Keeping your Toddler occupied during Lockdown

Chatterbabies creater Laura Davies has come up with some ways for parents of toddlers to entertain their children during this difficult time.

8 ideas of easy activities to keep them entertained.

Although I’m a paediatric Speech and Language Therapist, and so very used to planning interesting and educational activities for little ones, self isolating this last week has tested my skills to the limits! Keeping a very busy toddler entertained, who finds it hard to sit still for 10 seconds, is no mean feat.

The good news is that, at the preschool age, almost any activity has the potential to be educational. There is no need for flashcards, worksheets, number tasks or educational tablet games because, (in the words of Maria Montessori, who set up the schooling system of the same name), ‘play is the work of the child.’ The challenging bit can be finding activities which keep your little one busy for more than 30 seconds, so you have time to get the dinner on, go to the loo in peace or simply have a cup of tea.

Apart from the classic (and still incredibly valuable) ideas of books, nursery rhymes, toys, here are some other activities, with things that you will probably have around the house.

  • Pretend play with real objects- Children love getting their hands on ‘real things’ to explore, perhaps because they look and feel so different to the many brightly coloured, plastic toys we tend to give them. This could be giving them pots and pans with vegetables in to pretend to cook, changing their doll’s nappy with their own changing bag supplies, or letting them sit in the front of the car and ‘drive’.
  • Washing things- This one may go down so well because its a mixture of getting messy, and playing with real items, as mentioned above (this may be better for warm, garden days!) Get some warm soapy water, and let them play at giving baby a bath, washing the car (real or pretend) or ‘painting’ the fence with water.
  • Helping with jobs– Most toddlers love to feel helpful, and even if you need to redo it all after they’ve added their contribution, it can still keep them occupied for a while. Personal favourites in our house have been loading/unloading the washing machine, hanging up wet clothes, washing the windows and changing the bedsheets.
  • Messy/ sensory play- This gives kids a chance to experience different textures, which learning about concepts such as full/empty, wet/dry, hard/soft, sticky etc. You can either go for wet materials (shaving foam, jelly, water, ice, ‘gloop’ (see recipe here- https://www.babycentre.co.uk/a1041084/how-to-make-gloop-for-messy-play)  or dry (cereal, rice, lentils, flour, pasta). Interest will last longer if you add containers such as spoons and cups into the mix, or little toys such as cars or figures to ‘hide’ (NB I am not promoting wasting food in the current climate, but may be one to try if you have any stale, inedible bits hanging around).
  • Recycling sensory box- Along with the idea of playing with ‘real objects; your recycling box is likely to have lots of interesting items for your little one to explore. Look out particularly for metal lids (great for spinning and rolling), plastic tubs such as the ones you get strawberries in, yoghurt pots (good for stacking), toilet roll inners (good for posting balls down), and plain cardboard boxes. Little ones may just like exploring the different textures, which older ones may like drawing on boxes, posting one item inside another, or seeing what they can make with a roll of sellotape.
  • Balloons- an old favourite, but good for so many things!  For little ones, try blowing it up and saying ‘ready steady go!’ before letting it fly round the room (or squirt air in their face). For older ones, they are great for practicing throwing, catching, kicking or hitting with a racket when a ball may still move too fast.
  • Acting out books or TV programmes– Look around the house for props from one of your child’s favourite stories. You dont have to have all of them, or for them to be exactly right, your child wont mind if you just show them what they should represent. For example, for one of our favourites ‘Room on a Broom’ we found toys of most of the animals (although I didnt have a bird), a broom for a brookstick, and a sunhat for the witches hat. Then read the book or retell the gist of the story together, showing your child how to use all the props. This is definitely one where it pays off to show them what to do first, as they are then likely to do it themselves again and again!
  • Telly time– Although we all know that hours and hours of TV time is not ideal, your child will still get some benefits from watching a bit, such as learning new words and new concepts they may not be exposed to in everyday life. These benefits are most when you sit and watch it together (although this often defeats the object of giving you a bit of time to get 101 other things done!) but if not, you can talk about the programme afterwards, or act out some favourite bits as described above. Link what your child has watched to experiences, books or toys to help them develop their understanding of different ideas- for example, we have been discussing how ‘granny has a poorly leg like Pedro Pony’ and getting out the bandages to bandage up teddy!

And here are some ideas to help you make the most out of the activities above:

  • Don’t beat yourself up if your child shows no interest in it. Half the activities I have tried above took about 10 minutes to set up, 10 to put away, and were played with for about 2 minutes! It’s a good time to learn what your child’s play preferences are- mine isn’t very interested in sensory/messy play activities, but if you give her some little figures to pretend with, her interest in it will last much longer.
  • Play with your child with the activity first. If you give them some ideas of what they can do with it, they are then much more likely to be able to stay and play with it independently than if you just put it in front of them.
  • How are some of these educational, I hear you ask? Well, many have benefits for fine motor skills, gross motor skills, planning, imagination etc, but I will stick to describing the benefits to the area I know the most about- their language. If your little one is just starting to learn words, then anything you can describe about the activity will be educational for them- keeping your language simple and repetitive is the best way for them to learn (eg, in the washing activity ‘wash the car, wash the wheels, wash the roof’ etc). If your child is already a chatterbox, then there is always the chance to learn new vocabulary they may not be familiar with- this could be words around nature (branch, bark, buds etc) or words which we use everyday, but which are a bit more abstract such as prepositions (in front of, behind, in between, next to etc). Also just talking to them is the best way to develop the accuracy and length of sentences that they are able to use- the most effective way to do this is to use a strategy called ‘recasting’ where you basically repeat back what your child has said, but in the correct form (e.g. Child; ‘her fall over’, Me: yes, SHE fell over’).

All in all, don’t feel you have to be Mary Poppins for their entire waking day- they will get tired out by that too! Short bursts of play with parents, alternated with play on their own and some episodes of screen time is fine to aim for.

Laura Davies is a Speech and Language Therapist in the NHS, and also works independently for the Owl Therapy Centre.

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