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Play All Day Part One: Babies and Toddlers

Updated: Jun 23, 2022

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My youngest client to date was 13 months old at the time. You must be thinking - uhhh.. WUT? What does a 13 month old need an education consultant for? Well, obviously my services looked a bit different for this particular client, however, the goals were really on theme for this series - Purposeful Play. I really empathized with this situation because as a new mom myself, at the start I felt like I had no idea how to engage my baby in a way that he benefited cognitively and physically. Once I tweaked my approach to be slightly more mindful of the a) toys and materials, b) play space and c) language I use while playing, all of a sudden I shifted how my baby played altogether. Now he is almost 1 year old and plays in a variety of ways with many different types of toys, both independently and collaboratively with adults. Unfortunately due to Covid, he hasn't had much opportunity for play with other babies but daycare is around the corner! He knows lots of words (points and gestures to the items when asked) and is still working on getting that first consistent spoken word out!

Purposeful play can undoubtedly help babies build social, emotional, communication and physical skills.

My time with my 13 month-old client focused on how to take the days, which were a blur consisting of a string of activities being thrown together haphazardly, and turn them into days with flexible structure. I use this term often for babies and young children because as any parent or educator knows, you have to be flexible throughout the day but having a light framework or structure helps to provide balance and flow from morning to bedtime and from Monday to Friday.

A Note on Age Recommendations:

Toy manufacturers have a legal obligation to put an age recommendation on their products. Some toys, the age is there because cognitively your child might not be able to use the toy as designed until that point. For other toys, it's a safety concern due to small pieces or mechanics. Personally, I have purchased some toys above my son's age that pose no safety risk and I model how to use them (for example, the ball slide that is described below). Ultimately, use your judgement and if you are at all concerned, hold off on purchasing or giving to your child until you feel they are ready!

A Note on Play Space

Your play space, regardless of size, should be a safe zone for baby as much as possible. There shouldn't be too much that is "off-limits" in their space. We love our Skip Hop floor mat (linked below). We have wood floors, so this was important for our space. If you have carpets, it's less necessary! As they start to move around, having a cushy and less slippery option is helpful. It also helps to frame a space in your home as a play space. If you are short on space, grab the custom foam tiles and design your space how you need to. We also have a shelving unit to store toys (essentially a shelf with plastic bins). Right now, all of our toys are exposed and since we are about to move to a new house - I will be changing that! Our new house has tons of cabinetry and storage in the big, beautiful basement which will be Avery's primary play space. I will likely put out 5-10 of his toys, and a selection of books, and store the rest. I will change out the options every week or two. See my two big tips at the end of the post for more on this!

0-6 Months

Play during this time is purely exploratory and is mostly led by the adults or caregivers. Tummy time is recommended from as early on as possible! We started within the first week. Babies can't see much in the way of clarity or colours and patterns at the start, so they need to see caregivers faces nice and close during wake time.

Wake windows are fairly short for the first 3-4 months, so between feeding and changing there may only be a short time for play. Play at this stage might look like songs with hand motions, peek-a-boo, or looking at interesting patterns and lights. Cooing, smiling, reaching, grasping, pulling and swatting are all signs your baby is engaged in meaningful play!

Black and white books (I linked a bunch from Indigo!) and tummy time books are great tools for this age. The contrast is stimulating and exciting for baby!

Investing in a great floor mat for tummy time is a good idea. There are tons that range in prices and features to match any budget, and many people have great luck finding gently used ones on marketplaces and neighbourhood Facebook groups. We have this one pictured below and at 11 months, my baby still loves to use the piano feature. It re-configures to grow with your child as their skills and interests develop!

Other toys or materials to have around:

- padded or foam floor mat (Skip Hop makes great ones!)

- toys that crinkle, roll, light up or make subtle sounds

- sensory materials such as water in a foil pan with some safe water toys

- activity centre or exersaucer (jolly jumpers that hang from door frames are not recommended in Canada due to risks of causing physical injury/physical developmental delays)

We did an outdoor music class very early on and put very little pressure on ourselves to attend and/or enjoy for the whole duration. This is a great way to have something scheduled into your week and to get out of the house to meet other parents and kids.

