baby play

At-Home Baby Play

We’ve written a ton of baby play posts on this blog, and, since many of us are stuck at home for a while, I wanted to highlight some of my favorite activities that can easily be replicated at home. These can be made with objects you can find around the house.

Other awesome play ideas with everyday objects:

What am I missing? Post other ideas in the comments, and I will add them to the lists above.

Baby Play: Sensory Bottles

After each of my baby storytimes, I include a Discovery Time free-play session that encourages parents to talk to one another and to interact with their children. I include a variety of fine motor, gross motor, and sensory activities that appeal to 0-2-year-olds.

Sensory play is very important for all ages but especially for babies. Babies are exploring concepts (like gravity and motion) and textures for the first time. Their brains are growing at exponential rates as they learn how they can manipulative the world around them.

There are so many ways to encourage sensory play in a storytime setting. I regularly use textured tiles, liquid tiles, sensory boards, sensory bags, and, more recently, sensory bottles. Unless the program is designed and advertised as play only, I avoid sensory bins (except for water play) since objects inside those bins are often choking hazards (and there isn’t enough time to clean up beans, rice, sand, or water beads from the floor between story times).

Sensory bottles allow little ones to manipulate liquids without getting wet or manipulate small objects that would be a choking hazard or dangerous if left out for free play.

My most recent set of bottles included:

  • Mixtures of oil and water with food coloring
  • Water Beads
  • Water with small plastic spoons
  • Hair gel with suspended items
  • Oil with chunks of floating glitter glue

You can also add objects to create sound bottles like:

  • Paperclips
  • Thumbtacks
  • Googly Eyes
  • Keys

How to Make

Materials: Voss water bottles (the best type of bottle), materials to fill bottles, clear packing tape

Steps:

  • Empty Voss water bottle. Carefully peel off all labels. These should come off cleanly with no leftover residue.
  • Fill bottle with desired items or mixture.
  • Wrap 2-3 layers of clear tape around bottom of cap.

Cost: $12+ (depends what you have on hand)

Time to Make: 5 minutes

Tips: Voss bottles are the way to go. These are the perfect size for small hands and the labels peel off perfectly, creating a clear, smooth surface.

You can hot glue the bottle closed as well, but babies will not try to peel off tape they can’t see. Clear packing tape around the clear bottle is essentially not visible to little ones, so they don’t try to open the bottle. We’ve never had a child successfully get into a taped bottle.

Conversation Starters

Start conversations as babies play with this tool by asking questions like:

  • What happens when you shake the bottle?
  • What sound does the bottle make if you shake it?
  • What happens if you turn the bottle upside down?
  • Do the items in the bottle float?
  • What colors are in the bottle?
  • How many items are in the bottle?
  • What would you put in a bottle?

Stretch Vocabulary

When talking with little ones, use big words and small words. The more new words a child hears, the larger their vocabulary will be when they start to learn to read.

Consider using some of the following vocabulary words when using this activity:

Bounce
Drip
Faint
Fast
Float
Hash

Jolt
Knock
Loud
Muffled
Pleasant
Quickly

Quiet
Rattle
Shake
Slow
Soft
Wiggle

Baby Play: Liquid Tiles

After each of my baby storytimes, I include a Discovery Time free-play session that encourages parents to talk to one another and to interact with their children. I include a variety of fine motor, gross motor, and sensory activities that appeal to 0-2-year-olds.

Sensory play is very important for all ages but especially for babies. Babies are exploring concepts (like gravity and motion) and textures for the first time. Their brains are growing at exponential rates as they learn how they can manipulative the world around them.

I’ve been using textured tiles for a while. These are liked by all and allow babies to explore different surfaces in a safe environment. The foam puzzle tiles allow for adults or kids to create a path, a large block of textured squares, or any other shape they can think of.

However, my textured tiles have been put to shame by my coworker’s amazing liquid tiles. These have gone through many iterations, and, unfortunately, are not leak-proof.

We recently purchased factory-made liquid tiles that have also been fan favorites. These have been well-loved in the last three weeks with no signs of breaking. They are especially loved by the larger kids and adults, who can safely step on these without being concerned about them breaking.

