I recently babysat for the cutest little guy while his mom got her hair cut. We'll call him Charlie. Charlie's bright blue eyes and quick smiles just warmed my heart, and I loved watching him concentrate so hard on the "toys" I brought for him to play with.
Did I mention Charlie was teething, had a head cold, and seriously missed his mom?
Yet somehow, he managed to play for a whole hour. I didn't think a kid that age had that kind of attention span, so I knew I'd stumbled across something fantastic. It was all just stuff I had around my house, too, so there was no way I couldn't share this experience with all of you. Without further ado, I present to you the magical elixir for a happy 18-month-old.
A box big enough for the child to sit in
This is absolutely essential, mostly because you have to transport everything else in your kit. The box I brought was actually a little small for Charlie, and I think he would have enjoyed our game of peek-a-boo more if he could have climbed all the way inside. Furthermore, his game of stacking things inside of the box would have required less precision to get the boxes to stay. Probably a good idea, since I don't think precision is any 18-month-old's strong point.
Containers of many sizes, especially with different-sized openings
This was the easiest part of my kit to gather. The child will probably stack the items and place things inside only to dump them out again. Tupperware and shoe boxes are a great place to start. But don't forget food jars, like those for peanut butter or cottage cheese. Charlie especially enjoyed the Altoid tin and the egg carton I brought, presumably because they were light enough for him to easily manipulate. Whatever containers you bring, just make sure they are clean and won't pinch any little fingers in the hinge.
Items small enough to put in the containers but not small enough to present a choking hazard.Items in an array of shapes offer the best sensory stimulation and motor skills practice. I brought clothes pins, bulky key chains, medium-sized binder clips, silly putty, and a rubber band ball. The silly putty and rubber band ball require close supervision. Charlie favored the unusual tactile stimuli, especially since they fit so well in his little hands. I also had a ball of yarn that I used to initially get him interested in the box.
A flashlight, preferably one with a dying battery
I recommend the dying battery because the child will inevitably spend time looking straight at the light. That said, this was probably my favorite part of the play date with Charlie. He was so intrigued that he could control where the light was shining, especially once I managed to teach him how to turn it on and off.
A picture book, especially one with bright colors and things to count
Early in the day, Charlie didn't have much interest in an activity with such minimal interaction. After his nap, however, the book was a lifesaver. It didn't require much from him, but still kept him entertained while he finished waking up. Choose a book that allows your child to practice naming colors, shapes, body parts, or animals, and don't forget to count the things you see.
Some of your favorite get-up-and-move music (and a way to play it)
I wished I would have brought music to play for Charlie. Making up dancing games helps to expend a child's excess energy, and you don't even have to use kid's music. The oldies I love now are the songs my parents played for me when I was little. So start cultivating your child's taste in music today. You never know, it could be something you actually agree on when they are teenagers.
It's important to offer a wide range of age-appropriate toys and activities to your child, but don't be afraid to do something a little less common, like egg cartons and binder clips. The simple fact that these are not the items that your child plays with every day will make them more likely to keep your young toddler entertained. With a little creativity, the normal items around your house can become the perfect secret weapon against boredom.