As of this upcoming Friday, school’s out for summer and I couldn’t be more ready for it. It’s been a YEAR, that’s for sure, and I’m so excited for a break from it all. You won’t necessarily see us doing major thematic studies or methodically practicing academics. You’ll find us at the beach, by the lake, crafting and creating, and enjoying our yard.
One of the most common questions I get asked by parents, friends, and family is, “What can I do over the summer to make sure my kid is ready for ____ grade next year?” And I think a lot of people outside the field of education are surprised by my answer: Play (and read). The district I work in is often so driven by competitive academics that sometimes it leads us down the road of progress for progress’ sake rather than progress for the actual child. I always have to gently remind parents that child development is rarely just about who can read the best or who can do math the best. In fact, I’d argue that in today’s day and age those other qualities (engaging in discourse and dialogue, empathizing with others who do not hold the same beliefs as your own, problem solving, critical thinking, and questioning…etc.) far outweigh the academics (which remember, our public institutions are historically set up to nourish). So ditch the store bought workbooks and flashcards and worksheets, and get your kids back to playing.
Albert Einstein once said, “Play is the highest form of research.”
Through play, kids practice it all, and they practice it all in meaningful and authentic ways. They question, observe, investigate, research, problem solve, empathize, sympathize, and learn during play. Over the summer, we strive to ensure our kids are having opportunities for both structured and unstructured play, both immediately supervised and distantly supervised play, outdoor and indoor play. I try to let them be bored – to help them navigate what it means to become “unbored”, and how expectations usually dictate boredom. I encourage a balance of busy-ness and quiet time, as both experiences provide different opportunities for different skill development.
And we read. We promote a summer reading experience, rather than solely instituting an independent reading expectation. Even kids in the higher elementary grades benefit and often significantly enjoy being read to. (Remember, once reading becomes an assignment, the joy is often gone.) We tell stories, and keep a family journal with pictures and drawings and photos and notes and memories. And we do it naturally – not on a schedule and not as an assignment – when the motivation is there, we do it. We do have our nightly bedtime story routine, and that is something I rarely ever break. It’s a lot more than a routine, it’s special parent/child time, a sacred place to ensure we are together in the moment enjoying good books. Whenever I’m tired or exhausted and think about maybe skipping our bedtime storytime, I always think about that statistic…
If a child reads 20 minutes per day, they will hear 1,800,000 words per year, and will have read for 851 hours by 8th grade.
So, you probably won’t see me doing a whole ton of academics with the kids over the summer. My blog posts will probably be few and far between. We’ll do it as it comes up authentically, or if the kids ask for it (sometimes they love to play school and in that case we pull it all out!), but other than that we focus on play and exercise, and spending time together, and of course, reading good books. We’ll make more things out of cardboard, explore the world around us, get dirty and messy, and clean ourselves up again just to do it all over again the next day. And that, in my opinion, is all you really need to “get your kid ready for ____ grade”.
So it’s no secret that kids learn best when they are doing things that peak authentic curiosity and interest. It’s all about motivation, and motivation theory tells us that intrinsic motivation stems from this (but I’ll save the theory for another day). And a while back I wrote a post about interdisciplinary projects. Along those same lines, I’m going to talk about why you see themes come up so often in preschools or daycares, and why you might think about using them at home. And because I’m always all about staying true to your child, I’ll also offer some tips on how you can decide on themes for your own kids, rather than just using the typical seasonal/holiday themes that come with the calendar year.
For the preschool/early elementary age range…and I’m talking ballpark…like ages 2-6, theme-based studies allow kids to naturally see and make connections across content areas, activities, and play. Learning occurs in our brains when we actively create new schema (the way we organize and remember information). If we don’t find a way to fit a new bit of information into a currently existing schema, or have the motivation to revise a currently existing schema, then we lose that information – this is the way our brain filters short term memory – either decides to take on that new information and consider it ‘learned’ rather than fleeting, or let it go and not remember or retain it (in one ear, out the other). So when we theme our work with these kiddos, we are creating a methodical environment conducive to building schema. Take a typical springtime preschool theme of weather, for example. It rains a lot in the spring, so kids at this age might naturally offer questions or comments about this: “It’s raining AGAIN?! Why is it raining so much lately?” And because they are genuinely curious to understand why, there is authentic opportunity to tap into this motivation to learn. So we begin to read books about weather and springtime and rain and the water cycle. And this leads us to tracking the weather at our own schools or homes, which helps to teach calendar skills and conceptual understanding of days and weeks and months. And this leads to water sensory play and and making our own rain sticks and creating a water cycle science experiment and keeping a science journal or notebook about what we notice happens outside when it rains and reading favorite stories about characters dancing in the rain and jumping in muddy puddles and I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Kids will want to read, and write, and study, and try, and play, and LEARN when they are curious enough to want to figure it all out. So we take all those isolated skills like learning letters and numbers and sight words and language development and we build it all into this so that we DON’T do it in isolation (where it’s most often boring and unmotivating). And voila, our kids surprise us because we never realized they knew how to explain the water cycle in their own words, or recognize the word rain in a book about weather, or write their own story about a mouse in a rainstorm. We see results when we aren’t even looking for them. And that’s magic.
Why Kid-Centered Rather than Calendar/Season-Centered?
I’m not knocking the season, holiday, or calendar-based themes you see a lot. They are all well and good, especially when a particular season or holiday is meaningful or exciting for your kid. But I’m telling you, if you follow your kids’ lead and pick themes based on what you notice their current driving interests are, you’ll be stunned at what they can pick up, and how fast they do it. So how do you do it? Kids probably won’t come out and say “Hey Mom I really want to know more about the solar system!” They may not necessarily have the language to express something like this. But what they will do is ask questions about the world around them, what they’re seeing in books, what others are talking about around them, and what they’re seeing elsewhere – like TV or movies or stores. So, what do you do to figure out a theme? Study them! Observe them closely by…
Noticing what types of books they are gravitating to (when Luca started asking for and reading books about space and rocket ships, we learned and read about the solar system and our planets)
Noticing what types of things they are asking questions about (when Luca started inquiring about where food goes once you eat it, we learned and read about the human body)
Noticing their choice in toys (when Dominic became obsessed with plastic dinos, we learned and read about fossils, dinos, and the Earth)
Noticing their conversations, with other adults, but also particularly with other kids (when Dominic started talking to his brother about diggers and excavators and backhoes and was using this specific vocabulary independently, we learned and read about construction vehicles)
Noticing their choice in movies, tv shows, or other visual arts (when Luca constantly asked to watch YouTube videos about zoo animals, we learned and read about safari animals)
Noticing their free play – what they do with their time when they don’t have toys or other people to play with (when Luca wandered around our yard endlessly hunting in tree bark and peering into the Earth, we knew it was time to read and learn about bugs)
It’s ok to get it wrong.
