It’s that tricky time of year. You want to tackle the new year with vim and vigor, resolved to improve yourself and your family, but you are just plain tired after the holidays! Providing mentally stimulating play for your busy preschooler may seem to contradict the very idea of catching your breath.

The good news? Experts say the beauty of this age group is that play comes naturally. “If you put the child in the middle of the floor with a paper bag and a spoon, they’ll know how to play with them,” says K C Gauldine, CEO of The Children’s Museum, Seattle. With minimal effort and a hint of a plan, parents have dozens — even hundreds — of “play” options just lying around the house.

In her book Unplugged Play, Bobbi Conner groups activities by categories, depending on how involved parents can be at playtime.

Busy Body Play — Activities for when you just need to get dinner on the table. One of her examples:

Macaroni Mix-Up — Have a mixture of different pasta shapes (macaroni, bowties, wheels) on hand, along with a variety of dried beans. Place them in a plastic tub, mix up the ingredients, then ask your child to “help you cook” by sorting the ingredients into a muffin tin or other separate containers. 

Don’t be afraid to designate a kitchen drawer or cupboard as your child’s. You can fill it with toys or safe-kitchen utensils, such as spatulas and wooden spoons.

Even egg cartons and toilet-paper rolls can be toys. As Steve and Ruth Bennett write in their book 365 TV-Free Activities, “These activities are a great way to press materials back into service that would have been tossed out.” Save up those rolls, yogurt cups, and milk cartons, and then give them to your child with a roll of blue painter’s tape for an activity you might call “junk.” This will earn you thanks from that child who yearns to create his own airplane or robot. You also earn yourself time to get other things done.

The Bennetts suggest keeping a list of TV-free activities on hand, perhaps near the emergency phone list, so that even in your most tired state, you have easy ideas to fall back on.

Self-Directed Play — Young children are thrilled to be their own bosses, to create their own adventures and storylines. In this category of activities, parents may need to play the part of “supporting actors.” 

At local toy stores, among the hot sellers in this category are the Be Good Company’s “My Little Sandbox” sets: Dino Land, Mermaid and Friends, and Big Builder, to name a few.  Each set is a 10-inch by 10-inch mini-sandbox in a wooden box, with fine play sand, mini-tools and characters for each theme. For mess-conscious parents, kits also include a drop cloth. Rose Calvin, owner of Learning Sprout toy store in Tacoma, says these sets combine a child’s desire to dig and move things around with playing “pretend.”

The Children’s Museum’s Gauldine points out that unplugged play is truly more than play, because little minds learn at every turn. In the museum’s Discovery Bay water table area, children can splash, pour and build dams. “It’s there for a sensory reason,” says Gauldine. “The sensations, brain connections they are making from touching the water — there is a weight, a texture. Some kids may try to taste the water, and those brains need that stimulation to learn.”

Play with Friends — If you have memories of your own preschool years, chances are, they are not about a TV show you watched. It might be the memory of playing “stowaway”: You and your friends pretending to flee bad pirates in your good-guy ship (aka mom and dad’s bed). Perhaps it was playing with girlfriends, making up stories with favorite dolls that cruised around in a big yellow motor home. 

Remember that good play dates do not require fancy toys. They can be as simple as an indoors fort or a campout. As Connor writes, “As long as there are kitchen tables and blankets in the world, this one’s a classic that will never go out of style.”

And TV-free play can save you money. Kimberly Powell of Seattle no longer pays a hefty cable bill. She used to, until her son Julian turned 2 and she saw how entranced he became, particularly with channels playing commercial after commercial. Now, Julian is 4 years old, watches an hour or less of PBS each day and does not miss the other shows. “That cable was just not worth how expensive it is,” Powell says.

Saving money, allowing your kids more chances to learn, making art projects that can double as special gifts for loved ones: The benefits of unplugged play are many. So power down that remote — or have your preschooler do it. Chances are, they already know how!

Hilary Benson is a freelance writer and mother of three.

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