Both types of tiles have different advantages–read on to see my pros and cons of each style, plus how to make those awesome handmade liquid tiles.

DIY Liquid Tiles

This method is developed by the talented Sarah Simpson, who I would make write this post except she is at home with her own new baby at the moment.

Materials: lamination pouches (the thicker the better; example is 5 mil), iron, baby oil (4-6 oz. a tile), food coloring, various items to add into bags, duct tape

Optional: Foam Puzzle Tiles (any size, extra large in images), Industrial Hole Punch, Zip Ties

Steps:

  • Trim lamination pouch to your ideal size. If you are planning to attach it to a foam puzzle tile or other surface, measure to fit that surface while leaving some space around the edges for eventual attachment.
  • Iron three sides of the pouch shut, at least 1.5″ around each edge.
  • Insert 4-6 oz. of baby oil into the open end of the pouch.
  • Insert a mixture of other items. Consider water with food coloring, plastic bingo chips, large foam shapes, googly eyes, or tissue paper squares.
  • Remove as much air from the pouch as possible while ironing the last side closed.
  • Wrap colorful duct tape around all edges. Leave a margin of duct tape around the edges (at least 0.5″ thick) that does not have any lamination bag in between the duct tape.
  • You can stop here, unless you want to attach your bag to a tile. The tiles create a different sensory experience for babies, but, be warned, we have never had a tile last more than 3-6 months (sometimes 3-6 days) before some part starts leaking. We think the leaking has to do with the industrial holepunch in the steps below, since bags not attached to tiles have not had this issue.
  • Use an industrial hole punch to punch a hole through the duct tape towards the edge of the bag. Do your best to only punch through the extra duct tape flap you created above, NOT through duct tape and lamination pouch.
  • Use the industrial hole punch to punch a hole in the foam puzzle tile.
  • Attach your lamination pouch using zip ties.

Cost: $25+ (depends what you have on hand)

Time to Make: 15 minutes

Pros: From watching interactions, I think this bag style is better for really little ones than the purchased tiles. Babies can see the movement inside the tiles and can use their hands and body weight to move objects around.

Cons: We have never successfully made one of these tiles that has not eventually leaked. Mostly, those leaks don’t occur until after 2-3 months of regular use. These bags can also take a while to make, especially if you refresh your collection after they start to break.

Purchased Tiles

We recently purchased the Excellerations Large Liquid Tile set from Discount School Supply. While pricey ($142 for the four tiles), these are sturdy to the point of being heavy to pick up. Each tile has a different color inside, and it takes some weight (or gravity if you pick them up and lean them against a wall) to make the liquid move. Adults can stand and jump on them with no sign of any wear.

There are very similar looking tiles available from sellers on Amazon, though those generally have questionable reviews.

We have only had these for about a month, with consistent use 2-3 times a week for only about three weeks, but there is no sign of leaking or damage.

Pros: These are sturdy and require no staff time to make or setup. Cleaning is a breeze–I just use cleaning wipes on them after each story time.

Cons: They are costly. Depending the materials you have on hand, you may be able to make quite a few liquid tiles yourself for less than $10. I also don’t think these are as exciting for the babies, as it takes a lot more force to move the liquid. The adults and walking kids really like this style.

Conversation Starters

Start conversations as babies play with this tool by asking questions like:

  • What do you see in the tile?
  • What does the tile feel like?
  • What colors are inside the tile?
  • Can you stomp on the tile?
  • Can you make the colors move?

Stretch Vocabulary

When talking with little ones, use big words and small words. The more new words a child hears, the larger their vocabulary will be when they start to learn to read.

Consider using some of the following vocabulary words when using this activity:

Bend
Dry
Examine
Explore
Find
Flexible

Grasp
Hunt
Inspect
Investigate
Mushy
Search

Shape
Smooth
Spot
Squeeze
Squishy
Wet

Baby Play: Puppet Time

After each of my baby storytimes, I include a Discovery Time free-play session that encourages parents to talk to one another and to interact with their children. I include a variety of fine motor, gross motor, and sensory activities that appeal to 0-2-year-olds.

If your library is anything like mine, you have a good stash of high quality puppets stashed away somewhere. These are probably frequently used by librarians in storytime–there are so many amazing puppet rhymes, books, and songs for all ages (check out my Bark George post for one of my favorites).

