Children at Play: Keeping it Simple
by Genevieve Richards, BabyZone.com

Many parents dread the onset of summer. Not only do they fret about keeping their children entertained, but also about the often hefty cost involved in doing so. Your child's entertainment need not come in the form of the latest toys or activities, and as you can see from the budget-friendly list below, it needn't break the bank either.

In the Kitchen
Children love to help mom cook. National Network for Child Care (NNCC) literature says, "Children learn by touching, tasting, feeling, smelling, and listening. They love to help prepare food and cook because they can use all their senses. Children like to eat the foods they make." This is also useful if your child is a fussy eater as she will be less suspicious of new foods if she has had a hand in preparing the dish. The NNCC suggests the following age-appropriate guidelines:

Two-year-olds are learning to use the large muscles in their arms. They will enjoy activities such as:
o scrubbing vegetables and fruits
o wiping tables
o dipping vegetables and fruits
o tearing lettuce and salad greens
o breaking bread for stuffing
o snapping fresh beans

Three-year-olds are learning to use their hands. Try activities such as:
o pouring liquids into and mixing batters
o shaking a milk drink
o spreading peanut butter on firm bread
o kneading bread dough

Four- and five-year-olds are learning to control smaller muscles in their fingers. Offer them experiences such as:
o rolling bananas in cereal for a snack
o juicing oranges, lemons, and limes
o mashing soft fruits and vegetables
o measuring dry and liquid ingredients
o grinding cooked meat for a meat spread
o beating eggs

Making play dough with your child is a two-fold bonus: not only does your child get to cook with you, but he then gets to play with the result afterwards. Try the following easy recipe for play dough fun:
2 cups flour
1 cup salt
1 cup water
1 spoon of olive oil
food coloring or dash of paint

Combine the dry ingredients. Add several drops of food coloring to the water and then slowly add the water to the dry mix, mixing until all the ingredients are combined. Knead the dough until it reaches the required color and consistency. Edible clay in the form of cookie dough is always fun and can be baked as well. Keep the dough in a sealed container to keep its elasticity, otherwise it will dry out and harden.
In the Bathroom
While some children adore bath time, others simply loathe it. No matter which category your child falls into, baths can be fun and stress free. A good tip is to sing or make up a song about bath time and sing it every night so your child can learn to sing along and get ready for her bath. My sister and her husband made up a little song for my niece, and when she hears them sing "rub a dub dub, who's in the tub?" she knows it is bathtime and starts squealing and giggling—she gets so excited she runs away and they have to "catch" her which adds to the excitement. She adores this ritual, even when the family is away from home on vacation.

A few inexpensive bath toys, or even a few plastic kitchen containers and cups, and a little bubble bath goes a very long way to keep your child happy and make her everyday routine a little less routine!

Reading to Your Child
Many parents overlook the importance and fun of reading stories to their children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), only 50 percent of toddlers and infants are routinely read to by their parents.
Not only do children love hearing their parents' voices, but they really enjoy hearing mom and dad put on the various voices of a book's characters. Another alternative is to make up a story for your child and then ask him what he thinks happens next. Not only is this keeping a child entertained, but it encourages him to use his imagination, too.

The request to read a favorite book or hear a favorite story may tire you out, but young children thrive on repetition, which helps them gain word recognition, story sequence, vocabulary, and recognize story book language.

There is no need to go out and buy your child every new book that comes to your local bookstore—instead join your local library (and choose the books together with your child), frequent second hand book shops, or even form a children's book club with the other mothers in your area and swap books.

Many libraries also offer fun and free activities for kids, including storytimes, puppet shows, plays, and reading groups for older kids.

Arts and Crafts
BabyZone.com has some great ideas for creative art projects you and your kids can do together. Art and craft books in your local library also offer all kinds of ideas and simple guides on how to make fun crafts with your kids, such a simple sock or paper bag puppet. To make an easy paper bag puppet you'll need:
o Small paper bag
o Paint, brushes, crayons or markers
o Paper, scissors, glue

Leave the bag folded flat. Cut out ears and a tongue from colored paper and glue them to the fold of the bag. Alternatively your child can draw the features onto the bag and decorate the back with a tail made of paper or cotton wool. The ideas of what puppet to make are limitless!

Finger painting is a great and inexpensive way to spend quality time with your child; not only will kids have immense fun "painting," but you can also use this time to make a few keepsakes. My sister and niece made some colorful handprints and footprints which they put into cards and sent to a few friends and members of family. I was thrilled to receive my copy and have had it framed. Parents can either purchase a finger painting tool kit (available at most art supplies stores), or make their own edible paint using a variety of ingredients such as chocolate pudding or gelatin.

In the Garden
Gardening with your child might seem a daunting prospect, but children are natural gardeners—they adore digging in the dirt and making mud pies, are fascinated by looking at (and trying to identify) bugs and worms, and love watering the garden.

Eartheasy.com suggests planting easy-to-grow vegetables such as cherry tomatoes, radishes, and carrots which you can plant together in a small space. Vegetables are a great choice because they germinate quickly and can be eaten once ripe. Flowers that are easy to grow include marigolds or sunflowers.

Outdoor Play
Areas for walking and running are very accessible—and free in the instance of your own garden or municipal parks—and can promote health and fitness in your family. Not only is fresh air beneficial to the health of your child, but the art of playing outdoors allows your child to explore her environment and interact with nature and other children, which all help in her development. Physical exercise will exhilarate your child and help in the manufacture of endorphins, the body's natural "feel good" or "happy" hormones.

Children who are encouraged to play outdoors as often as possible or participate in organized sports will also, in later life, regard exercise as normal—thus helping to prevent obesity, a condition which is prevalent in today's inactive society.

Outdoor activities that you and your child can do together include riding your bicycles, kicking a soccer ball back and forth, running through the sprinkler, creating chalk drawings on the driveway, blowing bubbles, flying a kite, or just going for a walk around the neighborhood.
It is a commonly held belief that for children to have fun they must be bought every new toy that comes to the market—and this is simply not true! Wherever possible, children will make their own fun, given the right direction and encouragement. As a child growing up in South Africa, I remember running wild outside in the garden and neighborhood, climbing trees, and playing so hard I was exhausted. I played hard at my job of being a child, and it was quite a chore for my mother to get me indoors for a bath before bedtime!

About the Author
Genevieve Richards was born and educated in South Africa and has lived in London for the last eight years. A graduate in public relations and journalism, she has now branched out into freelance writing.