As humans, we first learn about the world around us by exploring through our senses. The brand new born uses scent to find its mothers breast, a few weeks later they are tasting everything in sight. A familiar voice or melody can make their head turn, and little hands learn the difference between hot and cold pretty quickly. Discovery and exploration is an important part of infant development - so we came up with 10 ways you can encourage this through creative play.
*Safety disclaimer: infants and toddlers must be supervised at all times when exploring, as the mouth is a common first "tool" of discovery and some things pose a choking hazard*
- Shakers - fill a bottle or plastic egg with rice or pasta, and securely close it. Play with your baby by shaking it, making sounds, rolling it to them or over their arms/legs. Older infants can grasp the bottle themselves and shake it to hear the sounds, and feel the sensation of the material inside falling from one end to the other.
- Dough - we highly recommend making your own batch of salt dough for this one as it is safe and non-toxic if it happens to get swallowed accidentally. Experiment with the dough by forming it into shapes, tearing it apart, squishing it between fingers. Older kids can develop pincer grip by trying to peel the dough off the table surface, and explore rolling the dough into balls and snakes. Does your baby like to throw food off the high chair? Give them some salt dough in pieces and show them how gravity works (but don't get caught up in the "throw it I'll pick it up" trap!)
- Fabric Box - have you ever given a small child a box of tissues out of desperation to distract them? Then you completely understand the appeal of the fabric box. Fill a small box (use an old tissue box!) with fabric scraps of various textures and colors, sizes and lengths. They'll have a blast pulling out the pieces one by one, and you can show them how to stuff them back inside the box too.
- Tray Play - this one works well on a high chair, but you can use any tray with the same effect. Hide objects inside rice or cereal for them to find, give spoons and scoops to dig with. Suggestions for things to put in the tray: rice, cereal, pompoms, water beads, water, SNOW, sand, pasta, couscous. If you're using a high chair, you might want to put a drop sheet on the floor below because it WILL get dropped off the tray.
- Music - it doesn't have to be "baby" music. Expose your little humans to various types of music, styles and sounds. African or aboriginal drums, asian pan flutes, the twang of a country banjo. Or, put on your favourite dance tracks and dance around together.
- Mess-Free Painting - yes, paint can be a mess-free activity if done right! For small children, provide them with a *good quality* ziploc bag with a few dots of acrylic, non-toxic paint inside. Show them how to manipulate the paint with their fingers, rolling and pushing it around. The bag keeps this activity mess free, as long as you are using a good quality bag that won't open or rip easily.
- Obstacle Course - we think of obstacle courses more for toddlers, but you can build them for infants as well. Create a sensory path or experience using blankets, pillows, colored scarves and ribbons, (child safe) mirrors and lights. Infants who can crawl will love being able to climb and crawl over pillows, and those who aren't quite mobile yet will work on mobility as they reach for colors and hanging objects. It doesn't need to be a "path", you can create a sensory cave out of an old box, or make a blanket fort!
- Photo Albums - some of our earliest memories get forgotten quickly with all the information we need to learn in the first years. Create a photo album with printed photos sealed in plastic page covers, or laminated pages for your little one to explore. Tie the pages together with a colorful ribbon or keyring. Teach association skills by placing various photos of the same person or place on a single page - this is helpful if you have family that you don't see often! - so that they can learn to associate the various looks people have.
- Kitchen Play - the kitchen is a wonderful place for littles to learn. A tray covered in flour allows small cars to be rolled through it leaving tracks, can be piled to create hills, and of course creates a fun cloud when you slam a palm into it! A wooden spoon and a pot makes great noise (and big headaches!). A bowl of oatmeal is so much fun to squish in your hands. You can even give berries to play with - although I recommend doing that in a bathtub with minimal clothing because it stains easily!
- Snow/Sand - here in Canada, snow is such a part of our daily lives that it's hard to imagine some kids never get to experience it. It's such a versatile medium - we all know the fun of "packing" snow to get snowballs and build snowmen. Watch the wonder as a fistful of snow melts in your young ones hand, disappearing before their eyes. Fill a spray bottle with water and food coloring, and "spray paint" the snow with bright colors. Hide toys and items in small snow banks. Even the tiniest of children can experience the thrill of sliding down a snowbank, if you hold them as they go! No snow? No problem - sand is almost the same! It might not melt in your hand, but it holds many of the same properties.
We love creative sensory play. It's an awesome way to actually play and interact with your kids, and adults might just find themselves having fun too!