Toddler bags for out and about: How to get through a restaurant meal with a toddler.

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Any parent of young children knows that a meal out in a restaurant can be taxing with a toddler in tow. There are ways however to minimise the stress and make it a pleasant experience for everyone.

Firstly, train your child at home to sit in their highchair after meals for a period of time with a few toys or activities, or perhaps a book or two and include playpen time (or room time) and mat time in your daily routine. Having these daily periods where your child is used to happily playing with the toys you give them, whilst staying within a boundary, is excellent preparation for other occasions when they will need to sit quietly for a longer than normal stretch of time.

Spend a little time preparing some new and interesting activities that are kept aside for use while you are out. Either purchased toys and books or some simple (and cheap) home-made ideas like the ones that follow. Toddler’s generally do not have a well-developed imagination and tire of toys that don’t “do” something relatively quickly, so having to buy new things continually to keep up with their changing developmental needs and interest can become very expensive. These home-made toys are great for developing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination and when introduced at the right developmental level, will be stimulating and interesting for your young child. If a task is too easy it will not hold their interest. Too hard and they will become frustrated and lose interest.

This is the bag of “toys” I put together for my 18 month old to use during a lunch we attended on the weekend. He only used a couple of them as I bought them out one at a time and only changed them over when necessary.

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Posting bottle: Posting noodles into an empty vanilla bottle and tipping them back out again.

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Posting box: Pushing pompoms into the hole in this twine box. Help is needed to open the box to tip them out again but as we are sitting right next to him this is not a problem.

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Small spaces jar: Posting earbuds into a spice jar with holes in the lid. He discovered after I had taken off the lid and tipped them all back out about 5 times that he could shake them out one at a time through the holes so that added a new dimension to the activity.

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Posting tin: Posting plastic poker chips through a slot into an empty baking powder container. Yes, I know, it’s another posting activity. But at this age, my son LOVES to post stuff so I’ll run with that for a while and change when he is no longer so fascinated!

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Surprise boxes: Opening and closing these little pill containers to find the small toy inside is great for fine motor development.

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Dolly peg and hair bands: Sliding hair ties on and off a wooden dolly peg may be a little difficult for him but we will give it a go and see what happens. I haven’t used this one yet.

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Dinky car: Having older siblings means that interest in cars has developed early and he knows how to play with them form observing his brothers.

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Pipecleaner box: Shoving them in and out and bending them into different shapes could be fun. (We haven’t done this yet either but I remember one of my older children using this idea as a toddler and spending a very long time poking the ends into the small holes in the chair he was sitting on.)

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This old bag is how we cart the activities around. The fact that it has several different compartments as well as zips means that it is an activity in itself.

Having children will certainly change your life, but it shouldn’t stop you from doing the things you love. Train your children and you will reap the benefits.

Other posts you may find helpful:

Mat time on the go

Activities to make for toddlers and babies

Buffet training

Arsenic hour and toddler meltdowns

Toddler busy boxes

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Toddler busy boxes are part of our flexible daily routine. They help me to homeschool  older children or get some chores done while my toddlers and preschoolers are well occupied on a worthwhile task.

busy box cupboard IMG_8556Our busy boxes (and ziploc bag activities, tot school, workjobs, shoebox tasks, preschool or Montessori style tray activities) are only available at certain times in the day to keep them fresh and interesting and to stop them getting spread throughout the house. We use them during school time in the morning and for table activities while I am getting dinner on the table in the evening. That way I do not need to change them too often because the children’s interest stays high and I can also keep some degree of supervision over the messier trays to avoid major pack up sessions afterwards.

They are also excellent to use for buddy time when an older child is assigned to play with a younger sibling. This is useful for example when the younger children have already finished playpen or room time and I just need an extra 20 minutes or so to finish working with one of the older children to complete their school activities. Turning toddlers loose to wander unattended throughout the house is bound to end in trouble, so some time with an older sister or brother gives the older children a break from their school work and builds good sibling relationships at the same time. The older children enjoy the responsibility because they do not get asked to do it all the time or for very long periods of time. It also gives them an excuse to play with all those attractive tubs as well!

