and concentrate on a few selected items, rather than flitting from one activity to another. It teaches them to be content on their own and to know that it is ok to be separated from Mum for a short time – that she will come back. It alleviates the separation anxiety many young children feel when Mum leaves the room because they know through experience that she will return and they will be ok.

Playpen time provides you as a parent with a period of time where you can take a shower, complete some of your own responsibilities or homeschool older children – all the while knowing that your younger child is safe and happily playing with their own toys.

How do I introduce playpen time?

Ideally, introduce playpen time from before your baby can even crawl. (See tomorrow’s post on starting late.) An emotionally healthy baby can lay or sit for a short period of time happily focussed on their own toys in a secure and safe environment. Make it a part of your daily routine, a couple of times a day for 10 or 15 minutes right from a very young age. If you wait until they can roll and crawl to get where they want and then suddenly impose a barrier, baby will be frustrated and let you know. If they are used to spending some time in a playpen every day it will simply be something they expect and happily participate in.

Obviously babies need lots of time with Mum and other family members, cuddles, attention and the like – I am not advocating using a playpen continuously throughout the day. It is for planned periods of time and for a reasonable length of time.

Where?

Somewhere that you can check on your child regularly, but where they cannot see you. Somewhere away from the traffic flow of the house. When siblings or others walk by, a child’s attention is diverted from what they are doing and they will swiftly become discontent with being there. If they see you check in on them, they will likely cry for your attention and want to get out, whereas once settled an uninterrupted child will happily focus for an extended period.

When do I use it?

When your child is well fed and well rested and at a consistent time each day. Make it a part of your routine so that the child begins to know what will happen throughout the day and is happily ready to go in when that time comes.

Toys

Choose a small selection of toys. Too much choice means that children will not focus on any one item but swap and change from one to another. Ensure that toys are age appropriate; not too easy or too difficult for them to use. If the toys are not interesting to the child, playpen time will be a struggle. Rotate toys so that there is regularly “new” toys to enjoy.

I sort my baby and toddler toys into several plastic crates – one for each day of the week. This way, I don’t have to go though wondering what to put in today – I simply put in the next crate. It also means they only see the toys once a week so they are fresh and interest stays high. When I only had one child, I didn’t have as many toys as I do now so rotating was harder, however I will be adding lots of ideas of toys to make for toddlers and babies so check out those blog posts for ideas. You could also swap toys with friends or join a toy library.

Toy storage

Do not expect children to pack toys in to bags or boxes, it is too fiddly and time-consuming. Open baskets and crates are best as toys can quickly and easily be plopped inside. Large toy boxes are also not a good idea as all the toys get jumbled together, pieces are all mixed up and it is very difficult to quickly pull out a good selection for playpen time.

I have a mental list of categories to help me ensure a good selection of toys which varies according to the age of the child:

(For babies) Something to:

  • mouth or cuddle (favourite teddy or any suitable baby toy)
  • look at (stimulating cardboard books, fabric books, photograph books)
  • listen to (music makers, squeakers)
  • feel (texture related toys)
  • kick or bat at (dangle toys, those that clip on the side of the pen)
(For toddlers) Something to:
  • read
  • push (vehicles)
  • stack
  • open and shut
  • touch and handle, tip or put into the containers (shells, rocks, pegs)
  • wear (hats, necklaces, bangles, scarves )
  • build or construct with (Mega-blocks, Duplo, magnetic blocks, stickle bricks, train tracks)
  • pretend play with (teddies, dollies, bottles, dishes, cups, clothes, food)
  • post (a hole in the top of a small cardboard box with something to post like noodles, blocks, pipe cleaners, straws or pegs)
  • practice with (I wander through the house looking for items they are currently interested in like hair brushes, hats, shoes, cleaning cloth, tea towel, hair clips)
  • solve – puzzles (beginner peg puzzles)
  • make music or noise with (maracas, clappers, drums or other percussion, pots and pans or battery operated toys)
Toddlers plus:
See this post on room time.
Packing away

Teach your child to pack up right from the first use of the playpen. Initially it will be you packing away with them watching. Encourage them to help you put the toys away, perhaps placing a small item in their hand and guiding it to the basket and thanking them with a big smile for helping Mummy pack up. It won’t take long for them to understand what you want them to do and you can gradually pull back on the amount of packing you do until the child is completely responsible for this task themselves.

