You don't need to go to a store to find toys for tots. There are plenty of safe and educational toys right at home. Jeri Robinson and Dorothy Merrill of the Boston Children's Museum offer some practical and proven ideas on activities for young childre, using at-home resources.
A color-chip sorting game starts with a shoe box, strips of colored paper, and clothespins. Cover the sides of the box with the strips of paper, preferably arranged according to the color spectrum, so that the colors are vertically lined up along the box edge. Then cover the clothespins with the colored paper.
"When the children are young, let them match and clip the colored pins to the colors on the box," says Ms. Robinson. "Later they can learn the names of the colors and what color ranges are."
Make a rock sorter. Take a small cardboard box and cut holes of several different sizes in the side. Children will try to put rocks through different holes until they find a hole the right size. Mrs. Merrill reports her daughter loves to put smooth beach rocks, a gift from cousins, into the sorter.
Another simple, yet endlessly absorbing, idea requires two bowls, a large spoon, and walnuts. Fill one bowl with walnuts, and encourage the child to transfer them to the other bowl with the spoon.
A variation on this game uses a bulb baster. Put a bowl of colord water on a tray (along with a sponge), and let the child transfer water to another bowl with the baster.
An edible collage provides fun for a group of children. Fill separate paper cups with any of the following: raisins, M&Ms, Cheerios, popcorn, pretzel sticks , mini-marshmallows, Fruit Loops, carrot coins, tortilla chips, corn curls, Rice Chex, gum drops, chocolate chips, nuts, or cheese wedges.
Spread a thin layer of honey on the base of paper plates. Using food items, make designs. Eat when finished.
"Give each child a cup and let him or her fill it with the food he or she likes," says Ms. Robinson. "Once they have their cups filled, they can either eat the snack then or make a picture and eat it later."
Toddlers enjoy finger painting, but they often want to eat the paint. Try pudding finger paints. Mix instant pudding (pistachio makes lovely green finger paint), and put a large dollop of pudding on a cookie sheet. Let the child make patterns. When the picture is done, lay shelf paper (cut to the size of the cookie sheet) shiny side down, rub gently, and pull up. A print of the picture will be made. To clean up, lick fingers.
Tots should be clearly instructed that these are special paints and that most paints should not be eaten.
Peanut butter play dough is expensive now that peanuts are scarce. But it is a good alternative for young toddlers.Children can decorate snakes or faces with raisins.
The recipe calls for 2 cups peanut butter, 2 to 3 cups powdered skim milk, and 1/2 cup honey. Mix the peanut butter and 2 cups of the milk, and blend in the honey. Add more powdered milk until pliable nonsticky substance is reached. This is completely edible, although very sweet. It is not good modeling dough for older toddlers.
Regular play dough is made with 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup salt, about 1/3 cup water, 1 tablespoon oil, and food color or powdered paint. Mix salt and flour together in a bowl. Add the water, oil, and coloring, a little at a time. Squeeze the dough with your hands until it is smooth.
Older toddlers can cut out patterns with a cookie cutter, poke a straw through the dough, and let the dough dry to make a pendant or Christmas tree ornament.
To keep toddlers happy while traveling, most parents let their children choose a toy to take along.
"Unfortunately, he'll usually chose his giant stuffed teddy bear," says Ms. Robinson. Instead, she advises parents to take an old lunch pail and paint the cover with blackboard paint (available in large hardware stores and school supply shops), so that the child can draw on it. Let the child take whatever fits into the box, which might include chalk, an eraser for the chalkboard, a small snack, beads, a jingle toy, finger puppet, a small book, and a pocket flashlight. The contents can change as the child grows older.
Mrs. Merrill makes an intriguing toy for her toddler by lining the inside palm of an old white glove with satin or fur. She fills each finger with something different -- beans, a clothes pin, sticks, or marbles -- then stitches each one shut. A small ring, attached to the back of the glove by a string, can be taken on and off the fingers.
Musical instruments are fun to play either solo or in augmenting story telling. Make maracas by putting rice or barley in a clear plastic bottle. Empty cans with plastic tops and metal bottoms make marvelous drums. Toddlers also love slide whistles and bells.