This set of busy boxes is for my 3 year old twins, but many could be adapted to suit toddlers and older babies too. There are heaps of ideas on my other posts for the younger age group.blocks and animals IMG_8554Plastic animals and wooden blocks for building corals, zoos, farms and houses. Jenga blocks work well too.

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The 3 year olds have been learning how to recognise the numerals 1 to 5 and count small items. Combining building with Duplo as well makes this counting tray attractive, particularly to boys.geoboards IMG_8547Geoboards are a commercially produced mathematics tool. Great for exploring geometric shapes, perimeter, fractions or just for making pictures with elastic bands.dry erase board IMG_8546Personal dry erase boards (whiteboards) with pens and an eraser. sewing cards IMG_8543Sewing and lacing cards. These have a shape drawn for the children to copy. There are plenty of sewing and lacing shapes around to buy or make your own by punching holes around a cardboard picture using a hole punch.button sorting IMG_8542Sorting buttons into muffin trays is a hit with all ages. There is just something about handling all those different shapes and textures. The twins haven’t even gotten their hands on these yet – the 6, 8 and 10 year olds have been monopolizing them! cutting box IMG_8540Teaching toddlers to cut provides them with an absorbing activity that is great for their fine motor skills. The twins have had experience with all the materials in this box so this is just an assortment to chop up any old way they like. Paper streamers, card strips, beads, straws and other oddments such as tinsel or curling ribbon could be included. We let the bits fall back into the box and they can eventually be used for collage later on. The cutting box with free printable patterns I prepared a little while back was too advanced for them so I have put it away to use later on. wood puzzle IMG_8536A collection of good quality wooden puzzles is a good investment. This one came with a variety of patterns for the children to copy, making it much more  long-lasting.gluing IMG_8534Teaching toddlers to glue is another open-ended activity that they will love. Using a glue stick makes it a lot less messy to begin with. A selection of coloured card pieces and diecut shapes from a Kmart scrapbooking assortment pack made this very easy to prepare.rice box IMG_8531Sensory tubs have so many applications. Finding puzzles pieces hidden in rice is pictured above. See here for many more ideas.do a dot IMG_8530Do-a-dot pictures are great for fine motor skills. Bingo dot markers can be used to dot inside the circles or provide small stickers to peel and stick into the dots.  There are tonnes of free printable do-a-dot pictures around if you do a quick google search. teddies IMG_8528Imaginative cooking and doll/teddy play is always a hit. Small teddies, mini pillows, sheets and blankets, along with marbles, jewels and wooden button food makes an interesting selection. Bottle top plates and an old polly pocket toy as well as some screw-top jars finish it off.beads IMG_8526Pony beads and pipecleaners are great for threading and can be made into bracelets or tipped off and re-used next time. dinosaurs IMG_8523Our dinosaur tub includes play dough, plastic dinosaurs, popsicle sticks and popstick fences, a rolling-pin and plastic knife and some artificial leaves for plants and trees. The green bowl has been used to make a pond, cave and home for them as well.

Make sure you choose activities that are age appropriate, can be used independently, include attractive materials, are easily accessible, and easy to pack away. Being able to throw everything back into a robust plastic tub makes it easy for children to keep the activities together and tidy up after themselves.

The key to using these kinds of activities with your young children successfully though is training. No amount of pretty materials will keep a fidgety toddler with the attention span of a flea sitting in one spot for any length of time on a day-to-day basis. As soon as the novelty wears off they will be up and off again.

Take the time to train your children to stay in a designated area. (See mat time/blanket time and highchair time.) Introducing young babies to playpen time that transitions to room time later on is an excellent way to begin (see starting late) and the highchair and table make excellent places to sit a child with an engaging activity while you are nearby. Some children will naturally sit still for longer than others, but all can be trained to do so for a reasonable length of time.

If you are too busy to train your children to sit and concentrate then you are too busy!! Give up some of those good things you do and take on the better thing of training your children. They will need these focussing and concentrating skills in later life, especially at school and your home and others will be blessed by a self-controlled toddler.