Several of my children have been heard to vigorously start throwing toys back in the crate without me telling them to do so – a very clear sign that in their opinion playpen time is done! While this is very cute, it is important that they realise Mum decides when playpen time is done, not them, or they will simply pack their toys away after a few minutes and expect to come out.


Teaching Toddlers to Cut

Thin card strips (about one inch) are a good first cutting experience. Parallel and diagonal lines can be added to the strips for a new challenge once random snipping has been mastered.

With older siblings to watch, the littlies are always very keen to cut. Rather than have them constantly nag me or try to grab those scissors and have a go on whatever is handy when I’m not looking, I prefer to spend some time and teach them to cut safely – under supervision! It is great for long stints of uninterrupted school time with older children while young ones are happily occupied on a purposeful and satisfying activity.

The stiffness of straws makes them easy to hold and cut. Cut straw pieces can be used for threading activities.

A good pair of child-sized scissors is important. Make sure that they have a larger hole in one side of the handle so the all of the child’s fingers can fit inside, rather than the kind that have two equal sized small handle holes. (See the pair in the photo.) I also buy proper scissors straight away, rather than safety scissors, simply because of the frustration children feel when scissors are not sharp enough to cut well. The initial paper based cutting experiences outlined here would be fine with safety scissors, but once they move on to the straws and other materials they may not be sharp enough.

Streamers are more difficult to cut because they do not stand stiffly out from the "holding hand."

Cutting strips should be about one inch wide so that the child can cut completely through the strip in one snip. Sliding scissors forward and making a second snip to cut through paper is a more difficult skill and should be introduced later. Show your child which hole is for the thumb and check that they continue to hold the scissors correctly with the blades facing away from them. Young children tend to turn their hands around, rather than the object they are cutting, which causes them to end up in all sorts of interesting and uncomfortable positions.

A new level of difficulty. Use cut beads for various craft projects later.

The first material to present is the easiest to cut – one inch strips of thin card stock. Regular paper is too thin and does not stand out stiffly from the child’s hand, flopping down and making it difficult to cut. Remind your child to keep moving their holding hand away from the scissors as they go.

Tinsel makes pretty off-cuts for craft projects. It is quite difficult to handle for beginner cutters though.

I usually set my cutting activities up in the same format (same tray with basket or two wooden bowls) so that once familiar with the task, there is no need to re-explain what to do when a new material is introduced. Scraps are caught in the empty bowl or basket and can be collected and used for art activities such as gluing or collage.

Curling ribbon is also quite difficult to cut because it curls! Add snippets to your collage or other crafty supplies.

When the first cutting experience is presented I demonstrate first, explain what they need to do, then supervise very closely for a time, until I am sure that the child has mastered holding the scissors correctly, points them away from their body, moves their holding hand while cutting, collects their scraps in the container provided and is generally using the scissors in a responsible manner. I am then able to relax my supervision a little and begin to vary the materials once interest in those already available is beginning to wane.

The photographs throughout this article are in a suggested order of difficulty. Stick with thin card strips until the skill is well mastered, moving to thin card strips with straight and diagonal lines to cut along, before introducing the other suggested materials. Moving too fast will simply result in frustration as the material proves too difficult for the child to manipulate and cut successfully. Other items (such as the animals pictured below) can be added to keep interest levels high. Following on from here, a variety of interesting papers, shapes and other materials can be presented, including those that require the child to slide the scissors along and make several cuts. Start with free cutting, straight lines, then curves and other shapes.

My toddlers love this activity. They focussed for an incredibly long time, cutting the streamers into food for the animals to eat. (The scissors should be presented on the tray with the blades facing away from the child.)

Felt boards

Felt boards are an excellent independent activity. They make great table activities (although usually they use it up against the wall rather than actually at the table) and if you have a small version can also be used for highchair time. They require no special skills and are completely open-ended. Language development is enhanced as children create and tell their own stories using the pieces provided and they will keep a child’s attention for an extended period of time. The children in my family have enjoyed using the felt board and still choose to do so even as they grow older.

I made this felt board at Uni as a mini assignment and almost failed because the lecturer thought it was too big to be easily portable!! Now I use it all the time and love the fact that it is large enough for one child to set up a large scene or even for two children to play side by side.