To encourage physical development and milestones, you can put toys just slightly out of reach to encourage baby to move or roll towards them. Of course, reward effort with lots of positive praise and make sure you bring the toy to them. As my mother-in-law says, always try to leave an activity happy. When starting out, do it for a short time (30-60 seconds) and then switch to something new. As soon as baby shows any signs of disinterest, switch it up. We want to avoid creating negative associations with activities as best as possible.

As the adult, right now your main job is to model how to play and appropriate responses! This time will mostly be adult-directed, but if you see your child expressing interest in a toy - encourage it and respond to their interest! Work on communication skills by naming the item and actions that go along with it. For example, we have a spiral slide that has 3 balls that slide down it. It's not the exact one pictured below but close enough! Avery loved looking at this as a young baby. I would say, "Oh! Do you want to play with the ball slide? Let's get it down!". I would then show him how the balls can slide down and say things like, "Let's put the green ball down the slide! Weeeee! There it goes!" and "Would you like to do that again?". I would also have him practice signing "more" in these moments.

Only recently, Avery began using it independently. One day he just picked up the ball and put it down the slide! Now he will put the balls down by himself, go get it if it rolls away, and point to it to take it off the shelf. This toy when purchased was beyond his age by several months, even though there are no safety hazards on it. Modeling play with safe toys that are slightly more advanced will only help them gain new experiences and build interests and one day, they will be able to do it on their own.

6-12 Months

By now, baby is more engaged and more interactive when it comes to play. They want to explore their surroundings and are curious! Things that aren't toys are likely more interesting than the many toys you actually have in your home already. We always have a bin of non-toy items such as Tupperware, measuring cups/spoons, safe utensils, etc. for our baby to explore independently. As baby starts to become mobile, make sure to baby proof those drawers and cupboards!

This stage is where a very loose schedule can be helpful. The idea is that you have an idea of what you might focus on during a given day, with the idea that baby might love it, hate it, want it for 5 seconds or 10 minutes. For example, you may want to schedule a virtual class or socially distanced outdoor class now that the spring/summer weather is coming. If you make it - great! If not, that's okay too.

Getting outside is so important for everyone's well being. As the weather gets nicer, aim to spend more time outdoors. Babies learn so much from nature! The park/playground is a great way to spend that middle wake window. Once baby is sitting independently, let them try out the swings at the park. Put out a blanket and sit under a tree in a nearby park. Bring a couple of books, snacks and simple toys. Being outdoors is a great way to spend a wake window.

You can also categorize activities into a type or focus (ie. music, puzzles/logic, sensory, gross motor/fine motor, etc.). You can make a very loose schedule for yourself to help ensure that you are a) not just doing the same three activities over and over again and b) covering different skills and interests throughout the days and weeks.

For example, on Mondays, you may hope to do a focus on gross motor and music in the morning, get outside for the middle window and do playground/picnic blanket in the park and do a fun and simple sensory activity before dinner! This might differ from Tuesdays which might be blocks/puzzles, books and bubbles in the morning, followed by a drive around the neighbourhood and some outdoor time, and then a different sensory activity before dinner. Of course, you go into this plan knowing that you may change/skip/add activities as needed. Sometimes, a kid wants to play the same activity over and over for a week. Other times they want to switch activities every 2 minutes. Start with a general framework and be flexible as needed - flexible structure. The goal isn't to have a rigid plan in place, but more a framework to rely on and a starting point for yourself.

Non-toy Activities

Sometimes the best play isn't intentional. My baby is 11 months and loves to "help" me vacuum or Swiffer, loves looking in fridge and out the windows at cars passing by. Include your baby in household activities like folding laundry, cooking/baking, cleaning, etc. Such great learning opportunities for them and means less "planning" for you!

