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Simple Things (Really Simple) To Keep Kids Busy, From Under Twos to Six

by Julia Sneden

Its almost summer, that season of family vacations and rich contact between grandparents and grandchildren. Those of us who live far from our grown childrens families bless the airlines, the trains, the highways that make it possible for us to meet again, whether at the beach, in the mountains, at a resort, or in our own backyards. 
       Herewith, a list of suggestions for those who find themselves racking their brains to remember the kinds of things children like to do. Having taught kindergarten for twenty-five years, I tend toward direct, interactive activities. These days, children get plenty of television, movies, and computer games at home! (But perhaps you should have a bit of technology on hand, just in case you need a break).

Nearly all children need exposure to life skills. Our grandchildren have sat in front of screens (computer, TV, movie) with their hands in their laps for too long. Any activity that actively engages the mind and eye and hands is good, but an activity that furthers the well-being of the whole family is best, because it becomes a source of great pride to the child. They are often surprised to discover that they can contribute to the family in useful ways. Dont be afraid to ask them to help around the house!
      Do scope out the local offerings for good adventures. Bike trails, hiking trails, museums (short visits for the very young), short-session craft classes, libraries, miniature golf courses, live theatre, sports events, etc. are all useful for diversity in the daily plan. You dont want to spend all day, every day at home or on the beach.
      At the same time, you dont want to overdo it. Allow for down-time. Just sitting around and listening to a child, or reading together for a short period, or lying on the floor and listening to music, can be restorative to both grandparent and grandchild.

Crayons, colored pencils and markers; paper of various kinds; scissors (blunt-tipped for the small fry); scotch tape; stapler; water-soluble glue like Elmers; a ruler; an art gum eraser; white and colored chalk. My great aunt Martha always kept a fun bin for us children. It was just an old box filled with odds and ends like tubes from toilet paper or paper towels, bits of yarn, scraps of fabric, small boxes, bottle caps (they make great wheels!), etc. These days, I keep two drawers of an old chest filled with the same sorts of things, only now I add plastic containers, berry baskets, cardboard, scraps of Contac paper, etc. My granddaughters are allowed to use anything from those drawers to make whatever they want. 
      We have found that we need a rule or two, however.

Rule #1 is that at the end of the vacation, they may each take just one of their creations home.

Rule #2 is that it has to be something that will fit in the luggage, so that they arent struggling with carry-on bags. They then have the choice of leaving their creations here, or dismantling them and putting the makings back in the drawer to be used next time.
For older children, if you have the space, sports equipment for things like badminton and ping-pong can provide a special treat.

Under Age Two

  • Never underestimate the power of pots and pans. Muffin tins, wooden spoons, soft plastic containers, colanders, measuring spoons, etc. are all absolute treasures to a baby sitting on the kitchen floor. The important thing here, is to WATCH and enjoy. You will learn all sorts of things about the babys personality and imagination. Dont forget music. Sing. Play CDs. Tap out rhythms.
  • Play pat-a-cake and peek-a-boo. Count the little piggies and Ride A Cock Horse. Read aloud!

For the Two to Five Set

  •  If the day is sunny, try just about anything that involves water. A sprinkler to run through, a small pool to splash in, a hose to spray on the garden, are all fine. 
  • The very youngest will love having a large paintbrush (clean!) and a bucket of water to paint the patio or the driveway. The water dries quickly, but it makes a satisfactory darkening on cement or brick. Small children are engaged by the process, not the product, so they dont have to be asked What are you making a picture of? Theyre just spreading paint! This trick also works indoors, if you give them a smaller brush and some water, and sheets of newspaper. The newspaper absorbs the water, and the child can paint quite a credible design.
  •  Three and four year olds might like a series of containers with which to experiment. Pouring water from one to another, they can learn quite a bit about the relationships between volume and shape, at the same time theyre developing skills in eye-hand coordination. When theyve got down the business of pouring let them pour the familys drinks for the next meal.
  • If you dont think the neighbors will object to the mess, turn the child loose on the driveway with a piece of chalk. If the sun is shining, trace around the shadow of your head or hand, and let her decorate it. Or have the child lie on the ground while you trace around him, and let him draw in the features and clothes. Stand back and let the child decide what to make. Make big letters. Make animal pictures. If you want to erase, just get out the garden hose, and squirt the driveway, while the child takes a broom and sweeps the water and chalk away.
  • You can do your grandchildren a great favor (and their parents, too) by teaching them some self-help skills like buttoning, snapping, zipping, shoe tying, tooth brushing, hand washing, nose blowing, etc. In this busy world, often both parents are working and there is no time to wait while little ones struggle and learn even the simplest of tasks. More than half my last class of four-year-olds didnt know how to wash their own hands or blow their own noses!
  • Their parents are probably too young to have things like old sheets and bedspreads lying around, so your grandchildren may never have had the fun of making a camp in the living room. Help them to drape tables and chairs and desks to make tunnels and tents and rooms. (Youll want to remove breakables before you get into this).
  • An absorbing and quiet activity is sorting sorting anything at all, from shells on the beach, to pebbles in the driveway, to leaves, to the buttons in Grandmas grandmas button box. A child may need a little push to start (Can you put all the things that belong with this red button into one pile?), but in no time youll be amazed by the number of attributes a child can think up: all the four-hole buttons here, all the no-hole buttons there; or maybe all the round buttons that arent red in this pile, and all the other round buttons in that pile, and all the non-round buttons back in the box, etc.  Its important to listen to the childs reasoning as he decides how to sort the objects. If he just wants to design with the buttons, thats fine too. When she is through, let her choose one favorite object from the field for keeps, and help her to put the buttons away for another time.
  • Providing a white board (any size) and washable markers can lead to all sorts  of creative play. Be sure the child understands that the markers are to be used ONLY on the board, and must be capped if not in use. If the child cannot yet write let him draw. Offer to label the drawing. Let her copy your words. Play with the ABCs. Teach the child to write her name. Compare it to yours. Sit back and watch as the child draws pictures, and dont worry if they look like scribbles to you. Scribbling is the first stage of learning how to draw. Thats where we all started. The next stage is called named scribbling, and I promise you that other, more easily discerned, stages will follow.
  • Help the child to make a scrapbook out of magazine pictures. You may have to give lessons in scissors and glue, but what a feeling of accomplishment when he or she succeeds in using them well!
  • Teach your grandchild how to jump rope. How many jump rope rhymes do you remember? 
  • Play balloon ball.  How many times can you bat the balloon back and forth? Teach the names of body parts by asking things like: Can you hit it with your forehead? Your knee? Your elbow? Your ear? Your shoulder? as you demonstrate the action.
  • Look for sewing cards in a toy store. These lace-through-the-hole cards are a precursor to sewing. They exercise the same muscles with which the child will one day write with pen or pencil.
  • Dont forget music! Introduce an instrument. Play kazoos.

You've got your assignments. Next time, Julia will take you from age six on up to fourteen and beyond. 



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