To make a felt board, all you need is a very light piece of plywood or very strong piece of card. Box card is no good as it usually has corrugations and will tend to crease along these. Mine is strong card and has stood the test of time, although the corners are getting a little dog-eared now. If I was making it again I’d go for thin, light wood. Buy a large enough piece of felt to cover the board, with enough overlap to stretch around and glue (hot glue gun is ideal) to the back.

Use your imagination to cut out any number of felt shapes. You may like to have a mixture of animals, people and recognizable characters, as well as an assortment of shapes for building houses, gardens and whatever the child thinks up (i.e. squares, circles, triangles, grassy clumps, stems, petals, tree trunks, leaves, circles for flower centres etc. The possibilities are endless)

Basic colouring books are a great source of simple shapes that you can trace and transfer onto the felt pieces to cut out. I also have several sets of felt figures that go with specific stories which allow the children to re-tell these favourites to themselves.

It is helpful to have the board on a slight lean to help the pieces to stick and some people even stick Velcro dots (hook side) on the back side of each piece for extra grip.

That’s it! Easy to make and hours of play for your child. As with most of these activities, start simple. Put out a few basic shapes to begin with, or just the garden pieces, or animals and fences etc. Older children like to have them all at once and create complicated scenes but the toddlers will be more focussed with less to choose from and rotating pieces to keep their interest levels high.

Toddler and table activities: Playdough


Playdough is a timeless activity that is loved by children of all ages. Whether you buy commercial playdough or make your own, it is an open-ended activity that is suitable for a variety of ages. With the addition of a few new accessories every now and again interest will stay high and children from toddlers upwards will have a ball. I even know a Mum or two who like to get in there and do some modelling of their own!

The highchair is a good place for playdough as the mess is easily cleaned up. A child getting up and down from the table will have dough mashed everywhere. Do not leave the dough out in the air when it is not in use. If it is re-wrapped in a plastic bag and stored in an airtight container it will last for ages. In really hot weather it may need to be stored in the fridge. My last home-made recipe batch would easily be 6 months old and still soft. I have had some batches last almost a year.

One of the biggest readiness factors for playdough is whether your toddler has developed the self-control not to eat it! I make my own so I know at least there is nothing harmful in it, however gobs of salty dough can’t be that good for them so until my children are generally able to resist the urge to put it in their mouth I refrain from letting them use it. (I say generally because surprisingly even an older child will occasionally be caught with that giveaway playdough eating smile!)

Initially, just the experience of touching and squeezing the dough, flattening and pulling it apart and so on will be interesting. Keep it simple and introduce new accessories only when interest has waned and then only one or two items at a time. Biscuit cutters are not very successful until the child has the dexterity to roll out the dough and press the cutter into it – a surprisingly difficult task for a toddler. If you are sitting and playing together with the child they will probably enjoy this but will not be able to do it alone. Store accessories in small containers and rotate to keep interest levels high.

Here is the recipe I use. I couldn’t tell you where it came from but it is a great recipe. Cooked dough always lasts longer than cold mixtures but it does make a mess of your pots. Choose a very large pot, and stir continuously throughout the process. It starts off very liquidy and nothing happens for a while, but once the dough begins to form it will solidify quite quickly. I usually enlist my husband’s help towards the end as it gets very difficult to stir once the dough is forming. Keep going until the dough has lifted away from the edges and there are no wet looking patches left. When you have finished, tip the dough out to cool and fill the pot with water. If you leave it overnight to soak, the next day it will all just lift off. If you try to scrub it clean you will be there for ages.This I know from experience!

Playdough

4 cups flour
1 cup salt
2 tbsp cream of tartar
1 tbsp oil
3 cups water
food colouring – add to water.
  • Mix dry ingredients before adding wet.
  • Heat in saucepan and stir continuously over low heat until a large doughy ball forms.
  • Turn out and roll in a little flour if sticky.
  • Allow to cool. Store in the fridge in an airtight container.

Below is a suggested list of items to add to the dough, beginning with the first toddler introduction and on through to any age child. The order isn’t important, although toddlers are fairly limited as to what they can do alone so I usually stick to this order to begin with. Older children will use whatever is of interest to them.

