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Picture of How to Amuse Toddlers
I've been providing private childcare for infants and toddlers (3 months - 2 years) for the past six years and during that time I've come up with a wide range of activities that I've used to keep these little people busy as they discover the world around them. Some of the activities may be ideas you've never tried and others may be things you do regularly with your own child. Whatever the case I hope that other childcare providers and parents will find inspiration in this Instructable to challenge their babies with creative new experiences.
 
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Step 1: Playing With Water

Playing in water is a classic experience that nearly all babies enjoy. An outdoor kiddie pool is great when the weather is warm but there is no need to stop the wet fun when the air outside turns chilly. Just bring your kiddie pool inside to a warm room (with a water proof floor) and let the tots sit in the pool and play with warm water from a basin. They love using cups and funnels to fill clear bottles with warm bubbly water and to mix pots or bowls of water with spoons and whisks.

One novel variation on this theme that I've tried successfully is to add a couple drops of food coloring to large clear containers of water. The colored water adds a new twist to the play and provides another opportunity to teach the names of colors. (As long as the food coloring is diluted you won't have to worry about staining problems, just make sure a tot doesn't get a hold of the little bottle of concentrated dye.)

Misc Tips:

- When it's hot outside your toddlers will naturally want to drink the water they are playing in. Be ready with fresh water to quench their thirst.

- I don't recommend filling the whole pool with water when you have it indoors because 1.) it's difficult to empty the pool out and 2.) it's more likely the children will become excessively wet and chilled.

- For safety sake keep pool water shallow and maintain constant supervision.

- For comfort use warm water (even outside sometimes.)

- When using a kiddie pool indoors you may want to surround the pool with towels to absorb spilled water. This will make cleanup a little easier and will also help prevent slips and falls when toddlers climb in and out of the pool.

- Add bubbles to the water.

- Try bubbling the water with a straw or baster tube. Older toddlers can do this too, just watch the straw on the first time and make sure they understand the difference between blowing and sucking.

- If you let your tots play right at the sink beware of scalding danger if they can reach the faucet handle. As an added precaution you can turn your water heater down to 120 degrees. That will still hurt but won't cause real damage.

Step 2: Sandbox

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Tots Playing in Sandbox
Sandboxes are fun both outdoors and indoors. When used outdoors it's good to put a sheet of plastic under the sand to prevent your tots from digging through the sand and into the soil which will make the sand dirty. It's also great fun to flood the sand box during warm weather so slope your plastic so that the water will drain away from the house and toward a shrub. Pierce a few holes in the plastic on the downhill side so it will drain slowly.

When used indoors I recommend putting your sand box in the middle of a tight weave area rug or carpet remnant. This way you can just lift it up and dump most of the spilled sand back into the box. You can also vacuum the carpet if you want to be extra tidy or take it outside and throw it over a clothesline and beat on it. I prefer carpet rather than vinyl because carpet tends to clean the toddlers' feet and trap the sand whereas vinyl keeps the sand right on the surface to be tracked all over the house.

Step 3: Dress-up

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Wearing Beads
Bracelets
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Hat
Older children (4-5 year olds) enjoy playing dress-up with clothes but toddlers normally haven't developed enough dexterity to manage this game. What they can handle is beads, bracelets and hats. Provide a mirror so they can see themselves wearing the accessories. If your tot is still very oral it would be wise to choose beads that have an embedded string (like Mardi Gras bead) rather than strung beads which could become a choking hazard if the string breaks.

Photography Note: You can sometimes get great pictures of tots dressing up by standing behind them and taking a picture of them in the mirror. With the advent of digital cameras toddlers quickly learn that they can see pictures on the back of the camera and it gets harder to photograph them because they stop what they are doing and want to see the LCD display. Photographing them in a mirror makes it a little harder for them to see you especially if you stand off at a bit of an angle.

