Any one who has worked with toddlers knows that it can be difficult to keep them engaged and challenged at times. For those working with limited budgets, finding materials that are affordable is even harder. So many toys for toddlers talk, light up or do something and the child usually has to do very little to make that action happen. The learning potential for this kind of toy is very limited. Once the child masters a particular skill, such as knowing that if the red button is pushed, the toy will play music, there is nothing left to learn. While they may be entertained by the song for a while, eventually they lose interest and the toy is soon discarded as they search for a new toy to hold their interest.
Young children need open-ended, action-oriented materials. These materials require the child to do figure out what to do and create their own learning. Because they are open-ending, the child can use them in a variety of ways. This learning potential in this type of material is endless. The same material may be used in ten different ways if there are ten different children. If toddlers are involved, they may imitate each other as they use the materials, which develops social skills and often gives them a new idea they can put into action. These materials engage children for extended periods, helping them to develop focus and self-control over time.
Finding action-oriented materials can be difficult. Thanks to the internet, though, I have been finding new ideas every day. Following are some examples of the materials we have made over the past month or so.
Thanks to Jennifer at let the children play, I found Living Creatively and these sensory steps. They have been extremely popular with all of the toddlers. There are a couple that ask for them by name almost every day if we don't offer them as a choice. Hearing toddlers say sensory steps almost makes it worth it on its own. Listening to them talk about the steps and how they feel, seeing them hop from step to step like a frog or watching them use their feet and hands to rub the materials and experiment with then in their own way has kept them busy for countless hours.
We filled these colanders with pipe cleaners to use with the one-year-olds. They tend to feel the pipe cleaners with their hands, bat at them and occasionally pull them out. The older toddlers are using them a lot more than I thought they would. There are some that will sit for 15-30 minutes working to put all the pipe cleaners back in the holes. At times, it becomes a creative play activity as they wear the colanders for a hat. The pipe cleaners have become loads to haul around in a wagon or carry in a bucket. Thanks to Breanna at No One Has More Fun than the Adams' for this one.
This week we introduced drinking straws with baskets full of holes that the children can put the straws through that I found thanks to The Imagination Tree. While they did that a little, the first the inclination was to turn the basket upside down and use the straws as drumsticks. I have to admit they make good drumsticks for inside as they are exceptionally quiet. So many things in our room seem to become drums lately (look for a post on drums soon- we are in the process of making some right now). Surprisingly, the children seemed to have more fun picking them up and returning them to their original container rather than putting them through the holes. We'll have to see how this activity evolves over the next few days and weeks.
When I get these activities out for the children, I just show them to the children, ask it anyone wants to play and then ask them what they think they can do with them. I try not to direct the play or offer suggestions. I want them to create their own learning by coming up with their own ideas. Sometimes I may just set a new activity our on a table and just let them find it. I think I need to do that more. When my co-teacher or I are there with them, the older toddlers tend to look to us to suggest how they should use the materials. The young toddlers just do something. They don't need us to show them. They are either interested or they're not and they move on. Hopefully by stepping back more, the younger toddlers will start to act the young toddlers a little more.