Toddlers:

  • plain dough
  • dough with glitter in it
  • a bunch of popsticks to poke into it
  • coloured craft matchsticks, also for poking
  • cotton reels, corks, film canisters, lids and other random bibs and bobs
  • plastic farm animals, fences and trees
  • dinosaurs and plastic eggs
  • plastic sea creatures and boats
  • shells
  • plastic bugs and rocks
  • artificial flowers
  • cars and road signs
  • plastic or lightweight hammers
  • rolling pins
  • biscuit (cookie) cutters
  • plastic plates, spoons and cups. (Do not give these to a child who is already tempted to eat the dough!)
  • playdough stamping tools
  • garlic press
  • many other store-bought playdough accessories

Routines: Introducing table activities

Table time is a valuable addition to any flexible routine. Simply put, it is a time when the children sit at the table (or desk or kitchen bench or wherever) and work on a quiet activity. It is a time set by the parent for this to happen and the activities used are those that are previously approved and designated as table activities.

I choose the activities for my toddlers and younger children and set them out, the middlies usually get to choose between a limited number of activities (“Would you like drawing or felt board today?”) and the older children choose for themselves from activities that they know are already approved table activities. I chat to the children while they play at the table and am able to get the dinner made and served at the same time.

While my routines have changed over the years, for the majority of the time I have used table activities after bath and shower time and just before dinner time. This allows me to get everyone finished in the bathroom and send them to their activities as they are done – no roaming about the house getting into mischief.

I find that it is the transition times, the few minutes here and there between activities, that cause the most trouble and produce the most accidents. Left to their own devices, even for just a few minutes at this time of day, a cranky, tired, hungry toddler or child will rarely make good choices with their time!

The possibilities for table time activities are virtually unlimited. I have a cupboard with shelves that is designated for table activities which makes it easy for the children to see what they can do. Anything you have that can be used independently while sitting at the table is a suitable activity. Some families like to use this time for homework. I’ll be posting some table time ideas soon and of course, any of the toddler, workjob or Montessori ideas I post would be suitable, as long as your child can do them without assistance.

Toddler activities: Tissue box posting

 

This is a very quick and easy toddler activity to put together and all for free! All you need is an empty tissue box and something to post. Most of us have something lying around that will do; pegs, long Duplo blocks, cutlery, old credit cards, dominoes, popsticks or whatever you can find.

Make sure that the material does not pose a choking hazard, demonstrate what to do and let them at it! For the younger child, simply make the posting hole larger. An older toddler will enjoy the challenge of having to place the item in exactly the right position to get it in.

A great activity to use for mat time, playpen time, or even highchair time if the child is tall enough to be able to see the top of the box.

DESCRIPTION:

  • posting given object (in this case dominoes) through a slot in the top of a tissue box.

CATEGORY/SUBJECT AREA:

  • practical life – posting

CONCEPT/SKILL:

  • fine motor development; hand-eye coordination
  • concentration and focussing skills

EQUIPMENT & MATERIALS:

  • tissue box
  • dominoes or alternative material to post (pegs, long Duplo blocks, cutlery, old credit cards, popsticks etc.)

Please see my pages titled “Workjobs and Learning Styles” and “Brief Montessori Overview” for more information.

Mat time on the go

In my previous post on mat time I wrote about how to use and introduce mat time to your little ones, including the benefits that mat time brings to you and your child. Mat time allows you to go anywhere and place a simple boundary on the ground for your child to play quietly in while you can relax knowing they are safe, quiet and happy.

How do you cater for mat time when you are out and about though? I like to keep an activity bag in the car or near the front door with some special toys inside that are used only for this purpose to keep interest levels high when I do pull them out. I don’t have enough commercial toys to put a whole bunch out of circulation so I like these toys to be simple hand-made activities or items that won’t be missed. I have a small mat that also stays in the bag, acts as the boundary and gives the children something comfortable to sit on.

I put everything into little bags, containers or boxes as this doubles the interest factor. Once we have finished with the toys I do have to spend a few minutes returning everything to its own container but as I don’t use them all the time, I’m happy to do that.