Yes, there are those times where I think I’ve thought up the greatest thematic study ever and it turns out to be a major flop. Either one, or both kids have no interest. And when that happens, I’ve learned to let it go (or just do it with one of them rather than forcing both). Abandoning it goes a lot better than forcing something that doesn’t want to be done. Because just as much as kids learn best when they are doing something authentic and meaningful and interesting to them, kids don’t learn if they are being forced…it just ends badly for everyone (been there, done that… learned the hard way).
Kid-Centered Thematic Study: Ants (An Example)
If you’ve followed my IG at all, you’ve definitely noticed Luca’s current obsession with bugs. He calls himself an entomologist, and has lured his brother right in with him. The past two months have been filled with worm digging, bug catching, and ant collecting. We even have five painted lady caterpillars right now that we are harvesting into butterflies (not sure harvesting is the right word – somehow that sounds bad). Wait, and I should add, I am NOT a bug person at all. But I suck it up and own it for the sake of the kids, and the good thing is most of the time I supervise while they do the work so I have minimal interaction with the actual bugs (thank goodness). So we’ve been doing thematic studies with all types of bugs, and right now we are in the midst of ants.
We started finding those huge black ants in our house once the weather turned from winter to spring. While Mom was grossed out and Dad was concerned for the infrastructure, the kids were on cloud 9 chasing ants around the house. That got Luca and Dominic asking questions like, “How did they get in here?” and “Why do we keep finding them inside, don’t they live outside?” And then they noticed that a lot of the ants on our walkway outside were the ‘baby ants’ (not really baby ants, just a different species), so that got them wondering, “Why are the baby ants outside and the big ants inside?” After a week of endless questions, I bit the bullet, ordered some ant books to pair with some of the bug books we already had, and began to think about how we could study ants and answer some of these questions.
I had just purchased the Nature Mega Bundle (Vol. 3) from The Hidden Way Learning in honor of Emily, and it had an ant mini unit that gave me tons of ideas and visuals. Usually this is how I get my ideas – I see things on other blogs or from other teachers and it’s a launching pad. I’ll steal a few things from what I see (teachers are the BEST thiefs!), but it’ll also jog my teacher brain and give me a gazillion of my own ideas. I’m pretty good at figuring out how to add literacy and math into any craft or play activity. Our studies end up being other peoples’ ideas with my own spin on it, or a mix of other peoples’ ideas and my own.
So, we read as much as we could about ants. We learned about ant colonies and the types of ants within a colony, we learned about the anatomy of an ant, and we learned about different species of ants – lo and behold those big ones are carpenter ants and are probably making nests in the wood of our house (HALP!) and those ‘baby ants’ are actually called pavement ants. We made an ant colony sensory bin using ground cheerios (dirt), moss from our yard (Earth), dried white beans (eggs), dried lentils (food), and plastic ants from the party store. We made model ants out of cardboard, buttons, and sticks from outside when we studied the anatomy of an ant. And when we learned about ant food – how they will essentially eat anything, we did an experiment to see if we could attract ants like at a picnic. And yes, we caught and collected (and released!) ants, and studied them and made drawings and diagrams and took pictures, applying everything we were learning to the ants we were finding in our house and in our backyard.
So yeah, now I know more about ants than I ever thought I needed to, but my kids do too. And not only that but they naturally practiced old and learned new literacy and math skills in order to do all of the things we did during the study, and got to be scientists while at it. I’ll take this kind of learning over workbooks and flashcards any day, and I’m willing to bet my kids would too!
Usually the activities and play I do with my kids is mix of seasonal/theme-based stuff and just completely random stuff driven by their interests and curiosities. Every time the Easter season comes around, I get so darn pumped because honestly, those cheapo plastic Easter eggs you can find virtually anywhere are the most versatile “themed” play and learning tools you could ever imagine. It’s actually hilarious how much you can do with those things, and I love it because you can buy bulk cheap…so I have no problem writing all over a set and not worrying that I wasted them on just one closed-ended activity. I’m going to outline four general ways we get days and months and hours of use out of our plastic Easter eggs. And the kids NEVER. GET. BORED.
Egg hunts. I will set up egg hunts indoors or outdoors all Easter season long. You can theme an egg hunt around anything and everything. And the boys love the hunt. We’ve done egg hunts to find categories of things, and at the end they have to count how many of each category they have and which category has more, less, the most, the least, etc. I’ve stuffed plastic eggs and scattered them around with anything and everything from rocks, to letters, to numbers, to snacks, to little folded pieces of paper with pictures or drawings on them, to clues to a riddle, treasure hunt, or surprise. The best part is, I never tell them what I stuffed them with – there’s so much fun in the mysteriousness of it at first, and watching them open each egg and look for patterns to try and figure out what we can talk about with all the things inside. When we do these hunts outside, I always have the golden rule too – you have to go and get just ONE egg at a time, bring it to the blanket, empty it, then go back out for another. The rationale? More running burns more energy for them and stretches the activity out to take more time. Genius. A favorite of mine from last Spring is the one I did where we were working on beginning sound discrimination. Inside each egg was an item or picture of something that began with /r/ or /n/. They looked at the picture or item, said what it was, then had to think did, “Did it sound like /r/ rorcket or /n/ narwhal, and sort the pictures and items accordingly. The boys even love being the ones to set up a hunt for mom and dad, and they are the cutest little replicators!
Sensory tools. By this point, if you’ve been following my blog, you already know how big of a fan I am of sensory bins and sensory play. The EASIEST way to spice up an Easter themed sensory bin is throwing a handful of plastic eggs in there and an old empty egg carton. The boys have a blast turning the eggs into scoops, having egg stacking contests, burying them in the rice, hiding other things in them, building rice maracas (and promptly seeing how high they can drop them into the bin and get them to burst), I could go on and on. Seriously, so easy, and they usually get upset when I have to put them away after Easter has come and gone…I’m usually tearing them out of their hands come June because I’m like “Come on now Easter was a few months ago it’s time for them to go!”
Egg matching. There are SO many different egg matching activities you can create, and this is where their cheapness comes in so handy. Because they’re so cheap, I use permanent marker to make lots of activities for the boys to do simply by matching. I have no problem marking up a bunch of plastic eggs with permanent marker because I can just go buy more if I need them without worrying about breaking the bank. And most of the time I’ll do mismatched colors (top half of egg one color, bottom half a different color) so that the visual discrimination is easier AND so they don’t take the easy way out and just find the matches by matching colors. Some of the things we’ve done for egg matching are: upper/lowercase letter match, letter/number/shape formation, shape match, number to quantity correspondence, math facts (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division), onset/rimes, rhyming pairs, color matching, phonograms (word parts/word families), beginning sounds, ending sounds, middle sounds, digraphs, blends, prefixes, suffixes, endings, lines matching (pre-writing), building two-digit numbers, compound words, multisyllabic words/two-syllable words, emotion identification….you get the picture. I’m so curious, too. If you have other ways you’ve designed egg matching activities using plastic Easter eggs, drop them in the comments below!
