I’m a play geek. Ever since I first recognized the value of inner-directed free play for young children, I’ve been hooked on providing the environments and materials that encourage it.
Over the last twenty years I’ve observed hundreds of infants and toddlers playing, both my own and the ones who attend my weekly Parent-Infant and Toddler Guidance Classes. Yet I’m still captivated watching them learn from their environment and peers. When uninterrupted, they will investigate, create, process feelings and experiences, and design their own perfect curriculum for that particular day.
It certainly doesn’t take a veteran play observer to realize that babies and toddlers tend to be most deeply engaged by toys that aren’t toys at all. While babies are intrigued by everything in their world, what they really appreciate is packaging, the real stuff mom and dad use, whatever big sister has, the shadows on the floor or cracks in the plaster, and of course, Nature.
In order to accommodate the interests of our tiny explorers, at least half of the toys we use in our classes are household objects: empty gallon-sized water bottles, cotton napkins, mixing bowls and cups made of stainless steel, silicone and wood, colanders, canisters, fish and chips baskets (really), plastic hair rollers, etc.
All of our objects are safe for mouthing, cleanable, and light enough not to cause injury if tossed enthusiastically. They are simple, durable and fully explore-able. They can be made sense of (unlike more mysterious, battery-powered noise-makers) and used in a multitude of ways.
Some of the most sought after items in class have always been the small plastic jars with screw-on lids. Children focus on exploring these jars during the latter part of their first year, developing their fine motor skills, and their interest in them continues through 3 years old.
The only problem with the jars (normally for face cream, I think) is that they’re not easy to come by and usually require label removal. But in a recent class, one of our thoughtful parents announced that she’d found some on Amazon (HERE).
I was thrilled. I like these jars even better than the ones we have at my RIE classes because of the cool indentation on the lid (babies tend to appreciate cool indentations). They’re also very well-priced and plant-based (because they’re actually snack jars!).
A couple of thoughts:
1. Allow your child to enjoy discovering them. Rather than presenting the jars to your child, include them in his or her play area, either with the tops on loosely or already separated.
2. Let whatever is, be. Trust children to use the jars their way and in their time.
3. Remember that young children are process oriented. If the jars are loosely closed, they will accept them that way, at least for a while. If you’ve left the jars and lids separated, there’s no need for your child to know that they are supposed to go together.
4. Let go of the impulse to tell or show children what the jars do, because this will likely create stress that is totally unnecessary and a dependency on the adult to fix something that otherwise wouldn’t need fixing. Again, let what is, be, and you will make room for independent, experiential learning and the power of discovery.
5. Relax, observe and enjoy your child’s experiments with the jars and the way she uses them in conjunction with her other toys.
While we’re at it, here are some other brilliant, inexpensive, unexpected toy finds:
8 piece set: mixing/measuring bowls and colander to stack, nest, and explore
Hair rollers for infants and toddlers to grasp, roll, nest, and collect
Handmade cotton napkins for infant grasping, waving, exploring
(A big thanks to Annie for finding the jars and sharing these photos of her marvelous boy!)
I share more about the power of self-directed play in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)