Create an environment that sparks the imagination while building skills - try to provide props that:

Offer opportunities for physical activity. Include toys and materials such as animal-shaped sponges that act as squeeze toys, plastic wiffle balls (great for grabbing), and empty shoeboxes strung together for pulling. These toys invite children to develop both fine- and large-motor skills. (Keep in mind that children will need lots of uncluttered space to move about in!)

Give children options for playing alone as well as with others. Objects such as empty cereal boxes (both large and small sizes) for building and knocking down, egg cartons for stacking, homemade books filled with baby pictures, and brightly colored puppets invite social interaction while giving children the option of exploring the materials by themselves.

Invite interaction by stimulating the senses. Musical instruments such as bells and drums, paint set out in furniture coasters for easy use by tiny fingers, clear plastic bottles filled with water and drops of food coloring for a visual treat when shaken, play dough sprinkled with oatmeal to give it texture, scratch 'n' sniff books, and crib sheets with bright, bold patterns all allow children to investigate the world by hearing, touching, seeing, and smelling.

Allow opportunities for multiple use. A set of plastic measuring spoons and a wire whisk can be used for dramatic play or for experimentation in the water table. Large spools and pop beads can be used for stringing or filling containers.

This article originally appeared in the November, 2000 issue of Early Childhood Today.