Make the Moments Count: Engaging Toys and Activities to Keep Your Child’s Mind Active

Make every moment you have with your kids count. Doesn’t that sound SO easy? I’ve kept this phrase in my mind since my first baby was born 10 years ago. But wow, if I’m being completely honest, staying true to that is challenging sometimes. After a full day of morning routines, teaching, and then coming home to start parenting, it is NOT easy. Any parent will tell you that. What is easy…dismissing your kids to their play area so you can have some “me” time. And sometimes, this has to happen for your own mental health. Trust me. We’ve all done it. And sometimes, that “me” time means locking yourself in a bathroom. For an undisclosed amount of time.

But being present for your kids should obviously be the norm. So despite all the “chaos” that is a normal day in the life of every parent, I try to take some time as I’m driving home from work to remember that their day was not like mine. They don’t understand the “chaos” that we feel, the stress, anxiety, or the burdens of deadlines. And I’m thankful for that. What they do feel is you. They feel how you react when you see them for the first time at the end of a long day, they feel how you react when you pick them up from daycare, and how you react when you are going through the mundane, yet hectic, morning and nighttime routines with them. When you come home from a long day at work, they need you. Even teenagers. So I try to check myself every once in a while to make sure that I am at least trying to “make every moment count” for them.

Making every moment count doesn’t mean putting on a production. It doesn’t mean you need to take them places all the time or provide a grand trip to somewhere like Disney. You can show them that you want to spend time with them by ACTUALLY spending time with them. It simply means listening to them and making eye contact when they are speaking to you, telling them you love and care for them often, sitting with them to read a story, being actively involved in their education, having dinners together, being active together outside (bike rides, walks, playing with chalk, throwing a ball around, frisbee, ect..), and giving them lots of opportunities to learn and grow at home. Simply stated, put down those cell phones, and be present for your kids whenever possible. Because being “present” doesn’t only mean physically being there. There is a huge difference between the parent who is present at his/her child’s sporting event and is actively watching and engaged, and the other parent who is also present, but has used his/her child’s game time to catch up on Facebook posts and has barely looked to see the score. Be actively present.

Give them lots of opportunities to learn and grow at home. I love this one. We do many things together that promote learning through critical thinking and play. They love when I introduce something new and fun to create or explore. I wanted to share some educational toys and activities I have found over the years that are proven “mom wins;” in the eyes of my kids at least, and I feel are useful for exercising little minds, especially on a rainy (or quarantined) day. The theme here though is to be actively present…so make sure you are participating with your child and offering lots of support and praise throughout any of these activities!

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Sand and Water Table Fun (1+ years): What kid doesn’t love sand and water? These toys are perfect for practicing fine motor skills while having fun, too! The set comes with 4 toy tools; one for scooping, twisting, squeezing, and dropping! My 15 month old LOVED playing with these in his water table! Sand and Water Fine Motor Tool Set. You don’t need an actual water table, either! For a long time, we just used a big bin of water and let our toddler splash around in it with boats and toys. If you are looking for an actual water table, we bought this one and loved it. Little Tikes Spiralin’ Seas Waterpark Water Table. It was far more inexpensive than some others we had looked at, and it met the kids’ needs of having a splashtastic time over and over again! This is a great opportunity to work on your child’s vocabulary and speech as well. Talk about the colors and sizes of the toys, what they do, use simple sentences to describe what you are playing with, and use sounds and repetitiveness while playing to promote speech development.

Crayons for Toddlers: Kids of all ages loves to color. I mean, even I love to color every now and then. I found that these crayons are perfect for juicy, chunky toddler hands to grip! Take a piece of paper, tape it down to the floor, and let their creativity fly! Crayola; My First Crayola; Palm-Grip Crayons; Art Tools; 6 Count; Designed for Toddlers

Teaching the Alphabet Activities

We started teaching all three of our kids the alphabet when they were 12 months old through play and games. There are so many toddler toys out now that cater to teaching the alphabet, and a few we loved are highlighted below:

Bathtub Letters (1-5 years) : All of my kids loved playing with these letters in the bathtub. This is a fun and inexpensive way to practice letter recognition with your kiddos. Foam Bathtub Letters.

