Monday, December 17, 2012

Three easy DIY toys for open-ended play with kids

One of the things I love most about this time of year is how excited so many people get to spend time with their families and friends over the holidays.In all the excitement, though, there are always unexpected lulls. Your plane is late, or dinner in a restaurant is taking longer than expected to come... and these are the trickiest times when you're hanging out with young children.

It can be even harder when you're with children that you love, but don't hang out with very often. Of course you can toss on a movie or watch them play with their DS, but all that traveling was so that you could actually hang out with them, right? Whether you're their awesome uncle or their godmother from another state, here are some new ideas to help you have fun and connect with the children in your life. Make them in 30 minutes or less, toss them in your bag, and you'll be prepared no matter how unexpected the lull.

1) Felt Tangrams: Tangrams are a type of traditional Chinese puzzle. Essentially, they are a square cut into seven pieces: 2 large triangles, 1 medium triangle, 2 small triangles, a square, and a parallelogram. Of course, if you'd like to go a less "traditional" route, you can cut out all kinds of shapes - the possibilities are really endless. Then arrange these shapes to make all kinds of pictures -  animals, houses, monsters, robots, and more! Tell stories about the pictures you each make, or challenge each other to see who can make a certain animal the most quickly. As a great challenge for school age children, ask them to use all the tangram pieces to form one square - its harder than it looks.
To make your own travel tangrams, just cut one large piece of felt into a square to be your base. Then, from a smaller square of felt, cut out the tangram pieces, as shown. Since felt sticks to felt, you can place the smaller pieces on the one base piece, roll it up, stick it in your bag, and go.
As a bonus, bring along the book Grandfather Tang's Story by Ann Tompert, which will teach you how to make even more tangram figures!

2) Circle Builders: For kids who are all about building, whether it be with Legos and blocks, introduce them to a new kind of construction. These circle builders are super simple to make: first, laminate a few different colored sheets of cardstock (either with a fancy laminating machine, or the cheaper-but-just-as-effective way, with many strips of packing tape). Next, cut out many small circles - I cut a total of thirty 2.5" inch circles out of three different colors of cardstock. Then, cut four slits in each circle: one at the top, one at the bottom, and one on each side. Each slit should extend from the edge halfway to the center of the circle. Place them all in a small tin, or just rubber band them together.
To build with these, simply line up two of the slits and slide the circles together. One circle will be vertical, and the other horizontal. Continue sliding circles on - you can build shockingly tall structures this way! These circles are easy to build with once you get the hang of it, but they can be kind of finicky at first, so this is a great toy for kids who are super into building or who love a challenge.

3) Tinkering Kit: For slightly older kids (who are past the stage of putting small objects in their mouths), a great, creative toy is a tinkering kit. Put random items that can be combined in interesting ways into a box or tin (I used a random clear box I had lying around the house). In my kit, I put cut up drinking straws, two sizes of popsicle sticks, pom poms, rubber bands, buttons, mosaic squares, pipe cleaners, and a small roll of washi tape.

To adults, this might seem like a pile of junk... but I have done this project many times with young children, and all they see is possibility! Giving them the freedom to create whatever they'd like leads to so much creativity. Using these or similar supplies, I have seen kids build the coolest robots, most unique sculptures, a menagerie of animals, and much, much more. Get your creative juices flowing and build something alongside them! Its a great form of open-ended play that leads to great conversations.

Have fun hanging out with the kids in your life this holiday season!


  1. These ideas are amazing. Ha - I think me and my husband would get a kick out of trying to make stuff with them ;) I bet that my nieces and nephews would love something like this. Thanks for the ideas!

  2. Fantastic post. I was looking for ideas to do during long flights. I will make some tangrams for my girls. Thanks!

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