These Aren’t for the Birds


A Few of My Favorite Things: Nesting Cups

I love toys! Toys are the tools I use every day, which means I have THE best job ever.

I want to give you new ways to play with your little one, so I though what better way to encourage you than to introduce you to some of my favorite toys. Instead of piling them on you all at once, I decided to give them to you in a series of posts. This is the first.

It was hard to decide which toys to feature; I have so many favorites. But, I wanted to keep it simple. So, you won’t see any hard-to-find or expensive “therapy” or “educational” toys in this series. Better yet, you might discover a few already sitting at the bottom of your toy box. I hope I inspire you to dig them out and put them to use. So, let’s get started. 

Nesting Cups


Why are these on my list? Well, they’re really under-appreciated.

It’s unfortunate they’re so overlooked, because nesting cups are versatile and varied. There are cardboard boxes, plastic buckets, and plastic cups and they come in different shapes, designs, and colors. I own a few different sets, from cheap discount store sets to this really cool Djeco set (it’s a little more expensive, but it’s my personal favorite). You might even create your own nesting toys from plastic containers or cardboard boxes. Just choose at a few things – I’ve found five to be the best – of varying sizes and similar shapes and you have it (best of all when they’re destroyed or your child loses interest you can pitch them in the recycling bin!).

Since nesting cups contain a lot of pieces, they work best when you have them all. (When it comes to toy organization, the struggle is real – can I get an AMEN! Stay tuned for a  future post on that topic). For now, here’s my recommendation: Bring your nesting cups out for play, but store them out of reach. Children don’t need access to all their toys all of the time. Especially for little ones, limiting a toy’s accessibility means increased interest and increased attention when it’s brought back out. (It also means they don’t end up all over your house or lost in the bottom of the toy box.) 

1. Bath play

Bath time is a great time to learn. The tub prevents children from running off, their toy options are limited, and having fewer toys stretches their attention span. Nesting cups are great for the bath because they promote so many different skills.

Children love to pour water between the cups, which is strengthens fine motor skills. They can practice drinking from an open cup without all the mess, which is excellent for the muscles in their mouth. (If drinking bath water grosses you out, keep a bottle nearby and fill up the cup as needed.) You can also pair nesting cups with plastic animals and encourage them to engage in pretend play by pouring drinks for the animals.

(It’s not bath time, but in the summer you can transfer these ideas to your backyard for water play.)

2. Size and Shape

Children in the 12 to 18 month range of cognitive developmental love to put nesting cups in and out of each other. Nesting cups teach toddlers about size. They might not yet say or understand the words “big” and “small”, but they are beginning to notice the cups are different and, as they experiment, they begin to see which cups can’t fit inside others. 

My oldest got a set of buckets similar to nesting cups for his first birthday. He loved to put them in and take them out and put them in and take them out; I was happy to get a few minutes of peace. What looked boring to me was active learning for him.

3. Problem Solving Skills 

In therapy sessions while the child is placing the cups inside one another, I’ll often hold back one of the larger cups and watch the child’s reaction when she discovers it won’t fit inside the others. I usually say “Uh oh, it won’t fit, what are we going to do?” and give them time to work through the problem. Some children will try to push harder, others just give up, content to leave it unsolved, and still others may hand it back to me and ask me to fix the problem.

Regardless of the response, they’re developing problem solving skills as they try different ways to fit the cup in. Before they get too frustrated I model for them how to take one cup out, replace it with the bigger one, and then put the smaller one in. If their attention is still good I’ll set up the situation again and see if they remember and imitate the process.

Keep in mind, most two year-olds won’t be able to nest a set of ten or more cups, but  they should be able to handle three to four on their own.

4. Stack ’em up, Knock ’em Down 

Few things delight a toddler more than knocking down a tower. It may seem like pure destruction, but there’s learning going on.

Toddlers are learning how to grade their movements. As they work to stack one cup on top of the next, while keeping the tower from falling, they’re practicing motor control.

This activity is also great for building attention span. I do this by having them stack the cups, then counting to three before they can knock them over. I make this fun by working in lots of anticipatory facial expressions. That’s key because it’s hard for a toddler to wait even those three seconds. I may also have them clap or pat their legs while they count to give them something to do with their hands.

Of course, toddlers are still developing impulse control (and it continues to develop throughout childhood). So, if it’s hard for them to stack the cups before knocking them down, reduce the number to an amount that works for your toddler. Then, increase it overtime until they are able to stack them all before the grand-knock-down-finale.

5. Pretend play

Symbolic play – where a child uses one object to represent another – is emerging the second year. We already touched on this in the bath time section above, but you can pair nesting cups with small plastic animals or favorite characters to encourage symbolic  play. Nesting cups can be food bowls, drinking cups, little round beds, or whatever they can imagine.

If your child is not quite ready for symbolic play, I recommend Djeco boxes. These come with little animals that can be used to introduce more basic pretend play. Together you can stack the boxes, put the animals in, and pretend they are sleeping. Make it fun; sing a good night song and say, “shhhh.” Then ask your child if they want to wake the animals. If they say yes, together you can shout “Wake up!” and knock them down. This is soooo much fun for toddlers.

6. Language

Again, pairing nesting toys with other items, such as small animals, cars, or blocks, can help you target prepositional understanding. Have the child put items in, out, under, on top, and next to during your play routines.

For example, say “My doggy is going to hide under this cup. Can your pig hide under that cup?” Then give some wait time to see if they put their pig under their cup. If they do, great! Praise them for getting it. If not, model with your toy and encourage them to follow along with their toy.

You can emphasize prepositions as you’re  demonstrating with your toys. Most of all, remember to keep it fun and playful. This is not a high school grammar lecture – toddlers learn through play.

You play and they learn!

Now…Go have some fun!

Do you have any ideas or questions about nesting cups? If so, let me know. I love new ideas (almost as much as I love toys)!

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