Prime time fun: Alternatives to TV

While it's tempting to use the TV as a babysitter — especially before dinner, when you need to be in the kitchen — you shouldn't get into the habit: Research shows that too much TV-watching can actually restrict your child's imaginative and cognitive abilities. The answer? Bring your child into the kitchen with you. You have plenty of "ingredients" for fun inside the cupboards and drawers. Here are some suggestions from experts to help keep the TV off while you both cook up some fun. Don't worry if you have a small kitchen. These suggestions can be used anytime, anywhere.

The power of pretend play. Try initiating a make-believe game with your child, suggests Jerome L. Singer, co-director of the Family Television Research and Consultation Center at Yale University. Not only will pretend play give your child ample opportunity to use his imagination, says Singer, but research shows that kids who play make-believe tend to be happier than other kids. For example, pretend you are at your child's favorite restaurant. Outfit your child with an apron and help him set up a table and chairs for his stuffed animals. Or, pretend you are going on a picnic: Set out a blanket with a basket and ask your child what kinds of food he would pack.

Make a mini kitchen. Set up a small table for your little chef in one corner of the kitchen with a few cooking utensils (small pot, cutting board, butter knife) and some of the ingredients you're using for dinner. Your child can imitate you while pretending to make dinner, too. "When children imitate their parents it makes them feel grown up and they feel a sense of power," says Marilyn Segal, dean emeritus at the Family and School Center at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. If your child has a play kitchen in his room, consider moving it into the kitchen where you can cook side by side.

Funnel fun. Seat your child at the table in front of two plastic washtubs with beans or colored rice, provide a funnel and some spoons, and show your child how to pour the beans and rice back and forth, suggests Kathy Kenworthy, who teaches preschool at the Broadway Children's School in Oakland, California. Be sure to keep an eye on your child, Kenworthy warns: Some young children may try to put beans or rice in their nose and ears, where they can get stuck.

Play dough creations. Kids love to use play dough to make their own cakes, cookies, and more. To make the colored dough combine two cups white flour, ½ cup salt, 2 cups water, 2 tablespoons cooking oil, ¼ cup cream of tartar, and a drop of food coloring in a saucepan over medium heat. When the mixture looks smooth, let it cool and give it to your child to play with. (You can also keep it in the fridge for future on-the-spot creations.)

Kenworthy suggests setting up a tray with the colored dough and some objects for your child to shape the dough with. Cookie cutters, toothpicks, and bottle caps are all good choices. "Four-year-olds love to use garlic presses," Kenworthy says. Two- and 3-year-olds may have trouble squeezing the garlic press together, but they can use plastic knives and scissors to cut the play dough, she says.

Homespun place mats. You'll be surprised at how the TV will pale in comparison when your child is presented with an art project, even a simple one, Kenworthy says. Try setting up a small arts and crafts table in the kitchen (or drape a plastic tarp over the dinner table) with glue, markers, construction paper, scissors, beans, and various types of uncooked pasta. Your child can create colorful placemats for family members and decorate the borders with the beans and pasta.

Bubble delight. Blowing bubbles is a fun learning activity for kids. Set up a basin of water with a little dish soap, Kenworthy suggests. Your child can use objects such as rubber bands and strawberry baskets to blow bubbles, and can experiment by using the different objects to create bubbles of different sizes. Be warned that while your child is mastering the art of bubble blowing, you may end up with a lot of water on the floor. If you want your child to do this activity at the sink, sit him on a stool with rubber legs so it doesn't slide.

Playful pizza. Buy ready-made pizza dough and give your child a bowl of cooked tomato sauce to smear onto the crust. Then let him decorate it with pieces of grated cheese, pepperoni, olives, slices of tomato and pepper, and anything else you'd like on the pizza. Many children like to make smiley faces or patterns. After you've cooked the pizza, point out to your child how the ingredients look different (mushrooms shrink, cheese melts, colors deepen) after they've been cooked.

Cook up a story. Bring your kids into the kitchen and tell each other stories, Kenworthy suggests. Try using kitchen items for inspiration. For example, the pasta you're about to dump into the boiling water can represent scuba divers on a daring mission. Encourage your child to add to the tale or start one of his own. "Telling stories is terrific for children's language development," Kenworthy says. Not only does telling stories help children organize their thoughts and learn new vocabulary, but communicating with you boosts their self-esteem, she says. Tip: Your child will love hearing about a main character that greatly resembles him.

Resort to sort. Set a bunch of different objects — fruits, silverware (no sharp knives!), cups — on the table and ask your child to separate them into different groups, Kenworthy suggests. While he's concentrating on the task, talk to him about the objects he's sorting: What color are they? What are they used for? Not only will your child have fun with everyday objects, he'll also learn about them. "Sorting is one way young kids explore the world," Kenworthy says.

~ Written by Kya Fawley ~ Baby Center


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