Research shows that expensive electronic toys aren't at all good for stretching imagination or boosting cognition. It's the low- and no-cost toys, tools of what specialists refer to as loose parts play, that are superior. The bonus? Most of them can be made at home. They're great for your kids and light on your pocketbook – and you don't need to be a craft queen to get started.
• Water tables are a great way for kids to experience water play. They can wash unbreakable dishes, give plastic animals baths, pour and fill cups, sieves, or funnels, experiment with objects that sink or swim or stage sea battles. Water play not only boosts imagination, but like sand, lays the foundation for math skills by experimenting with volume, measurements, weight and the fundamentals of addition and subtraction.
Instead of shelling out upwards of $100 for a water table, it's easy to make your own. Any Rubbermaid-type waterproof container will do, about six inches deep. Fill it up and place it on any piece of backyard furniture suitable for your child's height. If you want, you can add a second container right beside it and fill it with sand, just remember to cover it at night and when it rains.
For indoor water play a stool and kitchen sink will do the trick, as will the bathtub. You can also empty out a spray bottle and give your child a clean rag to pretend to clean the windows and floor, or a pail and a clean paintbrush to freely paint tables, chairs and walls.
• Commercial playdough is cheap and many types are non-toxic, so is there any point in making your own? Absolutely! First off, it's fun. Plus, it instills in children the knowledge that they can produce the tools of their own enjoyment. Beware, there are many different recipes out there – but don't get discouraged, it's just goo! Choose a recipe that has the items stocked in your pantry. Here's a great basic recipe to get you started:
In a large saucepan, combine 5 cups of water, 2 ½ cups of salt, 3 tbsp cream of tartar, and food colouring (if desired) over low heat. Stir with a wooden spoon. Once the mixture heats up, stir in 10 tbsp of vegetable oil and slowly add 5 cups of flour. Continue to stir until the mixture starts to dry and pull away from the sides. Test if done by pinching a piece between your fingers: if it does not stick it's done. Remove from heat. Knead the dough on the counter until it's smooth.
• We all know that kids love to deconstruct, hide and mismatch objects. Giving them access to a variety of containers – such as empty wipe boxes, coffee canisters cloth grocery bags, coolers, gift bags in which to stuff, hide and horde toys and other objects – can not only help stimulate their imagination but, if you take the time to explain how, models good recycling behaviour.
• Children love secret places – but not at $300 for a pre-fab fort. It's not just the price that deters parents from buying a readymade structure, it's the promise of the fun kids will have making their own. Searching for materials, erecting a structure, painting it and having the opportunity to create is as they see fit is the best part in making a fort. It also exercises a diverse set of skills such as measuring, innovation, design, planning and flexible thinking. They'll be thrilled to know they created a place of their own.
Allow your kids to use old blankets or sheets to drape over coffee or kitchen tables to create a temporary fort. Appliance boxes are also ideal – if your kids are too young, help them cut out doors and windows. For an outdoor fort they can use tarps, branches, old lumber, or anything you have lying around. Let them use paint, markers or crayons to decorate their houses. If space is an issue, you can simply tie a string from the foot of their bed frame to a hook on the opposite wall, then let them sling sheets over the line. Provide flashlights to up the secret-factor.
• Costumes are a basic element of imaginative play. If you don't have time to make a full costume, never fear, many items found in and around the home can serve as dress-up fare.
Try cutting out a single egg holder in a cardboard egg carton, then punch two holes on either side and loop string through each hole to make a pig nose; or, to make a cat, add pipe cleaners for whiskers; or use two egg holders to serve as the base for bunny ears. You can also paint one black and use it as a pirate eye patch.
Have your child hunt outside for fall leaves and glue them on a hair band to make a woodland fairy crown.
Use plastic bags as fairy skirts (simply cut out the bottom of the bag then cut vertical strips to make the frills) or as capes for superheroes.
In a pinch, give your kids access to your closet for an hour to dress up in mommy and daddy's clothes, just remember to hide your best clothes.
• Try making homemade instruments that your can "play". Take two aluminum pie plates, staple them together halfway around then fill the pocket with music-making things like bells, if you have them, pennies, or dried bean. Then staple the rest of the way around to make a tambourine. Glue or thread ribbon, tissue paper or tinfoil to the instrument for decoration.
Also, fill any size Tupperware with shaker items like uncooked rice, beans or lentils, then use strong tape to seal it.
An empty Kleenex box can easily be turned into a guitar, just wrap some elastic bands (different thicknesses will create different notes) around the hole, then cut a hole out of the end of the box and insert an empty paper towel roll to make a handle.
• The pantry offers a wealth of play possibilities. Set out a variety of items on the kitchen table and let your kids loose: marshmallows can be turned into snowmen or poke toothpicks into them to make people, rigatoni can double as beads for necklaces, macaroni for anklets, eye-sprouting potatoes can serve as spiders with the help of pipe cleaners or craft feathers, a few squirts of ketchup and mustard on a highchair tray can delight a baby.
Set out a variety of items on the kitchen table (best if it's covered with a vinyl tablecloth for easy cleanup) along with tape, glue, craft items like popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners and construction paper. But don't forget the one essential ingredient: resigning yourself to the mess as you leave the room.
• Children have an innate affinity for 'wild' animals that should be nurtured, no matter how annoying city creatures might be to grown-ups. Kids love to whisper to them, pretend they can communicate, and most of all they love to feed them – it gives them a sense that they can make things happen. Spread a pine cone with peanut butter then sprinkle bird seed on it, tie it to a tree branch and wait for the birds to come. Give your kids some shelled nuts to leave out on a paper plate for backyard squirrels, they can even decorate the dish with non-toxic paint or markers. Take some bits of bread to a local creek or river to feed the fish and ducks (it has to be a relatively healthy waterway to support life of any kind). Even a plate left out with some crumbs near your garden can fascinate a child as it gets spotted black with ants.
• Puppets can be as easy or as complicated as you want. For cheap and easy ones, start with finger puppets. Cut off the tips of an old pair of winter or rubber gloves. Then use materials from in and around the house to create eyes, nose, mouth, hair and ears. Bits of yarn, cotton swabs, sponges, tape, flour, leaves, twigs, grass, needles, bark, pebbles are all acceptable materials. Or, for the easy way out, just use markers. You can act out your child's favorite stories, nursery rhymes, or finger plays like This Little Piggie, Thumbkin or Two Little Blackbirds.
Almost anything that can be done inside, can and should also be done outside. Today, kids spend 90 per cent of their time indoors, thanks to traffic and fears of abduction. Recent research shows a lack of outdoor play, especially unstructured free play, takes its toll on everything from risk management, to creativity, to cognition, motor skills, self-reliance, just to name a few. Set up a craft or water table in the yard, provide them access to a patch of dirt in your garden with pails and shovels to dig and make roads and rivers, let them take some of their toys outside, have them decorate any trees in your yard for the holidays, collect seasonal items like pine cones and acorns to serve as art projects or feeding stations for city creatures, have a tea party outside. If you don't have any trees or shrubs, let them help you plant some. And whatever you do, don't neglect the nighttime, sip hot chocolate by flashlight under the moon.
• Plasticine art
• Slumber party fun
• Incredibly cool clays