Friday, January 12th, 2007
Bonding without Toys: Ten Interactive Activities for your Toddler and You
Thinga-reader Priscilla asks:
“Would you write about your favorite activities you have with your daughter? I have a 17-month-old and am on toy overload thanks to the holidays. I’d like to introduce some activities to him that are focused on our relationship rather than toys.”
Wow, that’s a great idea. Let’s begin with toy philosophy. There are many skills and bits of knowledge we want toddlers to learn, but the number one principle for the earliest years is human interaction. There are limitless qualities and abilities to be learned: sharing, empathy for people and animals, social conduct, language, vocabulary, sense of humor, sense of self and so on.
Accordingly, my toy philosophy states: if your child can use a toy or game alone, think twice about having that product in your home. There are exceptions, such as a Sit ‘n Spin, which provides an athletic activity in which a parent cannot participate. Even so, when my daughter goes for a spin, I enthusiastically count her number of revolutions, involving me in a small way while reinforcing her ability to count.
Buy toys based on their interactive value, not between child and toy, but between child and other humans. That’s not popular in a culture that encourages parents to plop kids in front of a TV, computer, electronic books and talking teddy bears. (Yes, I realize 95 percent of parents reading this have those things at home. This is an a la carte blog. Take the advice you like and leave the rest.)
My daughter doesn’t seem too concerned about what toy she’s using. She cares that she has a companion to play with her.
Here are ten activities to consider. These are not special craft projects or one-time deals. We do each of the following activities on a regular basis with my 2.5-year-old daughter. They are part of our family routine.
10. Shop at the grocery store and make dinner together. Even if it’s soup from a can, my daughter can help pour the contents into a pan and “stir for effect” before it’s put on the stove. A dull frosting knife can cut mushrooms and bananas. Measuring spoons can be used with assistance. And don’t forget the excitement of setting the dinner table.
9. Sing songs, dance and make up new lyrics. If you want background mood music, listen to Enya. Children’s music is not to be passively consumed. A children’s portable music player with isolation headphones will never enter our home.
8. Go on walks in a stroller, tricycle or wagon, even just around our neighborhood in the subburbs. We point out and talk about things we see. Sometimes she chooses to walk unassisted, about 3 blocks before she wants to be carried. We let her decide her form of locomotion.
7. Make phone calls to family. This requires eavesdropping on the conversation and prompting my daughter in order to avoid long pauses, unless the family member is adept at asking questions.
6. Do puzzles. They are an easy, relaxing group activity that hones patience, attention and pattern matching (deducing which pieces might fit together).
Sure, puzzles are technically toys, but they are a very sublime and thoughtful toys, especially if they feature animals instead of commercial marketing images (Dora / Thomas / Sponge Bob / etc.). I’ll write more about this next week.
5. Play Snerf. No, not Smurf. This is our version of indoor tag. When I’m tagged, I become the Snerf monster and chase my daughter around our house until she slams up onto a bed or sofa. Then she chases me. I take a circuitous route around tables and chairs and around the kitchen and then yelp as I realize I’ve doubled back around and find myself running behind the Snerf.
Hide-and-seek is another fun game, but she always hides behind a door or inside a closet. When I walk around and announce, “I wonder where my daughter is hiding,” she cannot help but shout out, “Behind the door!”
4. Stop by a pet store or aquarium to look at the creatures. This isn’t a special trip; we do it in the course of our regular shopping. Last week, I held my daughter as we stood in an indoor aviary for 10 minutes looking around while two small green birds climbed down a 4-foot bird ladder, walked across the floor and began chewing on my shoes. She could not stop laughing.
3. Go on outings. The obvious choices are playgrounds and the zoo. If you think playground equipment is too big for a toddler, that’s because you are not going down a slide with your child on your lap. Read event calendars every week to see what other activities might be available. We have a natural history museum and model railroad club which are fun to visit.
2. Read books together. If I could do only one activity why my daughter, it would be reading books. I build my daughter’s vocabulary and knowledge while bonding with her.
1. Visit the library. This counts as a separate activity because it’s an outing. As soon as a toddler gets past the hands-in-mouth and mouth-on-everything phase, library books aren’t an icky idea.
Get a library card and bring home a new slate of FREE books every week. Visit several libraries in your area to get a sense of their collections, both of books and children’s music. Read the library bulletin board to discover and then attend story times.
Local PBS TV stations sponsor FREE themed storytelling events in many cities every month. Earlier this week my daughter and I attended an evening event which included two story readings about penguins, one video clip from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood involving penguins, several songs sung about penguins, and then two craft projects — making a penguin fridge magnet and a stand-up penguin fashioned from a toilet paper roll. And PBS gives away a free Scholastic book at each event. This time the free book was The Emperor’s Egg, a story about how papa Emperor penguins care for their eggs standing upright for two months without food while all the moms swim in the ocean and gorge themselves on fish. And when the eggs hatch, it’s the father who provides (the penguin’s equivalent of) milk.
The publisher states that the book is for ages 5 to 8, but that’s reading level, not comprehension level. Board books with simple plots simply don’t sustain my daughter’s attention any more. So when choosing library books, consider whether a story is explainable despite its use of “big words.” Building a toddler’s vocabulary is a good thing.
Something happened this week that makes me think we are on the right track with my daughter. When she woke up from a nap and Mom asked if she wanted to play or eat a snack, my daughter said, “Mama, I just want to talk with you.” And that’s exactly what they did.