Step 4: Tape

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Decorating with tape
Toddlers are amused by the stickiness of tape. Buy different colors and then tear or cut pieces to a manageable size and stick them halfway to a table edge for easy access. If you are concerned about ease of removal or adhesive residue try using low tack painters tape.

Step 5: Cooking

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Tot Licking Beater
Toddlers enjoy helping cook, especially when there are tasty bits (like chocolate chips) that they can graze off of as they dump and mix ingredients.

Helpful Tips:

- Measure bulk ingredients (like flour and sugar) in advance then let the child 'measure' the ingredients into the mixing bowl with a teaspoon. This gives the tot more to do but assures correct proportions.

- You may not want to allow children to eat too much raw cookie dough since it contains raw eggs which are occasionally a carrier of salmonella. (This issue can also be avoided by substituting one tablespoon of ground flax seed mixed with 3 tablespoons of warm water in place of each egg.)

- They're gonna make a mess. Get over it. They're having a good time right?

Step 6: Animal Safari

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Hide toy animals amongst the plants and bushes in your yard (or potted plants inside) then help your toddler go around and find them. Don't hide the animals too well or the child won't be able to find them at all. Leave a nose or head peeking out so that they can see a bit of color. Older children (3 or 4 year olds) may be able to play this game with totally hidden toy animals but toddlers need to be able to actually see part of the toy.

Step 7: Pretend to fix things with tools

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Working on bus
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Give your toddler some tools and something to fix. It helps if you are fixing something along side the child. Avoid tools that have sharp edges or are likely to pinch. Wrenches and screwdrivers are fairly safe. Just don't let them run around with a screwdriver in hand. And don't leave them unattended with a flat headed screwdriver and an exposed electrical outlet. A very dangerous and tempting combination! :( You may just want to stick with Phillips head screwdrivers since they won't fit into an outlet slot. (You really should have outlet covers on all toddler height outlets anyway.)

Step 8: Playdough

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Toothpicks
Cutting Playdough
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Playdough can be fun for toddlers if you can keep them from eating too much of eat. ;) Cookie cutters, toothpicks, and extruders can all be fun. I've discovered that even at a very young age (before their 2nd birthday) they often understand the concept of baking food in an oven so you can create another fun activity for them by letting them pretend to bake playdough in a toaster oven. You can pickup a second hand toaster oven really cheap at a thrift store or yard sale or even along the curb (like I did) if you're lucky. I removed the power cord from mine so there is no possibility that they could ever plug it in the wall.

Recipes for homemade playdough.

Step 9: Cardboard Box Playhouses

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Peeking out Window
Another classic toddler activity is to make playhouses out of large cardboard boxes. These can be as simple or as elaborate as you wish. Large boxes are the best but they also take up a lot of space so if you decided to use a really big one (like a refrigerator box) you may want to make it so that it can fold flat when not in use. For added fun, connect several boxes together to make tunnels leading between the play houses.

Photography Tip: Have a camera handy to take some cute pictures when your toddler is playing in the cardboard box playhouse. Pre-focus on a window and then get them to peek out at you. Beware of overexposure if the outside walls of your box are a light color.

Step 10: Playing with coins

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Give the tots a jar of coins and containers to put them in. I'm not sure what the big attraction of this activitiy is but they do seem to find it entertaining so who am I do complain! :) (Make sure your tots understand not to eat the coins.)

Step 11: Books

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For toddlers stick with simple board books. Some libraries also loan out books that include a puppet. Another thing that can really help get tots interested in books is to make your own customized books for them using photos of people, animals and toys that they will recognize. If you want a little more advanced project check out my Instructable on how to make a lift-the-flap book for a toddler.

Step 12: Coloring

Picture of Coloring
Decorating with tape
Markers are easier for toddler to use than crayons because they don't require as much force to make a mark. Just make sure you buy washable and nontoxic magic markers. Toddlers can also have fun adding tape or stickers to an art project.

