Strap your sidekick into a high chair and narrate in a silly voice as you noodle around in the kitchen. Tickle her senses with your spice rack, offering a sniff of cinnamon and cocoa, and then black pepper, just for kicks. Let her watch you peel and core an apple, then boil it down to mush for a tasty snack. The house will fill with heavenly smells, and your petite sous chef will adore your Julia Child imitation. Got a toddler? Make pancakes and let him stir. Lindsay Dewar-Fontana, of Westport, Connecticut, loves cooking with her boys, ages 20 months and 3 years. Bonus: "They're more willing to try any food that they've had a hand in!" she says.
Is that Dan Zanes CD scratched from constant use? Scatter about tambourines, shakers, or whatever's on hand (formula tins and wooden spoons will do!) and call band practice in your living room. Lorna Campbell, of Brooklyn, New York, likes to pluck at her husband's ukelele. When she performs for her 22-month-old daughter, Alex, the little girl bounces, claps, and tries to sing along. Now, she even asks her mom for a gig by pointing and yelling, "Uke! Uke!"
Once your baby can sit up (at around 6 months), plop down across from him and introduce a ball between you. Let him reach and roll and transfer it between his hands; add a second ball and even a third. Tamara Abir, of Toronto, Ontario, ups the ante by making a ramp: She props an ironing board against the couch and rolls balls down it for her 21-month-old daughter, Yael, to catch.
Your kid may still think crayons are for eating, but he's probably at the right age to "finger paint" with food. This is a messy one, but yummy! Place your baby in his high chair and spoon a dollop of yogurt on the tray. You might need to demonstrate at first, but soon your munchkin will be making blueberry-colored tracks and swirls. He'll really eat it up!
Who says bathtime is only for night? Wash away the traces of your yogurt escapade with water play. Fill the tub with bubble bath, or blow bubbles over the tub and let him pop 'em. Toss in a few toys in need of a clean (that set of plastic food?) and you've got one less thing to do later.
Staring down a mountain of laundry? Let your tot help you "sort" whites and darks. Later, enlist your li'l guy to "fold" the clean clothes as you work beside him. "Beckett has a blast sifting through a basket of laundry," Lauren Durazo, of San Francisco, says. "I fold a T-shirt and place it next to him. When he unfolds it, I say 'Oh no!' with both my hands on my cheeks. He thinks it's just the most hilarious thing."
Your sweetpea is not lacking when it comes to vanity! Place her on her tummy with an unbreakable toy mirror facing her to encourage her to push up. You can also carry your baby from room to room so she can check herself out in wall mirrors. Touch her eyes, nose, and so on as you look together so she will begin to identify her features in the glass. As she gets older, you can dress her up in colorful capes and sunglasses -- Lady Gaga's got nothing on your little girl!
It's a fact of babyhood: No matter how many toys a kid has, he'll prefer a broom. From the time he was a year old, Jesse Rosenthal, now 2, has loved to clean. As his mother, Nikki, dusts and sweeps, he toddles behind her, trailing his toy vacuum cleaner, broom, and dustpan. "One of his first words was 'Psst! Psst!' for the sound a spray bottle makes," says the New York City mom. Give your baby a dishrag and plastic bottle filled with water, and let him spritz and wipe the kitchen floor for some good, clean fun.
Got an adventure-seeking crawler? Transform your living room into a baby-proofed labyrinth. Arrange plenty of sofa pillows and chairs with blankets draped over them, fort-style, throw in a collapsible tube tunnel (IKEA sells one for $20), and let your intrepid explorer roam! When she finally tuckers herself out, take a cue from your cutie: Dive under your covers together and cuddle.
Zero time to accessorize these days? Use your scarves to play instead. Toss them high; your baby will love to watch them dance in the air and catch the light as they fall. Blow on them to keep them airborne, and brush them along your child's skin -- silky!
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.