We’ve all been there, right? You buy your child a shiny new toy with all the gadgets, lights, and sounds you can imagine. Then your little one is more interested in playing with the box that the toy came in than the actual toy itself. Sometimes it’s the more basic, less-flashy toys that get the most playtime. Much to a parent’s exasperation!
During my time as a pediatric occupational therapist, I would often make recommendations to parents as to what common household items could be used during play to aid motor skill development. Now that I’m a mom of three, I still find myself reaching for these go-to items to preoccupy and entertain my little munchkins. Here’s my list of ten common household items that can be used in play.
I might as well start my list with my very favorite household item! I could come up with countless ways to use painter’s tape with your babes. But for the sake of time, I’ll keep my list concise here since I know you’re probably juggling about a hundred different things right about now!
Grab some tape and make different large shapes on the floor. You could even use a marker to make dash marks down the center and make it look like a road. Then your child can take various toy cars and trucks to drive on the different shapes.
If your little one is working on standing or walking, use the tape to stick small, lightweight toys on the wall just above their reach. They’ll be motivated to stand and balance to grab the small toys! You could also string painter’s tape, sticky side down, between two objects (like between the couch and the wall), and then stick small objects to the underside of the tape. Then your little one will have to reach and balance on their own to grab the toys.
Another fun and easy setup is to tear off various lengths of tape and stick them vertically on the wall starting near the floor. Then have your child use Legos or other building blocks to stack up to the height of the tape. Have them count how many blocks are in each tower and talk about comparisons (more vs. less, most vs. least, etc.).
You can even make a big indoor tic tac toe board and play by tossing bean bags into the desired spaces! I’m telling you – the possibilities are endless here!
Tongs are great tools because they encourage the development of the small hand muscles required for tasks like coloring, writing, or cutting with scissors. Grab your kitchen tongs and challenge your child to a board game, using the tongs to move the game pieces around the board. They’re also great for games like Connect Four or Dominoes. Or set up an easy transferring activity where you challenge your little one to transfer small objects from one container to another.
One of my favorite fall games to play is bobbing for apples but using tongs instead of their mouths. Time them and see how fast they can do it! Or have your child come into the kitchen and help you. You could chop up pieces of fruit, and your child could use the tongs to place them into a bowl for a yummy fruit salad. As kids become more proficient with using tongs, you can challenge them further by using other household items, like tweezers or chopsticks, in the same ways I mentioned above.
When you’re not using this household item for baking some yummy treats, use them during playtime with your babes! Cupcake tins make for a great spot to work on sorting. You could have your child sort small items by color (think craft pompoms, Legos, or small blocks) or use the same things to create patterns. You could even use kitchen tongs or tweezers (mentioned above) for these tasks for an increased fine motor challenge.
Flip the cupcake tin over to the back and grab a dry erase marker to write numbers like a phone. Then have your child practice “dialing” phone numbers. This could make for a fun, imaginative game for all! Or if you’ve got some rubber bands lying around the house, use them along with the cupcake tin, and you’ve got yourself a DIY geoboard! What shapes can your little ones make?
Talk about a good time! Whenever I take the shaving cream out for some sensory play, our kids go nuts for it. One of my favorite places to use it is in the bath.
Let your children spray the shaving cream on the walls, and they’ll have a blast using their fingers to draw in the foam! Plus, it makes for super easy clean-up since it’s contained in the bath! Fun for the kids, and an easy clean-up for mom? I call that a win!
You could also use food coloring to have your kids experiment with color mixing. If your child is sensitive to certain sensory experiences, the same color mixing activity can be done in plastic baggies, so the shaving cream doesn’t actually touch your little one’s hands.
There’s something about post-its that the kids love! They’re like secret special stickers that come from mommy or daddy’s desk drawer that they can write on. I mean, what’s not to love?
For your budding readers, you could use post-its to put up all around the house and label objects. Or just write the beginning letter and talk about letter sounds (put a letter W on a window or a letter P on a picture). You could also write out each letter of their name on post-its and have them assemble their name. Challenge them further by including their last name. Or you could even have them assemble the names of the whole family!
