Every parent is trying to do their best, making sure kids are safe and engaged when they play. We try to limit screen time as best we can, but there are times we just want to plug them in and take a break.
Dr. Hassan Alzein with Alzein Pediatrics in Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn, Illinois, says to take a breath, pull that plug and consider other activities that keep your kids busy in healthier ways. Find activities to help with engaging their imagination and expanding their skills, while aiding with mental and physical development.
“I recommend five no-fail ways to keep kids busy for extended periods. Some require parental supervision and some help kids go “free-range”, exploring their ideas and being creative in ways parents have never imagined,” says Dr. Alzein.
The first sure-fire activity to keep kids occupied does require parental supervision, but can also be a bunch of fun for parents too. “Water play can last for hours,” says Dr. Alzein. “You don’t need a wading pool, just a bucket of water and some cups, colanders, and containers. Add a clean new sponge and big paint brushes for added fun.”
While your child is playing, they are also learning valuable skills. Dropping objects into water can turn into a science game of “will it sink or float?” Consider how many cups of water fit into the bigger container to teach spatial relationships and math. Using the brush to “paint” water is not only creative but when done on a warm day, can teach your kids about evaporation – where did that water go, and will it ever come back?
Water play is valuable in developing hand-eye coordination, along with fine motor skills as your child pours water back and forth, squeezes sponges, and works to control the size and shape of splashes.
“Your child will become very enamored with water play,” says Dr. Alzein. “This helps them focus, increase attention span, and build concentration skills for a longer length of time.” These are valuable skills as your child goes through school and their entire life.
Water play is a social activity, as you and your child react to each other and the water. While kids love playing with parents, this is also a positive experience for groups of children, with careful supervision. Building moats and bridges, floating “boats,” and taking turns splashing helps to foster cooperation and sharing. It also enriches language development as children communicate about group ideas.
The second activity Dr. Alzein recommends is building with blocks. “These do not have to be expensive store-bought blocks. Differently-sized cardboard boxes and shoe boxes taped shut can be even more fun for kids. Even better, let them decorate the boxes with crayons.” As long as blocks are not heavy enough to cause harm when they fall, kids can build all by themselves.
Building with blocks teaches planning and problem-solving. When your child wants to build a car, for example, they need to consider wheels, the car body, and how to get in and out of their construction.
Building blocks spur the imagination, as kids create on the fly, adding a sudden second tower to a castle, for instance. Moving pieces can be combined one way, taken apart, and assembled in a completely different way to solve the same problem.
When building with blocks, kids are developing math skills unconsciously by measuring, estimating, and working to create balance. Kids will count blocks to maintain the symmetry or determine if there are enough to complete the desired structure.
“Parents know reading to their child is a foundation for academic success,” says Dr. Alzein, “but did you ever think about having your child tell that story back to you? Playacting is a wonderful activity that gets your child developing both physically and emotionally.”
Your child will hop like Peter Rabbit, run like Chicken Little, and “fly” like Captain Underpants, developing physical strength and coordination. Through their version of the story, parents will see which characters speak to their child and why, helping kids express emotions, fears, and joys.
Here again, your child will practice planning as they think through what they’re going to say. They’ll also learn how time works as they plan, seeing the beginning, the middle, and the end more clearly.
If your child feels comfortable, use towels and scarves for costumes, improvise props, and encourage your child to play with all the characters in their favorite story. This encourages creative thinking as a blanket turns into a queen’s robe.
Playacting helps your child break away from technology, as they grow to enjoy creating their own stories more than passively watching others. Longer attention spans develop as children become immersed in expanding the story in ways the original author may have never considered.
“Nature” walks are another healthy activity perfect for all ages. “You don’t have to drive to a forest or even your local walking path,” says Dr. Alzein. “Just going outside and sitting in the grass can expose your child to nature.” Studies have confirmed that children who spend time outdoors have better academic skills overall, are less anxious, have longer attention spans, and are physically healthier.
Make a goal before you go for your walk that you’ll find three things – three bugs, three animals, three red leaves, or flowers. Setting a goal like this builds your child’s ability to focus and concentrate. It also gives them a sense of accomplishment when they meet their goal. They’ll develop a sense of direction as you explain the squirrel is farther up, and they’ll learn to take a closer look at things.
Take pictures with your smartphone of the things you and your child see on your walk, and then look those up when you get home. Was that a bluebird or a blue jay in the oak tree? Your child will learn the value of wonder and the gratification of learning something new.
Nature walks are perfect for practicing physical coordination, whether it’s hopping over cracks in the sidewalk or avoiding twigs on a walking path. Your child will develop stamina and strength as walks lengthen.
Exercise, fresh air, and sunshine (with sunscreen applied) mean your child falls asleep faster and sleeps more soundly, reducing stress and helping healthy brain development. Social skills develop as you and your child meet and greet other people along your walk, perhaps even taking the opportunity for spontaneous play with other children.
The fifth activity Dr. Alzein recommends is one that children have been engaging in for years. “Kitchen play is another activity where strict adult supervision is not required,” says Dr. Alzein. “Making “dinner” for loved ones has been a satisfying, healthy activity for generations of children all around the world.”
Kitchen play doesn’t require purchased toys; caregivers can use empty boxes and cardboard packaging for pretend food, and your pots and pans can also be used. A table can serve as a stove and a cabinet as a refrigerator or oven. It is all about creativity and imagination.
Your child will develop keen planning skills as they think through what they will “cook” and serve to you or themselves. They will organize the process and work through all the steps required from beginning to end.
Kitchen play enriches language skills as children take orders, explain the specials of the day and present their meals.
When played with you or other children, kitchen play enhances social skills as kids problem-solve meal planning, delegate tasks, work as a team, share ideas and take turns cooking and serving.
Kitchen skills teach important life skills too. Kids realize that to eat they must learn how to prepare food. They also realize your household is a team, and everyone has responsibilities, whether it’s setting the table, cooking, or cleaning up afterward.
When parents “order” healthy foods and “enjoy” everything they are served, kids naturally gravitate towards eating those foods beyond play and learn good eating habits.
“Keeping kids busy in healthy ways also keeps them growing in healthy ways,” says Dr. Alzein. “When parents provide basic materials and simple opportunities, they’ll see their children’s imaginations and creativity expand, their academic skills blossom and their confidence, self-esteem, and social skills improve.”
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