Life as a new mum is as much of a learning curve for me as it is for Jr, with revelations often borne from a running dichotomy between fanciful expectations and ground reality. As a case-in-point, on Jr’s first birthday I treated him to a big basket of shiny new toys in a bid to keep him engaged through increasingly lengthier days locked in at home. Over two months on, those toys are still sitting prettily in a corner of his nursery, with my now 15-month-old son continuing to find pleasure in simpler activities such as stacking cups and banging on pots and pans.
As Alefia Poonawalla, founder of Mumbai-based pre-school Creative Kids, tells me, utensil play is far more interesting for children than conventional toys, not least as it gives them a chance to emulate the movements they see adults making in the kitchen. Utensils are also a natural conduit for sensory play, enabling little ones to discover a spectrum of sounds through different actions, from tapping to even pounding (often against the same utensil).
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Sensory activities are at the heart of Alefia’s parent-toddler classes, aimed at supporting toddlers’ cognitive development by stimulating and activating all the neurons in the brain. Sensory play can foster creativity, whilst building on fine motor, visual spatial, social and even emotional skills. It’s also incredibly fun, especially when you let your imagination run as wonderfully wild as your child’s and by doing so, discover a plethora of DIY activities easily doable with just a handful of pantry essentials.
One of our favourite arts and crafts projects at home involves the humble sabudana, boiled and then refrigerated. Jr loves exploring the ice-cold and sticky texture between his fingers, before spreading the sago clusters across a large sheet of chart paper. Similarly, I often set up an ocean-inspired sensory bin for him by mixing a third cup of chia seeds with water and a bit of blue food colouring, refrigerating the mixture overnight until the chia seeds swell up and settle into a slimy texture. The next morning, I add his favourite sea creatures and a scooper/strainer to the mix and simply let him have fun exploring the ocean as he fishes out his favourite sea animals.
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Staple kitchen ingredients are all you need to stir together homemade play dough too, as an eco-friendly alternative to store-bought ones. Simply mix together a cup of all-purpose flour with half a cup of salt, two teaspoons of your cooking oil of choice and food colour dissolved in half a cup of water, until combined. I’m particularly partial to play dough as a pastime for Jr and not just because it’s non-messy and rather relaxing (to the point of being therapeutic for adults too). The learning opportunities implicit in the sensory components of play dough are manifold, supporting development of fine motor skills as well as the grasp of key concepts including numeracy. For instance, we can count the number of balls we roll out, whilst also pointing to the different shapes, proportions and sizes to explain differences between “big and small” and/or “long” and “short.”
The beauty of play dough is that it encourages immense creativity, an aspect that I now keep in mind when choosing any new toy for Jr. The theory is simple. The more the toy does, the less the child will do; the less the toy does, the more the child will do. The best toys are those which cultivate inspiration, allowing for a child’s imagination to lead the play through exploration, rather than simply dictating the play. Toys which fit the bill range from magnetic blocks (including the cultish Magnatiles) through to mini kitchenettes or kitchen sets which elicit pretend and/or role play.
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What’s more, we don’t need studies to show us that having fewer toys actually enhances cognitive growth. Intuitively, it stands to reason that clutter can impede a child’s focus and creativity. Having recently implemented a toy rotation system at home we’ve noticed an immediate impact. Jr is less distracted, playing for longer and in more varied ways with the same toys.
As with all good things in life, quality always trumps quantity. While as parents, we have an innate desire to continually indulge our little ones, providing them with too many toys at any given time is often counter-productive, especially if the end objective is to sustain their attention long enough for us to have a productive work-from-home day.
Instead, our efforts may be better directed at curating their toys and playtime with more thought to plan activities which nurture their curiosity, and in the bargain, broaden our horizons too. After all, it is an exercise of our creativity as parents to fashion things of joy and simple pleasures from quotidian objects in our home.
Ayushi Gupta-Mehra is an economist, F&B consultant, self-taught cook and founder of The Foodie Diaries. Follow her adventures on Instagram @Mummylogues or tweet her @FoodieDiaries.