When my friends started to get pregnant, even before being a mom myself, they’d ask me endless questions of what to buy or do. I noticed how scared they all were because they had no idea what to do with a human baby. I thought that with all my experience working in early childhood, I had something to offer: I wanted to empower moms to become their own experts. Having a background in psychology and education, I thought I could refine motherhood in a way that allowed moms to breathe and be confident that less is truly more. I could encourage children’s natural abilities through meaningful play right from the start in a way that wasn’t overwhelming.
That was all well and good, but even with my background, the truth was, I had no idea just how hard motherhood would be—that playing with your infant would be the last thing on your mind amidst healing, recovering, hormonal moods, breastfeeding, and well, just surviving. Two months into launching my blog, I gave birth and figured out that even with my experience, this motherhood thing—well, it’s hard AF and lonely. Moms need each other. So at eight weeks postpartum, I wrangled some new moms together, we dragged ourselves to meet, and I pretended I knew what I was doing by leading a moms group. Really, I just wanted to hang out with moms so I could feel more sane! Moms came to me for guidance on what to do with babies and I kept going, thriving off this community of moms supporting moms. Eventually, it turned into a physical space called Union Square Play. USP is not only a place for moms; it’s a space where young children come to feel a sense of “home away from home.”
Something that is very apparent both at USP (where we have now moved our entire brand online through moms groups, an app, and play materials) and on my blog is the importance of play in a child’s life. Children are born with a deep desire to explore and learn, and they do so by playing. When choosing the right toys, it comes down to providing opportunities for children to be engaged rather than entertained. I always say that busy toys = passive babies. Do we want them to sit and watch when they play or immerse themselves in learning and fun? I also think it’s important that the things children play with have no right or wrong use for them. That way, when toys can be anything, children can feel confident using them in ways that they come up with.
Here are my favorite play recommendations by age:
Babies On Their Back
By far the best first toy is a cloth bandana. Seems pretty lame, I know, but trust me on this one. The reason it’s so great for the youngest babies is that a baby who hasn’t discovered their hands yet can accidentally brush against this, maybe grab it, even before intentionally grasping it.
You can put it in a “peak” so that a baby on her back can see it by just turning her head. Through these types of head movements, gross motor development is encouraged because you’ll see your baby begin to notice what’s next to them and then begin to reach across their bodies and stretch. A bandana or cloth can also be strung through some play objects to prevent frustrating toys from rolling away from an immobile baby and also to allow them to bring a toy to them more easily by grabbing the bandana.
For Babies On The Move
RAID THE KITCHEN. (No, I don’t mean to satisfy our endless snacking cravings while working from home.) Your kitchen is FULL of ways to engage your kids. Trust me. One of the ones I found to be the most intriguing was this random cheese board. The reason I got this was because I actually needed a place for cheese with all the wine I was drinking in quarantine. Then one day I put it on the ground to set up some toys on it and noticed that it was light enough for Nell to move around and that she loved peeking under it too. She now even pushes it around as a walker! What’s so cool is that nothing else in their toy box looks like this or serves the same purpose.
Another great thing for babies who are sitting up is to make a Shaker Station to get the party started through noise-making. I used empty Altoids boxes and put in metal beaded chains for my daughters to shake. You can also use old spice jars or find metal utensils from your kitchen to get the beat going. I specifically love metal cupcake trays and metal condiment cups for music making too: Your baby will love knocking over the metal cups, watching them roll, and clanging them into an orchestra of sounds. A note: You may want to avoid any Zoom calls during this type of play because it can get noisy real quick.
Toddlers: Keys and Planters
Toddlers love seeing what “fits.” This experimenting is part of a schema for behavior called enveloping—you may see your toddler trying to fit themselves into every crevice possible. My daughter tried to fit into a shot glass, I kid you not. So by giving them an “invitation” to explore this behavioral urge, they’re not only exerting this urge, but they’re also learning about the properties of objects. (This is evident when you put out “suggested” activities like I did above by presenting the slitted planter and never-been-used keys—but a shoebox with cut slits and metal spoons from your kitchen can serve the same purpose).
3+: Post-Its and Washi Tape
Your kids will love getting into a sticky situation with these play materials. Post-its are awesome, not just because they can be used by moms to stick motivational mantras on their bathroom mirror, but also because toddlers can stick them anywhere and have a blast taking them off of surfaces too. You can use washi tape for the same purpose while also making paths on the floor to jump, tiptoe, hopscotch, ride toy cars on, or simply to box yourself into a corner of your home and declare it your “office space”. This tape (or painters tape, if you need a substitute) is the definition of multi-purposeful.
Beyond 3: Color Tablets
Use these tablets to amp up bath time by changing the bathwater different colors. My kids love dropping them into the bath and mixing the water with giant ladles. They make colored soup in the bath and love it. It’s non-toxic and does not dye the skin. You can also have your children play with color mixing by filling different glass cups or water bottles with water and having them drop tablets to see what color combinations make what colors.
I could literally write pages upon pages of different ideas by age, but my goal is to empower you to look around your home at what you already have and think creatively and resourcefully. I even model this for my 3-year-old. When I sense that she’s feeling bored (or just asking incessantly for snacks) I’ll say, “hmmmmm what do you think we can play with in this cabinet?” And we’ll pluck things from the kitchen and make up ways to use them. The other day, I kid you not, she made up her own version of beer pong with those metal condiment cups, and I could not have been more proud.
This is how we raise the future thinkers and innovators: we think and innovate.