Make your own baby and toddler toys

There comes an awkward age somewhere between 12 months and two years where it becomes more difficult to keep babies and young toddlers interested in their toys. They are no longer content to just shake and slobber on something that feels and look appealing, toys now need to DO something.

To complicate matters further, children generally do not develop imaginative play skills until around the age of 2. New toys are appealing but often lose that appeal quickly once they have been explored a few times and are too expensive to be constantly purchased. You can swap with friends, join a toy library or simply make your own. For me, the make your own option is the easiest, the possibilities are almost endless and they often turn out to be the long-term favourites. Here are some of my home-made baby toys that I use for mat time, highchair time, playpen time, table time and room time.

Find a bunch of small flat-bottomed toys, blocks, shapes, plastic figures or suitable objects and a base to stick them to; piece of smooth wood, plastic lid, small tray etc. Use self-adhesive velcro to attach each piece to the base so that children can stick them on and take them off again, enjoying that satisfying ripping sound as they do so. If you have enough, it is better to cover the base with the velcro so that objects can be stuck anywhere rather than only on a small matching dot. Older toddlers like this too if small people, animals or other figures are used and enjoy manipulating the pieces to play-act and tell stories.

Use an old baby wipes container and any flat objects that are slim enough to fit through the slot and not so small as to pose a choking hazard. Old credit cards, large plastic construction pieces, dominoes, poker chips, Jenga blocks  or anything similar will do. When interest wanes, simply change the material to post.

Wooden dolly pegs have dozens of uses. Young children find it challenging to slide them on and off objects and enjoy the sound of plunking them into tins and containers. My youngest loved to take them off the sides of containers like the ones above but not to put them back on again. They only did that part once – when they packed the activity away! Posting bottles and tissue box posting are other ways to use dolly pegs.

Formula tins have a large number of uses. They are great as rattle cans for crawlers to push about and with a hole, slot or cross-shaped cut in the top, act as posting tins for any number of small objects. Pegs, popsticks, dominoes, wooden shapes, milk bottle lids or whatever you have will do.

Toddlers are fascinated with Mum’s purse although most of us will agree that it is not a toy and it is unwise to allow toddlers to access it in that way. Because of that, some parents feel that even providing a similar option is not a good idea, fearing that children will not know the difference and think it is ok to touch Mum and Dad’s. I wondered about this too but in my experience have found that by the time they are able to manipulate cards and photos in and out of a purse or wallet, they are old enough to tell the difference between the play version and the real thing.  Find a bunch of old family photos, some fake credit cards (the display version that comes in junk mail trying to get you to sign your life away) and any other small objects that will slide in.  An old handbag is another version that toddlers love. Pick one up from an op-shop with as many zippers, pockets, divisions and press-studs as you can find and fill it with a bunch of small items. This works great for mat time on the go and can be re-stocked with different items on a regular basis to keep interest high.

For more toddler and baby activities, click on the “toddlers and babies” or “workjobs and Montessori activities…” categories on the left hand side bar.

Routines: Room time

Amazing things can be created in room time!

At around 18 months to 2 years of age, a toddler is ready to transition to room time instead of playpen time. Having said that, my two and a bit year old twins still have playpen time rather than room time for a number of reasons – space and lack of available rooms being two!  The following are some ideas for how to go about room time. My next post will help you to transition to room time smoothly. (It may be helpful to have a quick read through these posts first: playpen time, toys and starting late, choices)

What is room time? A time each day that is set by Mum when a child plays in their room (or a designated room) for a period of time determined by Mum. Do not confuse room time with a child choosing of their own volition to spend time playing in their room. This is a time chosen by you, with toys chosen by you (or a limited choice for older children) for the length of time chosen by you.

Tips for successful room time: 

  • try to arrange the room so that you can check on the child but they can’t see you.
  • start with 10-15 minutes and work up to longer time periods over several days. Even children who have been contentedly spending an hour in their playpen need smaller time increments to start with. This is a new freedom and you want to be able to praise them for their success in staying in their room and making wise play choices. Once the transition has been made and all is running smoothly you can increase the time again.
  • get the child started on an activity they enjoy before you walk out.
  • do not plan to use this time for the first week or so. Hover nearby, check on children frequently and deal with situations before they get started. Remember, the purpose of the short time period to start with is to finish while it is going well and praise, praise, praise! Do not be tempted initially to extend the time because it is going well and leave it until a problem happens – end on a good note.
  • start when you know you will be able to be home for a few days in a row
  • for young children, consider doing it through the weekend until well established
  • have it at a similar time each day
  • set out the toys you want a toddler to use or provide a limited selection of toys for an older child to choose from – not unlimited access to everything in the room.
  • introduce packing away from first use – demo, help, then independent. Have an easy storage system such as open crates. Sort toys out. One large toy box for everything not a good idea. Toys get lost, pieces are mixed up, toys are buried and forgotten and children can’t be bothered digging through to find what they need.
  • The success of room time depends on the focus and control that you are modelling and teaching throughout the whole day. A child who has too many freedoms and will not obey you during the day will not suddenly obey you when it comes to room time. Using a gate in the doorway can be useful for little ones during the initial transition and takes away the temptation to keep coming out. However a child who is not being trained in obedience will find a way to get out if they REALLY want to, despite the barrier.