One of my coworkers asked a great question about a year ago–why do we leave the majority of these puppets locked away in cabinets most of the time? We may use 3-5 in an average storytime, leaving 50 puppets in storage. While we don’t want to put these often expensive puppets out in public areas for unsupervised free play–we are well aware of what happens to items left out for public use–these could be used as a play item in supervised, post-storytime play.

Puppets are an excellent tool for developing social and emotional skills in children of all ages. Puppets provide an easy way to grab the attention of little ones. Babies and toddlers like exploring their soft texture. Older toddlers can fit their hand inside of a puppet to make it move and interact with others, practicing social and fine motor skills.

There are a variety of ways to include puppets in your storytime, beyond the standard puppet rhymes. Consider:

  • Using puppets as a “manipulative”, just like you would use shaker eggs or scarves. Little ones can select a puppet from a bin (practicing making choices). Provide some questions for little ones and caregivers to answer together–“what animal is your puppet?”, “what sound does your puppet make?”, “what is your puppet’s name?”. End with a dancing song that makes it easy to include their new stuffed friend.
  • Put out a bin of puppets (or a baby pool of puppets) during storytime after play. Puppets naturally promote parent-child engagement while also providing some time for little ones to explore this item often reserved for adults.

Recommended Purchases

Our best puppets are from Folkmanis. You really cannot go wrong with their puppets, but some of my favorites from their current selection include:

Price: Use what you own. Folkmanis puppets are expensive (often $30+ each). Make sure to ask about discounts for buying in bulk–they have a deal allowing you to get 50% off all puppets if you agree to spend a certain amount (around $300-$400 after the discount).

Conversation Starters

Start conversations as babies play with this tool by asking questions like:

  • What animal did you pick?
  • What sound does this animal make?
  • How does the puppet feel?
  • Can you make the puppet talk?
  • Can you tickle the puppets head?
  • What can you do with the puppet?

Stretch Vocabulary

When talking with little ones, use big words and small words. The more new words a child hears, the larger their vocabulary will be when they start to learn to read.

Consider using some of the following vocabulary words when using this activity:

Animal
Colorful
Fluffy
Friendly
Furry
Hand

Hidden
Jump
Laugh
Loud
Pet
Pretend

Quiet
Soft
Sound
Surprise
Tickle
Touch

Baby Play: Sensory Boards

After each of my baby storytimes, I include a Discovery Time free-play session that encourages parents to talk to one another and to interact with their children. I include a variety of fine motor, gross motor, and sensory activities that appeal to 0-2-year-olds.

Sensory boards are not new. Babies love to explore different textures, some of which they may be experiencing for the first time. Sensory boards allow little ones to explore textures in a controlled environment, including small materials that would be choking hazards if loose but are interesting to explore when secured to a flat surface. Boards can lay flat on the floor, be propped against a wall, or can be free standing depending on what they are made out of.

I have a made a few sensory boards over the last few years, with my favorite versions visible in the pictures. Some of my personal tips:

  • I like using trifold boards, as these can stand up on their own in the middle of a room. Cutting them in half horizontally makes them more accessible for the smallest babies and make them more durable.
  • Colored trifold boards were a game changer for me. Having a colored background makes the textured materials on these boards that much more appealing to small hands and eyes.
  • Always, always check everything on your board before giving it to little ones. Babies have the strongest fingernails and are determined to tear everything off of your sensory boards. Hot glue can only do so much. Keep an eye on these during play too, especially if you have anything on the board that would be a choking hazard if removed.

I also have a second style of board that I made recently for a science/stem-focused baby play program, a textured shape board. While I wish this was a colored background, the white was what I had available at the time. It focuses on shape-based exploration, especially for toddlers and older babies.

How to Make

Materials: colored trifold board, hot glue, various textured surfaces

Steps:

  • Cut colored trifold board in half horizontally, so each piece can stand on its own.
  • Use a hot glue gun to attach pieces of various textured elements. Consider cutting textured pieces into shapes.

