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.


9 Responses to “Bonding without Toys: Ten Interactive Activities for your Toddler and You”

  1. Befth says:

    You are fabulous! I love your list. Can you imagine what an amazing world it would be if all parents thought like this?!

    January 13th, 2007 at 9:44 am

  2. Jen says:

    I love your thoughts on things to do with your toddler. I feel like I’ve been stuck in a rut, and I can’t wait to try out some of your suggestions. Thanks!

    January 16th, 2007 at 7:55 am

  3. AJ says:

    Befth, it would be absolutely horrible if all parents thought like this. There would be no room to stand in the pet store aviary and there would be a 15 minute wait to use the playground slide.

    January 17th, 2007 at 12:59 am

  4. Overwhelemd! says:

    I love this list! We do many of these things with our 2 year old. In fact, we visit a pet store almost every week. It’s next to the French cafe that we go to for brunch after church on Sunday. After eating, we walk over to the pet store and let him wander and explore to his heart’s content! So far, we’ve managed to walk out empty handed each time. :)

    January 17th, 2007 at 11:55 am

  5. Carrie says:

    Fun list!
    I read a book recently, “Teaching Your Child about God” which included a lot of non-God information on child development. The author says that for someone the age of Little Miss, the fun of Hide-and-Seek isn’t the hiding; it’s the joy of being found. I was rather amazed to learn this because playing with my preschooler seemed like it wasn’t working when she would pop out screaming before I could find her, but apparently I was thinking in mommy terms, not child terms. Now that I understand her perspective, we both enjoy it more.
    Also, I have to say that I don’t mind a toy or game or puzzle that my child can do alone. I want her to learn how to be alone and enjoy herself. But I do object to toys that do the playing for her (talking toads, singing skirts, etc.)

    January 18th, 2007 at 9:51 pm

  6. bethany says:

    Isn’t it funny how people often don’t realize that things that seem like work to adults–shopping, cooking, cleaning etc.–are learning and play to kids? And how much more fun those things become to an adult when they are done with a child!

    January 22nd, 2007 at 5:42 pm

  7. Jenn says:

    Two more to add:

    Baking: fun to do, great rewards and someday will teach them about math.

    Coloring: Let’s be creative together.


    January 25th, 2007 at 8:32 pm

  8. Greatexpectations says:

    This is my first visit here and I’m thankful to have found you. I already employ as much of these as possible (my twins are turning 15 months old next month) and agree it is awesome to come up with new ideas that engage their interest.

    My girls are exhausted by day’s end.

    We started a new ‘around the house” routine this week. Just before dinner, as I load the dishwasher of what I hadn’t dealt with all day, I put many of their plates, bowls, cups and silverware in the bottom. They enjoy taking them out and putting them “away.”

    For my girls, their playroom is actually more like punishment unless I”m in there. I like that I can leave them in there, unattended once or twice a day, to do a couple mommy–musts.

    Anyway, I’ll be tuning in here more often. Thanks!

    March 29th, 2007 at 6:57 pm

  9. kala says:

    i also took some tips from here and it works. my son likes to watch me or my mom cook. he replicates us while playing in the garden. he also goes with me for shopping vegetables, we also do the puzzles together..its very interactive as we explain what we do to him as well and he is able to grasp it as it is explained to him in words and action…Thanks

    March 13th, 2011 at 4:15 am