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Fire the Babysitter!

In part one of this two-part series, Umm-e-Ismaeel shares how to incorporate healthy and safe activities into your toddler’s life for better brain development.

“I’m late! I’m late!”


I felt like the White Rabbit in Alice’s crazy dream, frantic at my own tardiness. I hadn’t prepared dinner and my husband would be home soon. In a mad rush, I plonked my two year old son, Ismaeel, in front of the laptop, turned on his favourite The Wheels on the Bus and dashed to the kitchen to work some culinary magic.


In between chopping and stirring, I would rush to the room to check on my son. After an hour and a half, I was done. Phew! I went to the room and Ismaeel was still sitting, mesmerised in front of the laptop or, as he calls it, the ‘lapat’. I kissed him, told him it was time to finish watching the ‘lapat’ and turned off the computer. What followed was a complete shock.


My normally cheerful, angelic son did a 360° and turned into a demon, screaming and kicking with all the strength his little body could muster. His meltdown lasted a good twenty minutes, with me trying to soothe him by distracting him, singing to him, feeding him – anything to calm him down.


At first I was baffled by the cause, but later on, after talking to a few mums, I realised that it might have been due to too much screen time. I researched online and, sure enough, there were truckloads of articles about how too much screen time (TV, laptop, handheld device) ‘fries’ children’s brains. Forums were full of parents citing the same behaviour in their kids that I had witnessed in my son – emotional outbursts, moodiness, restlessness and fighting with the people around them.


After reading reams upon reams on this topic, I decided to not use the TV or any other screen as a babysitter. I wasn’t going to completely cut it off, but I wouldn’t depend on it to ‘take care of my child’. I had to find safer, healthier ways to occupy my child when I was too busy to spend time with him. What I eventually incorporated in our lives were activities and toys that could be put into two categories:
• Those my son could play with on his own, with me in the room to keep an eye on him.
• Those that my son and I could do together.


The following is a list of activities I have compiled in the first category that is suitable for ages 1-4. This is by no means an exhaustive list; there is an unlimited number of activities that you can do with your children.


For those who may not have a lot of time for activities, they have the option to buy toys. However, the rule of thumb to remember about toys is that “active toys make passive children; passive toys make active children”. What this basically means is that toys that light up and make noises, such as battery operated cars, will do all the play for the child, while the child watches. However, playing with toys that are passive, that don’t light up and make noise, such as wooden blocks and play dough, stimulates the child’s imagination and creativity and allows self-initiated play.


One thing you need before you start any activity is a mat to protect work surfaces. I find polyester shower curtains or shower curtain liners work best. They are large and easy to wipe clean and are quite cheap.


Independent Play
1. Sensory Trays
I introduced sensory trays to my son at 18 months. He took to them instantly and would be happily occupied for 30-60 minutes. When I had to work in the kitchen, I would spread the shower curtain on the floor, have him sit on it and give him a tray. These trays focus on touch, sight, smell, taste, sound and textures. The benefits of sensory play include:

• Calming and soothing abilities: playing with different materials stimulates the senses, fires the imagination and calms the child as he focuses on his activity.

• Motor development: sensory play fosters fine motor skills as the child is challenged to scoop, pour, mold or sift.

• Language development: sensory play can build language development when adults assist with descriptive language, such as “you’re pushing the beans into the corner of the tray” or “do you feel how soft the cornflour is on your fingers?”

What you need:
• A large tray
• Plastic containers and bowls for filling
• Tools, such as spoons, funnels, whisks, ice cream scoops, spatulas and tea strainers (anything safe you find in your kitchen or around the house will do).
• Filler Ideas:
a. Coffee and tea theme: fill containers with coffee beans, coffee granules, tea leaves and tea bags of various flavours, brown and white sugar. Your child can pour and scoop, smell the different scents and feel the different textures.
b. Beans and grains: cooked or uncooked rice (let him feel the difference), a variety of beans and lentils, oats, cereals.
c. Spices and herbs: star anise, coriander seeds, bay leaves, parsley and coriander leaves, mint, cardamoms (green and black).
d. Wet: ice cubes, different coloured jello, fruit, vegetables, yoghurt.
e. Cornflour, white and whole wheat flour, pasta, cocoa, bread dough, sand.
f. Miscellaneous items: balls, bubble wrap, chalk, flowers, petals, leaves, grass, pipe cleaners, potpourri, pompoms, fabrics, torn paper, straws, parchment paper, tissue paper, construction paper.


The list is endless. You can add water in one container for messy play and mix and match materials.


Caveat: Avoid small or non-edible things if your child puts things in his mouth or keep an eye out. Make sure all materials and tools are clean.


2. Pouring Rice
What you need:
• A large bowl or tray
• 2 plastic containers or jugs
• Rice


Place rice in one jug. Place both jugs/containers in a large bowl. Encourage your child to pour rice from one plastic jug into another. Once he can do this without any spills, let him do it with water.


3. Colander and Straws
Take a colander and some thin straws, put on a tray and show your child how to insert a straw in one of the colander’s holes. Once he gets going he won’t stop!


4. Painting in a Bag!
Take a Ziploc bag, pour some yoghurt and food colour in it. Use 2-4 colours to make it more colourful. Zip it and, for extra protection, seal the mouth with tape. Give the bag to your child. Let him squeeze it and push it down and see the yoghurt and colours mixing. You can try this with liquid watercolours or jello. This works best for 12–18 month old children.


5. Muffin Pan Sorting
Give your child a cupcake pan and some coloured balls or pompoms or other items. Children under the age of 2 will get busy putting the items in the cupcake pan, while older children who know their colours can sort the items according to colour.


6. Removing Tape
Cut strips of masking tape and stick in an interesting pattern (stripes, zigzag, crazy pattern) on a window pane or kitchen cabinet. Make sure it can come off the surface without damaging it. Show the child how to peel it off. He’ll soon get busy peeling.


7. Playdough
Making your own playdough at home is easy, economical and allows you to use your creativity so you can make it more exciting than store-bought playdough. When you give this to your child, hand him some tools as well to make prints on the playdough or for cutting, etc.


Ideas for tools: toy rolling pin for rolling the dough, toy car tyres, plastic spoons and forks, small scoops that come with baby formula and anything that has a raised surface is good for making prints.


No-cook recipe:
• 1 part conditioner (cheap, non-brand one) or body lotion
• 2 parts cornflour
• Food colour or liquid watercolour


In a bowl, mix the conditioner with colour. Add cornflour. Mix and knead to form dough. You can add glitter (lots of it – no one can have too much glitter!), torn flower petals, sequins, anything sparkly to make it more exciting!


This is very soft dough and feels great on the hands. It’s good for moulding but not very good for forming specific shapes, so it’s perfect for children under 3.


Stove-top recipe:
• ½ cup flour
• ½ cup water
• 2 tbsp salt
• 1 tsp cream of tartar


Whisk the above in a saucepan until smooth and no lumps remain. Add colour of choice and other materials like glitter and mix. Heat slowly on the stove and keep stirring until a ball forms. Remove and place the ball on a piece of parchment paper. Cool for 5-10 minutes. Knead into a ball, wrap the parchment around it completely and put in Ziploc bag. It’s better to store this in the fridge, as it’s a cooked material. Bring to room temperature before using.


In part two, I’ll be introducing activities babies and parents can enjoy together. Meanwhile, say goodbye to the screen babysitter and let your child have some creative fun!



Umm-e-Ismaeel has lived in Saudi Arabia, N. America and now resides in Pakistan. She is an ESL teacher and freelance writer; her work has been published in various magazines and ezines. In her free time, she enjoys baking and painting and having fun doing creative things with her son.