Hide and Seek Letters: I have also used the Foam Bathtub Letters or taken the larger letters from this Letter Mat to practice letter identification out of the bathtub. One of my favorite toddler activities is to hide a few of the letters around the house, and the kids find and return them; telling me the name of the letter they found as they did. I would “hide” the letters in plain site for younger toddlers (1-3) and for older ones (3-5), I would make it more challenging. For preschool age, after they found the letter, you could also have them write the letter with a crayon or pencil on paper. For younger kids or those who need support, I would show the letter they needed to find on paper. We did this activity quite often, because the kids loved it so much. As they got older, they would have to tell me the sound the letter makes, or I would say the sound and they would find the corresponding letter. Also, the older kids loved when I would hide some letters and they had to make a word with the hidden letters. When the weather was good, we hid letters outside! Here is a quick document for tips on how to teach alphabet recognition to your kids, including letters to avoid teaching together at once. It is very useful! Alphabet Recognition Tips

Letters on the Go: These Sesame Street Elmo on the Go Letters are so fun for toddlers! Kids can take them in the car (though we primarily play this at home), and they will easily snap in and out of position. My toddler loves not only the colorful letters, but also the familiar Sesame Street pictures that the letters reveal when you take the letters out of their spots. I like that there is a built-in tray at the bottom for building words, as well. Sesame Street Letters

Foam Letters: Educational Insights Playfoam Shape & Learn Alphabet Set This fun and hands-on activity will have your child engaged for a long time. Kids form the letters onto a card using the different colored foam that is included with the cards. I like how the letter cards also have arrows to model how to write each letter. I had my kids first trace the letter following the arrows on each letter with their finger, and then they constructed the letter using the foam. Sometimes, I had them write it as well on paper, but mostly, I just let them have fun constructing letters with the foam! As they got older, we often used the foam to form their weekly spelling words.

Games and Activities for Older Kids

*Picasso Tiles (toddler to, well, adult in my opinion): I have always loved playing with these myself at children’s museums or in a school, even as an adult, but never purchased them for my girls until the baby came around. At 15 months, he LOVES these magnetic pieces, even though the age says 3 and over. There are so many things you can do with these, at any age. For toddlers, you can sort by shape or color, or just allow them to be creative and build something on their own. Right now, our 15 month old absolutely loves to sort the shapes by color, and he loves even more when I call out a color and he can correctly retrieve it. The hand clapping and looking at me for affirmation with his gummy smile is priceless. There are different sized sets available, but I found the 60 piece set was perfect for our needs. My girls, 8 and 10, also love constructing their own creations with the tiles. As my kids outgrow this, I will use it for brain breaks in my classroom, or for indoor recess. This is a set I will use for many, many years to come. I even found it relaxing to use myself! Picasso Tiles

Riddle Cube the Game (8 to adult): Our family loved this game! The box says ages 8 and over, but my first graders could play the easier cards in this game. You take turns pulling and showing a card to all players, and the first person to construct the shape on the card using their bendable 3-D cube wins that round. There are easier, and more challenging cards to choose from. We loved not only the competition part, but also the thinking part of this game! Also, this game doesn’t take long to play, and you can improvise and play as many rounds as you like! My kids were engaged with this for a long time. Riddle Cube

Zingo Games (Pre K-1): Thinkfun has a few of these versions: Zingo Bingo, Zingo Sight Words, and Zingo 1-2-3 Number Bingo Game for Age 4 and Up – Award winner and Toy of the Year Nominee. We have all of these and we love them all. The Thinkfun company has so many educational and fun games for kids of all ages, and these are no exception. We particularly love the sight words game (it was a Toy of the Year Finalist in 2013), and I even use this in my classroom for small group instruction. The Thinkfun site says this about the game: Zingo! Sight Words is a fun and interactive word game that brings fast-paced excitement and learning to the classic game of Bingo! Players learn to quickly recognize and read sight words, which are words with spelling that is not always straightforward. Sight words are the most frequently used words in the English language and make up about 50-75% of all written material. Learning and mastering sight words is a key step in becoming a successful, fluent reader. The sight words used in this fun word game have been specially selected by leading educators as the most fundamental for reading development.