Cost: $5+

  • Colored Trifold Board
  • Various textured surfaces:
    • Pipe Cleaners
    • Pom Poms
    • Bottle Caps
    • Felt
    • Fur
    • Foam
    • Carpet
    • Styrofoam
    • Popsicle sticks
    • Bubble wrap
    • Glitter Paper
    • Pool Noodle Pieces
    • Foil
    • Lace
    • Tulle
    • Wood Shapes
    • Ribbon

Time to Make: 15 minutes

Conversation Starters

Start conversations as babies play with this tool by asking questions like:

  • Which texture is the softest?
  • Which texture is the roughest?
  • What color is that texture?
  • How does that texture feel?
  • What is this texture?
  • Which textures make a noise when you touch them?

Stretch Vocabulary

When talking with little ones, use big words and small words. The more new words a child hears, the larger their vocabulary will be when they start to learn to read.

Consider using some of the following vocabulary words when using this activity:

Bumpy
Coarse
Delicate
Dry
Fine
Firm

Fuzzy
Itchy
Jagged
Light
Loose
Reflective

Rough
Sandy
Silky
Smooth
Soft
Spongy

Baby Play: Sticky Paper

After each of my baby storytimes, I include a Discovery Time free-play session that encourages parents to talk to one another and to interact with their children. I include a variety of fine motor, gross motor, and sensory activities that appeal to 0-2-year-olds.

Finding multiple ways to use one item is a staple for library programming, and something I try to do with baby play materials. Libraries only have so much money and so much storage space (as do parents). Our regular storytime space has floor-level windows that work perfectly for foam shape water play. Our larger programming space, which generally works better for our large crowds, unfortunately does not have windows. However, a similar activity can be recreated with contact paper taped to the wall, creating a sticky surface.

Foam shapes (also tissue paper and construction paper scraps) stick easily to contact paper. Little ones quickly realize that some things are too heavy to stick, helping them experiment with cause and effect. Older toddles can also practice identifying colors or shapes.

How to Make

Materials: contact paper, painter’s tape, scissors, objects to stick (foam shapes, construction paper, tissue paper, etc).

Steps:

  • Lay contact paper on floor in front of wall. Cut strip to preferred size.
  • Tape paper to wall with side that peels off facing you.
  • Once secure, peel off one piece of tape at a time to remove cover for sticky part of paper. Put each piece of tape back as you peel so that the paper doesn’t fall off the wall.
  • Consider additional pieces of contact paper as your wall space allows.
  • Put out objects to stick to paper.

Cost: $10+

  • Contact Paper Roll
  • Foam (if creating foam shapes)
  • Construction Paper (if using as sticky object)

Time to Make: <5 of prep, 5+ minutes of time immediately before program

Pro-Tip: Make sure to plan the time to tape up the paper before your storytime. The contact paper can be hard to wrangle.

Conversation Starters

Start conversations as babies play with this tool by asking questions like:

  • What colors are you using?
  • What does the paper feel like?
  • Why did that fall off the paper?
  • What happens if you stick this to the paper?
  • Can you find some red paper?

Stretch Vocabulary

When talking with little ones, use big words and small words. The more new words a child hears, the larger their vocabulary will be when they start to learn to read.

Consider using some of the following vocabulary words when using this activity:

Adhere
Adhesive
Attach
Cling
Color
Fall

Fasten
Fix
Glue
Hold
Outline
Pattern

Shadow
Shape
Silhouette
Slump
Stay
Stick

Baby Play: Giant Balls

After each of my baby storytimes, I include a Discovery Time free-play session that encourages parents to talk to one another and to interact with their children. I include a variety of fine motor, gross motor, and sensory activities that appeal to 0-2-year-olds.

As a child, did you ever longingly walk past those giant ball bins in the Walmart or Target play aisle? I did, and I imagine many little ones today do as well. While those giant balls are cheap, they are not fun to store or manage in a house filled with breakable items protected on high shelves from small hands. Since these balls are not ideal for many homes, they are perfect for baby play in the library, since we have the opportunity to provide adults and children with toys and activities they may not be able to experience at home.