I use the following categories to help me come up with ideas of what to include:

  • books
  • vehicle (dinky car, Duplo)
  • stacking toy (plastic containers, cups, bowls)
  • containers to open and shut (bags, boxes, zippers, flaps, press-studs, drawstring, handbags)
  • something to wear (hats, necklaces, bangles, scarves )
  • something textured or unusual to handle, tip or put into the containers (shells, rocks, pegs)
  • construction (Mega-blocks, Duplo, magnetic blocks, stickle bricks, train tracks)
  • pretend play (teddies, dollies, bottles, dishes, cups, clothes, food)
  • posting toy (a hole in the top of a small cardboard box with something to post like noodles, blocks, pipe cleaners, straws or pegs)
  • household (I wander through the house looking for items they are currently interested in like hair brushes, hats, shoes, cleaning cloth, tea towel, hair clips)

With a small amount of preparation and some training at home, you can have a toddler who happily sits down for an extended length of time to focus and play quietly with their own toys. Perfect for Grandma’s trinket filled house or a coffee date with the girls.

5 minute warning

Picture it: You are sailing in the ocean on your pirate ship, catching huge child-sized marlin as you go, just about to reach the treasure chest that is buried on the abandoned island and…Mum calls out “Bath time, come inside please.” Imagine the battle raging in a child’s heart between the desire to continue on with the game, to just find that treasure first, to whine, complain, tantrum and otherwise fail to display obedience in this situation and the moral requirement to obey.  When we put our children into this kind of siuation we set them up for failure.

Think about what it’s like as an adult to be in the middle of a project, or just about finished with something you are working on and to be called away. Frustrating!!

There are times when a child just needs to obey without a warning; first time, straight away, when Mum gives the instruction. Much of the time however, we can prepare their hearts to obey with a simple warning of the instruction about to come. Once the instruction is given, obedience is expected: immediately, first time, without complaining.

It may sound something like this:

Mum: “Pirates.”

Pirates: “Yes Mum?”

Mum: “In 5 minutes I’ll be asking you to put your ship away and come inside for a shower.”

Pirates: “Yes Mum.”

Mum (5 minutes later): “Pirates, put your ship away now and come inside please.”

Pirates: “Yes Mum”

The pirates have had time to find their treasure and prepare themselves to obey and the struggle that may otherwise have taken place inside the children has been much reduced. When a child hears themselves agree to obey, they are much more likely to follow through and actually obey.

Counting after an instruction has been given and ignored simply trains your child that obedience is not expected until the third or fourth repeat of the instruction or at “3” which is when Mum or Dad now actually require obedience. If your child can obey at “3” why not train them to obey when the instruction is given for the first time. It may even save their life one day.

The idea of giving a 5 minute warning comes from the book “On becoming Childwise”, available here.

On Becoming Childwise: Parenting Your Child from 3 to 7 Years

Stay-at-home date nights

My 8 year old son set the table for our stay-at-home date night last night. He included everything he could to make it as special as possible, even placing a hidden note informing us that a CD had been selected and was in the player ready to go.

Once children arrive, going out for date nights is no longer as easy as it once was. If you have ready access to babysitting you may be able to go out regularly, but many of us find that it becomes more and more important to spend some time and effort planning special evenings at home, to be enjoyed after the children are in bed.

Good date nights take planning and effort. Decide ahead of time what you will do. If left to the night itself, most of us find that we simply lack the energy and inclination to peel ourselves off the couch to get to bed, never mind make a date night special. Pick a night each week or fortnight that will be your non-negotiable date night and don’t change it unless something extra special comes up instead. Perhaps arrange babysitters for one or two nights a month and plan to have date nights at home for the other nights.

If you are lucky enough to have two sets of Grandparents, you can alternate between them which means you only require them to babysit for you once a month – not too much of a load on those already often committed parents of ours. If you find it difficult to find babysitters, perhaps you could get together with another trusted family and swap babysitting with them – you go out one week while they watch your children and they go out the following week while you watch theirs.

Keep in mind your spouse’s love language. These date ideas will cover acts of service, quality time and easily lend themselves to physical touch, but don’t forget gift giving and words of affirmation. You could write a special invitation and leave it in the letterbox or email it to hubby at work, telling him how much you love him, how wonderful he is and building anticipation for the evening to come. A love note can be included on the dinner table or in the picnic hamper or written on the bathroom mirror in the morning before the date night and of course, you can spend the date itself speaking affirming words that you know will be meaningful to your husband.