Step 13: Climbing

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Tots on End Table
Climbing up slide
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Sliding Backwards
Toddlers love to climb. Instead of frustrating this natural urge, create safe opportunities for them to exercise this important gross motor skill. Follow them up steps, spot them as they climb onto the couch or coffee table, and let them try climbing at your local Kids Castle when there are not too many big kids around. If your tot really loves to climb up on furniture, try to arrange your house so that the climbable furniture is on a padded and carpeted floor rather than hardwood or tile so that the impact of the inevitable tumbles will be greatly reduced. Most babies will be able to climb stairs before they can walk (because it's similar to crawling) so let them give it a try, just make sure to stay right behind them as they ascend. (For safety you should install baby gates on all your stairs as soon as your child is crawling.)

Step 14: Swinging

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Most kids like to swing. Swings can even be hung indoors for use during wet or cold seasons. Some baby swings at parks are made so that you can choose which way to face the child in order to keep them from squinting into the sun. This type of swing can also accommodate two tots if the swings are full.

Step 15: Make popcorn

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Making popcorn with our Stir Crazy is a regular feature at my house. In fact it's such a big hit that one tot or another will go open the cupboard where the machine is stored and start chanting, "Popcorn, popcorn, popcorn!" :) I recommend the Stir Crazy because it has a clear plastic bubble which allows children to watch the kernels explode.

WARNINGS: The machine gets hot and the oil gets hot so make sure to supervise closely to avoid burns. Also, popcorn is a potential choking hazard with small children so be cautious in that regard too.

Step 16: Doll house

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Tot Playing with Dollhouse
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Tot Playing With Furniture
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Doll houses are usually associated with somewhat older girls but toddlers of both genders can have fun playing with the furniture and dolls. Obviously you may not want to let them use anything that is a treasured heirloom until they are a little older but a yard sale find or cheap cardboard houses can be used without concern for the inevitable breakage.

Here's another idea for a DIY dollhouse.

Step 17: Bounce on a big ball

Picture of Bounce on a big ball
Get a large ball. Sit your baby on the ball. Hold him/her around the waist and bounce him/her up and down. This one activity probably generates more giggles than all the others combined! :) Only problem with this one is that your back will probably wear out long before their desire for more bouncing is exhausted. ;(

Photography Note: This activity provides a good opportunity to capture some expressions of glee on your toddlers' face but you will have to use a very high shutter speed to avoid motion blur. If your camera has a sports setting use that or use Tv (shutter priority) with a high shutter speed or use manual settings. I used the Tv setting for this picture with shutter speed at 1/640 sec. and ISO 800. You may also be able to catch a fleeting smile if you stop bouncing the child for a second but you may also end up with a picture of the side of the childs frowning face as he turns around to look at the bouncer and says, "More, more!"

Step 18: Refrigerator magnets

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There are various types of refrigerator magnets available for purchase (the alphabet being perhaps the most common) but I would challenge you to make your own set of magnets featuring the faces of friends, family and pets that your toddler will recognize.

A good size for head shot magnets is 2x2 inches square. Use your favorite photo editing software (Photoshop, Gimp, etc.) to resize and place 6 head shots onto a standard 4x6 print. Print out the prints and then glue them onto foamboard. Cut the foamboard into squares with your X-acto knife and stick a piece of self-adhesive magnet on the back.

To add further fun to this project you may even want to make a flat foamboard house to stick to the fridge with windows and doors where the 2x2 heads will fit! :)

Step 19: Field trips

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Tot at Public Kiddie Pool
Field trips are a great way to break up the routine of caring for a toddler day after day. Some good places to go include:

- The park especially with a climbing feature (kids castle) and swings.
- Library children's department (Toddler Time)
- Natural history museum
- Children's museum (if they have suitable activities for toddlers)
- The public swimming pool (if they have a kiddie pool)
- Lawn ornament and water garden store
- Zoo, petting zoo or farm
- Construction work site (watch backhoes and dump trucks at work)
- Pet store
- Play dates to friend's houses

Step 20: Musical instruments

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Mutes
Toddlers can't usually play much beyond percussion instruments but they will still enjoy watching and helping you play. I have an old beater trumpet that they can try without worrying about it getting scratched or dented. They also enjoy switching mouthpieces and mutes. Playing guitar and letting them try strumming is fun too.