Toddlers (12m+)

By now, your baby might be in daycare and/or walking, speaking, etc. Play looks different now since they are learning from their peers in a different setting! Engaging in toddler-led play can be so much fun. Sometimes, they want to play independently, and others they want to engage with peers, siblings or adults. Let them lead the way! Imaginative play comes alive at this age. Kid-sized replicas of real things are the best way to ignite these creative thoughts! Play kitchens and other household items, baby dolls and items (stroller, high chair, etc.), pretend food, and themed drama centers help kids bring their imagination to life. Of course, be mindful of small parts and choking hazards and use judgement when purchasing any toys for your child! Toddler learning towers are great for the kitchen to help get your child involved.

You can turn any tent, playhouse, or corner of a room into a drama center using some props, signs and costumes. Change it up every so often once you notice they lose interest. You can even center the theme on holidays or things they love!

Drama Center Ideas:

- vet clinic (use a medical kit, stuffed animals and watch Doc McStuffins for inspo!)

- Doctor's Office (white coat, medical kit, vision chart, etc.)

- food truck or restaurant (a table with chairs, play kitchen, pretend food, menus, etc.)

- zoo (stuffies, pretend food, baby gates)

- classroom (chalkboard, chair and table, easel, posters, etc.)

- house (baby dolls and accessories, parents' clothes, etc)

Explore Stations can be smaller than drama centers and just focused on one topic or theme of interest or relevance. You can include free, printable colouring pages, fiction/non-fiction books related to the topic, and items/activities that are on theme. Here are some examples...

- Hanukkah (put candles, dreidels, gold coins, laminated story or prayer pages, etc.)

- Easter (plastic eggs, decoration station, stuffed bunnies, Easter colouring pages, etc.)

- Valentine's Day (card making station)

- Christmas (make your own gift-wrap/decoration station)

- Spring (planting a garden station with books, soil, seeds, water, and photo observation journal etc.)

- the list goes on and on!

Sensory Play is such a great way for kids to learn about their world. Water and sand tables (presuming they are no longer eating everything they touch), are incredible outdoor play tools. Indoors you can use the bathtub or a small foil pan with a mat or towel underneath. Slotted stacking cups are great for either option. You can also explore other materials like shaving foam, gel, even baby cereal! Kids love squishing and feeling different textures in their hands. Try getting some glow in the dark items like lava lamps and light projectors to create a calming yet engaging sensory space when the lights are off.

Have a kid who is sensory sensitive? Try mess-free sensory play by putting the materials into a large freezer bag (double taped and double sealed). Introduce items slowly and in small increments. Never force but always offer and model!

This is a great time to work on beginner communication and social skills. Use play as a way to foster communication skills such as asking for help and learning/using new vocabulary words. Social skills such as turn taking, sharing and good sportsmanship begin even in toddler-hood. Modelling winning and losing gracefully, experiencing and coping with disappointment, transitioning from one activity to another, and making mistakes will all aide your child in learning and applying these skills in social settings.

The biggest two tips for this age?

1. Don't overwhelm with choice. By rotating out fewer toys every week or two, your child will engage more meaningfully with the few items they have visible instead of jumping from toy to toy every time something else catches their eye. Decide on 5-10 toys max. to have out on display in your child's main play area. At the end of the week, switch them out! This will mean that the toys will constantly feel like new and will remedy that feeling of "my kid hates all the toys and I need to buy new ones".

2. The more the toy does, the less your child does. Simpler toys foster more creativity. Toys that beep, flash, whirl and move are nice to look at but don't do much from a cognitive perspective for this age group. Duplo or large building blocks allow for imagination to rule. Playdough (you can make kid-safe playdough very easily - there are many recipes with a quick google search), Finger Paint (also kid-safe by using baby cereal, water/oil and food colouring in a bathtub!) and other open ended activities mean that the child decides how to play with the item.

If ever you need or want support coming up with a plan of flexible ideas for your baby or toddler, please reach out!

Happy Playing!



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