For a list of toddler table activities, see here. For preschool ideas see here. For many more ideas for children of all ages, have a look around! For some more sensory tubs, try here.

Activities to make for babies and young toddlers

Trying to find interesting activities to keep older babies and young toddlers interested and focussed for any length of time can be a battle, but it is one that is worth persevering with. If you spend the time training your young children to sit, focus and concentrate and extend this time as they grow, you will be teaching them the self-control that is vital for all learning later. Not to mention the fact that you can go out to a friend’s house, to a restaurant, a school assembly or any other public event and take your child along, with the peace of mind of knowing that you will be able to enjoy some uninterrupted time in an adult situation. Toddlers need to be taught hand, voice and body control and this can begin at a very young age.

Here are a few ideas for home-made or readily available activities you can give to an older baby or young toddler during times where they are required to stay in a set boundary and play with the toys you have supplied (e.g. mat time (blanket time), room time, playpen time, highchair time and table time.)

Even quite young babies will enjoy pulling these dolly pegs out of the holes in the tissue box and carefully inserting them back in again. If they are pushed all the way in, the hole on the bottom of the box allows the child to pull the peg out from underneath. Posting and small spaces activities are great for developing fine motor control.

Stacking and unstacking objects is fascinating for toddlers. I was given these melamine plates for Christmas and my twins used them over and over again.

Cooking like Mummy is always popular. Go through your play food and cooking equipment and make up little sets. Don’t forget your kitchen junk drawer, pots and pans and any other smaller kitchen equipment that toddlers can safely use. Add small dolls and teddies for toddlers to feed.

My plastics are stored in a crate which I can plop out on the floor for little ones to unload and sort through. Stacking and unstacking, trying on lids and just exploring it’s contents is very absorbing. Perhaps you have a suitable cupboard that you can designate for young children to access while you are working in the kitchen.

I had trouble finding reasonably priced magnets that very young children could easily grasp. The flat, flexible style of magnet are not good for babies because they have trouble getting them off and end up peeling the edges back. I went to a $2 shop and bought 4 wooden jigsaw puzzles and a packet of strong round magnets. I glued the magnets on the back of the puzzle pieces and got a great, economical set of animals for the fridge, whiteboard, or metal biscuit try.

This very large bottle is a great posting container. Pegs, popsticks or any other thin object can be pushed through the lid hole and pulled back out through the open slot in the front. The edges are taped where they were cut to cover the sharp edges. I originally saw this used as a water pouring activity with a funnel in the spout and a large flat tray underneath to catch spills. The children were scooping the water out from the large front hole and tipping it back into the funnel at the top.

These oversized popsticks are placed into slots in the lid of the icecream container and can be pulled out and pushed back in.

A set of plastic chopsticks has been used in many different ways over the years in my house. Another small spaces activity; poking them into the holes in the side of this tissue box

I glued a bunch of cardboard tubes together for the little ones to put the chopsticks in and out of.

This quoits set amused the babies for quite a while as they took the rings on and off.

This Velcro fruit makes a great ripping sound as you pull it apart and stick it back together. Include the wooden knife for older toddlers to practise their early cutting skills.

I used some polystyrene foam covered in wide weaved fabric (burlap I think?) for this early hammering activity. (The foam has a tendency to crumble with use and I didn’t want any of the young children being able to get it into their mouths.) Golf tees and a selection of washers to bang into the foam have been well used by all of our children.

Developing Fine-Motor Skills in Toddlers and Young Children

Self-control, concentration, following instructions and fine motor skills are very important foundational skills for all children. Teaching your young child to sit and focus on an activity and see it through until completion will go a long way towards preparing them for later learning – whether that be in the homeschool or traditional school environment. Some children seem to be naturally better able to do this, others need training and practise to do it. Children who do not develop these skills early will find it much harder to learn and you will find it more difficult to teach them!

