Pack and unpack

Elly asked to open the new packet of toothpaste we bought today. Then he spent a good 10 minutes practising his hand-eye coordination and fine motor skill (taking the tubes out of the boxes and putting them back in).

It doesn’t have to be toothpaste – and it shouldn’t be if your toddler is likely to open and eat any. Anything that comes in a cardboard box and can be handled easily would do. And there you have a nicely filled in time gap, or a quick few minutes to get something done.


Clothes peg play

This is one for the little people: a short, simple activity that gets them practicing their fine motor skills, pincer grip and hand-eye coordination. It’s mess free and can easily be left out for them to find and play with at will across the span of a day.

You need:
1. Clothes pegs (ones that can be worked by little fingers easily enough to ward off frustration caused by them being too hard to press open)
2. Something to pin them on (we used a colander, a cardboard box or similar would work just as well)

Elly had as much fun taking the pegs off the colander and putting them in and out of it as he did pegging them around it in the first place.

Perler beads with boys

Perler, or ironing beads are good for fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, focus and concentration. Let the kids make up their own patterns or use preset ones as a guide.

A couple of weeks ago Elly had fun dismantling some perler/ironing bead creations at a friend’s house… oops.

We’ve since seen them at the supermarket and in a couple of other places and Zeph was asking to try them. I wasn’t quite sure – he’s only four, would he manage or just get frustrated? Was it just something he wanted because he’d seen but wouldn’t care about anyway? We’d have to keep them out of Elly’s way both before, during and after or it would be disasterous…

Zeph remembered, so I ordered some for him online: he chose the flower pattern and was very excited about opening his box during nap time the day it arrived. I gave him some scissors and left him to it: that bought me a good 20 or 30 minutes to make lunch while he negotiated the sticky tape on the packaging, cut open the packet and made an initial exploration of the contents. The only intervention I ventured was to pass him a messy tray to spill the beads onto. (Though I did bite my tongue a bit to keep from mentioning the possibility of them spilling EVERYWHERE).

And after lunch we settled down together with it. I helped pick out beads and did one or two with him as he got started, but he intuitively grasped the idea by himself anyway. I did keep hold of the pattern for him under the pegs so it didn’t move around and by the end I’d probably contributed around two petals worth of beads, but he did most of it himself, preferring to use his fingers rather then the tweezers.

Finally we ran the iron over it together… I left it a bit long as it was a first for me: the beads ended up a bit more melted together than I think they ought to be, but he was pretty pleased with it and himself I think.

Spreading colour cloth dyeing

Got any old baby muslins lying around? Old towels, sheets or t-shirts? Here’s an idea for one more use you can put them to while entertaining the kids at the same time. What’s more, this can be a great opportunity to learn and to practice motor skills.

Simply mix up some food colours to use as dye and apply them to damp fabrics. Damp paper works too.


This is pretty straightforward and pretty self-contained so the mess is minimal. You could of course use fabric dye on your fabrics. But food colouring is probably easier to come by in most mum’s cupboards, and it’s more child friendly.

We used washed out glitter glue tubes with a drop of food colouring and topped up with water. Make sure to give it a good shake to mix it thoroughly. You could also mix your colours in pots and use pipettes to apply them. My son has enjoyed this method from age 3, but of course it will be different with different kids. Another idea would be using a small mist-spray bottle. Whatever you use, it’s a good chance to practice fine-motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

Put your cloth or paper on a messy tray or in a shallow box and add some water. It should be damp, but not too wet. Then squeeze on your colours and watch them spread. Zeph loved this! He thought it was amazing the way it happened. He tried big squeezes and little dots. He tried it where there was a lot of liquid and where it was quite dry. He put colours onto colours. We actually made up tubes of the primary and secondary colours from our red, blue and yellow food colouring and talked about how to make orange, green and purple as we did it, but you could easily make the whole thing a colour mixing activity by only using primary colours and mixing them on the fabric.

Once you’re done, hang or spread your fabrics to dry away from anything you don’t want food colouring on. We did this very much as process art – enjoying the doing, experimenting and not worrying about the results or the appearance of what we made – but the paper versions could easily make cards, or backgrounds for future projects.


Little kitchen helpers: peeling and chopping practice

Both my boys love chopping food up (…and generally being destructive…) What they, or Zèph at least, produces is always filled with love and pride at contributing to the family. But hard foods are difficult to chop and can be dangerous for little fingers which might slip. And little fingers also produce highly irregular chopped goods – which is sometimes fine and sometimes makes cooking awkward. So my kids both get to do chopping practice.

This is a food prep activity which they find lots of fun, can contribute towards family meals or snacks and gets them working in their hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.

For Elly, at 20 months I choose very soft foods such as banana and boiled eggs – this can make a mess. I recommend removing he yolk and just giving the white part to avoid the worst of this – and he loves getting stuck in with his knife. And eating bits on the way.

At 4 Zeph still has fun with this and I can challenge him to try to cut regular sized circles, semi-circles or chunks. He also gets opportunities to do slightly harder chopping tasks: courgette, grape tomatoes, cucumber etc. as well as pre-sliced hard vegetables such as carrot and potato.

Zeph also gets to peel vegetables, though Elly does not. The first time, a few months ago now, he tried a carrot and got very upset that he couldn’t do it. But he has since, at his own request, tried again. And again. And again. And now he does a fairly good job minus the bits closest to the ends. Potatoes are harder – his first try he scrapped off one little patch of peel before getting frustrated and wandering off, but more recent attempts he’s managed more.

Pipe cleaner cake

Here’s a simple mess-free, preparation free activity for chilly wintery days. Or other days. It’s great for practicing hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.

All you need are pipe cleaners and a colander to poke them into.

My 4 year old has done this before, though not recently. He was busy playing when Elly started this activity/insisted on taking a bag from the crafts box, but he was keen to get stuck in once he noticed and he spent longer on it than I had thought he would. He independently decided to sort the pipe cleaners by colour and arranged them accordingly too. He even asked for more pipe cleaners once he had used up all the ones Elly had taken out. He wanted to make it into a cake for Daddy.

Elly had a good go too, but needed help to get the pipe cleaners through the holes. As with most things, being only 19 months means his attention span is not very long so he wandered off pretty quickly.

Remote control car-dozer

With Tequila rabbit currently in residence on our verandah (my messy activity area), we have been focusing on more home-friendly things to do. So here is another super-simple, mess-free activity with little to no preparation or clean up required: the remote control car-dozer.


We used a set of foam blocks to build towers, and a new-to-us remote control jeep to knock them down. Absolutely fantastic for my oldest, who is both a car-enthusiast, and whose favourite part of any activity is when there is a breaking it up bit! This activity also gets them practicing fine motor skills, honing hand-eye coordination and gives an opportunity to explore the properties of gravity.

You need:
Blocks (can be substituted with anything else stackable – paper cups are a good option, and recyclable)
Remote control… anything (could also be substituted with a ball, or bean bags for rolling/throwing)

Elly did some good stacking – he found the cube shaped blocks the easiest ones to work with, but was too impatient to wait for the jeep to knock things down, preferring to do it by hand. After the first time or two Zeph was more interested in directing Mummy which colours to use and in driving his jeep than in actually doing a lot of building  – I encouraged a turn-taking approach, one block each: good for getting him to engage, doing things for himself, and also social cooperation. After a while he decided to try building a wall around his car to turn it into a ‘car volcano’ instead of building a tower.