Whenever I hear a young couple fret about the cost of raising a child these days, I cringe a little. Sure, there are some unavoidable expenses, like a good sturdy stroller, a crib that isn't on a recall list, and of course, the right car seat. And a good doctor. And a trustworthy sitter. But what about the rich learning environment? How expensive are the best educational toys, and how many should you buy in order to keep your child on an optimum learning curve?
Oh, brother. You may not realize this, but you already have pretty much all the tools you need to help your child learn at his developmental stage. Look around the kitchen. Budding scientists love to play in the sink, so fill it part way with water, pull a kitchen chair over and stand with your toddler as he uses your measuring cups and spoons, filling and emptying cups and pans. What is he learning? Different size cups hold different amounts of water: that's the concept of "conservation" toddlers must learn in order to judge volume. But he's also learning other great scientific concepts, like the difference between solids and liquids, between warm and cold, on and off, fast and slow, and so on.
Make playdough with your child from the classic recipe:
2 cups flour
1/2 cup salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil (or baby oil for a scent)
1 1/2 cups water
Blend the dry ingredients together (even small children can do this with a wooden spoon in a plastic bowl), add the oil and slowly dribble in the water (or let your child ladle it in as you knead) until you get that playdough texture. Divide into 4 equal size balls and add a few drops of food coloring, and knead it in. Voila! As much fun to make as it is to model.
Even toilet training can get a low-cost boost from your household supplies. Cut a circular "target" out of colored tissue and drop it in the potty, and encourage your child to "hit the target" -- this works with girls too (it's just a tad more complicated, since she'll want to see where she's aiming).
Back issues of magazines can make a great sorting game for older toddlers. Cut out colors, shapes and sizes and let your child play a matching game. Or make it a lesson on emotional intelligence: cut out faces that express different feelings. Name and label these expressions, and talk about what they mean with your child. Ask your child what she thinks the person is feeling, which face matches how she herself feels.
Keep a box of old clothes for "dress up" games. There should be assorted outfits, accessories and shoes. Role playing games are a vital part of learning: kids not only learn how to imagine what other people do and act it out, they also learn vital thinking skills, including planning, decision making, memory or retention, and cooperation. It even helps your child's early literary and language skills.
Of course there are some great educational toys out there, but not one of them beats a good imagination and a little ingenuity.