Smart from the Start

Let’s face it. Toddlers are adorable, but they’re a pain in the kneecaps when you have to keep getting up to chase them. Like an overcaffeinated octopus in a waterpark, they get into EVERYTHING. Once a baby starts to creep, your time to sit and relax evaporates. So what do you do to keep them busy long enough to check your email without having to hold them, yet manage to keep them from banging on the keyboard?

The worst thing you can do is plug them in. No child under the age of two should be parked in front of a TV or – and I see this every day in one store or another – a cell phone. Babies and toddlers need to DO. They need to use their bodies – crawling and climbing and running for gross motor, and touching, poking, pulling, pushing to develop not only fine-motor skills, but tactile, sensory integration, mental mapping, visual-motor integration, social expectations, and spatial memory – things they cannot develop from passive observation of a flat screen.

And that is not an easy task. Walk through Toys я Us or Walmart and almost every toy is merely a piece of plastic that beeps or flashes when you push a button. Maybe it sings a song or says the ABCs. Cute, but useless, really. Learning without context is gibberish – it has no meaning. If I suddenly switch to кириллица alphabet, and give you no explanation, ქართულად წერა, most of you will never clue in to my meaning*. These are no better than a cell phone or endless Dora. But the toys that ARE geared for actual learning are not usually found in stores but educational catalogs, and those are  often overpriced because they expect a school system to pay for them – like these awesome 32-pc clear plastic magnet builders, for $53. My favorite toddler toy is the Bilibo chair, an artfully designed piece of plastic that has endless imaginary uses: a chair, a stepstool, a rocker, a doll bed, a helmet, a bucket, a turtle shell, and it creates a vortex really well – but at $30, these two toys alone are close to $100 without shipping, making Christmas a stretch.

One of the memes making the rounds of the internet is one Dad’s solution, which is genius. Give the kid all those things he wants to explore, but in one safe location: a real-life busy board. Phones, switches, calculators, all those forbidden things, right in reach, and no one yelling. Finding myself the unexpected guardian and caretaker of an infant and starting all over again, I wanted one of those. As she started to crawl, I built one, too. Wheels for spinning, latches, jingly keys (and old dog license tags), a push-on closet light, a light switch that turns on an actual LED, a small baking sheet for magnets (we use photos of relevant family and friends), interchangeable carabiners with a pacifier, a fun keychain, a small measuring tape that retracts, a mailbox flag that goes up and down, a brush for sensory input, Velcro dots for sticking pictures to (and they feel fun), a light-up keychain, numbers for counting and matching clothespins, an old TV remote, and most importantly – the springy door stoppers that go BOING when you whap them. Fastened to the wood, they make a very satisfying sound. Another important item was a small grab bar fourteen inches off the ground. This allows the beginning stander and walker to hold on and pull, and feel secure while standing and playing. All this, on a 2  by 3 foot piece of plywood attached to the dining room wall. The only other thing we did was add three mirrored tiles at baby height on a different wall.

Now, raiding your garage or your family’s may land you half these items, but to buy them all from scratch is not cheap – easily in the $100 range, as the plywood section alone was $20, and all those $5 items add up. Of course, you can start off with just a few and add on. A toddler’s toy that can’t be thrown, lost, and actually occupies them over and over while letting them explore and learn? Priceless.

Today it’s building the busy wall; tomorrow the treehouse, then the race car, the playhouse, and the sandbox. Are you game? Then check out these books on simple building projects, and things to keep your toddler busy.

        

 

* by the way, the above is the word Cyrillic in Russian, and the words writing in Kartuli, which is Georgian Russian.

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