Children thrive on opportunity. They learn best through unstructured activities that force them to develop problem solving, logical reasoning, conflict resolution, language and encourage their creative attributes. Sure children love their cartoon figures and become excited upon seeing them and the new toys their owners keep throwing at you (looking at you Paw Patrol!) but it’s nice to have an activity where they’re able to think for themselves and create their own games and develop imaginative play. Here are five simple cost effective ideas to promote the development of these skills without fancy toys.
Key concept: Remember, the more simple the activity, the most learning can come of it!
Sensory Bins or Sandboxes
Children love to explore. They love anything sensory, anything textile, anything where they can become filthy little creatures. They love to touch new objects, understand their properties and learn through play. In the winter time, it’s as easy as grabbing a large bin and filling it with rice, bird seed, small pebbles and rocks, Easter grass, shredded paper and if you’re feeling daring, just plain old water. Add fun extra materials like measuring cups, spoons, small cars or construction vehicles, blocks, toilet paper rolls, toddler safe scissors… the possibilities are endless! One of the most successful bins with my toddlers is the water bin. Bonus tip: add water safe toys and a few drops of soap, and you can have them cleaning their own toys! Two birds, one stone.
In the summertime, a sandbox or dirt pit is every child’s dream. It can be a construction lot, a bakery, a town, a restaurant or just plain old discovery of what nature has to offer. All it requires is some simple tools like shovels and buckets, and the rest comes from nature. Grass, rocks and twigs are all popular contributory learning tools. They become toppings for pizza, flag poles, road markers and so much more. If you want to take this concept even further, have the children play in the soil that you intend to turn into a garden and voila, they turn the soil over for you.
Water play is always fun in the summer months. Fill a water table with clean water and prepare for hours of fun. Simply sit back, relax and enjoy watching your children learn. You can help promote their learning by asking them open ended questions about their discoveries.
Simply providing the art materials is usually enough to encourage creative play. Have a small child size table with some open art materials that are age appropriate (begin with ultra washable crayons or markers and paper, and slowly progress to adding toddler scissors, glue and loose parts once they develop more skill and control). The open art encourages them to learn at their own pace, and build on their creative skills through their own discoveries.
Another great idea is to have a chalkboard and chalk. Kids love chalk. It’s fun to create a lavish drawing and then when they’re finished, simply erase and begin again. In the summertime, having a patio or driveway is like a giant blank canvas. Enjoy the murals that will appear!
Having Literacy Available at their Level
Sometimes it is scary to trust your child with those childhood favourite stories. Having books available on shelves that they can access on their own can promote their love of reading. They can reread those favourite bedtime stories to themselves (and they’re usually pretty accurate!), make up their own stories while looking at the pictures or read to their plush friends.
Another simple idea is to provide them with sticker books, felt stories or “busy books.” These reading materials encourage children to explore using physical representations to add onto their learning.
Explore in Nature
Children thrive in the great outdoors. There are SO MANY things for them see, explore and do. Long, winding hikes through forests can allow them to discover animals and trees, promote questions about nature and facilitate conversations about things in the environment. Walks down country gravel roads can encourage conversations about farming, birds and identifying colours you come across. Walking through boardwalks near lakes and swamps can encourage discussion about aquatic life, and let’s face it: anywhere near water is always an added bonus. Plus isn’t the thump thump thump sound you hear as you run down the dock so satisfying?! City walks can encourage language building. You can identify buses, people, businesses and more. You can talk about what is happening all around you. The city is always alive and busy with activity.
Bringing a child to a beach is always a good idea. It’s a built in nature and sensory experience in one. You can also begin to breach the topic of water safety and why it’s so important to learn how to swim. Remember how much fun it was to be buried in the warm sand, or watch the water from your bucket go down a tunnel you dug back to the lake? Such fun.
Having Music and Imaginative Play Materials Around
Kids love noise. They love creating noise. From the youngest of ages, children discover rattles, banging pots together, different sounds in nature and more. They learn to move their bodies to the beat, they develop preferences for particular artists or songs, and they begin to create their own music using any materials they can find. Forks on table tops seems to be a popular choice here! Clapping, dancing and singing songs encourages learning through repetition and memory recall.
Dramatic play is one of the most important methods to learning. So much learning happens through dramatic play! They are able to build on their language, develop their problem solving and conflict resolution, explore their imaginations and work on representation of things they’ve already learned. Blanket forts become dens for hungry bears, bunkers, houses and more. One of my favourite physical toys to have is a kitchen set because the creative opportunities are endless. They’re able to play restaurant, feed baby dolls, or if you’re able to join them you can become an added tool in their development.
I hope some of these ideas help develop some creative learning opportunities for children within your care! It’s amazing what children can create from next to nothing.