Toddler Activities

Invitations To Play

Play is the way children learn, so it’s obviously an important part of each day. I know in my house, play can go from fantastic! to wtf is going on around here?! in about five seconds flat and that’s when I know there needs to be some focused time to recalibrate our energy. That’s when I invoke the simple invitation to play.

Invitations to play, or provocations, don’t have to be complex or messy or even a lot of materials. They can be as simple at the one shown above, some transportation stacking toys on a wooden tray. Basically, a provocation is a term used in the Reggio Emilia model that means to help expand or encourage thoughts, discussion, or creative thinking. In a classroom setting, it would probably be open-ended materials connected to what the children have been learning and talking about; if gardening is the hot topic, then there might be an activity with flowers, or seeds and a magnifying glass, or some pictures of plants growing, or a book about gardening set out in a special place where children can explore the medium on their own or in small groups.

At home, I like to set out invitations to play (as I call them) for my two-year-old at times when I know he’ll want to do something different or when things are getting hairy. I have lots of manipulatives (mostly open-ended materials that can be used to build specific skills) and a few special trays stored away that only come out for these invitations so it can help to frame the activity and let him know that something special is about to happen. I don’t keep them out for too long, just enough time until I feel like he is at the end of his focused attention and ready for the next adventure (even if that’s just dinner or bath or a trip to the grocery store).

These play invitations can be incredibly helpful on so many levels, including:

*Building independent play skills

*Encouraging creative thinking and conversation

*Increasing focus and attention

*Recalibrating energy levels

*Deepening cognitive thought

Setting up an invitation to play in your home can be so easy while also bring so much richness to your child’s day! Some tips:

*”Frame” the materials with a special tray, small rug, or placemat, or whatever you have available and only use that when it’s time to invite some special focused playtime. I also have a small toddler-sized table that I put the provocations on, but a coffee table or even the floor work too!

*Have some manipulatives and/or other simple materials that are kept out of the everyday rotation to pull out just when needed. I have some bins with all kinds of different manipulatives and interesting objects, but it doesn’t need to be limited to materials. Sensory objects (like play dough, sand, water, shaving cream, etc.) can also be a fun invitation to play, or art projects. Leaves, grass, flowers, or other natural items found on a walk or in the yard can also be sweet for building, making indoor fairy or gnome homes, or just exploring with a small magnifying glass. Anything that isn’t used on the regular (or indoors) will spark some interest! They don’t always have to be open-ended either, things like puzzles, paper and scissors, weaving and lacing materials, and books have a specific use and purpose, but can still give that focused, independent time while also giving them a chance to think deeper about a topic. (Yup, even toddlers can think deeper about things!) Materials like the stackers that are pictures are also a two-fold material, the stacking part is a given but the objects themselves can also be used as cars that are driven around the tray, to set up a construction site, as building blocks, whatever! They open themselves up to being a creative material when a toddler or preschooler is left to their own devices.

Other simple ideas could be:

Fabric scraps (and a glue stick)

Small blocks

Different lengths and textures of yarn

Cards and envelopes

Buttons (with supervision)

Flowers, leaves, and other nature items

Tea bags

Cotton balls and Cotton Swabs

Literally anything alongside a magnifying glass can be interesting!

Muffin tins are also a great source of fun for invitations to play since they can provide lots of open-ended scooping and sorting time.

*Try a little each day, even if it just once a day for five minutes. Focus and attention will increase gradually for some kiddos, especially younger toddlers, and some days even five minutes is a huge win!

* Connecting the invitation to something you know your kiddo is interested in is always a help. My Bub loves anything trucks these days so we’ve been doing a lot of that, but it could even be something you just chatted about over breakfast. Your kiddo noticed the leaves were falling? Great, bring some of them in with a glue stick and some cardboard. Whatever! I don’t always connect the invitation with something we’ve talked about or are interested in because it’s good to introduce new things too, but I like to have at least a few that are a direct connection to something I know my two-year-old is interested in or thinking about during his day.

*Challenge yourself to let your kiddo explore without your help or ideas. The invitation to play isn’t like a party where you both RSVP, it’s for them to check out something on their own without adult intervention or input. You can sit at the table with them, and chat if they start talking, but give them some space to do their thing.

What do you think you’ll invite your child to play?

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