Magnetic Marble Run (ages 5+): I first purchased this for my classroom a few years ago, and my first graders LOVED it. Since then, I purchased another set for my own kids. This is one of the coolest marble run kits we’ve ever had! You can either create your own run using a large magnetic board (like a dry erase) or your refrigerator, or use the cards given to try to copy the run and then test it. The cards are written in English on one side, and Spanish on the other. It is a great STEM activity! Learning Resources Tumble Trax Magnetic Marble Run, STEM Toy, 28 Piece Set, Ages 5+

Math Dice Game (6 and over): This is another tried and true math game for kids. I highly recommend this game as a parent, and a teacher. Players take turns rolling the target die and the 5 colored dice. The number on the target die is the target number. Players can add or subtract the number together, or use a combination of both, to reach the target number exactly. When a player sees a way to hit the target number, he/she calls out “Math Dice!” That player explains how he/she used the numbers to reach the target and then keeps the dice until the end of the round. If another player can use the remaining dice to hit the target, they will also call out “Math Dice!” to explain their thinking. Players score 1 point for each die they kept for that round and move that many places on the mat. Then, the next round is played. The first person to reach the finish line is the winner. This is a great game of not only strategy, but mental math practice! ThinkFun Math Dice Junior Game for Boys and Girls Age 6 and Up – Teachers Favorite and Toy of the Year Nominee

Rush Hour Traffic Game: This logic game was a huge hit in our house! It was created by Thinkfun and has won countless awards. With over 50 million of these games sold, I promise it’s a winner! There are 40 multi-challenge cards. You place the cars in the tray according to how they are placed on the card. Then, move the vehicles side to side and up and down without lifting them from the tray until you can free the red car from the traffic jam. It’s a game of strategy and logic, and so much fun. To involve the whole family, we worked as teams and timed ourselves; taking turns to see who could get out the fastest. ThinkFun Rush Hour Traffic Jam Brain Game and STEM Toy for Boys and Girls Age 8 and Up – Tons of Fun With Over 20 Awards Won, International Bestseller for Over 20 Years

Teach your kids about the human body. There are two resources I’ve loved for this. One was recommended to me from a friend, and it did not disappoint. It’s called Squishy Human Body (8 years and older). You can remove 21 realistic vital organs, bones, and muscles using the included forceps and tweezers; then rebuild the model from the toes to skullcap. My girls were so intrigued with this toy. It also comes with an illustrated book about the human anatomy. The toy says it is for 8 years and older, but some younger kids might enjoy this, too, depending on your kid. SmartLab Toys Squishy Human Body

The second is actually a book by DK Knowledge and was a fascinating information book for my kids. Human Body! (Knowledge Encyclopedias)

Rock On Game (8 to adult): Does your kid like rocks? When I was growing up, I was obsessed with them. I would collect rocks from everywhere I went. I would sort them, read books about them, and try to figure out the minerals in them. This interest has carried over into my adult life as well. Over the years, I have instilled a love for rocks in my girls. They love stopping at all the touristy rock shops in the towns we visit, and we usually buy a few. But check out this hands-on game! It is awesome!  This geology game offers 5 levels of play for up to 6 players. It challenges kids of all age ranges; from pre-readers through elementary school-age and beyond. There are information cards, a bingo-like rock game, and over 20 specimens of rocks. My girls liked matching the rocks to their cards and reading the information about them the best. ROCK ON! Geology Game with Rock & Mineral Collection – Collect and Learn with STEM-based Educational Science Kit in Carrying Case – Amethyst, Rhodonite, Selenite Crystal, Unakite and lots more

My FAVORITE GAME of all time: You know I’m not going to leave this post without recommending my ALL TIME favorite game EVER. I mean, it’s like this game was made for me! I received Trekking The National Parks: The Family Board Game (Second Edition) as a Christmas gift this year from my parents, and it was everything I imagined. It gives general information about the US parks, along with the use of strategy to win. This game has won some serious awards…winner of the MENSA and Parent’s Choice Award. It was created by parents who traveled to every single national park, and worked together with their board game designer, who just so happens to be their son, to create a game to inspire others to travel and help families share their love of the national parks. If you love the outdoors and traveling to the parks as much as I do, or want to learn more about the parks in a fun way, this game should definitely be included in your collection of family games!