Here are several Montessori style tray activities for toddlers and preschoolers that will help to develop their fine motor skills. Many parents of young children say that their children will not sit still long enough to attempt, let alone complete an activity like these and that may be the case right now. It is however most certainly possible to train them in this skill so that sitting and focussing becomes something they readily cope with, both at home and when out.

Putting a flexible routine into place and teaching your child to stay where you want them to stay will be an important first step. Introducing playpen or room time, highchair time or table time, mat time and other periods of planned activity to your child’s day will reap the rewards of a child who is able to sit and focus and learn from the materials available to them. Self-control will begin to grow and the benefit will spill over into all parts of their lives. Time for some free play with age-appropriate choice making is also important, however if a toddler’s whole day is unstructured and contains many choices you will be seeing many “sticky patches” as Mel Hayde terms them in her book “Terrific Toddlers.”

Start with very basic activities like the first couple below that do not take very long to do and are not too challenging to complete. Help the child to learn the process first: take the tray out, sit in the designated place, complete the activity in the same way you have demonstrated it, place everything in the same place on the tray as it was found before returning the tray to where it belongs.

You may like to attempt only one tray to begin with so as to finish on a positive note. Praise your child for their attentiveness, perseverance etc. Five minutes for a toddler who is not used to this kind of task is a beginning. Work up from there until they can sit for an extended block of time. My twins at 2 1/2 years can sit for 20-30 minutes with activities that change every 5 to 10 minutes, depending on what it is. My other three children would have spent 30 to 45 minutes working on these at the same age and even up to an hour at times.

Threading and removing large wooden beads from these giant pipecleaners can be extended to pattern making for an older child. (Yes they are giant {about 40cms long} you just can’t tell from the photo!)

The chopstick is placed into the neck of the spice jar and large beads threaded onto the end.

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Toothpick flags are stabbed into the oasis. (Florist’s foam.)
Small beads are threaded onto the pipecleaners which are then put into the holes in the lid of the spice bottle. (These smaller beads require a higher level of fine motor control and accuracy to thread.)
It takes quite a bit of coordination to operate an eyedropper. Transferring liquid from one small container to another is a challenge for many toddlers. Perhaps use uncoloured water to begin with and provide a sponge for spills.
Yes, they will probably taste the angel hair pasta as they feed it into the small holes in this spice bottle but it’s only pasta after all!
This is a piece of polystyrene packaging with a loose weave hessian cover. You could include a set of numbers and have an older child set out the correct number of birthday candles.
Another spice jar with toothpicks – don’t throw out those old spice shakers!
Stretching hair elastics over a jar is surprisingly difficult for young children but they enjoy it anyway.

Montessori style tray activities for toddlers

These square jewels were so attractive to the twins that they spent a good deal of time examining each one and just moving them around by hand. Only once they had had their fill of touching and examining them were they ready to try transferring them which was the original purpose of this activity.

The twins are 2 years and 5 months old and were in need of some new highchair and table activities. These are the latest Montessori style trays that I made up for them in under an hour a couple of weeks ago. Once you have a good selection of materials and equipment to work with, it’s easy to mix and match and throw together some new ideas. Using a category for each tray type is helpful to me. (See Montessori tray activities for toddlers: starting out.)

I have done tray activities in the traditional Montessori style before (on a piece of carpet to designate a work space) but I find it easier at this age and with two at a time to keep them in their highchairs. This means I can use the time to prepare or clean up a meal or any other task and flit in and out of the room while they work on their activities without coming back in to find 5 trays up-ended on the floor at once! It also helps them to concentrate on the task at hand and learn to fully complete each activity before starting a new one. Concentration time is extended as they learn to stay focussed until I am ready to change the materials for them.

Pegging is excellent fine motor practice. Make sure the pegs you use are easy to press to begin with as toddlers do not have the finger strength to open very firm pegs. Dolly pegs or pegs that slide are a good option for those who cannot manage regular squeeze style pegs.

Providing a four sided container and pegs in four colours quickly turns this into a colour sorting activity. If you added some coloured sticky dots in the same colours as the pegs then younger children can begin to match the colours by pegging each peg onto the corresponding coloured dot.