 Toys:

  • You may like to keep room time toys only for room time so that the interest level stays high. Alternatively, toys can be sorted into crates for each day of the week or changed on a monthly basis.
  • Have a system in place to put the crates/boxes etc. into. A low bookshelf or cupboard that the child can reach is ideal. A few shelves that are out of reach can also be handy for those toys that are not for general playtime but are saved only for room time or for playing with Mummy and Daddy etc.
  • Clear plastic crates allow you to see contents at a glance.
  • Remove lids and simply have open containers that slide onto shelves. Remember, the easier it is to pack away, the more likely the child will do it without a fuss.
  • Sort toys out into smaller containers of similar sort (as children get older, toys become more complicated and have more pieces – mixing sets or kits with other toys makes it difficult to access.)
  • Do not store toys in draw-string bags, cardboard boxes with lids etc. until the child is able to manage those by themselves. If they have to ask you to take a lid off for them, they will be coming out of their room to do so and/or unable to pack up without your assistance.
Transitioning from playpen time to room time:
  • Put the playpen in the bedroom to begin with.
  • Use a mat or some other kind of blanket/carpet etc under the playpen that will become the designated play area in the room once the playpen is removed.
  • Have the toys sorted out and in the same places you will put them when room time begins without the playpen.
  • Take down only one crate at a time and say every day that this crate must be packed away before another one can come out – while in playpen one crate is all they get, so include enough variety to last the entire session. This means that later there should be a controlled amount of mess – no more than the contents of one crate should ever be out at one time.
  • Pack up with the child to begin with, one kind of item at a time, in a methodical way – remember you are teaching them how to pack up for all those times later they will do it themselves. Say out loud what you are doing, “First lets put away all the cars, now lets find all the books” etc.
  • Once the child is used to helping you, do some together then leave them to finish a set amount. No consequence for not packing up is needed, they are simply not free to come out until it is done.
  • If  there is a lot to pack up, simplify the pile into perhaps one or two kinds of toys – too many items from different containers/kits will be confusing and children often end up sitting there packing away nothing at all. For example, if a box of Duplo is out, along with books and a puzzle, perhaps clean up the books and puzzles for the child and require them to do only the Duplo.

Removing the playpen:

  • Explain that they need to play on the mat or other area you have designated.
  • Remind them of the toys that they may choose from – the same system you have well established while still in the playpen.
  • Initially, continue with the crate system. As children get older and toys become more complicated, begin to slowly hand over the choice to the child eg. you choose 3 items from the shelf, I will choose the rest.
  • Pack away most of the toys in the bedroom to begin with and only have out a few options that the child can choose from. More can be added later.
  • Remove any treasures or irresistible things that shouldn’t be touched.
  • Always have a set place for items. Teach how to pack away every toy as it is re-introduced back into the bedroom or a new toy is added.

Troubleshooting:

  • Try to ensure that household traffic is not passing by the door of a child who is having room time or they will be constantly distracted and more likely to want to come out.
  • Keep activities that sound like a lot of fun away from the sight and hearing of a child in room time. If they love to paint and you use this time for the older children to paint, it is much more difficult for them to be content knowing what they are missing out on.
  • In large families where children share rooms there may not be enough room time rooms to go around. If you are homeschooling and have older children at home, they could perhaps use this time to complete school work and have their room time at a different time of day. I prefer to have everyone in room time together so I get a break therefore we use almost every room of the house. Toddler and baby nappers go in portacots in rooms other than those they sleep in. Middle ages have their own desks and toys set up in separate bedrooms, including their own sleeping room and the baby room. The eldest is the most mobile as his interested are more portable. A crate with wheels makes his Lego set moveable and books are easy to pick up and cart about. Any other project is collected before room time begins and moved to where he will be. This may be the family room or loungeroom or even outside if the weather is nice.
  • Make sure that the toys are age appropriate, interesting and provide enough stimulus to last the whole time. Older children move away from just toys and in my household are given their own desk around the age of 4. We give them a mini set of drawers stocked with all manner of craft and drawing items, scissors, glue, construction paper and all sorts of bits and pieces and they have a wonderful time creating with these every day. Construction toys are pretty much essential for boys and good books are great for all.

Having room time for everybody every day leaves me with a chunk of time every day to recharge and gives the children a much-needed break from each other. They are often refreshed and in much happier moods when they re-emerge. Those personality types who crave time alone are rested and recharged and the more sanguine children benefit from learning to be by themselves and using their time in a worthwhile fashion. The projects the older children get up to are often quite amazing and the time is rarely wasted.