Simple, inexpensive gifts can also be easily incorporated into the evenings. Why not wrap up the massage oil for the bathroom evening for example and hide it in his briefcase before he goes to work? You could tuck a wrapped new pair of socks into his undy drawer for a sock wrestle later and instruct him to wear them to the date or the brand new CD he has been wanting could be playing on the stereo as a surprise with the case wrapped up for him to open as the date begins. Simple items that will be a part of the date night anyway – even his favourite chocolate – can be given prior to the actual date to have him looking forward to it excitedly or as a part of the date experience itself. As you can see, all of these ideas are relatively inexpensive and easy to do but do require pre-planning. All communicate love!

Don’t forget that you are romancing your husband so take the time to look nice and present yourself in the way you know he likes. If he has a favourite outfit, why not wear it? No one else is around to see you so please his tastes, rather than your own, when you choose what you will wear. Take a shower and get dressed up – the same as you would when going out. Put on some makeup, the perfume your spouse loves and more importantly for him – the undergarments he loves! Anything he has chosen for you will usually be appropriate here. You don’t have to go out so you don’t have to wear them for too long and if you let him know you have it on at the start of the night, he’ll be fairly keen to take it off you by the end of the night!

Now for some ideas:

  • Do you have a trampoline? Take out the doonas, sleeping bags and pillows for some cuddling and star watching. Sock wrestling on the tramp is fun too – each of you wears socks and tries to pull the socks off the other first. Lots of giggling and close body contact here.
  • Set up a restaurant dinner at home with candles, tablecloth, wine – the lot. If you have one, hang a mozzie net around a small table and chairs on the back patio for an intimate setting. Alternatively, a table for two in your bedroom may work well. Perhaps the older children could even wait on the table for some extra pocket-money, just like a real 5 star restaurant.
  • Try a picnic on the grass in the backyard – don’t forget the portable stereo for some mood music. In wet weather, a picnic on the lounge room or bedroom floor can be nice.
  • What about a board game championship play-off with all the old board games you used to play and enjoy growing up. Maybe the winner gets to choose something the looser can do to (or for) them. Maybe this is your chance to try strip poker?
  • Set up a tent in the backyard with the kids during the day and have some fun playing in it with them first. In the evening before hubby gets home, turn it into an “adults only” area. Fill it with a mattress, doona, pillows and the like. Maybe set up the coffee table and lots of cushions around it for Middle Eastern style reclined dining. How about roasting marshmallows over the camp stove? You could even sleep out over night.
  • Cook a meal together. Something difficult and fiddly that you never usually have time for, or a favourite meal that you miss because the kids won’t eat it – super spicy curry, a highly expensive seafood platter…
  • Clean the bathroom from top to bottom during the day. (There’s nothing romantic about sitting in a mouldy, sandy, finger-marked bathtub – or is that only my bathroom?) Deck the bathroom out with ALL your candles, sprinkle rose petals, put on some mood music and fill up the bathtub. Set out the best towels for afterwards. Perhaps have some massage oil or a back massager on hand. Wash each other all over and go from there. If it’s the kid’s bathroom that has the tub, make sure you remove all those toys and other paraphernalia – you want the setting to be romantic.
  • Movie nights are great occasionally but don’t let this be the default option on a regular basis. Hire an old favourite or a DVD that you with both enjoy. Set up the lounge for the full cinema experience – low lighting, blankets, make popcorn and snacks and put them in paper cones or cups.
  • If babysitting allows, how about having the children looked after in the morning instead (or even better, overnight at the Grandparents for bonus date night AND morning). One of the things we miss most is a sleep in, leisurely breakfast, coffee and reading the newspaper in the mornings. We like to go out to breakfast and coffee at a café too if we get the chance, maybe stroll around the shops, markets or wherever we are, before collecting the children at lunchtime.
  • Hold a karaoke night for just the two of you. Not my thing, but some love to sing along and since there’s no one watching, why not give it a go.
  • Dust off that icecream maker, waffle maker, or simply set out a bunch of toppings and icecream flavours to create your own tasty treats – perhaps make a huge icecream Sunday to share.
  • Climb up on the roof with a blanket and do some stargazing and have a heartfelt conversation. All right, not all roofs are suitable and we don’t want any broken necks, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to find a comfy position on some. Don’t put your foot through the tiles though; climb up the ridge capping rather than across the centre of the tiles.
  • Check out many more stay-at-home date night ideas at http://www.healthymarriage.org/homedates.htm

Toddler activities: Sensory tables

My sensory table in the kitchen; set up for water play.