These “giant” balls can be used for many purposes. If being rolled or tossed between an adult and child, they can help develop gross motor skills. These balls often have different textures, providing a sensory experience. The littlest babies enjoy being bounced on these balls, especially to the rhythm of music or the rhythm of words. In my crazy storytime dreams, every child is being bounced on one of these to our weekly bounce rhymes as we practice phonological awareness skills by focusing on the small parts of words. While I know that the storage required for that many balls is simply impossible at essentially any library (we often have 30-50 babies per storytime), this kind of activity can still be encouraged during after storytime play.

As little ones grow older, it is fascinating to watch them figure out new ways to use everyday play items as well. The toddler in the image above was working with dad to fill the muffin tray with ball pit balls. He asked for an orange ball–and she delivered.

Recommended Purchases

  • Giant Balls (toy aisle of any big-box store)
  • Storage Bag

Price: Typically $2-$5 a ball

Pro-Tip: See if your big-box store also sells storage bags for giant balls. I would like a mesh one that can be pulled closed, but I haven’t found that in my neighborhood, so we use extra large garbage bags from maintenance. They easily hold our four big balls, with the possibility of squeezing in one more.

Conversation Starters

Start conversations as babies play with this tool by asking questions like:

  • Can you bounce on top of a ball with an adult’s help?
  • How does the ball feel?
  • What happens when you push the ball?
  • What color is the ball?
  • Can you stack two balls on top of each other?

Stretch Vocabulary

When talking with little ones, use big words and small words. The more new words a child hears, the larger their vocabulary will be when they start to learn to read.

Consider using some of the following vocabulary words when using this activity:

Big
Bouncy
Bound
Bump
Curve
Giant

Light
Push
Rebound
Ricochet
Roll
Rotate

Round
Shiny
Smooth
Sphere
Swivel
Throw

Baby Play: Mirror Play

After each of my baby storytimes, I include a Discovery Time free-play session that encourages parents to talk to one another and to interact with their children. I include a variety of fine motor, gross motor, and sensory activities that appeal to 0-2-year-olds.

Once a baby’s vision develops, they love to look at faces, including their own. Starting around nine months of age, babies will begin to recognize their own reflection in a mirror. A great way to test this is to put a sticker on a mirror. If the baby tries to wipe their own face after looking in the mirror and seeing the sticker, they recognize that they are seeing themselves and not looking at a picture.

Baby-safe mirrors provide fantastic ways for parents and little ones to interact, from adults copying little one’s facial expressions to working together to identify basic body parts. With large mirrors, babies can sit in front of them while a parent moves an object behind the baby, helping the baby practice visual tracking with their eyes.

We currently don’t have enough mirrors to use these as storytime manipulatives, but I do put out our small collection during baby play time. While mirrors are not as large as some of our other toys, babies are still fascinated by them, particularly once they catch a glimpse of their own reflection.

Recommended Purchases

Price: $36 for 6 mirrors

Consider your audience size when determining how many mirrors you want to purchase, especially if you are also using these as manipulatives in storytimes. There are many fantastic mirror rhymes for during storytimes.

Possible Extension Purchases:

Personally, I prefer mirrors that do not have to be affixed to a wall, as these can easily be packed up after baby play, eliminating a distraction during storytimes and programs for older children.

Conversation Starters

Start conversations as babies play with this tool by asking questions like:

  • What do you see in the mirror?
  • Can you find your eyes in the mirror?
  • What does the toy look like in the mirror?
  • What happens when the light bounces off the mirror?

Stretch Vocabulary

When talking with little ones, use big words and small words. The more new words a child hears, the larger their vocabulary will be when they start to learn to read.

Consider using some of the following vocabulary words when using this activity:

Body
Cheeks
Chin
Ear
Eyelashes
Eyes

Face
Hair
Head
Lips
Look
Mirror

Nose
Nostril
Reflection
Shoulders
Teeth
Watch

Baby Play: Scarf Play

After each of my baby storytimes, I include a Discovery Time free-play session that encourages parents to talk to one another and to interact with their children. I include a variety of fine motor, gross motor, and sensory activities that appeal to 0-2-year-olds.

Scarves are a staple in many baby storytimes. They are an ideal item for parents and children to manipulate together. Scarves are particularly fantastic for games of peek-a-boo, teaching basic object permanence to our youngest learners. Babies can grip scarves, even from the youngest ages, and most enjoy placing them on various body parts or just shaking them vigorously.