Hide and seek/memory eggs. When you take the eggs apart, they become a perfect way to play hide and seek or memory games with your littles. You can hide ANYTHING underneath that will fit (and think anything similar to egg matching concepts listed above) as a way to build suspense and create excitement, and nurture a game-like environment when doing activities.
So, in case you needed any incentive…whip out those plastic eggs NOW. I promise you’ll be sick of them by the time you have to put them away!
Believe it or not, by the time kids get school in kindergarten, A LOT is expected of them (maybe even earlier if their pre-school is super structured!). Kids go from parents helping them with daily functioning skills like dressing, eating, cleaning to teachers expecting them to do each of these things independently. And for many, it can be overwhelming. That’s because during the preschool years we see the earliest onset of the development of executive functioning skills, which are a set of skills that underlie the ability to plan ahead and meet goals, have self-control, follow multi-step directions, regulate emotions, understand the feelings of others, and stay focused despite environmental distractions. It’s kind of like telling a kid in a candy shop to walk in through the front door and immediately proceed through the store all the way to the back door and walk out without touching or doing anything, or asking a child to pick out a birthday gift for a sibling when they aren’t able to get anything for themselves -normal things that an adult is able to do, but a different story for toddlers altogether. It’s HARD for preschoolers, and each kiddo will develop the appropriate skills on their own time – some developing earlier than others (and that’s ok…it’s not a race!).
The good news is there a lots of things you can do to encourage the development of executive functioning skills with your toddler, and those things include both daily routines and habits as well as play based activities designed to target the brain’s cognitive ability to take information in, hold onto it, and process it to complete a task successfully.
In terms of daily routines and habits, there’s some simple things you can do to get the ball rolling. Use a hierarchical approach to giving directions, and gently transition to more complicated directions over time: start with one direction with minimal language at a time for little toddlers (1 and 2 years old) and include hand gestures or visuals. For example, you might point to your child’s shoes and say “Go get shoes”. As your toddler gets older, make your directions more complex and less scaffolded by adding steps (Go get shoes -> Get your shoes and your jacket -> Get your shoes, jacket, and mask) and language (Go get shoes -> First get your shoes, then get your jacket -> First get your shoes by the door, then get your jacket hanging on the hook, and finally put your hat on your head). Declutter spaces and areas where your child will complete daily functioning skills. If your goal is for your child to get ready to leave in the morning by himself, declutter the space where he would do so. Instead of having a bin of all the child’s shoes, jackets, supplies (etc.), just have the one pair of shoes, jacket, and hat you want him to be wearing. If your goal is for your child to dress himself, lay out the outfit the night before (let him pick!), so that when he wakes up he knows exactly what to do.
At school, early elementary teachers use LOTS of visuals, including pictures of things or directions, and visual schedules or checklists to help kids remember routines. You don’t need to turn your house into a school or a classroom, but you can create visuals through purposeful object placement. Laying your child’s clothes out the night before serves as a visual reminder in itself because your child will know what to do when he wakes up and sees his outfit there. If you want your child to get in the habit of washing their hands after using the bathroom, keep the soap visible, maybe even on the back of the toilet. Visual reminders help cue kids to what comes next, eventually habituating the routine or procedure so that it comes naturally and without much thought. Mnemonics or rhymes can help too, if your child has the sophisticated language capabilities to understand them.
A while back I went to a professional development on how to support the development of executive functioning in preschool, and it was loaded with fun games and activities that kids could do. I weeded through a lot of them and pulled out some fan favorites of Luca’s, which tend to be the ones I present to him as a ‘challenge’. What I love about the challenges we do is that room for differentiation. There’s endless ways of making these ‘challenges’ either easier or harder depending on the needs and capabilities of your child.
Up first is the lego challenge, and it’s simple: grab four different colored lego bricks and make a tower for you and a tower for your kid (both towers should have the same colors). The challenge? Build your tower and have your child try to create the same tower with his bricks – same color order and structure. You can vary the difficulty of this task by using more or less bricks, by changing the way you stack them (one directly on top of the other, or steps-style, or zig-zag style), or by limiting the visual model you show him – try showing him your tower for 30 seconds, then hiding it behind your back and having him recreate it – then have him check his work. This requires him to notice the colors needed, the order of the colors, and how the bricks need to be placed. It’s a lot of information to hold on to at once and requires his brain to manipulate that information successfully to complete the task.
Up next is the popsicle stick challenge. Create shapes or figures or designs or letters or numbers or words with popsicle sticks. Have your child watch you create yours first, then encourage him to create the same. He may attack it differently than the order in which you built, but that’s ok – he’ll work towards efficiency and strategy the more his brain develops (you might see him start with trial and error to recreate your figure but as he gets older and starts to understand you’ll see him go in a certain order, etc.). You can make it even harder by creating the partial figure for him, and then asking him to complete it. There’s a lot of visual-spatial reasoning in this one if you do the partial figure activity, so he’s essentially exercising multiple parts of his brain at once!
Last is the cup stacking challenge. I like to embed a little numeracy in this one by using numbers on my set and dots on his set. We start with 6, and I arrange the cups in any stack or order I choose. He has to mimic my creation, but instead of just matching my stack, he has to make sure the dots on his cups correspond to the numbers on my cups. This is hard for him! Usually I prompt him during this one with things like “Ok, let’s start with the bottom row first. What’s the first cup? Ok now that you have the first cup, which number goes to the right of that cup?” Over time, hopefully I can make trickier combinations and use less prompting, and he’ll start to problem solve the stack on his own!
There are also lots books, crafts, projects, and activities that help to promote the development of executive functioning skills. Basically, anything that requires strategy, multiple steps and limiting distractions is something that’s going to need a child to call on executive functioning: puzzles, ‘Where’s Waldo?’ activities or seek and find books (remember Highlights?!), freeze dance games, kid yoga (lots of executive functioning to figure out how to re-create poses and maintain balance!), board games, creating structures like block castles or marble runs, doing crafts that require multiple steps with multiple materials. The list is endless. And remember, to grow, kids often need to experience challenge, so never be afraid of the challenge!
I do a lot of posts on Instagram or on my Instagram stories about sensory play and sensory-focused activities I do with my kids. And there’s so much all over the internet…it’s a widely used play activity in the developmental realm of babies and toddlers. But over the years I’ve noticed that much of the sensory play I see on the internet really has to do with tactile sensory play, which isn’t the only type. If you’re interested in knowing more about what sensory play is, and what it helps to develop and facilitate with your baby or toddler, then this post is for you.
Sensory Play, Defined
Sensory play is exactly what it sounds like: play-based time designed to stimulate a child’s senses. This means sensory play is loosely descriptive of any activity or experience in which a child explores through touch, smell, taste, sound, and sight. And in the case of many sensory play activities, tables, or centers you might see in a classroom, daycare, or on the gram, the play component refers to a mostly unstructured, open-ended experience driven by the curiosity of the child. Yes, there are many crafts or structured activities with a sensory component or a sensory focus. But sensory play itself is usually child-centered, unstructured, and open-ended, allowing the child to explore given materials in ways that peak their curiosity and makes sense to them.
