When you're the entertainment coordinator, education provider and gym teacher all in one, it's hard to keep up a steady stream of activities that entertain, teach and keep your kiddo active and healthy. As you plan tomorrow's schedule, keep in mind the things your child gets out of each activity. Focus on endeavors that combine fun with learning; when you collapse in exhaustion at the end of the day, you'll know your little one's better off for the effort you put in.
Whether you help your child transform into a rogue pirate, a ballerina or a knight in shining armor, pretend-play activities help her explore her imagination, learn about the world, and imitate the actions and personalities of individuals in her life—like you. When she's playing house, she's really trying on your role and attempting to be just like you. For another educational pretend-play opportunity, turn a daily teddy-bear tea party into an activity that helps develop language skills. "Repetitive play activities are ideal for boosting language skills," explains Melanie Potock, a certified pediatric speech-language pathologist in Longmont, Colo. She gives this example for helping children capable of two-word sentences expand to three-word phrases: "When having a pretend tea party, first fill the cups and say, 'Pour tea please,' then blow 'Hot tea—blow!' and finally, take a sip and say 'Mmm! Yummy tea!'" Add increasingly more steps and words in each sentence as your child learns to say more.
Reading gives you and your youngster an opportunity for together time and learning—and it's a calm and soothing activity to squeeze into your bedtime routine, too. "Books are a fantastic way to develop both receptive and expressive language," says Potock, but she recommends a slightly different approach than old-fashioned storytelling. "In addition to reading the text, try using the pictures on each page as your own personal way to tell the story," she suggests. It makes the activity fun and interactive for your child, engaging his interest and expanding his learning. For example, point to the picture of a telephone and say, "Rrrrrrring, rrrrrrring" or point to the kitten and say, "Meow, meow." Pause each time to give your child an opportunity to point and copy your sounds.
Arts and Crafts
You can help your child explore a world of craftiness and creativity with artwork to hang on his wall and craft projects to adorn every surface in the house. Pick up sphere, cube and cone styrofoam shapes and paint them to make ornaments, or insert pipe cleaners in one end to make a unique bunch of 3-D shaped flowers. Construct paper-towel-roll puppets and egg-carton caterpillars; make potatoes and carrots fun by cutting them in half and using them for painting projects. For homemade jewelry, color penne noodles with food coloring and let your youngster thread them onto elastic string. Make a more elaborate necklace with different types of noodles. "These activities can provide an opportunity to discuss how things are visually alike and different," says Irene Shere, founder of iBlankie.com and director of the Early Childhood Consultation Center in Silver Spring, Md. The ability to recognize how one bead is different from another; the difference in size, color and shape—these are important pre-reading concepts, much more important for pre-reading skills than learning the alphabet," says Shere.
Get your kiddo up and moving to make physical activity a healthy habit from a young age. Play a game of Simon Says, freeze dance, or musical chairs to encourage activity and help your youngster learn to follow instructions. Organize a treasure hunt in the house on a rainy day or introduce your tot to nature with a scavenger hunt in the backyard, at the park or at a nearby conservation area. A game of throw and catch requires no prior planning and helps him work on motor-skill development, but you may want to invest in a beach or foam ball since your tyke might not have perfected his coordination skills just yet. Help your child build a snowman in the winter, a sandcastle in the summer, and mud pies year-round. "These activities provide an opportunity to encourage children about their process rather than their product, reinforcing 'success' as effort put forth rather than a perfect end product," says Shere. For example, tell your little one, "You are working so hard molding the sand into a castle," instead of "That's a wonderful castle."