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- by Melody Warnick
SWAT TEAM (babies)
Make a slit in a tennis ball with a sharp knife. Tie a knot at one end of a piece of string, then insert that end into the ball. Tie the other end to a doorknob. Seat your baby in front of the dangling ball, and let her whack it.
TAKE-AWAY LESSON: Cause and effect. When the ball bounces away, your baby gets the thrill of making something happen. Taking aim will also improve her developing hand-eye coordination and depth perception.
Stack pillows to make mini-mountains, create a tunnel out of blankets and couch cushions, then urge your crawler to scramble over and under to get to you on the other side of the room.
TAKE-AWAY LESSON: Persistence. With enough motivation -- a hug from you at the finish line -- he'll plow through until the end. Plus, all that pillow-scaling and blanket-diving strengthens the large motor skills your baby will need to walk.
(Yes, just two ingredients here!) Cut a slot in a plastic container's lid, then count out loud as your child drops each baby-food lid through the hole. When she's done, let her empty out her homemade bank and start over again.
TAKE-AWAY LESSON: Sense of scale. Putting smaller objects inside a larger one teaches toddlers about size relationships and boosts their hand-eye coordination. And hearing you say the numbers helps her learn to count.
Tear out magazine photos of babies, food, animals, and anything else your toddler can identify. Help him decorate a sheet of poster board with the pictures and tape it to a wall. Cover his eyes, have him place his finger somewhere on the board, and when he opens his eyes, ask him to tell you what it is.
TAKE-AWAY LESSON: Language skills. The excitement of discovering which picture he chose gives him an incentive to talk, and naming pictures builds his vocabulary.
Write a different letter of the alphabet on each paper plate and arrange them in a circle on the floor. Turn on some music and let your kid march around from plate to plate. When the song stops, so does he -- and he should name the letter he's standing on. For older preschoolers, ask for the sound the letter makes or a word that starts with it.
TAKE-AWAY LESSON: Letter recognition. Once your child can recognize letters and make their sounds, he's on the way to reading.
Give your child a pair of tweezers and have her pluck jelly beans from one cup and deposit them in another (careful, they're a choking hazard for kids under 4). Tell her to stop when she thinks the cup is half full so she can estimate volume.
TAKE-AWAY LESSON: Fine motor skills. It takes nimble fingers to operate tweezers, so if your child can master this, she's primed for school skills like holding a pencil or tying her own shoes.
Set a timer for two minutes and take turns tossing dice. If the total on the dice is seven or higher, whoever has the potato passes it to the other person. If the total's lower than seven, that person keeps the potato. Play until the timer goes off, and whoever is potato-free at the last second wins!
TAKE-AWAY LESSON: Addition skills. Your child will be motivated to add the numbers on the dice quickly to get rid of that potato.
Place a different small object in each section of an egg carton. Let your child study them, then close the lid. Have her draw pictures of the objects she remembers on individual sticky notes and attach them over their spots in the egg carton. Check to see if she's right. Rearrange and play again.
TAKE-AWAY LESSON: Memory power. Using images to recall things will help with the memorization your child will do, from spelling words to multiplication tables.
Melody Warnick, who also writes for Better Homes and Gardens, is the mom of two game-loving girls.