Even though we tend to see tactile sensory play (touch: water tables, play doh, slime, kinetic sand, foam, shaving cream, ice, etc.), there are actually many other types or characteristics of sensory play as well. If you want to know the fancy terms, sensory play also includes vestibular sensory play (gross motor including balance and movement), proprioception sensory play (coordination actions like pushing and pulling and developing spatial awareness), auditory sensory play (bang those pots and pans all you want, girlfriend!), visual sensory play (using toys or activities with high contrast, visual tracking of objects as they move, etc.), and olfactory and taste sensory play (think exploring flowers through smell or allowing kids to use edible materials for play). If you’re interested in reading more about these lesser known types of sensory play, this website is a great resource.
Sensory Play vs. Sensory-Focused
I alluded to this a bit already, but sensory play is actually quite different from sensory-focused activities. In this sense, we want to be sure we are thinking of sensory play as child-centered…meaning we are thoughtful in the choice of materials we provide for kids to play with, but we do not dictate WHAT the child does with those materials and we do not impose our own ideas for how the child should play with those materials. (And we even let them pick their own materials if they desire.) You might have an idea of what your child might actually do with the materials you provide, but the beauty of it is often they end up doing something entirely different using their imagination and idea of pretend play, as well as initiate their own self-exploration of the materials. An example of sensory play would be putting out kinetic sand with various digging tools and loose parts and allowing children to explore freely and talk about what they are doing either with you, peers, or a sibling. An example of a sensory-focused activity might be having a child practice letter formation in a sand tray or using colored feathers to create a wreath. In our stay-at-home days, we have a dedicated time for sensory play, and we have a separate dedicated time for a craft of the day, which is usually sensory-focused or has a sensory component.
Fostering Independence and Language Development
There are LOTS of benefits to sensory play. Brain development and cognition, fine and gross motor skills, problem-solving skills…I could go on and on. But I want to focus on two that I think are most realistic for parents to be thinking about. First, sensory play time, if it’s a part of your structured daily schedule, can allow you to disengage from direct play/supervision with your child which actually gives you time back and allows them to work on independent play skills. Obviously, it’s important to actively supervise because any time there are small parts involved, from a safety perspective, you want to be there in case something gets eaten that’s not supposed to get eaten (etc.). But, if you are able to set ground rules with older toddlers like 1) no eating and 2) stays on the table/on the tray, then you can work towards giving yourself mama time while the kids are engaging in sensory play. These are our two rules, and my almost 5yo is able to follow this – I can be in a different room and trust that he is safe. My almost 3yo still needs active supervision from a distance – maybe I’m on the couch “reading a book” but I’m still actively listening and watching in order to jump in when I need to. My 1yo needs direct, close-proximity supervision because of her desire to explore with taste. I do believe it is really important to encourage independent play, and this is a great way to do so.
Second, sensory play time is a huge opportunity for language development, whether it’s through pretend play with the materials provided or peer-to-peer interaction if you’re lucky enough to have siblings to engage in sensory play together. If you want to encourage language development during sensory play as an active participant yourself, you’ll want to model and introduce new vocabulary (“Wow, this sand is so rough and bumpy. It feels kind of like sandpaper. It is not smooth and soft like playdoh!”), and model how to have a conversation without giving direct orders (“Wow, I can put my sand in this sand castle mold and fill it up. When I turn it over it comes out of the mold in the shape of a castle! What do you notice happens when you use the starfish mold?”). If you want to encourage social language development through peer-to-peer interaction and pretend play, you’ll want to model and introduce social norms like turn taking (“Hmm, there’s only one large shovel today. Have you talked about who will go first?”), how to solve a problem with words (“Dom, you’ve been using the shovel for a really long time, I think it’s my turn now. Could I please have a turn?”), and how to decide on what you’d like to do together (“Luca, what could we do with our shovel and playdoh today? Do you have any ideas? Maybe we could make a fort for our critters?”).
Don’t Stress the Mess
Here’s the biggie that got me when I started doing sensory play: It. is. messy. And our materials might not look the same at the end of a sensory play session as they did at the beginning of a sensory play session, so we have to be prepared for that and accept it. This can be hard for me, and I’ve worked on letting it go. But, I used to be that type that would put out play doh and literally only allow my kid to open one color at a time so he didn’t mix colors. Or if I put out kinetic sand in two different colors – one tray for each kid – I’d be strict about only playing with the tray that’s theirs and not mixing the colors. Or only allowing them to play with the things I purposely placed out (when they asked me if they could go get their matchbox cars to see if they could create jumps and tracks in the clay…I said no). I realized though, that I was limiting their play in doing this, and also limiting their exploration (how would they ever know what happens when you mix two colors, or learn that if we put all colors together we get brown?). This was a hard pill for me to swallow, being the anal retentive perfectionist I am.
But I also found ways around it! So if you’re anal retentive like me, here’s some tips.
Keep two bins/baskets of sensory materials – the ones you’d like to keep intact, and the ones that are getting older and deemed ok for mixing and messing. I did the rainbow foam in this activity because it was nearing the end of its life – it was getting too dried out to continue to play with, so I didn’t care if they mixed it together (which they did!) because I knew this was the last play before the garbage.
Keep the good bins stored. If you want kids to have access to sensory materials on their own, then give them access to the mixing and messing bins while the good bens are stored somewhere else entirely.
Rotate single items at a time from the good bin to the mixing and messing bin. Notice they’re getting short on rainbow rice? Grab SOME of that good stuff from the new bin and add it to the old bin, rather than tossing all and therefore replacing it all. Do it slowly and in spurts rather than all at once.
Sensory Play, In Conclusion
Social media sites are FILLED with bloggers and experts and individuals sharing their sensory play ideas and experiences and documenting them in a way to be helpful to us as consumers, so that we have ideas to replicate for our own children even if we aren’t considered experts. Pinterest and Instagram have endless ideas, and they come in really handy. I just want to remind you that you can make the ‘prettiest’ sensory play station for your children, but it won’t stay pretty, and that’s how it should be. And heck, you don’t need to put so much pressure on yourself to even make it look pretty in the beginning if you don’t want to. After all, sensory play is messy, sensory play is chaotic, sensory play is unscripted. It’s supposed to be that way. So while it’s fun to set out materials in an engaging and enticing way, we need to let go of the expectations that they will actually stay that way, and also let go of the expectation that they need to be that way from the get-go. Some days I just put the play doh out, other days I make elaborate set-ups. Both ways are equally appropriate, and will yield the same experiences.
The bruises and I set out to do some fun salt painting this weekend. I was originally inspired by an amazing Instagram account I follow called @mothercould. The mama behind the handle, Myriam, has amazing, easy ideas for kids and also is just downright real and authentic. All we needed was permanent marker, watercolor paper, glue, salt, food coloring, and medicine droppers. We had everything except watercolor paper, so I opted for paper plates instead (I’m a big advocate for using what you have!) and I didn’t bother trying to dig through our junk drawers for a permanent marker, so I just went with a black Mr. Sketch. We were aiming for a product like the one below, except I was substituting name practice instead of flowers – starting to get the little bruise into name recognition and learning the letters that make up his name.
