Toddlers and preschoolers have seemingly boundless energy, and sometimes it’s hard to think of new things to keep them not only occupied but also learning along the way, especially when you can’t get outside to play.
We’ve happy to report we have two awesome indoor activities that can grow with your child, enhance their creativity and problem-solving skills, and don’t cost much at all. In fact, you probably already have many of these items laying around your house.
First up is the Busy Board.
We introduced a Busy Board when our daughter was 18-months-old, and she found it interesting throughout toddlerhood. The board encourages imaginative play and fine motor skill development and is especially great for energetic toddlers during winter months, rainy days, or the heat of summer – okay, basically any time you can’t get outside.
Busy Boards can be made with old odds and ends hanging around in junk drawers or the garage from past remodels, or you and your child could make a trip to the hardware store to pick up a few items. Some stores will even cut the plywood to size for you if you don’t have access to a saw. You may also be able to find things at the dollar store if you’re on a tight budget.
A typical Busy Board is a board covered with things to keep little hands — you guessed it — busy. Just secure 6-10 items to a piece of plywood and you’re on your way to a few minutes of freedom (wish we could say it will be more, but let’s be honest, 10-15 minutes is a pretty sweet victory for those short attention spans!).
Here are some ideas to get you started on your Busy Board, but really use whatever you have access to, and they’ll love it:
- Slide Lock
- Chain Door Guard (this link is to a more advanced option with a press lock involved, probably best for a slightly older kids but it gives them something to work towards)
- Door Guard
- Toilet Paper Holder
- Spring Doorstopper
- Light Switch and Cover
- Swivel Caster Wheel (links to a four pack, might be able to find individually sold at a local store)
- Handle (makes it easier for you to move the board when play time is over)
- Plywood (approximately 2’x2’ and remember to sand the edges smooth)
Now, we know you’re a good dad so we don’t need to remind you to use common sense and be nearby while your child is playing with their busy board. You know toddlers are prone to tripping or tugging on things, so you’ll need to secure the board upright in some manner to reduce the likelihood of it tipping over onto your child, poking out their eye, etc. Also make sure there are no sharp edges exposed in the form of screws, plywood edges, and the like. I know, I know, it sounds like we’re taking all the fun out of it, but you want to make this a positive experience for everyone involved.
Now on to the second option for encouraging creative play and learning in your kids. This one is great for toddler-to-preschool age kids (2 – 3+) and is even less expensive (read: free) and easier to put together than the Busy Board.
Hello, Imagination Box.
This idea was inspired by the Daniel Tiger show, which our daughter loves. In the show, Daniel and his friends have a cardboard box that they pretend is a rocket ship. We decided to put together a plastic storage box full of odds and ends so our daughter could have open-ended play.
Examples of Imagination Box items –
- A couple of cleaned out food containers with lids, like an oatmeal canister and a butter tub
- Cardboard paper towel or toilet paper tubes
- Washed out Styrofoam egg carton
- Paper plates
- Colorful scarves
- Recycled packing envelopes (Amazon Prime seems to deliver nearly daily to our house, no shortage of those!)
- Sheet of bubble wrap – has been a beach towel, magic carpet, bed, car, etc.
- Scraps of ribbon
- Zippered pouches
- Old calendar
- Paper shopping bags with handles
- Colorful pom poms or cotton balls
- Scraps of tissue paper & used Christmas bows
- Promotional giveaway items that you’d otherwise throw out – carabiner clips, stress ball, etc.
Just put your collection of items inside the plastic storage box and you’re ready to go.
When you first introduce this “Imagination Box” idea to your kid, you need to make it fun and special, and you’ll probably have to jump in and “show” them how to use it. So, grab a scarf and hang it over two chairs and say you’re going in your doghouse, and come out barking. Grab a paper plate and explain you’re going to drive to the park or fly your spaceship to another planet.
After your demo, what happens with the objects is up to the child, not the adult, and the activity is completely open-ended. The role of the adult is to sit back and watch, facilitating if the child wants it, maybe adding a few suggestions and finding ways to extend the child’s thinking even further.
Your kid might ask you what something is. This is when you need to remember one of two rules for imagination time… 1) Try to remember not to name the object!! Instead say, “it can be anything you want it to be,” or “I wonder what that is?” 2) Try not to correct or interrupt their play (unless it’s dangerous, of course. Use this time to talk about why we never wrap things around our necks, for example) but otherwise just go along with their line of thinking, asking questions like, “I wonder what I do with this?”
Sometimes it’s fun to play with them, otherwise (likely as they get older, maybe closer to age 4), they’ll sometimes play by themselves and you can just smile in from the next room as you see them talking and completely entranced in their own little world.
When our daughter’s done playing, we work together to pack things back in the box and put it away in a closet. In our house we don’t leave it out all the time, that way it’s special and fun when we do bring it out to play. We periodically add new odds and ends and get rid of junky old stuff.
Of course with either activity you want to keep in mind safety with respect to your child’s age and abilities, and avoid including any choking hazards on your busy board or in your imagination box.
Introducing your child to opportunities for creative play is truly a gift that keeps giving. You’re setting them up for future success because they’re learning to experiment, discover and solve problems in imaginative and playful ways.
For more great insights and tips be sure to subscribe to our Good Dads Podcast, and check out this Experiential Learning podcast where one dad talks about putting together a busy board and imagination box for his daughter, and we talk about why creating opportunities for open-ended play is so important.
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Stephanie Grandestaff is a wife and mother, and enjoys handling all aspects of Marketing and Media for Good Dads.