Meet Nora, a typical energetic preschooler. Her parents want to give her the best start possible, so they look for new ways to help her learn and develop. At 2 years old Nora starts swimming lessons. At 3 she tries pre-ballet. By age 4, she’s enrolled in—and dropped out of—half a dozen organized activities meant to kick-start kids’ creativity. Sound familiar? Lots of preschoolers have packed schedules and love it. But one thing parents often forget is small children also need plenty of unstructured playtime. It helps develop their creativity, social skills, and outside-the-box thinking, says Kathy Eugster, MA, CPT-S, a child and family therapist and certified play therapist supervisor in Vancouver, British Columbia. That should come as good news for time-crunched families.
“With ‘free play,’ children are able to use creativity and problem-solving skills,” says Eugster. “Rather than being told what to do, kids use their own imaginations and develop independence.” This kind of play is especially important for the preschooler set because it’s a period of time when they’re able to be in control—no one is telling them what to do or how and when to do it. So don’t feel guilty the next time you are stuck inside due to bad weather, or just want to stay home on a Saturday afternoon. These five simple activity ideas will keep your kids engaged and learning, with smiles all around.
1. Living Room Camping
It’s easy to recreate some of the fun of a campout at home. If you have a kids’ play tent or teepee, great—if not, just toss a sheet or blanket over the living room furniture. Let the kids drag in pillows, books, and a couple of snacks for their fort-camping adventure. To make it extra special, show your kids how to make an easy indoor “campfire”: Tape two or three cardboard toilet paper tubes together side by side, then tape or glue crumpled orange, red, and yellow tissue or construction paper on top for the flames. Want to roast marshmallows? Stick cotton balls to the ends of pipe cleaners or sticks from the backyard!
2. Egg Carton Artist
No paintbrushes? No problem! Kids can make art with just about anything. Let your child pick a handful of out-of-the-box painting “tools” such as sliced raw potatoes, bottle caps, leaves, or sponges. Place these tools in the lid of an open empty egg carton, and then pour different colors of washable, nontoxic liquid paint (such as tempera) into the compartments. Kids can dip and decorate to their heart’s content.
3. Vet in a Box
A big cardboard box is a child’s best friend. It can become a car, boat, plane, or in this case, a whole veterinarian’s office! Let your child toss all his stuffed animals into a big cardboard box, along with any “doctor” toys like a stethoscope or thermometer. He can decorate the box with his name or pictures of his favorite animals, and the box itself can become the O.R., waiting room, or a kennel where the animal patients recover. Donate some extra first-aid supplies such as an ice pack, bandages, gauze, and cotton balls and his vet practice is all set.
4. Little-Kid Laptop
Kids love to pretend to be grown-ups. There’s no way you want a 4-year-old playing with your computer unsupervised, so why not let her create one of her own? All she needs is an empty box of cereal and a little help cutting: Open both ends of the box then cut off one of the skinny sides (the one with the nutrition facts panel on it). Turn the box over so the blank side of the cardboard faces up. Now your preschooler can tape a blank piece of paper on the top panel to look like a computer screen, and decorate the bottom panel like a keyboard.
5. Gooey Goodness
Totally natural, chemical-free slime couldn’t be easier to make: All it takes is a big bowl, a cup of cornstarch, and half a cup of water. Put down some newspapers or a splat mat and let your child mix away. The secret to good goo is to add the water slowly and mix with your hands. The goo washes off pretty easily with warm water and will brush off clothes and upholstery when it dries (whew!). For colored slime, add a few drops of food coloring to the water before mixing. For glitz, sprinkle in some glitter at the end. (Just be careful—food coloring can stain.)