Updated: Sep 12, 2022
by Philip Mott, philipmott.com
You are no doubt familiar with the plethora of activities you can do with toddlers. Just walking a craft aisle will likely give you tons of ideas of messy things to do that they will indeed love. Never mind that toddlers change their minds about what they want to do faster than you can normally set up something or the fact that the activity takes so much adult setup that the child isn’t doing any of it.
That is why parents also need a good list of what I call untivities. Untivities are the things they can do by themselves or with at least minimal setup. Untivities are nothing new. They are part of our rich human history.
The whole premise of an untivity hinges on the concept of strewing. You’re putting objects in their play area that may initiate several different activities. Strewing is a practice used by a lot of homeschooling parents who want to learn what their children are drawn to. First-time parents can use strewing to create engaging independent play experiences that allow a child to follow their own curiosity. Sometimes their extended independent play-time can mean that you can check an email, wrap up a chore, or maybe enjoy an uninterrupted hot cup of tea.
What do you strew about in their play area?
There are three questions I think about when I’m looking to strew some items around the house.
• How safe is it?
• Is it open-ended?
• Is it safe to use independently?
If the object could fall through a toilet paper roll then it is generally considered unsafe for independent play. The other aspect of safety is removing any furniture they could accidentally pull down on themselves. If this is your first time setting up this specific play area then you will want to consider how safe the environment is already.
• Outlet covers
• Electrical chords out of reach
• Locked cabinets
• Put away loose small objects
You want a space where if by some accident you were separated from your child for several hours that where she would be hungry and wet when you came back but she would be safe. Is it open-ended?
In an untivity there’s no time spent showing a baby or toddler what to do with something. She is the one who is actively exploring the objects. We always looked for toys and objects that our babies could explore and use however they wanted. For example, a light-up toy does a few things when you press buttons and it will likely pacify a baby for a time. But once they get done with it there is little else it can be. I want toys that can grow with my child and become many things for them. A ball starts out as a stuffed animal they carry with them, then a hammer they pound on things, then a rolling or throwing object.
Most of the open-ended toys don’t do anything on their own. They require the action of the child to move them or make sounds for them. Those are the kinds of toys I always wanted for my kids.
I’m specifically thinking about toddlers here. If you’re dealing with a mess in an infant then it’s likely something they shouldn’t be playing with. I want things my toddler can use on their own without making a mess that can be easily cleaned up (washable versus permanent markers for example). Upfront work is often required here. My wife and I spent hours over a week or so with new things like crayons and paints to make sure they understood where they could make marks. I think we first introduced jumbo crayons when our kids were about a year old. In the infant months, you can normally just occupy your child with a chew toy and a comfortable place to lie on their back and stare at the ceiling. The messiest times were meals and diapers at that age!
My list of toy recommendations is so simple it’s comical but they are worth repeating. These are things that almost all of us have or can easily get. They are so simple that we often forget about them.
A stick I know, amazing advice, right? But is there really anything better than having something to swing around. Even my 7-year-old finds all kinds of things to swing around when he is looking for something to do. When you consider safety and mess that should give you an idea of what might be appropriate for the youngest kids.
A box How many times have you seen a baby get a new present and end up playing with the box. Boxes are interesting, portable, and pretty safe. A baby can lay next to a box and feel the texture with her hands as she pushes it or grabs at it. A toddler can lift the box or climb in it themselves, often for up to twenty or thirty minutes at a time.
A ball As long as the baby can’t bite chunks out of the material, a ball can provide tons of play for babies and toddlers. Having the ball bounce off their body and roll away often gets them exploring the sensation of rolling over too.
Sometimes after strewing these objects in their play space you’ll feel great pride in your decision. She will be exploring to her heart’s content and you will have a moment of calmness and reflection. I’ve often thought in these moments of quiet observation that this is what people mean when they say, “Cherish these years; they go by so fast.” Watching them explore at their own pace does seem to slow down that clock for a few moments at least.
About the Author
Philip Mott is a homeschooling father to three and a regular contributor to First Time Parent Magazine and www.fatheringtogether.org.