Step 21: Pretend cooking

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Pretend Cooking
Tot Clanging Lids
Give toddlers some pots, pans, spoons, whisks, etc. and let them pretend to cook. Taking lids on and off and putting plastic food or pasta in the pots is fun. (Only use dried pasta with tots that are old enough not to try and eat it.)

Step 22: Play in a tent

Picture of Play in a tent
For some reason playing in a tent is a novelty for toddlers. Throw in some pillows, blankets and toys and let them crawl around and play in this new environment. (You can use a tent inside as well as outside.)

Step 23: Go for a walk

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Baby Backpack
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Tots Sleeping In Warm Stroller
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This is another classic activity. Walking, riding in a stroller, and riding in a backpack each give toddlers a different way of experiencing the world. If you can find interesting places to walk to like the park, library, a construction site, or our personal favorite: a field of llamas, so much the better! :) And don't stop going for walks when the weather gets cold. Just bundle the tots up good. If it's really cold and windy put a clear covering over your stroller. If it's cold but sunny be careful that your tots don't overheat inside a stroller with a clear covering. Due to the greenhouse effect it can get surprisingly warm inside an enclosed space with a clear window even when the ambient temperature is quite cold.

Taking toddlers for a walk in the stroller at nap time can also be a painless way to get them to sleep. Don't worry about the bright light keeping them awake, most toddlers will fall asleep quite easily even in broad daylight when they are tired but they don't like direct sun in their eyes. Keep them busy with all the activities listed here and they will conk out fast on your walk. If your goal for the walk is to get the toddlers to sleep you should probably choose a boring route (like through the woods) rather than an interesting route past barking dogs and construction sites.

Step 24: Last resort: Send your toddler to someone else!

If you are a stay-at-home mom or dad it can become very stressful to be responsible for a small child all day every day. This stress can be greatly relieved by leaving your toddler with a trusted caregiver for even just two or three hours 2 or 3 times a week. It may not seem like much but having those six or eight hours all to yourself during the week can make a huge difference in your sanity and happiness. It can also be very beneficial for your child to spend time with other children and with another nurturing adult. If money is really tight and you can't afford to hire help, consider arranging a regular childcare swap with another stay-at-home parent who has a toddler about the same age as yours.