What Activities Can I Do For Little/No Cost??

“Children have such vibrant minds. They need to play. They need to be creative. They need to imagine. It’s so important for their sense of self discovery. And it helps them learn problem-solving.” Jan Brett

Toddler Time

I love playing with toddlers! They are fun-loving, curious, and easy to please. There are ENDLESS things you can do to keep a toddler engaged that doesn’t involve going out and buying new things. Here are just a few of my favorites.

Sorting: Toddlers loves to sort! We sort things all the time. One of our favorite ways to sort is to have a “color week.” For that week, we collect things around the house that are a set color and put them in a bin, or a container. For example, a few weeks ago, it was “blue week.” Alex loved traveling around the house with me, collecting everything blue. As we found something together, I would say what the object is, making sure to include the color word. “Yea! You found a BLUE ball! The ball is BLUE. Put it in the bin. Use simple language for toddlers to understand.

We also sort his blocks by color, and sometimes shape and size. We sort little things and big things. The key is to use those words over and over to build vocabulary with your toddlers.

Sensory: Toddlers LOVE touching things! Let them explore with play dough, shaving cream, dirt, sand, water, or rice. If you check out Pinterest, you will find endless recipes to even make your own play dough or sensory tables. Young toddlers should obviously be closely monitored…and we all know why! They also LOVE putting things in their mouth! Just check out what happened the first time we let Alex play with dirt! LOL!

Hide n Seek: Toddlers love to play this game. As a younger toddler, Alex loves when we show a stuffed animal around the corner peering at him. He comes running with excitement and glee. We do this over and over, all around the house in all the corners we can find. It’s so simple, yet the time you are spending with your child is priceless.

Singing and Dancing: Toddlers love the simple and repetitive songs that you often hear on young children’s programs. They naturally learn to dance to them as well. Smile, sing, and dance to your toddlers often! You don’t need to buy songs; simply do a search on YouTube or Pandora, and the options are limitless.

Elementary Age Kids

Creative Stations: This has been a favorite activity in our home for years. There really is no wrong way to do it. For our “stations,” I take things that we already have at home…art kits, legos, blocks, games, Osmo games, art supplies, puzzles, play dough, ect… and put each activity around the house in its own space with a number. For some reason, the kids LOVE this, even though it is their stuff! It just seems like something “new” when it is put into a station. I usually do 8-10 of them. I set a timer and each station is around 10-15 min. You can see, this can last a long time! And, they are entertained for a long time! The last station is usually a “surprise” station, which involves baking something together. Sometimes, I will put a treat or snack at a station. They love that! After the 10-15 min is up, they clean up and move to the next number. What I love most about this activity is that the kids play with things that they haven’t played with for a while, and end up playing with it more after the stations are over.

Tents and forts: Design a fort with your kids to play in! Life as a Mama has some great ideas here:

I love the simple idea of putting lights into poked holes at the top of a cardboard box. Genius! My kids also love when we set up our tent in the living room! Why? Because it’s something different! We have a tent that unfolds like an umbrella. No poles to attach, and it literally goes up like it says…in 60 seconds. If you are looking for a tent for your camping adventures, this one is our favorite! Coleman 6-Person Cabin Tent with Instant Setup | Cabin Tent for Camping Sets Up in 60 Seconds

Good old fashioned reading! Why not spend some time reading to or with your kids? There is no better way to bond at the end of the day than this! Choose books that interest your kids, or let them choose for you! Remember, no matter what you choose to do with your kids, make the moments count! They are only little once! Wishing you lots of special moments ahead!

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