Young children don’t need special or expensive toys for learning and development. In fact, with a little imagination, you can turn ordinary things around the house into homemade toys and free activities for kids.

Homemade toys and free activities: why they’re good

Homemade games and free activities at home are a great way to keep children entertained, and to help them learn and grow. They don’t cost any money, and they can really boost your child’s creativity.

It’s easy to come up with ideas for children as they get older. There are lots of toys and games that you and your child can create together.

You can also give your child things from around your home for some open-ended play – for example, young children usually love putting on and taking off the lids of containers, and older children often enjoy playing make-believe with old tea towels. Make sure that the things you give your child are unbreakable and too big to be choking hazards.

Playing with newborns

You’re the ‘toy’ that your newborn most enjoys. Your touch, the sound of your voice, being rocked in your arms, or staring at your face is more than enough entertainment for a new baby.

Your newborn will also love being outside when the weather is good, feeling the wind, hearing the sounds of birds, and experiencing new outdoorsy smells.

Splashing in shallow water or in the bath is also lots of fun. Just remember to always keep your hands on your baby when you and she are playing around water – babies can drown in as little as a couple of centimetres of water.

You could play gentle music to soothe your baby, or make bath time relaxing with a calm atmosphere and warm water, and a warm massage afterwards.

Newborn babies respond to music, but it’s your voice that they enjoy most. Hold your baby, sing, talk and make eye contact. These activities will keep your baby entertained, and help your baby learn and get to know you all at once.

All babies are unique and some babies take more time than others to enjoy new sensations, so watch how your baby responds, and see what he enjoys and is interested in. Your baby’s cues can help you know when your baby is happy to play or when he has had enough and wants a rest.

Playing with babies

Once your baby starts to move around more, she might enjoy more active play – especially with you.

Your baby will love to crawl all over you or grasp and shake objects to try out new movement skills. All young children need time for quiet play too, so watch for cues that your baby needs some downtime.

Here are some play ideas for babies:

  • Make time for one-on-one play every day – for example, talking with your baby or counting his toes. You can make this a part of routine activities like diaper-changing.

  • Blow raspberries on your baby’s tummy and tickle little toes.

  • Make a toy shaker. Fill an emptied, washed and dried juice or milk container with rice, pasta, peas, dried pulses or even old buttons (make sure the lid is secure to avoid choking hazards).

  • Sing songs and nursery rhymes. Babies really love these when you repeat actions like clapping hands or doing twinkling star fingers.

  • Read books as part of your baby’s daily routine – for example, before bedtime. The library is a great place to borrow books for free.

  • Make a drum using upside-down boxes, pots or plastic tubs. Give your child a wooden spoon to bang the drum with.

Playing with toddlers

Toddlers are like little scientists. Their play is often about experimenting, observing, testing, trying out ideas and figuring out how things work. For example, your child probably loves to ‘post’ things – often into the front of the CD or DVD player!

You could try the following play ideas for toddlers:

  • Give your toddler some pegs and a peg container. Your child will happily move pegs in and out of the container – over and over and over again!

  • Cut pieces of cardboard into small envelopes and decorate them. You could also make a ‘post box’ by cutting slits into the front of an old ice-cream container or cardboard box.

  • Make some playdough and build towers, pancakes, trees or just shapes – whatever your toddler likes. You can even just squelch the playdough between your fingers.

  • Put together a box of old clothes for some dress-up or pretend play. You could use an ice-cream container to make a fun dress-up hat. Cover it with foil, and your toddler is an astronaut. You can also paste material, fake flowers or pom-poms onto a container to turn your child into a fancy guest at a tea party.

  • Go for some outdoor play in the backyard, playground, beach or park.

Playing with preschoolers

Try some of the following play ideas. They’re fun and will also help with your child’s fine motor skills and gross motor skills:

  • Show your child how to stuff old stockings with paper or material scraps to make creatures like a snake or caterpillar.

  • Make a sock puppet using old socks. Sew on buttons or paste other bits of material for eyes, nose and hair.

  • Fill a box with clean, old clothes for dressing up.

  • Fold newspaper into a pirate’s or magician’s hat. Let your preschooler cut out and paste on coloured pictures cut from old magazines.

  • Let your child’s imagination turn old cardboard boxes into toys – a car, playhouse, shop counter or kitchen stove.

  • Visit the park or a friend’s house, or just take a walk in your neighbourhood. These are all sources of adventure and fun for your child.

  • Tape some scrap paper together to make a simple book. Let your child create the story and decorate the pages either by drawing the characters herself or cutting and pasting them out of old magazines.

Check out our article on encouraging preschoolers' creative and artistic development. It has lots of ideas for using everyday objects to make fun new homemade toys.

Playing with school-age kids

Keep your child entertained and stimulated with the following play ideas:

  • Find some big, old boxes and see what your child can do with them. They could become a playhouse, rocket ship or hide-out. You could ask your supermarket or electrical retailer if they have boxes you could take home.

  • Cook with your child – start with some simple family favourites.

  • Let your child invite a friend over for a short playdate.

  • Turn old sheets into a tent by draping them over the backs of chairs, or make a tent by draping a sheet over the edges of the table.

  • Let your child help you out with small household chores and tasks. Children often enjoy collecting the mail, helping to fold clean washing or watering the garden.

  • Play word games – for example, make up silly rhymes and riddles.

Play is the main way babies and young children learn. But if play isn’t fun, it’s not really play. Letting your child lead the play helps to keep things fun. For babies, this might be stopping play if they’re tired. For preschoolers, it might be letting them choose what they want to play with.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

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