Scarves are also fantastic free-play items. The easiest way to make scarves accessible to little ones is by hiding or placing them in a container that little ones have to pull scarves out of.

I regularly use two kinds of items to hold scarves during play–Oballs and empty tissue boxes. Both storage containers allow little ones to practice fine motor skills in an effort to pull the scarf out. Generally, tissue boxes are a much easier tool for pulling than oballs (and cheaper). However, oballs pose a better challenge for older babies and toddlers.

Both storage items, though particularly tissue boxes, also allow babies and toddlers to learn about case and effect. When they reach inside a box and pull, something interesting comes out!

Of course, once the scarves are out of the box (or ball), they can be used for all kinds of play. The little one below ended up with a cape of scarves this past summer.

Recommended Purchases

Price: $17 for 12 scarves

Consider your audience size when determining how many scarves you want to purchase, especially if you are also using these as manipulatives in storytimes.

For play, a rectangular tissue box can hold 5-10 scarves. An oball can nicely fit 3-4 scarves.

Pro Tip: Scarf prices at Lakeshore Learning don’t fluctuate much (though look out for coupons). Oball prices on Amazon change often. You should be able to buy each oball for $4-5 each. If they cost drastically more (I’ve seen them up to $20 each!), keep checking back daily until prices drop again.

Conversation Starters

Start conversations as babies play with this tool by asking questions like:

  • Can you pull the scarf out of the oball?
  • How does the scarf feel? How does the ball feel?
  • Can you put the scarf on your head?
  • What color is the scarf?
  • How fast can you wave your scarf?
  • Can you play peek-a-boo with your scarf?

Stretch Vocabulary

When talking with little ones, use big words and small words. The more new words a child hears, the larger their vocabulary will be when they start to learn to read.

Consider using some of the following vocabulary words when using this activity:

Bounce
Cover
Float
Glide
Hide
In

Light
Look
Out
Peek-a-boo
Pinch
Pull

Rainbow
Stretch
Translucent
Transparent
Tug
Yank

Baby Play: Spider Web Baskets

After each of my baby storytimes, I include a Discovery Time free-play session that encourages parents to talk to one another and to interact with their children. I include a variety of fine motor, gross motor, and sensory activities that appeal to 0-2-year-olds.

Babies love a challenge. Making their regular favorite items just the smallest amount harder to access can be just enough to serve as an interesting distraction and build strong finger muscles needed for writing when they are older.

This is a very simple project that just requires a little time ahead of a storytime to prepare. Find a stash of baskets that have holes along the sides–the ones pictured here are more standard, sturdier laundry baskets from Walmart, but there are many baskets of this style at Dollar Tree. Toss favorite toys, instruments used in storytime, or bright, colorful items onto the bottom, and tie a web of strings across the top. Fewer strings in simpler designs for smaller babies, and more complicated creations for older kids.

How to Make

Materials: laundry basket, yarn, baby-safe toys or household objects

Steps:

  • Place toys or objects in the bottom of the basket (this can be done after the next step instead).
  • Tie string across the basket in various patterns, at least 5-6 strings for a very simple challenge.

Cost: $0-10

  • Baskets (can be bought at Dollar Tree, though sturdier laundry baskets can be found at Walmart for less than $10)
  • Yarn

Time to Make: 10 minutes

Pro-Tip: Make sure to double knot the string to the basket so that it is less likely to come undone and be a potential hazard for little ones.

Conversation Starters

Start conversations as babies play with this tool by asking questions like:

  • What toys can you reach?
  • How can you get the dog out of the basket?
  • What toy did you find?
  • What color is the toy?
  • What can you do with the toy?
  • Are any toys stuck?
  • What do the strings feel like?

Stretch Vocabulary

When talking with little ones, use big words and small words. The more new words a child hears, the larger their vocabulary will be when they start to learn to read.

Consider using some of the following vocabulary words when using this activity:

Backward
Conundrum
Finagle
Forward
Heave
Left

Maneuver
Manipulate
Problem
Pull
Reach
Right

Stretch
String
Stuck
Tug
Underneath
Yarn