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Free but highly educational Baby and Toddler activities

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

In the first five years a child's brain forms more neural connections than at any other time in our lives. Rich experiences provide interactions and information that babies and young children use to start making sense of the world around them. They form the scaffolding around which any future learning takes place. The more babies and young children are exposed to, the most material their growing brains are able to use to keep building all those neural connections.


Therefore activities and experiences are a key part of child development. Yet, the rising cost of living is hard for everyone and many organised activities are pricy.


Here we have tried to put together a list of top things to do with babies and toddlers for free, at home or in the local area and summarise how they impact child development.



1. The Library


Books are at the heart of our provision. They not only build a love of reading in children, but they facilitate language development and social and emotional development. They are opportunities to learn from experiences that a child has not yet seen first hand and they teach about empathy, understanding and many other important aspects of life.


Outside of our nursery, libraries are wonderful places for young children and even for babies. They are clean, safe spaces with lots to explore. Babies can enjoy a lovely selection of sensory books and toddlers can be engrossed in picture books. Above all, children of all ages, even young babies, enjoy hearing the sound of their parent's voice as they read to them. So reading to them and discussing stories is a key part of child development. And libraries allow you to check out a few books each time - for free.


Talking to your baby and reading them stories does not only help to develop their speech and language but it is also a big part of their social and emotional development.


Personally we love Greenford Library. It is a real gem of a library. The staff are super helpful and friendly and they love kids. Located at 23 Oldfield Ln S, Greenford UB6 9LG, it is open from 12:00 (midday) to 5pm, Monday to Saturday.


A few new activities are starting soon at this library, including story time once a week. Check out their website and head over for an afternoon of fun with your little one. Don't forget to check out their children's section notice board - it is usually full of useful information from the local authority and other activities to do with children in the area.


And the best thing is that this wonderful place is located right next door to our next free activity to do in Greenford.



2. The Park



We love the outdoors and strongly believe that nature is one of the best learning opportunities for children (big and small). We are super lucky at our nursery to have a vast outdoor space at our disposal - from growing of peas, tomatoes and flowers that attract bees in our garden, to exploring the wilderness through forest walks on our site, each day brings opportunities for growth.


Whatever time of year, there is always something to do outside in nature and Ravenor Park is fantastic for that. From leaves turning different colours, to various bugs and butterflies to observe. Use your outdoor time as an opportunity for discovery. Talk to your child about colours, shapes, textures, seeds, birds, flowers, etc.


We often collect sticks and get children to measure things using those sticks. It's such a fun activity and helps them realise why we use standard measures - what a great start for their maths skills!


Outdoor activities are also a key part of each child's physical development. Not only has fresh air been proven to be beneficial for our health, but it is a key tool for building fine and gross motor skills in our children. From picking up and stacking small stones, sticks and leaves and drawing with chalk on the sidewalk (fine motor skills) to jumping into puddles and climbing over things (gross motor skills) - what a fun way to spend the day!


3. Play dates


No matter how much we try to teach our children, they learn more than half of their skills from other children. For example, have you ever noticed how you said 'mine' a thousand times around your child and all it takes is another child saying 'mines' and your child is stuck on using 'mines' for months afterwards? Well, this is just the slightly annoying demonstration of the impact of this very important learning method. But don't worry - 99% of things they learn from their peers are positive and useful!


At nursery we facilitate child play opportunities by helping to model behaviours (e.g. tea party, building a race track or a tower, playing at being a zoo keeper) and scaffolding their social interactions. We initiate play or step in to facilitate play and then gradually let the children take over. One of the biggest impacts of covid has been on children that missed out on such opportunities. While playing with others children, they learn to take turns, to share, to form emotional connections with other children, to respond to other people's emotions, facial expressions, needs and much more. They develop their own sense of self but interacting with others. This is a key aspect of self regulation and emotional security later in life.