Sensory tables are an excellent way to keep a toddler absorbed and concentrating for a good length of time while you homeschool older children, cook some dinner or wash the dishes. They are filled with open-ended activities and once the basic set-up is in place, are easily updated with the addition of household items for a new “theme.” Toddlers will love them and learn to focus and concentrate in the process.

A low table is ideal, however a large crate with lid, old television stand, coffee table, big wooden box or regular bench or table with the legs cut down will all suffice. I used a very large, sturdy crate with a fitted lid and covered it with a beach towel for a non-slip surface.

The sensory tray itself needs to have low sides (around 20 cms high) and be quite large. Under-bed storage crates or something similar are ideal because plastic lends itself to water and sand play and can be easily cleaned out. If the shallow crate comes with a lid this is even more ideal as it can be clipped into place when the tray is not in use.

For water play (as in the photo above) I have a smaller crate that I fill with water and a very shallow tray that goes underneath. This gives me a dry area for the accessories that are not in use and somewhere to put muffin trays for sorting and other activities near the water tub. For dry activities like pasta, the accessories can be kept in the large tray with the pasta and just put to one side.

The tray needs to be low enough for a young child to stand at comfortably, with their hands able to reach to the bottom of the tray. With very young children, you may choose to provide a sturdy step to bring them up to height, rather than cutting the table down too low – remember they will grow very quickly.

Think about age suitability. Scissor activities are not appropriate if it is likely that your 12 month old will get hold of them! Put towels underneath the table for indoor wet play. Plan for an easy clean-up by spreading out a sheet or blanket underneath when your child is using dry materials and simply gather the spills up in the sheet to tip back into the sensory tray when they are finished. You may choose to line it with fabric to cut down the noise, although this is sometimes part of the fun!

Now – what to put it in? (Keeping in mind of course that some materials pose a choking hazard and will not be appropriate for children who still like to put everything in their mouth.)

Some ideas are listed below and there are heaps of other great ideas at:  http://www.perpetualpreschool.com/sensoryideas.html

 

material in tray accessories to add
cheap costume bead necklaces (On strings for children to cut apart.)  Tie scissors to table legs so they are always available and do not get lost in the tray. Provide large tweezers to pick beads up and sort into muffin tins or other multi-compartment trays. Use beads for art and craft activities once interest has died.

 

sand plastic flowers, garden tools, rocks, pebbles, gloves, spray bottles for garden play.
sawdust or washed blue chip gravel or pea gravel or dried coffee grounds or dried tea leaves trucks, cars, rocks, pebbles, road signs
sawdust or shredded paper or packing cornstarch beans magnetic bingo wand and magnetic bingo chips (Chips will attach to wand as it is swept through the tray) or large horseshoe magnet (or similar) with paper clips, cutlery, metal pencil sharpeners etc
water aquarium rocks, pebbles, plastic bait fish or sea animals ($2.00 shops are a good place to look) aquarium net, small containers/buckets for caught fish.
water or wheat (Extremely large bags of wheat are available for at places like City Farmers.) turkey basters, squeezy sauce bottles, cups, containers, funnels, tubes, measuring spoons, sifters, egg cartons, pots, pans, jugs, measuring cups etc.
shredded paper or cotton balls or packing cornstarch beans or birdseed, wheat, pasta, rice, split peas or other clean grain. plastic or wooden letters/numbers/shapes and sorting trays to place in once found. Could be colour coded trays/containers to encourage sorting. Puzzle pieces – put puzzle tray for pieces to be inserted into once found, until picture is complete.
smaller tray – can be a table activity buttons, tweezers and iceblock trays for sorting.
chosen dry material foam board (from craft shops cut into animals or shapes to sort.)
smaller tray – can be a table activity beans and numbered egg carton (child to put correct number in each egg cup.)
ribbons, segments of curling ribbon, strips of crepe paper etc small sections of gutter guard, small hole chicken wire or commercially available weaving mats to thread ribbon through.
water sinking and floating – ping pong balls, boats, sponges, rocks, shells, other household  objects that float and sink. Encourage child to make a prediction before they check to see if the object sinks or floats. Aquarium nets to fish out objects once tested.

 

sand, shredded paper, crepe paper strips, sawdust or birdseed, wheat pasta, rice, split peas or other clean grain. plastic animals, bugs, rocks, shells. farm accessories etc.

