'How Instagram play accounts saved my sanity'

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One snowy morning back in February, I was housebound with a newborn and a toddler. We were into our third hour of CBeebies, running low on snacks, and everyone was crying. Dark times. I’d tried all my usual ideas to keep my eldest entertained: train set, colouring, Play-Doh, failed attempt to build a snow dog. We still had most of the day to kill.

In desperation I scrolled Instagram, looking for activities to do at home with a baby and toddler. I stumbled across a world of brilliant and useful play ideas accounts. They’ve been a lifesaver ever since.

Most of us know about, and follow, the best-known Instamums. I do, too. At their best, those accounts can offer a sense of solidarity, empathy and humour about this crazy business we call parenting. At their worst, they feel cliquey, a window into un-relatable lifestyles packed with #gifted five-star holidays and fashion events.

Play accounts aren’t like that at all. They’re usually run by mums of pre-schoolers, many of who are also early-years teachers, or by childminders who want to share some of their creative ideas. They post regular ideas for crafts, outdoor play prompts and DIY sensory play. Most of which you can do at home, on a tight budget. Play accounts aren’t particularly glamorous, but they are a brilliant resource for knackered parents.

The first idea we tried was from @the_play_at_home_mummas. (opens in new tab) I put a roasting tin outside, then my son and I filled it with snow and brought it back to the kitchen. I set up a quick scene with some Happyland characters, he put his gloves on and – voila – ‘Snow Happyland’. A big hit.

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He loved making the toy people play in the snow, and because the tray was cold, the snow didn’t melt for ages. The baby napped, I drank a hot cuppa, and my son was delighted. Triple win. We also tried an idea from another account, using empty Calpol syringes to squirt different coloured paints into the tray of snow. Not sure which of us had more fun doing that one.

My love affair with play accounts grew. I followed a bunch, and started saving ideas into a folder on my Instagram account. Not every idea was a hit. Some of my DIY dinosaur habitats have attracted zero interest, and I’ve spent a lot of time sweeping rice up after making @busytoddler inspired sensory trays with rice, scoops and diggers. (My cries of ‘it stays in the tray or it goes away’ regularly fall on deaf ears). But we’ve now got a bunch of go-to ideas the kids love, which I can wheel out on a rainy day.

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Play accounts aren’t just a lifesaver when the weather’s bad. Because they post regularly, you get ideas that are suitable for the time of year, the day’s weather, or events like Halloween and Diwali. In the summer, we tried lots of fun ideas in the garden, like @imaginationtree’s farmyard sensory trays, and numerous DIY car washes.

This autumn, we’ve made a paper-plate leaf wreath a la @mumtomessyboys, and made pumpkin faces using apples and orange paint, then drew faces on them to talk about our emotions, inspired by @childcare_adventures. The more ideas we try, the more I get inspired to come up with my own ones, too. We’re all having more fun because of it. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that play accounts saved my sanity when I was struggling to cope at home with two very small children.

Winter is coming. But this time I’m armed and ready, with a folder full of ideas on my phone.

Five must-follow play accounts

Play Horray

Claire hosts live play demos on her Insta Stories every Tuesday at 10am. Great for ideas for children of all ages, including babies. Check out her recent vid for ideas to entertain a poorly child at home, too. @play.hooray (opens in new tab)

Busy Toddler

Popular US account run by Susie, a former teacher and mum-of-three. Susie is queen of the sensory bins: large plastic trays filled with rice or other non-toxic bases and filled with diggers, puzzle pieces or scoops for lots of creative play. @busytoddler (opens in new tab)

The Play at home Mummas

Account run by Rosie and Emilie, each an Early Years teacher and mum-of-two. Tons of themed, seasonal activities such as easy autumn crafts and bakes. @the_play_at_home_mummas (opens in new tab)

Imagination Tree

Colourful, achievable ideas for crafts, sensory trays and story baskets. Anna is an Early Years teacher and mum-of-four, and her ideas cover ages 0-11. @Imaginationtree (opens in new tab)

Childcare Adventures

annah is a teacher turned childminder with tons of clever ideas up her sleeves. Follow along for fun maths ideas each week with #mathsonmondays. @Childcare Adventures (opens in new tab) Words by Katy Salter