This post is sponsored by Mattel, but all opinions are my own.
A friend and I were recently talking about how much different early childhood is today from when we were growing up in terms of learning. When we were kids, so much of our experience was centered on exploration of life around us, using our imaginations, and hands on play. Today, there is so much emphasis on teaching little ones through early schooling, structured activities, and educational electronics. And while I’m grateful that my children have so many opportunities to start these things early, I feel that giving them free time to use their senses and creativity to learn through play is even more important.
For those you don’t know, my son Emmett had a form of epilepsy as a baby that usually causes cognitive issues and developmental delays. He was extremely fortunate in that he overcame the diagnosis and is right on track for his age, but he continued to see a developmental therapist a few times a year for assessments until a few weeks ago. And she repeatedly stressed that for all children – delayed or typical – there is no better way to learn than through hands on play. She told us that of all the senses, touch is one of the most crucial for young development because it allows children to begin to understand the three dimensional world.
Emmett is in preschool two mornings a weeks, but is not yet in any structured activities, which gives him lots of time for hands on play. I can confidently say that I am able to witness the process of him learning when he is down on the ground with toys and objects, using his hands to build and explore. It’s really cool to watch, and also fun to get involved and play alongside him. (It’s a wonderful way to bond too!)
Today I thought I’d share some tips for encouraging learning through hands on play. I’m certainly not a professional when it comes to children’s learning, but I have discovered quite a bit about what works for my little ones, and I’m happy to share!
1. Take a step back. I’m putting this first because it’s important! This is something I actually had to work on myself, because I have Type A personality tendencies and find myself wanting to control situations with my little ones. When we as parents take a step back, however, and just allow kids to do their thing when it comes to playing, hands on play comes naturally. I love playing with my kids, but I also make sure they have plenty of time for playing on their own. It’s amazing how much they can learn just through free play and using their imaginations without any parent intervention.
2. Make slime or play dough. This is a wonderful learning activity because the child is first working with the parent to create something (the slime or dough), and then venturing off on his/her own to play with it. Both slime and play dough are great hands on, sensory based activities that involve texture, color, and the creative process of building.
3. Play with Building Blocks. Emmett’s current favorite toys, Mattel Mega Bloks, are also some of the best for hands on play. His development therapist actually told us that building blocks like these are some of the best tools for developing minds, fine motor skills, and more. And they’re so fun! Our go-tos are Mega Bloks Building Basics Take-along Builder, Mega Bloks First Builders Block Scooping Wagon, and Mega Bloks Sesame Street Let’s Build Sesame Street.
Emmett calls the Building Basics Take-along Builder his “suitcase,” which is actually pretty accurate. The wheeled carrying case holds a set of building blocks and has a removable building plate inside for mess-free stacking. I love the fun travel themed stickers on the outside too! It’s so fun to watch Emmett pretend he’s going on a trip with his suitcase, and then building (and unbuilding, and rebuilding) towers when he gets to his imaginary destination.
The Mega Bloks First Builders Block Scooping Wagon is another favorite with both my kids. The pull wagon picks up blocks when the kids push it (Emmett’s big sister Essley calls it their Mega Block vacuum), which is wonderful for creative play. Emmett loves to mix and match the 20 First Builders blocks that came with the wagon (and combine with Building Blocks from his other sets) to create buildings, cars, castles, and his own works of art.
Of all the Mega Bloks sets, the Sesame Street Let’s Build Sesame Street wins for Emmett’s favorite. Not only is he able to use his hands to build all kinds of masterpieces with the 70 colorful blocks (some with the cutest character-themed decorations), he is also able to practice his ABCs. In fact, he used these Building Blocks to learn how to spell his name, and to spell his favorite character’s name (Elmo!). Talk about a multi-learning toy! Next up, using his Let’s Build Sesame Street Building Blocks to learn how to spell the names of his other faves: Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and Abby.
4. Create a beans and scoops bin. It is truly amazing to watch a small child with a bin, bowl, or bucket full of dried beans and a couple of objects with which they can scoop them. One day I decided to fill a shoebox with some dried pintos and gave Emmett a couple of measuring cups with handles, and the kid was thrilled. This is a surprisingly versatile hands on activity as well; children can learn to count with the beans, they can learn about size (bigger scoop full of beans vs smaller), and they can explore the way the beans feel in their hands which is a great sensory tool.
5. Have a crafts day. While I wish it could be even more frequent, I look so forward to the one or two days a month when we have crafts day in our house. I either put together a specific craft the kids can create (a gingerbread house is one of our favorites for this time of year), or I spread dozens of different arts and crafts supplies in various textures, colors, and material types on the kitchen table and let them go to town. Crafting is an incredible way for small children to utilize their imaginations, practice fine motor skills, and truly learn with their hands.
I hope these ideas are helpful to those of you with little ones looking for ways to encourage hands on play!
Before I go, let me quickly go back to tip #3 for a second. I know I’m gushing, but I can’t recommend Mattel Mega Bloks enough for hands on learning that kids absolutely love. If you’re looking for a holiday gift your little ones will truly enjoy that will also encourage hands on play, head over to the toy and collectibles aisle at your local Walmart and grab a set or two. Then let me know how your kids like them. (Because they will!)
Do you have any tips for encouraging hands on play I might have missed? I’d love to hear them!