You can also use post-its to work on numbers and counting! Make large dots on individual post-its ranging from 1 to 10 (or higher if your child can manage the task), and then on a separate post-it, write the corresponding number. Mix them all up, stick them up on a wall, and have your child match the number with the correct post-it representing that number of dots. You can go as high as your little one can count! Or until you run out of post-its . . .
No need to buy a bunch of play-doh tools! Open up your utensil drawer, and I’m sure you’ll find a bunch of great tools at your fingertips. Grab the cookie cutters, your rolling pin, any child-safe utensils like dull plastic knives, pizza cutters, etc., and your little one will be preoccupied for a good chunk of time. At least long enough for you to enjoy your coffee while it’s still hot!
Using these household items in play helps to develop your little one’s fine motor skills and helps to carry over these skills into self-care tasks such as independent eating. Working on these skills during play is often less pressure (and more fun!) than working on them during the actual task. Fine motor development is also required for tasks such as cutting, writing, and coloring. Break out the kitchen utensils, and open up the play-doh restaurant, where everything on the menu is kid-friendly!
These are another great way to work on fine motor strength and control. I would often use clothespins in my occupational therapy practice because there are many ways to use them in activities. Grab 26 clothespins and write the entire lower case alphabet (one letter on each clothespin) and then, on the outside edge of a paper plate, write the upper case alphabet. Then have your child match up the lower and upper case letters by pinching the clothespins and attaching them to the outside of the plate.
You could do a similar activity with numbers if you have a little one who can read! On the paper plate, write out numbers as high as you think your child can make it (i.e., 1-10) and then write out the number name (i.e., “one” through “ten”) on the clothespins. For younger babes, you can work on basic counting. If you have some recycled cardboard lying around (think about old cereal or cracker boxes), cut out several rectangles and make counting cards. You can use various items from around the house to make these!
Aside from the countless paper plate crafts, you can find with a simple internet search, this household item can also be used for fun learning activities.
Take one paper plate and cut it into 10 “slices” so it looks like several pieces of pizza, then color red circles ranging from 1-10 on each slice (they’ll look like little pepperonis). On a second paper plate, draw lines going across the center of the plate where the outline of the slices would be. Then write one number on each slice ranging from 1-10. Challenge your little one to match up the pepperoni slices with their corresponding number. This is a fun way to work on one-to-one counting!
If your little one can, you could also play a game of ring toss with paper plates. Cut out the flat center portion of the plates, leaving a large ring. Color them using paint or markers – let their imagination run wild here! Then take a recycled paper towel roll and glue it to the base of a whole paper plate, and once it’s dried, challenge your kids to a game of ring toss! Whoever can make the most rings to land on the towel roll wins! This is a great game for indoor play during the cold winter months when outside play might not always be an option.
This one’s easy! One of my favorite “hacks” while working as an OT was to put as many toys and games in plastic bags or plastic food containers as possible. That way, kids naturally get practice opening various containers. This fosters bilateral coordination and finger strength, which are skills that are important for independence in feeding. By the time your child heads off to school, they’ll be able to manage their food containers or snack bags all on their own.
You could gather puzzles, blocks, or other similar toys by group and put them all in baggies or containers. And bonus! All their toys will be that much more organized because they’ll each have a spot. Win for mom too!
You knew this household item had to make the list, right? I mean, what kid doesn’t love playing with a cardboard box? Aside from the fact that you can use the cardboard scraps for any number of arts and craft activities, your recycled boxes can be used so much more!
Turn them into a makeshift basket for kids to practice their gross motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Or cut down one side of the box and open it up flat, then draw roads and buildings on it, and voilà! You have a whole cityscape to play with! You could also open it up flat and allow your child to use their imagination to draw whatever they’d like.
Have them lie on their tummy for coloring and drawing. This works on shoulder and core strength and stability, which are important building blocks for handwriting. You could also open up the box and use some painter’s tape (if you have any left after all the tape activities from before) and stick it up on the wall. Coloring and drawing on a vertical surface also works on shoulder strength and stability. Plus, it encourages an optimal wrist position for their dominant hand, which will certainly help them as they begin writing.
I sincerely hope you enjoy this list and found at least a few ideas that sounded fun for you and your babes to do! What other household items do you think you could use during playtime? Take a look around the house, and I’m sure you’ll look at things differently and find new and exciting ways to use them!