Scarves, towels, sheets, pillowcases, or scraps of fabric make for multipurpose playthings. They can be draped into forts, fashioned into costumes, transformed into doll-size baby carriers, and hung from doorways, where they make fabulous props for peekaboo and hide-and-seek.
My daughter Anna and I have cut squares out of sheets, painted them, and then glued one edge of our creations onto sticks or wooden dowels for customized flags, perfect for waving on a walk around the block. An old pillowcase has become a canvas and then a cape, the two side seams opened and a circle cut out at the top for the head.
A silky scarf in hand transforms toddler dances into wild blurs of color and movement. Have your child twirl with scarves to a recording of her favorite songs, then tell her to freeze in place when you pause the music.
Even the simplest unexpected moments thrill toddlers -- from pulling back the bedcovers to reveal a beloved stuffed animal underneath to changing the venue for lunch to a blanket on the porch. At our house, I'd place a treat -- often something as unassuming as a graham cracker or as simple as a toy that a cleaning had recently unearthed -- in a small basket we kept hanging on the kitchen door within Anna's reach. Checking the basket throughout the day provided her and me with an ongoing game as I sneaked things in and she squealed with delight to find them there later.
The fun of painting at this age is moving the brush and seeing the change this creates -- no messy temperas required. For your child's first painting experiences, join her in a session with water. With an ordinary paintbrush and a cup of water, she can decorate rocks and see the new shades of brown and gray the wetness brings out, darken pieces of construction paper with brushed-on water, even do disappearing foot- and handprints on brown paper bags.
Fun on the go
Fun in a box
From forts to puppet theaters to indoor "sand" boxes filled with oatmeal, the cardboard box offers the ultimate as a toy of both value and variety. Which hasn't stopped some enterprising businesses from selling them as playthings -- you can now buy a box shaped like a house and designed to be colored. But why not create your own? First, find a box big enough to hold your child while standing, and remove any staples that aren't folded completely flat. Cut out a door and a window and have your toddler join you in a housepainting party, using white paint (or any light color). When it's fully dry, use a black marker to create open shapes, letters, and other objects you'd like him to learn and together fill in between the lines with crayons and markers.
Get up and go!
An outing with a toddler doesn't have to mean paying an admission fee somewhere. Free and easy field trips exist everywhere -- from pulling over to watch some construction in progress to stopping at a pond for an impromptu pebble-throwing contest.Anna and I often made an event of visiting the live lobsters at the supermarket. A trip to the bakery with windows to the bakers was the reward for being patient during the boring old errand to the bank. And we were always glad we had a dog: Buying a chew toy gave us just the excuse we needed to hang out at the pet store.
Be a drag
As your toddler becomes more adept at walking, pulling things along behind her can be a perfect incentive to keep her going. I discovered this during one stop-and-go trip to the mall, just about when I'd decided I'd never make it to the car unless I gave up and carried then 18-month-old Anna against her will. Instead, I took off my belt and let her drag it behind her as she ambled, faster and faster. I'd run up and try to catch it and then grab hold of the end. We'd walk, swinging it between us for a while, before I'd let go and the chase began anew. Since then, we've made our own "pull toys," dragging blankets with baby dolls sitting on top for a ride.
Picking up and manipulating small things is a toddler's obsession. Good thing, too: He's perfecting the fine motor skills he'll need later for writing and other tasks. Games and activities that capitalize on this interest can keep a child happily occupied for 15 minutes or more. Just be sure to supervise so that playing with small things doesn't become eating small things.
Anna's loved to stack and "organize" playing cards from the time she was a little over a year old. I once cut inch-deep slots all the way around the bottom of a shoe box, and she and I happily slipped in cards to stand on the edge of the box vertically. We discovered that running our hands over the tops of the cards made a wonderful flapping sound. The point: Nearly any small sorting, moving, or picking-up task that you would find a ridiculous use of time is almost guaranteed to amuse your child.
When I'd race 2-year-old Anna to the bedroom, I'd often feign disappointed defeat, only to have her come back and help me catch up so we could both "win." The competitive element was blessedly lost on her; racing just meant doing something as fast as she could. You can race with ulterior motives (as, I admit, I often do -- to the bedroom), or you can plan speed trials just for the heck of it, including activities that test your toddler's burgeoning physical skills: walking backward, tiptoeing, walking on her heels, rolling a ball while she crawls, and so forth.
Like racing, playing hide-and-seek with a toddler involves an almost silly level of noncompetitiveness. Most kids will quickly reveal themselves if you look for them for more than a minute or two; Anna often even told me where her hiding spot would be beforehand. Nevertheless, hide-and-seek of all varieties is a staple for toddlers, just as it is for older kids. We play all kinds of versions in nearly every locale, from the I Spy variety with a magazine in the pediatrician's waiting room to the classic which-hand-has-the-penny? game. We've also instituted a restaurant version: We hide a sugar packet or a coin somewhere on the table while the other player has her eyes closed. Then we reverse roles. Even now that Anna is 5 years old, this game knocks those coloring place mats right into a distant second place.