(Wheat is available from places like City Farmers for $10.00 for a huge bag. Cheap enough to just sweep up spills and throw out if dirty.) Provide insect or animal books for children to look up their “catch” as they unearth their finds.

iceblocks of a variety of sizes use salt to stick blocks together to create ice sculptures
water different kinds of rocks to scrub, wash and dry (provide t/towels, scrubbing brushes, cloths etc.) Set up a couple of factual book about rocks away from the water for children to try and find their rocks and research rocks in general.)

 

shredded paper, packing beans fishing pole (wooden pole with string tied to the end and a magnet tied on the end of the string.) Cut fish shapes out of card and glue a paper clip to the nose of each. Write numbers, letters, sight words or whatever you are working on onto each fish and have child name them as they are caught. If they cannot recognise the letter etc. toss the fish back and catch again later. Do not work on too many new letters or numbers etc. at a time – ensure most catches are successfully named!

 

dog food stuffed animals, pet accessories, bowls (For the child who is old enough to resist the urge to eat the biscuits!)

 

nature items dry leaves, rocks, sticks, pine cones, honky nuts etc. with magnifying glass. Add plastic animals, bugs, cars etc. later, after the interest in the nature items themselves has worn off.
straws provide different sizes and colours for children to chop up. Tie scissors to leg of table to stop them getting lost in the tub. Once straws are all cut into smaller pieces, hide other objects (as for the ideas above) to find and sort or use cut straws for threading.
fossil dig freeze plastic dinosaurs in a deep tray in a thin layer of water coloured with food colouring. Once frozen, add another layer of different coloured water and so on. Dig out the fossils with metal spoons. Read dinosaur books and information about palaeontology as an intro or follow-up.

De-bone a chicken and soak bones overnight in bleach. Bury “fossils” in selected material for children to dig out.

 

cutting bright scrap paper, wrapping paper, magazines, pictures etc. for children to cut as desired. Hole punches, fancy scissors and staplers can all be added.

 

water pure soap flakes and hand beaters.

 

soapy water dolls clothes, tea sets or plastic dishes to wash and dry up or peg onto string line. Add dish mops, sponges, pegs, bottle washers etc.

 

corn starch packing beans can be used to hide many objects and are edible (ensure you get the correct ones. Encourage children not to eat them, just know they won’t be poisoned if they do!)

Once you have used them for a while dry, you can provide spray bottles filled with water to dampen the beans which are then mouldable.

 

soap and paper clay grate one bar of  soap and mix with equal amount of water then combine with one roll of white toilet paper (torn up) to make a mouldable sculpture material.

 

cities layer bottom of tray with garden soil and sprinkle well with grass seeds. Provide water spray bottles for daily watering. As the grass grows, lay small blocks for roads and add cars or other accessories. Make junk model city buildings and houses and trim “lawns” with scissors.

 

sand shells, seaweed, flags, buckets, yoghurt pots or other containers and water spray bottles to dampen sand.
chosen dry material spray small rocks gold or use plastic jewels or vase rocks as treasure. Link to pirate stories. Make box pirate ships to pile treasure into.
marble run clear flexible tubing, wooden blocks or real pipe and a variety of joiners to create pathways for marbles.
chemistry lab fill a container within the main crate with water. Provide “lab coats” to keep scientists clean and dry. Have a number of small jars containing vinegar, baking soda, flour, salt, oil, red, blue and yellow coloured water. Put small teaspoons in non-liquids and eye droppers in liquids. Children choose two ingredients for each experiment to mix, observe result, then rinse mixing jars in water. Provide t/towels for drying before starting a new experiment.
colour mixing as above, but only with the 3 prime colours in water. Perhaps use before introducing chemistry lab.
soap finger paint beat pure soap flakes, a little food colouring and water to form a thick, shaving cream consistency. Finger paint in crate or directly onto table surface. If painting onto table surface it is better done outside and hosed off once finished. Provide shirts or aprons to protect clothes. Make a print of painting by smoothing paper over lines drawn with fingers or plastic objects.
supersand equal parts cornmeal and dried coffee grounds make “supersand.” Use with many of the ideas listed here.
water different sized bottles and containers. Draw lines for children to fill to. Work together to decide which holds more.