Play’s the Thing

The best toy store has no aisles, price tags or cashiers. For your two-year-old, the world is their emporium. Almost any object-from a leaf to an empty paper-towel roll-has boundless possibilities in his small hands. And the best playmate is you: a loving parent. The imagination takes off at two years, explains Dr. Jeff Jennings, a pediatrician in Wallingford, Conn. When kids this age pick up a toy or other object, they often experiment, pretending it’s something else, he says. A carrot might become a crayon or a bowl could turn into a hat.

It’s fascinating to watch this burgeoning creativity from the sidelines, but why not join the action? You’ll have lots of fun doing it, and you’re providing what child-development experts call structured play. “It’s hard for a child this age to spend a lot of time without direction,” says Jennings. “Toddlers respond well to the structure and interactions that come with games.”

You’ll also be offering much-needed supervision. “Twenty-four months is an amazing time because everything is a wonder,” says Jonathan Taylor, a Los Angeles father of toddler twins. “Kids want to explore, and you want to let them. But there are many things that they want to do that you have to monitor carefully.”

You might wonder if it’s really possible to both play with and watch over a child. Rest assured, says Dr. Bethany Kutz, a pediatrician from Boothwyn, Pa. “You can be silly and messy without letting things get out of control,” she says. During play, work toward a balance between the fun you’re having and the supervision your child needs.

“The playful parent is neither rule-bound nor irresponsible but rather reads the child’s cues and interprets his needs,” adds Jennifer Kotler, director of research at Sesame Workshop in New York City. “It’s all about making connections and encouraging wonder.”

Try the ideas that follow for toddler tailored fun. Each of these games can be set up in minutes, using standard household items. Supervise your child carefully as she plays and, if there are relatives and friends around, invite them to join in. With two-year-olds, the more the messier…uh, merrier.

Jar Jamboree
This activity encourages your child to do something she surely already loves: making lots of noise.
What to do: Collect three plastic jars, preferably all the same size. Drop one penny into one jar and a handful of pennies into a second jar; leave the third jar empty. Put the lids on tightly. Tell your youngster to close her eyes while you mix up the jars. Have her pick up one, shake it, then tell you which jar she thinks she has. Repeat this process by filling the jars with other items, such as buttons, marbles, paper clips, crackers, pieces of chalk and unpopped popcorn kernels.

Buried Treasure
Digging is an all-time favorite pastime for most kids. Here, your child searches the sand for pirate treasures in the form of several safe-to-handle items.
What to do: In a sandbox or sand table, bury a dozen or so objects: tennis balls, plastic cups, serving spoons, action figures and the like. Give your child a digging tool (a plastic shovel or paper cup, for example), and ask him to find the buried treasure. You’ll find that he’ll happily work alone for a long time-but you can help out as well.

Toddler Olympics
Here’s madcap amusement that provides a good workout-physically and mentally. 
What to do: in a backyard or other safe, enclosed outdoor space, set up an obstacle course with each station located several paces away from the previous one. For the first station, you might lay down a beach towel that you’ve folded in half to form a narrow strip. The second could be a stuffed animal. The third might be a coffee or side table (that is, one small enough to carry easily but high enough to crawl under). For the fourth spot, place a small ball on the ground, and at the finish line, rig something that’s easy to break through, such as a crepe-paper ribbon, tied loosely between two uprights. You’ll need to demonstrate the route for your child first: Hop down the length of the towel, jump over the “wild animal,” wriggle under the table, pick up the ball and finish the race by breaking through the ribbon. Then ask your child to run the course. For extra excitement make a gold metal.

Scrambled Senses
What does pasta sound like? What does music feel like? What does play dough smell like? Here’s how to offer a new perspective on familiar things.
What to do: Round up various toddler-friendly items, including uncooked pasta, a radio or cassette player, a towel, a book and a lump of play dough. First ask your child an easy question for each-for example, “What does play dough feel like?” Then ask surprise questions, such as “What does it smell like?” or “What does it sound like?” Squish and sniff the lump together to discover the answers. Since your child is used to thinking of pasta as having only a taste, she will squeal with delight when you suggest stomping on a dry noodle to find out what sound it makes. Try asking her to feel music via the vibration of a radio or cassette player, to smell the comforting scent of a freshly washed towel and to listen to the sound of book pages being flipped. Continue to explore together-discovering the surprise sensations offered by ordinary objects.

Find It Fast
Your child will learn to follow directions quickly as he searches for whatever you have named.
What to do: Have your child stand in the center of a room-the more crowded the better. (You can also play this game in a backyard or other enclosed outdoor space.) Name something that is within safe reach. Then say “Go!” and watch him scramble to find it. After a few rounds of naming objects-like pillows, tables and chairs-toss in a few descriptions, such as “something blue” or “something shiny.” Then switch roles, so you follow his instructions.

Drop It
Kids drop things by accident all the time. Here, your child gets to do it on purpose.
What to do: In a box or basket, gather items that can be dropped safely, such as a pinecone, a potato, a softball, a feather and a piece of paper. Ask your child to choose an object, then ask if it’s heavy or light. Tell her to drop it. Ask if it falls quickly or slowly and whether it makes a loud or soft sound when it hits the ground. For a variation on this game, fill a bucket with water, and have her drop in each item. Ask which ones cause a big splash and which ones make a little (or no) splash. Which ones float and which don’t.

Ripping Good Fun
Let your kids go on a tear-literally!
What to do: Place items that can be ripped, such as a leaf, a newspaper, a sheet of aluminum foil and a sheet of construction paper, in a box or basket. Encourage your child to experiment with ripping each in any way and as many times as he wants. Ask if the item is easy or hard to rip. Do the rips sound soft or loud?

Dress Up
Kids invariably enjoy trying on their parents’ clothes. This activity doesn’t just offer a good time; it’s also guaranteed to generate plenty of photo opportunities.
What to do: Raid your closets for clothes that can withstand roughhousing. Help your child put on combinations that usually go together (a matching jacket and skirt, let’s say) and others that don’t, such as pajama pants and a parka or an evening dress with hiking boots. For variety, have her layer clothes over one another as many times as possible and peek in the mirror to see how she appears to grow bigger, even though it’s only the padding.

In Touch
With her eyes closed, your child might know that it’s a crayon you’ve placed in her palm, but what if you placed it on her knee? Here’s a guessing game that will test her ability to figure out what’s what-without necessarily using her hands.
What to do: Assemble a group of objects with varied textures, such as a scarf, an ear of corn, a wooden block, an ice cube and so on. Tell your child to close her eyes. Touch one of the objects to her arm, hand, leg, or foot. Ask where she feels it and whether she can tell what it is. Repeat with the other items. Then swap roles and see how well you do.

Mix It Up
Children feel a wonderful sense of empowerment when they help cook a family meal. They also love to play with food, and in this activity it’s encouraged.
What to do: When cooking easy-to-make dishes-pizza, cookies or salad, for instance-look for ways to involve your toddler safely. There’s plenty to do without touching anything hot or sharp. He’s sure to enjoy kneading dough, rolling out cookies, tearing up salad greens and pouring premeasured ingredients into a bowl.