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independent-playAs we move into the new year, we will continue to have crazy weather.  Sometimes weather too poor to send our children out to play.  Yet, there is work to be done, kids to be entertained. So what’s a busy parent to do? Some may resort to electronic babysitters such as TV, DVD or video game systems. While in moderation, none of these are inherently bad for most children, but they do little to stimulate the parts of the brain that encourage independent play and learning.

Waiting to be Entertained
What am I talking about? Have you ever sat and observed one of your child’s activities, such as dance or gym class, or even a sporting practice? I have and let me tell you, there seems to be a new phenomenon sweeping the land. It’s called “the waiting to be entertained” stare! You know it: A gaggle of children at an activity stare blankly at an instructor waiting to be told what to do next. They do this not because they are so mannerly, but rather, because they really cannot think of what to do next. In most instances of entertainment in their lives the next great thing comes from the screen in front of them.

Discover the Art of Play
So, what’s the cure? Hands-on learning experiences in the form of PLAY! Indeed, even when we cannot get outside to enjoy the weather, there is no need to resort to electronic entertainment.  We can opt instead for creative, inexpensive and easy to implement activities. In doing so, we wake up sleeping minds and help our children better develop their cognitive, physical, social, and emotional skills.

Play need not become a dying art! In fact, it can be your very best ally when the current weather is just not cooperating with your outdoor plans. Just try some of these fun ideas to spark the mind:

  1. Playdough. I am not talking about the pre-made stuff in the can, but the old-fashioned “pull out the flour; let’s make together” kind. (A plethora of recipes can be found online; just Google, “homemade play dough”.) Want an extra bonus? Make it on the stove or in the microwave, and let your children play with it while it is still warm–it is so soothing! To enhance play, add in plastic scissors, blocks, cookie cutters… There really is no limit! Don’t like the mess? Use a baking mat or cookie sheet to contain the play. The great benefit of home-made play dough is how well it holds together, therefore avoiding the inevitable crumbles of store bought dough. And the best part, with just a few minutes of preparation on your part, your children can happily entertain themselves while you go about your tasks, and all while getting some extra fine motor practice and tactile input.
  2. Obstacle Courses. These teach more than physical education and are easy to create with things you have around the house. I realize that we all desire a clean house, but I promise none of these ideas will take long to set up or clean up and all of them will provide hours of entertainment for your children. Obstacle courses also help build vocabulary, including the concepts of over, under, through, around, between, etc. Some possible courses can include kitchen chairs lined up to create a tunnel or couch pillows piled for rugged mountain terrain. Cut out various shapes from construction paper, laminate them if you are able, and you’ll have brick roads to follow from obstacle to obstacle while adding mathematics to the concepts being explored in this activity. Whatever you do, before you know it, your children will be designing their own courses, full of motor planning, proprioceptive and vestibular fun!
  3. Beading or Lacing. This classic activity offers something a bit more contained. While you can purchase lacing strings fairly cheaply from education supply stores, you can just as easily add scotch tape to the end of string or yarn and make your own. Likewise, although you can find many beading or lacing kits for purchase, if your budget is stretched, you can easily make DIY beading kits. Just take a look around your house: hollow pasta (elbow macaroni, ziti, etc), buttons, circle cereal, hole-punched bits cut from old holiday card, etc. So much is there and waiting to be laced! (I once received a huge bag of beads from someone whose beaded car seat cover broke – what a fabulous way to recycle!) Alternately, for older children, whip up (or purchase) some air dry clay. They can shape it, paint it and then bead it – three engaging activities in one — and all filled with fine motor coordination.
  4. Puzzles. These never lose their appeal with children. Make your own using the front or back of empty cereal or snack boxes. Laminate the pieces with contact paper and store them in Ziploc bags to preserve them, as well as to make them easier to transport to Grandma’s house during the holidays. Have old jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces? Give your child a baking sheet or tray, place down a sturdy piece of cardboard, and allow them to glue down pieces to their hearts content! When the glue dries, paint to create interesting textured artwork. To make a festive wreath, give your child a piece of cardboard cut in a circle, glue on puzzle pieces, let it dry, and, then paint it green. Add a paper or ribbon bow for a finishing touch.
  5. Exploration Boxes.These can really ignite the imagination as there are no limits to how your child might create and play with them. Using any size shoe box, children can make collections of their own to explore, or you can surprise them with one you have made. The walls of the box can be left blank or decorated to reflect what’s inside the box. Exploration boxes can be themed such as an “A” box, where everything inside starts with the letter “A”, or a color box where all the objects inside are red. For extra fun, you can hide all the pieces to an easy child’s craft in a box, and then the child can explore these and create the craft. No matter what’s inside the box, you’ll enjoy the fact that it is both portable and easy to clean up, while your child will begin exploring away-from-a-screen play, all while getting some extra tactile input.

No matter what the season, revisit low-tech options to ignite high-interest, independent play and learning!