In hindsight, I went wrong in two places: definitely should have used watercolor paper…the watercolors didn’t really absorb into the salt or paper plate and I definitely should have used permanent marker…the black washable ink was overpowering because it bled. But do you think the bruises mentioned…even once…that their “salt paint” wasn’t working? NOPE. Because the product didn’t matter to them. They were in it for the process, contrary to what my little mama heart might have desired. This was a weight lifting off my shoulders, fellow mamas, because it was all I needed to make the excuse to let go of expectations, perfection, and the pressure to produce these amazing projects. I’ll say it again: IT’S NOT ABOUT THE PRODUCT, IT’S ABOUT THE PROCESS! Sure, sometimes I’ll end up with beautiful, silly, authentic, save-worthy products that I’ll pull out when they’re 21 and moving out, but most of the time I won’t and that’s ok.
I’m veering from the beaten path a little bit and contradicting what I’ve previously posted about using models (I still believe in models too though!). Because this time, I didn’t show the bruises a model of what their project “should” look like at the end. And let me tell you, letting go of my expectations for a product let me live in the moment of their process. I watched them carefully and delicately fill up their medicine droppers with vibrant colors, only to meticulously drop a single drop down on to their salt until their dropper was all out of colored water. Then they’d go back, choose another color, and repeat this process again another 100 times. They worked in silence, carefully attending to each move they were making, occasionally breaking their concentration to shout, “Look it’s tie dye!” or “It’s turning geen Mommy, it’s turning geen!”
And finally when their attention span drew them away from the medicine droppers and the salt paintings in front of them, they asked, “Mommy, can we just be scientists?” Puzzled, I said “Sure, how are you going to do that?” And they proceeded to move the salt paintings to a different table and just started filling up their medicine droppers with colors and mixing them in bowls, trying to ‘discover’ (their words, not mine) all the colors they could make. And then they dropped the medicine droppers in favor of just dumping the whole cups into the bowls, and slowly but surely ended up with one big bowl filled with brown water. They BEAMED.
Quickly they started to realize they couldn’t make the water ‘unbrown’, and their experiment was over. Cue the meltdowns. How dare their science experiment be over when they weren’t ready for it to be over? Despite the monumental tantrum the abrupt end to their science experiment caused, we’ve now ‘been scientists’ – doing the exact same thing – two more times. And I’m literally seeing their brains work together in front of me. “Why don’t we just mix three colors and maybe we’ll get purple?” (Nope, still brown.) “Hmm, maybe we should try three other colors?” (Nope, still brown.) “Maybe we should just try two colors?” (Well it’s not purple, but it’s orange! Red and yellow make orange Mommy!)
Here’s the evolution in photos:
So. Let’s recap. We went from @mothercould inspired salt paintings, to salt painting duds, to science experiments, and there was never a single mention of how their salt paintings came out (or didn’t come out for that matter). In fact, they ended up in the trash. But instead of some pretty paper plate crafts to hang on the art wall, we ended up with some new brain synapses, a heck of a lot of fun, and some memories we’ll look back on…remembering the day they first realized they were scientists. Worth it, my friends, worth it.
For those following me on insta (@bruisesbowsandbooks), you may have seen my stories last week: Luca’s pre-school class was quarantined. So while Tessa, Dominic, and I still had to get up and go to school and work every day, Luca was resigned to life at home with Daddy, while he had one of the busiest work weeks of the year. The day he got quarantined, I told hubs I was going to leave things for Luca to do each day just to keep his brain active. Hubs had one stipulation: “I have a sh*t ton of work this week so I can’t be doing stuff with him all day long.” Noted.
I made it my goal to leave activities each day that Luca would be able to do entirely on his own, and that he wouldn’t need many instructions for. I wanted him to be able to look at the set-up, and know exactly what to do, so he could navigate from activity to activity while hubs worked in the other room. The activities were a combination of open-ended play based activities, dramatic play, literacy, math, sensory, and arts and crafts with a winter theme if I could manage it. Rather than write about each one, I figured I’d just post a photo list below.
Snow globe: Glue, construction paper for base and sphere, scissors, pulled apart cotton balls, and printed photo of your little in snow gear. Cut out photo, glue to sphere, decorate with cotton, attach base to sphere. Done!
Upper and lowercase letter match: Took the puzzle pieces from an uppercase alphabet puzzle we have and a lower case alphabet puzzle we have and laid them out in the correct direction. Little just matches upper to lower in the center of the table.
Sticker math: Separate paper into boxes, label each box with a number. Little practices counting and 1:1 correspondence by placing the number of stickers noted in each box. Spin it wintery by using winter themed stickers. (He only made it through 5 all week…it was definitely the least preferred activity but that’s ok. It’s actually still up right now if he ever wants to come back to it!)
Invitation to read: If you’re familiar with breakfast invitations (dayswithgrey) or play invitations, simply displaying books in a new and novel way can be very enticing for little readers, inviting them in to read the moment they lay eyes on the featured books.
Hot chocolate stand: I wish I remembered to take some before pictures, but this was a fan favorite this week and was the EASIEST thing ever! I set out squares of different colored brown paper, leftover pulled apart cotton balls from the snow globe and white pom poms, old plastic cups, and old straws. Crumple up the brown paper squares to fill the cup, add cotton balls and pom poms for marshmallows, top with a straw, and serve to all your furry and fluffy friends. Create a sign for your stand with bubble letters and dot markers.
Snowman: Blue paper, pulled apart cotton balls, 2 googly eyes, black beads, red pom poms, pipe cleaners, white crayon, and glue. The key to independence is leaving out only the needed materials and not any extras. Hubs said he came into the room to find Luca quietly working on this one all by himself.
Fingerprint lights: So simple – little uses his finger to make lights along the strand. I just spiced it up a bit by adding letters in a pattern to build in a literacy and math experience, and get him going on a simple beginners code activity. Every letter of the alphabet is coded at the top, telling him what color each letter needs to be. He can identify the pattern either by color (red, blue, red, blue) or by letter (a, b, a, b).
Illustrating a poem or book: Adding illustrations to a poem or book is a great pre-writing activity. It helps build concepts about print (pictures match words) and gives your little ownership in creating/writing.
Ice fishing: Cover box in white paper, cut hole in the top. Crumple blue paper and put in the box for water. Cut out paper fish and tape paper clip onto each one. Write a letter (upper or lower) on each fish. Build fish buckets out of playmags or just use smaller boxes. Create fishing pole (we have some play ones…) by attaching string to a stick and putting a magnet on the end of the string. Fish for letters, match fish to correct color box, and when finished, count all the fish you caught! Bonus – match the uppercase letter fish to lowercase letter fish! Literacy, numeracy, and sensory all in one. The little bruise got a kick out of this one too!