This bead threading activity was the favourite of the lot and both twins want to do this again and again. They do enjoy chewing the straw though so I have had to replace it several times. Luckily this takes only a matter of seconds to do – see below.

All you need are some large beads, a container, a straw and a piece of masking tape. Bendy straws already bend over at the ends so I simply taped it over so that the beads will not fall off the end. That’s it! I will definitely be making some more threading activities soon. Beads on pipecleaners next.

A simple tong transfer practical life activity. I found a huge packet of large hair lackies at the $2 shop and they are great for beginning tong transfer because they are so easy to pick up.

One to one correspondence is an important pre-number mathematics skill. In this activity, preschoolers scoop one pompom into each depression in the iceblock tray.

Jewels, rocks and other decorations that are used for potplants and vases make excellent Montessori materials. They are very attractive to children of all ages and even my older children love to use these for maths manipulatives. This is a simple scooping transfer activity from one bowl to another.

Another transferring activity. I tried several kinds of tongs for transfer but my son was very frustrated by them, finding them too difficult to use. I decided to leave them for him for a while and let him enjoy transferring with spoons and scoops. His pencil grip is perfect so I am not too worried about his fine motor skills at this stage!

Other related posts you may like:

Montessori style tray activity for toddlers: Bucket of giant beads

Homeschooling activities for toddlers: Pasta play

Getting dinner on the table: arsenic hour

Routines: Playpen time – Toys and starting late

An example of my playpen ready for playpen time. An attractive selection of age appropriate toys - not too many - of different types.

My toys are stored in plastic crates so that a good selection of toys of a variety of types are all ready for me to pop into the playpen. Crates are rotated from day-to-day so that interest in the toys presented stays high for quite some time.

For those of you who have older babies or toddlers who have not yet been introduced to playpen time, here are some notes on starting late.

Starting late:

For a baby or toddler who has had a lot of freedom, the transition to a playpen can take a little time.  Make sure it is a good time of day to begin (not when they are hungry or tired) and start will a small increment of time – even 5 minutes. Put in a small basket of toys, or a toy or two in each corner of the playpen, instruct the child that they need to play here and that Mummy will be back to get them in a little while.

Yes, they probably will cry and that’s ok. If you are consistent and stick with it, your child will come to play happily for this time. You may like to play a CD or favourite book on tape, letting you child know that they can come out when the CD or story finishes or set a timer and tell them that playpen time will be finished when the timer beeps. Having a cue of some sort to signal the end of playpen time is helpful in the training period because it lets the child know that it is the signal, not their crying, that has decided playpen time is over for the day.

Start with the small increment of time and stick to it, coming in immediately once the signal sounds (timer beeps etc.) and with a happy face and positive tone say something like “Playpen time is finished, you can come out now.” A well fed, well rested child, with age appropriate toys is not harmed in any way by a little time in the playpen, in fact it actually helps them to develop those all important concentrating skills that will enable them to learn so many important things later.

Initially, have playpen time 2 or 3 times a day for 5 minutes. Once your little one is used to spending this short period of time in a playpen, gradually start to extend the time. Once they are spending longer blocks of time in the playpen, reduce the number of times in a day you use it to two and then once a day. By around 12 months all of my children would happily play in the playpen for around 45 minutes which extended to an hour by the age of 18 months. I have watched them examining objects with intense concentration, seen the cogs ticking as they use it in different ways and investigate everything about it. Babies and toddlers often do not do this for longer than a few moments unless you create situations that foster this skill.

Once a child is characterised by happily spending time in a playpen then on odd days you can make exceptions when they are not happy eg. extra tired, sick etc.

Although you may be thinking “My boisterous 12 month old will never do that” let me encourage you that they will. There will certainly be a transition time involved, however if you are consistent, playpen time will be a pleasant time for you both.

Introducing playpen time as part of a daily flexible routine will greatly improve the success you have with it. Trying to implement one planned moment in a day of chaos and unlimited choices for a child will be very difficult.

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.