Outside of nurseries, play dates with new and established friends on a regular basis accelerates this process. It helps children to form bonds with other tiny humans, to learn social expressions, emotional responses, how choices lead to consequences (e.g. if I snatch a toy from my friend, they get upset and do not want to play with me), the joy of sharing something with a friend and the struggles of resolving conflicts peacefully. Therefore, playing with other children is one of the key areas that facilitates each child's social and emotional growth.


And the role of the adult becomes that of a secure emotional place. A place of co-regulation for all those emotions. As babies and children struggle with their emotions - and let's face it, the amygdala that regulates some of our biggest emotions does not develop fully until we are 25! - we provide a safe emotional space for them to experience all of those things, to feel empathised with and understood; a place where we demonstrate and encourage techniques to feel those emotions safely and fully and manage our actions as a result of them.


Play dates can be anything - from sharing a picnic in the park or going to a playground together, to playing at home together while parents are having a much deserved cup of tea and a chat together.



4. Arts and crafts


Let's be honest - not every parent is crafty. But then crafty activities really do not need to be complicated and we are not aiming for Picasso standard here. Head over to Instagram for easy and amazing learning activities that do not require a trip to an Arts & Crafts store.


Anything can be used - old Amazon cardboard, a bit of paint and some loo roll inserts. Cut into the top edges of the loo roll insert and pull them back a bit and you have yourself a flower stencil. Put some food colouring into a bag with pasta or rice or lentils and you have yourself hours of fun.


Such activities are not expensive but they serve an important role. Not only do they build hand eye coordination and fine motor skills but they provide a key avenue for exploration of the world around your baby or child. And doing it together helps to continue building on your relationship with your little one.



5. Sensory activities


Our senses play a key role in our lives, for example:

  • Human touch activates dopamine and fires up connections between different parts of our brains. It also facilitates social and emotional connection.

  • Smell and sound are heavily linked to memory formation.

  • Music and multiple languages create links between different, unrelated elements of the human brain.

Providing your little one with a range of such experiences creates a stronger neural scaffolding for any additional learning. Stronger and more flexible.


Listening to music and learning to identify sounds helps with learning sounds and letters further down the road. Try getting your little one to listen for bird song in the park, the sound of the wind, or make a rain stick by putting rice inside a kitchen paper insert roll and taping up the ends.


Rhymes help the brain to memorise concepts more easily. There are lots of easy ideas to try at home - from filling a bucket or a tray with shaving foam and tracing out shapes, to filling a ziplock bag with water and putting pompoms inside to get a child to move them around. Or take an old water bottle, fill it with rice, glitter, water and vegetable oil and enjoy your little one's reactions as they shake it.



6. STEM


People hear STEM and they instantly think - complex science. In baby and child terms, it is anything that sparks off their imagination and curiosity about the world around them. From filling a bucket and seeing what floats and what sinks, to using what you already have at home (think packaging, loo roll inserts, kitchen towel inserts, etc.) and some paper tape to build a marble run. And they don't have to be marbles. Ever tried to shoot pine cones down the staircase? We have - it's fun!


Try growing things - go for things that show results fast. Kids don't have patiences for slow results. We like using mustard seeds or watercress or herbs (coriander, basil, etc). Kids love seeing things sprout and taking care of them by watering them.


You don't have to be a wizard and build a volcano at home. Try putting vinegar, water, oil and some food colourant into a bottle and adding an alka-seltzer tablet. Kids love seeing what happens. Just be prepared for a long discussion on what a lava lamp was and its importance in human history. Put some coloured paper around the bottle to make it look like a monster mouth and kids go crazy for this foaming wonder.


Another approach is to try to balance a bunch of sturdy kitchen objects (sauce pans, spatulas, etc.) and see how tall that tower can get before it tumbles down. Throw paper airplanes off the balcony or the top of the stairs or fill a bowl with water and toys in leave in the freezer, for your child to explore digging for treasure.


If you are short of ideas, we will start posting some of our favourite ones on our Instagram account #albayearlyyears. Or even better - come and talk to our team at the LPFF Sports Pavilion, Birkbeck Avenue UB6 8LS. They are full of ideas!


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