With new high-tech gadgets and video games coming out all the time, it can be hard to get kids away from the screen and out doing something active. Bobbi Conner, host of the weekly radio show The Parent’s Journal on National Public Radio, is out to change that with her book, Unplugged Play.
"Kids are missing out on a lot of imaginative, active kinds of play if they’re doing primarily video games," says Conner.
But Conner says the most common mistake parents make when trying to get their kids playing actively is to ban screen time altogether without offering an alternative.
"It’s human nature—if I just say no I’m going to get a different reaction than saying, ‘Here’s some fun things you can do,’ " she says. "Kids do need some help from parents. Usually it’s as simple as finding a game for your kids’ age and giving a little demo and getting out of the way."
Conner offered the following suggestions for "unplugged play" for toddlers, preschoolers and older kids. To get more ideas, go to www.unpluggedplay.com for a preview of the book or pick up a copy at your local bookstore.
What you need: A brown paper grocery sack and a bucket of tennis ball-sized balls.
Who should play: Toddlers.
How to play: Open the paper sack and put it at one end of the kitchen. Make sure the bag is fully opened. Bend down about three or four feet away and roll the ball in the bag.
Conner says: "This is such a simple idea and parents who read this think this isn’t going to work, but trust me, it’s amazing how long toddlers will play this."
What you need: Butcher block paper, a table, tape, toddler-safe markers and/or crayons.
How to play: Cover a table with the paper, tape it down and put a cup of markers or crayons on the table. It might take mom or dad doing a little scribbling first but then get out of the way.
Conner says: "When you have two toddlers drawing, one toddler looks at the other and starts imitating what the other is doing, so they’re playing on their own but together at the same time. It really is as quick as popping in a video."
What you need: marker, colored construction paper, giant plastic jar with a lid, washcloth or dish towel.
How to play: Think of some simple chores your toddler can help you with around the house, from washing cabinets to dusting the kitchen chairs. Write each job on a piece of construction paper, fold it in half and put it in the jar. When you’re ready to play, pull one job out of the jar, read it out loud and give a short demonstration of how it should be done. Then let your little one play.
Conner says: "Toddlers love to imitate. Using a damp washcloth to ‘scrub’ the front of the fridge is big fun (and marvelous role play) for toddlers even though Mom and Dad think scrubbing is a chore."
What you need: muffin tin, various kinds of pasta.
Who should play: Preschoolers.
How to play: Mix up the different kinds of pasta and challenge your child to sort them, with each kind going in a different section of the muffin tin. When you’re done, dump the pasta into a plastic bag to put away for next time.
Conner says: "Kids this age love to figure things out. You’ve got some early math skills going on with this game with counting."
What you need: Butcher block paper, tape, crayons and markers.
How to play: Lay down the butcher block paper on the kitchen floor (tape together sections to make a really big piece of paper), then turn the kids loose with crayons and markers.
Conner says: "When we tested this game, some kids wanted to do a giant drawing while others wanted to do a village. It was fabulous to watch these kids work together when they have the whole floor to create."
What you need: Large bucket, two giant sponges and sidewalk chalk.
How to play: Use the chalk to draw a large square on the driveway or sidewalk. Fill the bucket with water and place the sponges inside. Throw the wet sponges on the square to make cool shapes.
Conner says: "You can make a target, too, for the kids to aim at. The sponges make all these blob shapes that the kids love."
What you need: Notebook or small journal, pencils, colored pencils or markers.
Who should play: Older kids.
How to play: Tell your kids to invent a dog character and write a story about their travels and adventures for the day. If they’re artistically inclined, have them illustrate the story, too.
Conner says: "The dogs take on human characteristics and the kids love creating adventures for their characters. You could do the same with a cat."
Balloon Breeze Obstacle Course
What you need: Large oval balloons, sturdy paper plates, chairs, boxes, pillows.
How to play: Set up an obstacle course with chairs, boxes, pillows and whatever else you have around the house. Use a paper plate to bounce the balloon constantly in the air as you make your way through the course.
Conner says: "You can also putt around the balloon with a fly swatter like a putt putt course. For kids that like a challenge, set a timer and see if you can get all around the course in 90 seconds."
Bucket Head games
What you need: Scissors, 5-inch roll of Velcro with sticky-back adhesive, Cool Whip-sized containers or margarine tubs for each child, plastic headbands, marker.
How to play: To play a variety of Bucket Head games, first you have to make the Bucket Head itself. Cut the Velcro into 2-inch-long pieces and attach one piece, sticky-side down, to both a headband and a Cool Whip container (put the fuzzy side on the plastic container and the scratchy side on the headband). Attach the plastic container to the headband. Write each child’s name on each hat.
Conner says: "The older kids liked playing games where you toss ping balls or sock balls into the buckets. They also loved playing a relay race where you put a cup of water in the bucket, tip water from your hat to next hat and then dump the water into a pitcher."
Jennifer Gilbert is the associate editor at Chicago Parent.
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