Winter wonderland sensory station: Sensory bin, fake snow (we use Be Amazing! Super Snow Powder: just add water and it grows to 100x its size) or anything that can double as snow (cotton, white rice, white beans, quinoa…), scoopers and spoons, loose parts, old cookie sheet with thin frozen layer of water (literally put mine outside the night before to freeze). Throw it all together and you’ve got the sweetest winter wonderland, with its own ice rink and everything. We still have this set up, and we’re going on day 5. It’s a HUGE hit!
Iceberg jumps or ice skating: Draw some footprints on some paper plates and spread out on the floor for iceberg jumps. Or, grab two – one for each foot – and they double as perfect indoor ice skates! Love this one because it keeps your little moving and active even if you don’t make it outside to play.
Igloo build: I didn’t get any photos of this one, but I just put out our Crazy Forts builders and some white bed sheets. Build a crazy fort, top with white bed sheets for your very own igloo.
As I posted on my insta stories throughout the week last week, I got a ton of feedback on my DMs. Lots of friends commenting on how amazing it was, lots of friends feeling guilty or overwhelmed, and lots and lots of questions…Where do you get your ideas? What materials do you need? Do you buy everything you need? At what age should I be doing this with my kid? How often do you do this? How do you prep everything or how do you find time to prep everything? I’m going to answer one of these questions per night on my stories this week, so head over to Instagram and follow @bruisesbowsandbooks if you haven’t already.
I did want to answer the ones about materials on here. I never ever buy materials for each individual project. Instead, when Luca was two, I started building a bulk stock of random supplies and materials that I keep in storage. A lot of these materials were gifted over time to the boys in their Snow Day Boxes that Santa brings every year (see my previous post called “The Snow Day Box“). When I get ideas for a project, I’m always thinking about what we already have or have lying around the house that we could use. Very rarely have I thought of something and haven’t had what I needed on hand – and if I did, then I just didn’t do that project. To help, I created a list on Amazon linked here of most of the supplies and materials I have on hand and in storage. Head on over and add them to your cart…you’re welcome!!
Last week I wrote about ability and strength, up next is gender. This one’s personal, because, well, I am in the minority group of this category. And to give you a snapshot of myself in a nutshell, I have two profound memories/experiences growing up that really shape this part of my identity.
First, I was a total athlete growing up — I ate, slept, and breathed sports. I worked my a** off to ‘get good’ at any sport I set my mind to, and worked my way through soccer, basketball, and eventually field hockey. Played club all the way through college, and playing sports is when I felt I was my best self. But I experienced a lot of gender crisis and coming to age moments because of this. I remember one day, high school, I think? Where I called my mom admitting I was feeling depressed and bawling my eyes out because I felt like I couldn’t live up to the girly expectations and pressure I was feeling at school. Felt like I looked like crap, was insecure, and generally just hormonal and crazy. I have the best mom ever, so she promptly took me shopping to find outfits that I thought would match what I needed to look like. She did everything for me, and I love her for it. I spent most of my high school days preferring to be in sweats and t-shirts…longing for game days because I could wear my sports gear and feel comfortable and dreading other days because I’d sweat through outfits that I thought would make me look the way I was supposed to look..feminine and composed. Obviously I’ve grown up now and realize my experience mirrors many experiences adolescents go through, and I know that it wasn’t nearly as bad as others’ experiences might have been, so for that I’m grateful. But middle and high school is hard, y’all. Because that’s when we really start to face our own identity head on, and how that identity fits in (or doesn’t fit in) with pop culture and our society.
Second, I hated — and I mean HATED — math and science as a kid. I hated it because I wasn’t good at it, and I never felt like anyone really reached out to me to help me understand it. Like really understand it. I’d stay after school with (mostly male) math teachers for extra tutoring and they’d just keep drilling me on formulas and giving me practice problems to apply the formula. And then I’d take these tests with novel problems and have no idea what to do. “Hmm I guess I’ll just use this formula and hope it’s the right one,” would always run through my mind. And then I’d fail tests, badly. I always got As and Bs because of participation and homework (go figure), but I never ever really understood the math. Still have bad number sense to this day because of it. One day I even cursed out my physics teacher in front of everyone and stormed out crying because I. JUST. DIDN’T. GET. IT. and no one was answering my cries for help. I felt so alone and inadequate. And only now do I realize that I fell directly into that trap of women in math and science. I was subconsciously driven away from the discipline by my environment and the people in it, most likely because I was a girl. No, people weren’t explicitly saying “She’s a girl, don’t bother,” but I can almost guarantee that when they saw me struggle, they didn’t help me because they wanted me to understand it, they helped me to simply get me through the class. And that, right there, my friends, is implicit bias around gender.
*If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading and listening as I relived some pretty formative experiences with you.*
So, my list of children’s books that help me explore gender identity, stereotypes, and discrimination is two-fold. On one hand, I’ve included titles that address gender stereotypes and identity. On the other hand, I’ve included titles that address implicit bias, and discrimination against women, and how we might encourage our fellow male counterparts, whether they are the adults or children in our lives, to be an ally. I also included one title on transgender. This is probably controversial to some, and many would advise to ‘stay away’ from this topic until middle or high school, when kids’ brains are more developed to understand this concept. But let me tell you, this advice is once again formed from implicit bias and discomfort. If we looked at kids’ true, lived experiences, we’d realize we need to start addressing it now. In my 10 years in teaching so far, I have witnessed a kindergartener, second grader, and fourth grader (and their families) experience gender questioning and confusion. In two of these instances, these beautiful souls realized, and publicly declared, that they are transgender. And these are the ones who have felt comfortable and brave enough to go through this journey. We know many do not until much later in adulthood, and some never at all.
5 Children’s Picture Books to Support Gender Identity, Stereotypes, and Discrimination
One of A Kind, Like Me / Único como yo by Laurin Mayeno: A bilingual English and Spanish story about a boy named Danny who wants to be a princess for his school parade. The story features his mom, an ally to Danny, as she supports him in finding the materials needed to make his costume. At the end, there’s a wonderful exchange between Danny and his classmates about Danny’s choice to be a princess and how the other students process it. Best for grades 1-3.
ABC For Me: What Can He/She Be? by Sugar Snap Studio and Jessie Ford: Both ABC What Can He Be and ABC What Can She Be is a series of board books that teaches boys and girls they can grow up to be or have any profession they choose. It is subtle – it does not directly address the issue of gender, but the professions included in each text are ones that are often associated with the other gender if thinking in the terms of a binary gender system. Best for babies – grade 1.
A Is for Awesome!: 23 Iconic Women Who Changed the World by Eva Chen: Another ABC board book, but this one showcases women from history who have overcome obstacles and challenges to achieve great accomplishments and make great contributions to our world and our society. Not only does this book support women in shattering the glass ceiling, it also features women of many different cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds – kind of a double whammy! Best for babies – grade K.