Well, that's enough ideas for now. I'm going to go ahead and publish this Instructable but I'll probably be adding more ideas later. I have some other ideas of my own that I need to photograph and there will hopefully be some suggestions by readers that I can add to the list.
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waggy1011 year ago
Is that playground in Vermont?
boomfiziks2 years ago
I'm a first time, new dad. I can't wait till he's a little older and the weather a little warmer to do these things with him. Thanks!
amandaggogo3 years ago
Great ideas!
Also, these kiddos are adorable!!!
My baby brother (2) LOVES playing dress up, his hats are his favorite! :0)
vpatrick3 years ago
That's really good idea and a great fun for our toddlers. I will definitely try it out.
Animals Safari
You are a creative caring genius. Thanks so much for sharing!!! xxxooo
missyE4 years ago
a cpl hrs play in the pool & this is there chill out hour...... lol just kiddin
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lol!!!!
fcross14 years ago
i can understand that STRESS !!!
missyE4 years ago
NUFF SED
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Another realy good music toy for kids is Boom Whackers. They are essentualy tuned plastic tubes by hitting one you make a note. my nephew who is almost 6 now has had them since he was a baby. At first he would just bangh them arouund. Then as he got older he made beats and my brother taught him about harmony and chords with them. He uses mallets or drum sticks sometimes to play the notes. One of his favorte games is drum circle where every one gets a tube or two and makes a beat and then you go in a cirlcle and start making up a beat trying to harmonize with the rest of the group. It might be that my brother is a musician or that my nephew is naturaly tallented but i recon that most of my nephews love and tallent came from being exposed to instruments at a very young age. he plays the piano and the guitar not brilliantly but its a start.
BoomWhatkers: http://www.westmusic.com/1002405-kids/k5010-boomwhackers?gclid=CKqWrdG8s6cCFZNd7AodJm75_w
sissy764 years ago
At our house, the kids make muesli. We use separate containers for each ingredient- oats, dried cranberries, raisins, sliced almonds, a little brown sugar, and in a small restaurant-size syrup "pitcher" we have the milk. They love mixing and tasting and it doubles as a snack. It's also really cheap if you have a grocery store near you with a "bulk" section- just get the amount you need. We place an old sheet under their child-size table to catch the mess.
ybedull4 years ago
Oh wow! I think these are all such great ideas! A lot of them I do with our kiddos too but there were some new ones on here that I loved! Thanks for posting ;)
altiodsnerd5 years ago
im 13 years old and in 8th grade... I brought duck tape to school and i came home with cat ears cat tail and every thing all of my friends were drenched in it we love tape. it was ;ole 5 inches thick and it was gone in a 35 minute period
o_o you could be my best friend. =P
most likely im friends with every one
An Villain5 years ago
also, this calls to mind my toddler sister getting her hair tangled in the kitchen-aid mixer.
;____;
HA! HA! I AM MEL-ON!
An Villain5 years ago
even though hammers do not have sharp edges, they are a bad idea too.
My 3yr old and 1yr old sons LOVE hammers! You just have to make sure they have appropriate objects to USE them on, or they will bash anything. But supervised hammer and drill play is great for wee kids, and is a good environment to teach them about safety (better than playing with matches to learn about fire!)

If you never introduce your child to (controlled) danger, they won't learn to recognise it or protect themselves from it.
i suppose you are right, but i learned the hard way from a lot of things.
My son is 25 yrs. old. There was a small work bench with tools in his kindergarden class.  It was a wonderful experience for him. He still has all his appendages and is a happy and creative young man.  The kids at the kindergarden knew the rules. Wood was often slightly pre-drilled to make hammering nails in easier.
that is good, and i had something like that but in second grade, (no saws though.)
PoeDunkMae5 years ago
Great ideas! I have a two year old daughter and 8 month old twins so these are some great ideas.  Yes some require a lot of supervision but they would get that anyway! 

I'm always looking for something new to do with my kids, many of these are already things I would do, but some are ones I might not think of right away.

Another cool idea is to take empty yogurt cups and poke small holes in the lids, and put "smelly" things inside.   It's my experience that toddlers love to use their senses, and smell is one of them! Have them sniff the tub with the lid on and have them guess what is inside.  Like put banana in one, cinnamon in another, garlic in another, a flower in one, etc etc (things that are all safe to sniff obviously)

Can also do the same idea but dip tooth pics (the round ones not the sharp ones) and dip them in different safe flavors and have them taste the flavors. 

Get a big bowl or plastic tub, and fill it with uncooked rice, and uncooked dried beans.  Add in some large wooden beads and have kids play in that.  They will love the tactile aspect and finding the "hidden" beans.  Give them some measuring cups, and funnels and watch them have fun! 

