Treasure Playtime with the Grandkids

The grandkids are coming—and you're feeling unprepared. How will you entertain them while staying within your budget?

Making your home a fun place for grandkids is easier and more affordable than you may think. Provide a "treasure chest" of inexpensive, kid-friendly items. And, add a healthy dose of your undivided attention.

"If you want to keep a kid happy, the very best toy is you," says Ken Ginsburg, M.D., a pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Dr. Ginsburg has written A Parent's Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens.

Just making yourself available to your grandchildren builds strong bonds that are long remembered.

You're never too old to play

"When you join a child in play—getting down on the floor, acting silly, and laughing together—you're communicating at the child's level," Dr. Ginsburg says. "That makes him feel secure. And a child who feels secure becomes unstoppable."

In a fast-paced world dominated by high-tech toys and games, many kids have lost the ability to entertain themselves, Dr. Ginsburg notes. That's where grandparents can help. Keep a box of simple toys and supplies—such as blocks, hand puppets, and puzzles—on hand for visits. These items will spark your grandkids' imagination and chase away boredom.

Here are some items to keep in mind:

  • Books. Look for low-cost kids' books at garage sales, flea markets, or library sales. Picture books, fairy tales, real-life adventures—what will appeal to their age group?

  • Crayons, marker pens, modeling clay, and paper. Art is a great tool for kids to express feelings and work out frustrations. Encourage them; display their masterpieces.

  • Old magazines, scissors, glue, and construction paper. Cut out interesting magazine pictures, then use them to create a book. An older child can add his own words; a younger child can tell you what to write.

  • Dress-up clothes. Your old shirts, hats, or dresses are perfect for fantasy play.

  • Writing paper and pencils. Invite your grandchild to write about a happy or exciting day. Join in by writing about a special event.

  • Board games or cards. Checkers, Go Fish, or other games teach lessons in patience, taking turns, and winning and losing gracefully.

Look for age labels on toy packages to avoid items that may be harmful at your grandchild's age. Small parts, batteries, long strings, or cords can choke or strangle preschoolers. Avoid sharp edges, electric toys that aren't approved by Underwriters Laboratories, trampolines, and projectile toys. Some toys, such as bicycles, require safety gear.

Remember, says Dr. Ginsburg, it's the visit, not the toys, that means the most to grandkids. "Time with a grandparent is like a vacation. There's nothing better than spending time with someone who loves you unconditionally."

"Grandma, read me a story"

Want to give your grandchildren a real advantage in this world? Gather them close and open a book.

Reading out loud with your grandkids creates a closer bond. Better yet, it "helps kids make the connection that reading is something to cherish," says Patricia Oholeguy, director for early childhood at Reading Is Fundamental, the nation's largest children's literacy organization (http://www.rif.org).

Good reading skills equip children to succeed, not only in school but also through life. Children who read with adults learn to love reading—and are motivated to read on their own. Yet busy family schedules, video games, computers, and television tend to draw kids away from books.

"That's where grandparents can fill in the gap," Oholeguy says. "Reading together is a small thing, but it makes a big difference."

Here are some tips to help make the most of your reading time together:

  • Set the stage. Choose a comfy, quiet reading spot without distractions. A story before bedtime or naptime helps an active child wind down.

  • Let your grandchild choose. Ask your grandchildren to bring favorite books from home or visit the library together. Look for books related to their favorite subjects.

  • Take turns. Invite your grandchildren to read to you—and praise their efforts. If a book is long, take turns reading chapters.

  • Ham it up. Use funny, dramatic voices when reading out loud. Your grandchild will love it.

  • Talk about it. When the book ends, ask questions. What was your favorite part? Did the story end the way you expected?

Real life can be just as interesting as published stories. Think outside the book and be sure to share some of your life's lessons and memories with the grandkids. "Children are mesmerized by family stories," says Oholeguy. "Telling your stories encourages kids to write their own stories."

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