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How can I keep my toddler / preschooler busy while teaching school?

This is a tough one and it really depends on the age and temperament of the child. In our case, my 3 year-old daughter was very social and she would not go off and play by herself in her room like I would have wanted. She really needed and wanted to be around the rest of us. One of the things that I did was set aside special toys or activities that could just be used during the time that we were doing school. We have a collection of snap-lidded boxes that could be brought out, one each day, and she could play with the things in the box on a blanket or couch (a defined space that she needed to stay in). Some of the box ideas we used (keeping in mind that she was older) and others that you could add for variety include:

  1. A mini Corolle doll or baby doll with outfits that velcro and bottles, blankets, and other accessories.
  2. Play dough, cutters, plastic knives, etc. I prefer homemade play dough as it seems much easier to handle than the store-bought kind. You also can't beat all of those cool Tupperware gadget give-aways for adding to the realism. My kids liked the little tongs I brought home from a party one time that were supposed to be for pickles. The orange peelers make a great safety knife (the reverse end) and they like to put creations into the little smidget containers. The best thing is, the Tupperware lasts and lasts and can go in the dishwasher. I can't stand some of the sets on the market today made for play dough that are hard plastic that cracks with use and the pieces are impossible to clean when the dough gets down in the pushers. I really don't have time for that. Likewise for the toy wooden rolling pins that the dough adheres to permanently.

    The best gadget in our play dough box is an inexpensive metal garlic press. The kids use it to make hair, spaghetti, or whatever else they can think of and when they are done, it just goes in the dishwasher with the rest of the stuff. Zany Brainy also has a couple of great sets that go with their Soft Stuff (their version of play dough) line. The sets can turn a blob of play dough into just about anything. They work along the lines of the Mr. Potatohead toy only you start with a blob of dough for the body. The animal set supplies wings, ears, feet, and other animal parts to stick into the dough and the people one supplies various arms, feet, eyes, ears and hats, etc.. The combinations are nearly endless and the kids can make whatever wacky characters come to mind.

  3. A special Lego set. My daughter really likes the Lego with Minnie and Mickey where there are pieces that she can already identify like cars and birthday cakes as well as the characters. Younger kids often find it difficult to look at a pile of random Lego pieces and actually create something with them. The more pieces that look like something or the more you can create to get them started sometimes, the better.

  4. Mr. And Mrs. Potatohead. My daughter thought this was the greatest toy ever made and played with it for hours.

  5. Any collection of little toys from restaurants and other places. It doesn't matter if they are in the same series. Kids can make up all kinds of their own stories to lead them in.

  6. Kid's rubber stamps, paper and coloured pencils. When my daughter was younger, I found that the pre-inked stamps worked best so she didn't mix the colours on the stamp pads.

  7. Lauri sells a Primer Pack which includes an alphabet puzzle, lacing shapes with cords, 4 fit-a-space puzzles and loctagons (foam octagon construction pieces) all in its own tote. They also sell a simpler kit for toddlers.

  8. Any collection of puzzles, especially wooden ones or ones in frames, that are at your child's level. We like the graduation of the Ravensburger tray puzzles or also the wooden ones produced by Lights! Camera! Interaction! which has wooden tray puzzles with up to 100 pieces.

  9. Woodkins dolls, especially for girls. I collected extra fabric scraps of thin material and my daughter could make many different styles of outfits for her doll. The biggest problem was having her want to "share" each combination with me while I was doing something else.

  10. Flannel board and felt shapes. I made my own with designs traced from cookie cutters, alphabet, numbers, shapes, etc. Of course now there are many FELTKids boards and accessories or, if you want to get really fancy, the Betty Luken Bible Felts.

  11. Magnetic boards and letters. You can also find magnetic items in the shapes of trees, fences, houses, etc. for doing story pictures.

  12. Colorforms sets, if your child likes them, are a nice quiet activity. I found my daughter didn't really take to them, but as a child, I remember playing with a version of them quite a bit.

  13. Stickers. We have so many stickers. We get them as gifts, we get them at the doctor's office, the dentist's office, they come in the mail, and we even buy them. My daughter loves to put stickers on papers and decorate them into cards or pictures for anyone and it is one way to use up all of the excess stickers that we really would never use otherwise.

  14. Take a preschooler, a sturdy stool, a bathroom or kitchen sink filled with water and bubbles, and some toys that need washing (especially play dishes) and what do you have? Firstly, a mess, but mostly, lots of entertaining fun that last for a long time. In the end, the kid is clean, the kitchen floor is clean and so are the toys. I can't think of an activity that my son enjoyed more. Close supervision is recommended which is why I prefer the kitchen sink when we are working at the kitchen table. Plus, the kitchen sink is deeper, which in theory, results in less mess.

  15. Animals and cars. One thing that I loved as a child was a set of dominoes or blocks and a collection of little animals. I remember building all types of enclosures for the animals and sorting them by mothers and babies or animals that could be together without eating each other, etc. Lots of boys love playing with collections of dinosaurs and there seems to be no end to the "pet shop" style of toys for girls where you get all kinds of little stuffed animals with pretend blankets, food dishes, brushes, etc. You could also put together a special collection of cars and the blocks could be used to make garages and roads. There are also little plastic or wooden street signs available and the ever-popular piece of cardboard or book for a ramp to run the cars down.

  16. Cut and paste box. Take a catalogue of things of interest to your child, a pair of safety scissors, a glue stick and some paper. Let your child build their cutting and pasting skills by choosing things that they like to stick on the paper. You could give them a little more guidance and tell them to find pictures of things that start with a certain letter sound or finding pictures of things they would like to eat.

  17. The other thing my son enjoyed playing with was Ooblek. It was a recipe I found in a book where you mix four parts of cornstarch and one part water and stir it up. Depending on what you do, it changes between a solid and a liquid. This is messy, which really attracted my son, but it cleans up easily, being that it is only cornstarch and water. My son would scoop it up in a spoon and it would become a solid. He would dump it into a funnel and it would become a liquid and flow right through. It is really cool stuff.

  18. One of my son's favourite things to do when it was warm out was to take a paintbrush I had bought for him and a small pail of water and "paint" the house or the deck or whatever.

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