meejenbea5 years ago
people are always giving away moving boxes on craigslist for free.
An Villain5 years ago
toddlers+coins=choking hazard, most mothers do not like their young ones playing with coins, especially shiny ones.
An Villain5 years ago
toothpicks=bad idea, toddlers are not known for their attention spans, many toddlers would just leave that little spike ball laying around for someone to step/sit on, (that has happened that i know of.)
An Villain5 years ago
this calls to mind the class bully taping little children up, tape is not a good idea, but good idea.
wocket5 years ago
fantastic ideas. I'd like to add that all sand boxes should have a cat proof lid s the toddlers don't end up playing in a cat toilet! :)
I would not be put off by the fact that you are a man running a childcare. What's important to me is that the children are safe, happy and have lots of creative opportunities. Wish you were here; my grandson will enter child care when he is eight months old. Hey! forget sending the kids. I want to go.
SteveGerber (author)  porcupinemamma5 years ago
Thanks for the positive feedback! Eight month old babies are amazing! They are wide awake to everything around them and want to take it all in and pick everything up and learn, learn, learn. They are beginning to understand words but usually don't speak their first clear word until around 12 months.
our little Jackson is 4 months old and of course, grandmother (me lol) thinks he is the most handsome and brilliant baby in the world. I hope to teach him basic sign language before he is verbal. I did that with my grandaughter and it reduced frustration for all concerned. I highly recommend it for all people that interact with kids. It makes life much happier when communication can be understood by all.
mamamari6 years ago
We have an indoor ´ricebox´ It´s awesome and my daughter has been busy for hours since we set it up yesterday for our toddler group. we just got a really large plastic storage tub from Ikea or the like and filled it with about 14Kilos of rice. Much easier to clean up and it feels really cool. Great to bury items in and hunt for them. We also use our beach toys in it like the water wheel (where you pour water in the top and it makes the wheels spin) great with rice. Good to get a box with a lid so it´s easy to store.
This gives new definition to playing with one's food. I gotta say, I like that idea, the texture would be really neat, and it's prolly cheaper than sand! *goes to play with rice in the kitchen*
These are really great ideas! Thanks for posting!
Leosmama6 years ago
Hi, here is just another option: I make my own photo fridge magnets using small photos (or pictures, or pressed dried flowers, or letters, or anything that is flat....) and laminating them. You can stick the self adhesive magnet strips directly onto the back (or re-cycle cut-up pieces of the free 'advertising' fridge magnets that I seem to accumulate, and glue them on) . It protects the photo and they last longer, if little sticky fingers play with them, they just wipe clean. My 3 year old loves them, and we write the names of friends and family with letter magnets beside the photos and he can recognise quite a few names now. They are also a great present for grandparents, family and big and little friends, especially those who live a bit further away and can't see you as often. Enjoy! XXX
So well done. You've reminded me of some of the things i can do with my two year old grandaughter. 5*****!
SMRUDOLPH7 years ago
Steve, you're a genius. Naturally I thought you were a female genius when I started reading this, but then I saw your name. A collection of small cardboard boxes, though bulky to store, is a great toy for kids who like to stack and build. You can buy a set cheaply, but I work in an office and kept my eyes peeled, and in a couple of months had plenty, for free. Which reminds me -- kids of all ages go through forests' worth of paper. I kept a box in my office for scrap paper that was blank on one side (making sure there was nothing not-safe-for-public-viewing on the printed side). When I had a shopping bag full, I'd bring it home let my son have at it. In fact, I still bring home scrap paper and use it for printing personal correspondence or things I don't need spanky-clean copies of.
The paper thing reminded me of something my dad used to do a lot. He used to work for a font company, and he'd bring home test papers in bulk. One of the things I used to do was find all of the Chinese and Japanese lettering and he'd help me cut them out and paste them into a collage. I'd always have forests of kanji, a symbol for a house, and a bunch of symbols for people standing around. He'd never see it, so he had me write a story underneath it. For parents that don't have kanji fonts on their computer, even just printing out the alphabet in caps and lowercase in a large size can be fun. They can cut them out and turn Qs into balloons and Bs into teacups.
Nice idea. I've been sitting here trying to turn a 'B'into a tea cup. I just tried a lower case'b' and i see what you mean. Cool!
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