Watching your toddler unleash her imagination and energy during play, it's clear that even the simplest ideas can provide big amounts of fun. But it's not just entertainment your littlie is getting from play. "Play is the best way for children to learn," says occupational therapist Nicole Grant, from Gateway Therapies. "It's their 'work' and is essential for their growth and development."
Here are 20 fabulous ways to keep your child busy and learning at the same time...
Get dressed up
A dress-ups box is always a big hit with kids of all ages and is great for pulling out on a rainy day. Include oversized shirts, old dresses, and accessories such as hats, fairy wands, sunglasses and bangles.
Cook up some pizzas
This is a simple project that can be made with materials readily found around the home. Draw a large circle onto cardboard and cut it out (or use a large round paper plate), then help your tot cut it into eight 'slices' to be decorated. She can then glue on pieces of coloured scrap paper for toppings. Think shredded yellow paper for grated cheese, red and brown circles for tomatoes and pepperoni, and scrunched up green paper for spinach. Use props such as an apron, old rolling pin and a chef's hat (DIY with some rolled up paper) to add to the imaginative scenario.
Make a box village
There's a good reason why we quip that 'the box was better than the present that came in it' - and it's that little kids just love playing in boxes! Large ones can become almost anything to your tot, from houses to submarines, or a series of tunnels. Add a lamp, put in some cushions and organise some healthy snacks and picture books and you've got the perfect mini cubby or fort, right in your living room.
Throw a tea party
Set up a picnic rug on the floor, take out some plastic cups and plates and have a tea party with your child (or let her host one of her own with her toys as guests). Use water for tea, provide little snacks such as crackers and sultanas, and let your little one distribute the food and drinks. If she offers you a cup of tea, play along and ask for sugar and milk. Get involved, but be sure to let her lead the play.
Visit the doctor
Another great pretend-play scenario is a visit to the doctor, where your tot can see a variety of toy patients, looking in ears, checking throats, taking temperatures and listening to heart beats. A supply of bandaids, bandages, slings and other props will be well used here.
Build an indoor rock pool
Fill a basin with a few centimetres of water, then add rocks, shells, plastic fish, starfish and even seaweed, if you can. Let your littlie explore the 'rock pool' and talk about the beach and the kind of animals and plants that live in the water.
Enjoy some target practice
Simple to set up, heaps of fun to do! Use a piece of chalk to draw a series of circles inside one another on a wall, going from large to small (like on a dart board). Inside each circle, write numbers from five to 25, going up in increments of five with the largest number (points) in the centre. Next, get your child to stand a couple of metres away from the largest circle and throw water balloons at it, aiming to get as close to the centre as possible to score maximum points.
Have a water balloon bath
Fill your bath with water as normal, then add 15 to 20 small water balloons that have been half-filled with water. Your tyke will have fun squishing them and slipping them from hand to hand.
Make an indoor water tray
For minimally messy indoor water play, spread large towels on the kitchen floor, then place a large plastic tub on top, half filled with water. Add bath toys, measuring cups and spoons, water bottles with holes punched in the bottom and the like, and let your littlie splash about.
Have a wash day
Water and bubbles are a toddler's idea of heaven! Let your child wash a baby doll or some plastic animals in the bathroom sink or a bucket outside. If she's curious when she sees you doing the dishes, even this dull chore can be turned into fun. Grab a small, sturdy chair or stool for her to stand on, pop an apron on her and let her wash some plastic cups or plates in the sink while you stand side-by-side with her.
Other sensory play
Go on a treasure hunt
This is a lovely outdoor activity that makes a regular stroll much more interesting, plus offers up the chance to explore the shapes and textures of all kinds of different objects. Take a sheet of paper and draw some simple things you'd find in nature on it, such as a flower, rock, stick, feather and leaf, then draw a box next to each one. Go for a walk and as your tot finds each treasure, get her to tick the appropriate box. Take the time to examine each object and discuss how it feels (heavy or light, rough or smooth, cold or warm), what colours your child can see in it, its shape and its size.
Make a rice tray
Use food colouring to colour uncooked rice for some sensory play. Just add a few drops to about four cups of uncooked rice and stir. For a rainbow effect, you can make batches in different colours. Allow the rice to dry, then pour into a large, deep tray (aluminum lasagna trays work well). Give your child some small cups and a sieve and let her touch, fill, sift and pour to her heart's content.
Create your own sand
You don't need to live near the beach to make sandcastles. Simply mix eight cups of plain flour with one cup of oil to make a soft 'sand' for your child to dig and make castles with. Use a large plastic tray as your 'beach' and small plastic or paper cups for making the castles.
Make a sticky table
Cover a small, low table or the bottom of an upturned box or tub with contact paper, sticky side up. Give your littlie a box of objects such as large buttons, feathers, glitter, paper cut outs and wooden spatulas, and let her create 'table art' by sticking the objects on the table to create patterns and pictures. She'll love the sticky texture and will enjoy experimenting creatively with the various objects.
Sort it out
Give your child a container of loose buttons or beads and an empty ice tray and get her to sort out the various items into groups, either by colour or size. If your child is a bit older and has the coordination skills, try small pom-pom balls and give her tweezers to pick up and sort them with.
Squirt some paint directly into a ziplock bag, then seal it up and tape it securely to a low window or glass door. Let your child squish the paint with her hands, making patterns and mixing different paint colours together.
Make bubble prints
Cut shapes from bubble wrap for your tot to paint and stamp paper with. Try hearts, circles, squares, triangles, rectangles and letters. Let your littlie paint the bubble wrap on the bumpy side and stamp away!
Fill several empty plastic containers or jars with dry pasta, rice, peas or beans to create homemade shakers. Your child will enjoy experimenting with the different sounds each shaker makes depending on the contents and how far it's been filled up. Make sure you use masking tape to secure the lids onto the containers or it could get messy.
Have a dance party
Pop on a CD or the radio and get bopping with your tyke. Kids' bands like The Wiggles are great, but all kinds of tunes can be fun, so why not break out the '80s power-pop and get grooving? This is a fantastic stress-buster and a handy way to change the mood when tensions are high or the grumps have set in - it acts like a circuit breaker and gets everyone happy and smiling.
Be queen (or king) for a day
Help your tot make a crown using plain card, cutting it out and then measuring it to fit. She can then use paint, glitter, feathers, buttons and plastic 'jewels' to decorate it, and might want to make one for every member of the family!
This article was originally published on Practical Parenting.