Frugal Activities for Toddlers and Preschoolers

by Louise Wulf

I am the mother of a 2 1/2 year old boy who has a lot of energy. I love to spend time with him and do fun things. My problem is lack of funds and lack of time to prepare these fun "things". (I work 60 hrs. wk) Please give me some cheap, easy, and quick ideas to brighten up my little one's life. Thanks so much!!

Dear Christy,
The trick to increasing the joy and wonder in a child's life, without breaking the budget or time bank, is to make every contact you have with your child count. Do this by taking advantage of every "chore" by adding songs, rhymes, stories and fingerplays to every routine interaction you have with your son. When you diaper or toilet; you sing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and the Alphabet Song. When you're fixing dinner, he sits on the counter and helps measure and stir and you teach him rhymes like "Jello on the Plate". Or he makes cookies, cakes, etc. with his playdough. When you go up stairs you count them: "One, two, buckle my shoe." When you do laundry, he helps sort whites from darks, makes pairs of the clean socks and puts away his shorts. When you clean, he dusts. And all the time, you talk and sing and recite! He's learning life skills, values and you get maximum mileage from each minute you have with him. This is parenting with intent: Your intention is to have each encounter be full of love and fun.

Waiting in the doctor's office, you play "Round and Round the Garden" and find things that are red. In the supermarket, he helps you find the red apples and his favorite cereal. In the checkout line, you talk about where the food comes from and how it's prepared. Count, name, categorize the things around you. When you're in the car, you point out fire engines, garbage trucks and police cars, etc. You spot and count green trucks, red cars or jeeps. Point out neighborhood landmarks (schools, libraries, hospitals, churches and businesses) and talk about what people do in each of those places.

When you walk, take time to really *look*. Increase his joy, awe and wonder by using a soft, respectful tone of voice to show your son the miracles our earth provides. Go out and look at the moon. (When we lived in a place where the sky was overcast more likely than not, we once woke our young children up and carried them outside to see the full moon. They talked about it for weeks.) Watch the stars and clouds. Watch sunrise and sunset. Gather lots of different leaves and take them home for rubbings. Keep a treasure box for things you find: feathers, shells, pods and other natural objects. Point out and watch butterflies, birds, bugs and people. When he shows interest in something, find a book about it and study it together.

Celebrate windy days! Your energetic son will love blowing bubbles and watching the wind carry them away. Fly paper airplanes. Run with a streamer. (Check the Dollar Stretcher site for ribbon wand directions.) Take a securely anchored balloon (tied around a wrist, for instance) out to see what the wind does to it.

At bedtime, talk about what wonderful things he did during the day and what tomorrow will bring. Help him learn to appreciate the good things in his life by listing them together. Make bathtime learning and sharing time. Collect and recycle plastic bottles and jars of all sizes for filling, pouring, bubble and noise making and lid matching. What floats? Will the water in this bottle fit in this one? Let's see! When you take him to his caretaker tell him you love him and will miss him and be thinking about him while your apart. When you pick him up, tell him the same things. This, too, is part of appreciating what you have.

Your single best resource is your local library. You can find tapes, videos and books that will enrich your lives, at no cost. THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR CHILD IS TO READ TO HIM. Every day. Cultivate your children's librarian. Tell her your time with your son is precious and ask for help in finding the very best books for your son's interests. Start with some Mother Goose books, books on things that go and "Good Night Moon" type bedtime stories. Take a tote with you and fill it up. Start teaching your son that library books go back in the tote when you're not reading them. Keep an item count and mark your calendar with due dates, so you won't find yourself owing fines.

If you don't know many songs, rhymes and fingerplays, find a teacher. Ask your parents, friends, childcare workers, teachers and librarians and expand your repetoire! Traditional rhymes, stories, songs and fingerplays are part of a child's heritage. They increase his humanity and social awareness, creativity, vocabulary and his entertainment value! They're free or frugal and are environmentally friendly. YOU are your child's favorite toy.

For playdough and bubble solution recipes, tips and techniques, check the Dollar Stretcher site. Feel free to write me for more info. about words, etc.

A site most parents will find full of good ideas for activities, games and crafts is Disney's "Family Fun" magazine: Disney has a commercial slant, but you can modify as desired. This month there's lots of information on children's birthday parties. If you do a search, try it for several years older and younger than your child's actual age. You'll get more usable ideas.

Like most simple ideas, these will take some practice to make part of your day. The payoff is pure pleasure. Instead of thinking of routines as chores to be done as fast as possible so you can work in a "fun" activity, think of them as your son's LIFE. Instead of worrying about time, make each "chore" stress- free, pleasant and therefore, memorable. This is a win-win solution. Take a deep breath and let the games begin!

Louise is a regular contributor to Dollar Stretcher. She answers your questions about children and child care. She also seems to enjoy playing! You might want to check out her story on homemade playdough and bubbles.

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