My First Book of Feminism for Boys by Julie Merberg: Another board book (gee, I have a lot for babies on this topic!), this one targets young boys especially, in helping them to understand what they can do to be an ally to women, without being too pushy or direct. The language is simple, and so are the pictures, and while it is designed for babies and toddlers, I’ll still revisit it with my boys as they get older and understand this more. Best for babies – toddlers, but useful through elementary school as well.
I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel: This picture book tells the story of Jazz Jennings, based on her real life experiences of being transgender, and recognizing her discomfort with her assigned gender at birth at a very young age. The story is told in a simple, clear way and has received great reviews. Jazz Jennings continues to be a spokesperson for transkids everywhere. Best for preK – grade 4.
Remember, each title is linked directly to my Amazon List for Social Justice Children’s Literature, including other titles in this topic that didn’t make my top 5 but still deserved a shout out. I hope you enjoy!
This is the first post of a mini-series focused on using children’s literature to discuss social issues and move towards social justice.
Preface: Throughout this piece, I use the word ‘disability’ when referring to individuals with conditions that are labeled as a disability in mainstream society. I suggest (and am trying myself) beginning to shift one’s understanding of an individual with a disability to an individual who is differently-abled. I am also committed to using people-first language, or language that puts the person first and foremost, not the condition. I try my best to stick with “individuals with disabilities” rather than “disabled individuals”.
I’m in the midst of working on a project at work involving a social-justice themed, after-school, virtual, book club (yeah that’s a mouthful). It’s year three of this club, and it has evolved so much since we started three years ago. But it feels like this year is different, given everything going on in our world right now. We’re trying to be brave and tackle social issues head on, and as a result I’m learning so much about my own identity, privilege, implicit bias, and ways I can become an ally to disadvantaged and minority groups. To put it bluntly, I’m an educated, straight, white, comfortably-living, female with a heck of a lot of privilege (that I will always be working to understand), and that makes me a member of many majority groups (with the exception of female, of course). I want to raise my own children to be able to understand and recognize their own identity, and privilege, and be thoughtful about ways they, too, can be an ally to peers and others who may be experiencing bias, prejudice, discrimination, and/or racism. So how has that landed me here, in another blog post, writing about books?
I’ve said before I often turn to children’s literature to help me teach my students and children about topics that others might deem uncomfortable, controversial, or risky. I have found that when I am discussing heavy (loaded?) and important societal issues that can also be very emotional (and sometimes trigger fear and anger), I can create a safer space for dialogue and discussion by talking in the context of a book or it’s characters. This creates a “once-removed” experience that often then opens the doors for true and honest discussions and sharing of personal experiences within the group.
When we launch Reading Club 3.0 in a few weeks, we will be targeting categories of social issues each week, ranging from ability and strength all the way to race, culture, and religion. We’ve bit off a lot, and I’m not sure if we’ll be able to chew it all, but we sure as heck will try. The other facilitator and I decided to start with ability/disability, simply because this is a category that is accessible (usually) to young children, because it is spoken about much more openly than some of the other categories like race and religion. Also, since some individuals with disabilities kids are exposed to throughout their short lives in school and at home are physical and therefore visible (think wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, etc.), we start with the concrete in order to move into the more abstract (invisible) issues later on. (And we plan appropriately to address individuals with invisible disabilities as well, don’t worry.)
So, let’s talk about the identity category of ability/disability. I have already seen my 4yo and 2yo react to individuals with visible disabilities that we’ve seen or socialized with in our own lives. For example, I have a very dear friend with CP, and we get together usually once a year. The past few years, Luca has exhibited trepidation, nervousness, and overall avoidance during our visits. I also distinctly remember one occasion a while ago at Dunkin Donuts where we were waiting in line for coffee and donuts. A little person was waiting in line in front of us, and Luca was openly scared and asking questions. My point in sharing these examples? YOUNG kids, like babies and toddlers, start to identify and feel most comfortable with people who are LIKE them (research-based, not just opinion…look it up!), so as they start to experience differences in the real world, their implicit biases can already start to show – like Luca’s did in these instances. I use these examples to show how addressing ability/disability (and any other social issue) with third and fourth graders is nothing new to them, I promise. Still, it can be uncomfortable for anyone because our society’s norm is to ignore and pretend like it doesn’t exist so as to not offend…it hasn’t been until recently where people have started to speak up about addressing it openly and head on in order to educate and progress.
I’ve been rambling a bit, so to make a long story short, here it is: I’m going to share 5 picture books I’ll use with my students and with my own kids to address individuals with a disability, both the visible and invisible kind. I’ll link each one to an Amazon List called “Social Justice Children’s Literature” too!
And I’ll create follow-up posts recommending picture books to address gender, family unit, poverty and homelessness, immigration and cultural identity, and religion and race.
Here we go.
Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull: A retell/biography of Wilma Rudolph, a US female Olympian runner, who became the world’s fastest runner after experiencing polio and a resulting disability as a young child. This book addresses a visible disability.
Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson: Another book that addresses a visible disability, this book tells the story of a West African boy who was born with “only one good leg” and experienced prejudice, bias, and discrimination as a result. Rather than feeling resigned to his disability, he persevered to learn how to ride a bike with one leg, and set an example of how being disabled is actually being differently-abled, and people with disabilities can still do everything one without a disability can do. You might be familiar with the movie Emmanuel’s Gift, narrated by Oprah Winfrey!
We’re All Wonders: Read Together Edition by R.J. Palacio: A companion to the chapter book (and movie) called Wonder, this books shares what it’s like to be Auggie, a boy who feels like any other kid but is not always seen that way, because of his facial deformity. It shows a child’s desire to belong, and encourages all of us to choose kindness and to understand empathy.
My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best: This book takes the reader along with Zulay and her three best friends, who are all in the same first grade class. She is just like her friends, except she is blind. A fun school tradition is fast approaching…Field Day! Zulay decides she wants to run a race, and the story shows her journey to doing just that, much to everyone’s surprise.
My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Elizabeth Peete: Told through the perspective of his sister, this book explores what it’s like to have Charlie, a boy with autism, as a brother. Even though he doesn’t look any different, his brain works in a different way. I like this story because it explores an invisible disability.
There are sooo many other good choices for this category, and all categories, so be sure to check the Amazon links on each title for a full list of titles!
If I had one wish for this post, and the series of posts to follow, it would simply be to encourage parents and teachers out there to be selective and purposeful with the books we might be choosing to read to or read with our kids. Children’s literature can go a long way in helping to shape and form the character and values we hope our children develop and grow up to have!
Developmental Holiday Gift Guide: Everything you need to succinctly know when buying TOYS and BOOKS for infants through five years old
It’s here! Because a lot of you asked for it, I put together a holiday gift guide by age with a combination of (mostly) developmentally appropriate toys and books from the teacher side of me (professional opinion) and the tried-and-true, our-family-favorites mom side of me (non professional opinion). These are by no means complete lists. I’m sure there are things I forgot or things I might add along the way, but with each age range I’ve attached a general description of things to look out for/things to consider depending on the child’s age. I’m always hoping to hear your ideas too…send them along and I’ll add them into the lists! If you actually click on each age range heading, you’ll be taken right to my Amazon lists. Amazon is great, but I’m also going to try to buy local this year, so we can try and help save some small businesses along the way!
Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of limiting technology – usually one technology gift per child per year. (Also full disclosure, somehow they end up watching way more TV and movies than they should on a weekly basis so don’t let that statement make you think differently of me.) This year we’re replacing the boys’ old iPads and that’s considered a huge gift for us. But most of the time I gravitate towards simpler or more traditional toys. For infants and young toddlers, I like a lot of the wooden toys, handmade toys, or montessori themed toys. For older toddlers I start to merge what is tried and true and high quality with what is high interest – and yes, that sometimes means forgoing classic and stylish toys for tacky trends and well known brands.
We’ve also ended up with a lot of crap over the years, and our playroom is in desperate need of a clean out, purge, and re-org. I usually do this right before Christmas anyway, in order to make room for the new crap that’s about to roll in. This year I’m really thinking of moving to a rotational toy room just to make space and get rid of the clutter. You know, the kind where we store bins in the basement of different types of toys and each bin gets its monthly turn of playroom feature and you keep rotating so things don’t get old and stale (and so you have more space). But this is a topic and a post for another day so let’s get right to it…
Think vision, think tummy time, think dangly, think texture. For this age I really don’t/haven’t bought much. But what I DO buy are things that are high contrast: black and white, or bright, bold colors in symmetrical/geometrical patterns because for babies the vision stimulation is everything! Go with soft crib books and loveys/security blankets with lots of texture. The more texture the more comfort. Anything to promote tummy time. Activity gyms are an absolute MUST HAVE because not only are they a valuable tool for tummy time, but the soft toys that usually dangle from above are perfect for the many milestones babies will hit in the first several months of life: visual stimulation, baby push-ups, kicking and batting, and grabbing and tugging.
Think teething, think fine and gross motor, think mobility, think strength. You need things that are both small enough for a baby at this age to manipulate, but big enough so that they aren’t a choking hazard. We love rubbery teething toys, and any type of “in and out” toy. By “in and out”, I mean toys that can be transferred in and out of buckets (i.e. shape sorters, stacking rings, blocks) because this provides not just entertainment for long periods of time, but fantastic fine and gross motor practice and coordination. If you go the mobility route, do your research. We’ve had plenty of walkers or push toys that are not built for balancing, and the minute a baby puts weight on it the whole thing topples over (including baby!). We’ve had luck with the two I specifically put on the list – baby can learn to take assisted steps without the parental fear of everything and everyone toppling over. If you go the book and puzzle route, think wood puzzles with chunky pieces, or books with bright colors and simple organization (like first word books or board books with short sentences – 3 or 4 words). At this age, they start taking in words and receptive language like crazy even though their expressive language won’t pop out for a while still. Activity centers are also a worthwhile investment because everything is usually attached (no missing pieces, no choking), with lots of fine motor practice and different activities to explore.
Think fine and gross motor ON STEROIDS, think active and physical strengthening, think practice and patience, think the building blocks of imagination and creativity. If your one or two year olds are anything like mine, by this age they are testing out every physical skill they have and getting into everything. If there’s one word I’d use to describe them, it’s BUSY. That’s why this age is filled with toys and activities that promote open-ended exploration and lots of movement, with some more detailed, refined, and delicate fine motor skills. Old favorites like Mr. Potato Head are perfect for this age, as there are endless combinations paired with trickier fine motor. For larger movement toys, sit and push or ride-on/ride-along toys are great for promoting movement in a more controlled way. At this age kids also start to have an imagination, and begin to dapple in pretend play. This is the best age for an introduction to things like baby dolls or stuffed animals or larger pretend play toys like figurines or animals, or my most favorite gift of all time – the play kitchen and play food. Megablocks (oversized legos) come in here too, but I caution you to avoid sets that build a certain thing (your kid will never follow the directions to build a certain structure at this age) – instead opt for the general starter kits that give you all the various blocks but with no specific design. Towards the end of this age, I also start to think about sensory (more on that in the next age range) so play doh makes its first appearance here. Nothing fancy though – no need to get the big elaborate kits – just the dough with cookie cutters are plenty for this age. If you’re considering books at this age, think language development. Board books (still!) with simple story lines, seek-and-find, or rhyming patterns help kids at this age develop their language as well as a sense of story.
I really couldn’t decide if I wanted to do 3-4 years or 3-5 years for this category, as I feel the jump in development that happens in year 4-5 is massive, so what would be a good gift for a 3 year old may not be a good gift for a 5 year old. But I just wasn’t able to splice it out enough to have two separate categories.
Think pretend play and dramatic play, think energy, think creative and imagination, think longer, more extended projects and play time, think sensory, sensory, sensory, and think about massive amounts of skill and knowledge development in huge bursts and leaps and bounds. Lots of sensory options, and it really depends on how much mess you want to deal with. (Full disclosure: I recommend letting them get messy sometimes because if you avoid all things messy they are missing out on important sensory stimulation and opportunities.) I love the variety packs play doh has come out with that include their cloud, krackle, and slime. Train sets or toy car collections or animal collections or doll houses (Calico Critters is a good gender neutral option!) come in at this age, as kids are able to more successfully organize their play to be able to play with lots of things at once. This is when you start to see kids set up zoos and towns and cities and race tracks. You also start to see them assume the role/perspective of someone else – maybe they’re running around the house as Woody from toy story all the time, or they spend an hour playing Paw Patrol with their Paw Patrol figures. High energy activities like bikes (balance bikes are amazing for development of balance!), scooters, and (gasp!) bounce houses that are small enough to fit inside your basement but large enough to allow for lots of jumping and wrestling and bouncing. I also love incorporating crafts and art supplies at this age – things like crayons and markers and coloring books and sticker books and even blank artists’ pads are engaging but also help to develop more specific fine motor skills. We introduced the grand easel at 3ish (maybe it was even 2.5ish), and it was a little too soon. We spent a lot of the first few months having to hover and teach to make sure markers or chalk weren’t drawn on anything other than the easel. But once that lesson was learned it is the perfect activity center. For puzzles and books, you’re now moving into the more complex, traditional puzzles (still with larger pieces but a smaller number!) and books in a variety of genres like non fiction, traditional picture books (I still keep it hardcover at this age if I can!), and old favorites like fairy tales and books in a series (Berenstein Bears anyone?!).
Remember to check out the post about Snow Day Boxes, too!
A little while back I did a post on Snow Day Boxes – boxes that Santa brings my kids every year filled with no-tech/low tech special activities that the kids can do on snow days (or rainy days or quiet time or rest time, etc.). It’s worth a read, as it could become your newest yearly tradition! If you’re interested, click here to read that post too. Happy shopping!