The Versatility of Plastic Easter Eggs

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!

Pre-School Quarantine: (Winter-Themed) Easy & Independent Learning Activities for a Week

Pre-School Quarantine: (Winter-Themed) Easy & Independent Learning Activities for a Week

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!!

It’s In The Name

This post is a little tricky for me because it’s hard for me to paint the whole picture of literacy when I start talking about things in isolation. As in, I would never want someone to think activities I suggest are random and disconnected. All of my activities have context, and are done as a piece of a bigger picture. Think of the literate child as a giant puzzle. There are lots of pieces that go into that puzzle, and those pieces work together to create the masterpiece. Each individual puzzle piece doesn’t have a lot of meaning on its own, and they don’t have a lot of meaning if they aren’t put together correctly.

One of the pieces of the literate puzzle is letter recognition and formation. (I’ll do a different, more detailed post on this later and I’ll also do a separate post on language development and the foundations of reading.)

One of the ways I’ve begun work on letter recognition and formation with my own kids is through their name. In fact, I’ve done and still do a lot of informal and casual work with my toddlers around their name. Why? Well, two reasons. The first is more philosophical, the second more practical.

  1. As you begin to teach toddlers letters, you want the letters to mean something. Think about it. Toddlers are in an extremely egocentric stage of life. There is NOTHING more meaningful to a toddler than their name. And you don’t just want them memorizing symbols with no understanding of what they actually mean. As toddlers get older and pass through the stages of emergent reading, they’ll build a foundational understanding that letters (graphemes) are the symbols we use to represent sounds (phonemes) in our language, and sounds are put together to form words or chunks of words with meaning (morphemes).
  2. As a parent, god forbid my kids are ever in a situation where they’d need it, I want them to know their personal information. Start with first name (recognition and formation), then move to last name, then address, town, phone number, etc. Remember though, all of this takes months and years of work – you’re not just teaching a kid his first and last name, address, and personal information in the span of a week or two. Go slow. You want it to last.

Where To Start

Not sure where to even begin? Start with talk, start with modeling it, start with environment, start with recognition. Talk. Talk about your child’s name with him. Talk about the letters in his name, talk about the sounds the letters in his name make, especially the first one. Show his name to him, write it for him. Point out when you see his name, point out when you see the letters in his name…around the house, in the car, at the grocery store, anywhere! Noticing print in the environment is fun and peeks curiosity, and also helps kids begin to understand that letters and words have meaning. Once you make this type of talk more of a habit, you’ll notice it just kind of embeds itself into your daily conversations and play, making it a naturally occurring part of your child’s life. And as your talking about it, casually help your child begin to recognize it.

“Oh my gosh, I found your name on your art project! Let’s look. Do you see any place with letters? What letter do you notice? L? I notice L too and I know Luca starts with L. Yup, you found it, that’s your name! Now let’s read your name. Oh my gosh you can read! Look at that, you just read your name. Do you know any of the other letters in your name?”

The best part of name recognition activities is kids don’t have to know the other letters in the alphabet yet. Here are some examples of some more formal (but not very fancy!) name recognition activities.

Before you write it, build it.

Once you’ve noticed your child more successfully finding and recognizing both the individual letters in his name and his name as a whole, you might start building the bridge between recognition and formation. Before you jump to formation, consider the middle ground. Provide lots of opportunities for your child to build his name before he’s forming it independently. There are so many good toys and tools out there that allow for this type of work. But you don’t need anything fancy either. Most of the time either I make the materials we use for name building or the kids help me make the materials. We’ve used everything from painted rocks to popsicle sticks to cut up squares of paper to foam or magnetic letters. I’ve been dying to get my hands on some letter beads lately too! (And these are all the same things you might use for word building later on down the road.)

A couple things to keep in mind when helping your child navigate the building phase: At first, provide a model. Have your child’s name written and displayed in a place where they can see it while they work their way through building it, matching and checking each letter as they go. As they get better and better, you can remove the model slowly so they are building it on their own. Also consider only giving them the letters from their name at first (i.e. if I want Luca to build his name, I’m only going to give him an L, U, C, and A first – I’m not going to mix in any other letters of the alphabet yet). Each time they build their name, have them tell and touch each letter in order, and then run their finger under the entire word while saying it. (L, U, C, A, Luca.) “Tell and touch” and “Run your finger under it and say it” become good strategies down the road for reading other words too, not just one’s name.

One At A Time

When you’re ready to move from building to forming, aka writing, go slow. Introduce one letter at a time, beginning with the first letter and going in order. Provide lots of different opportunities for your child to practice that same letter again and again over multiple days and even multiple weeks. Scaffold for your child if needed. Scaffold means to provide your kid with a just-right amount of help (not too much so it’s too easy, and not too little so it’s too frustrating) for them to be able to start connecting the dots on their own. Examples of scaffolds for letter formation include providing a model for them to refer to, doing hand-over-hand letter writing, tracing, giving start dots, and using the same verbal path every time when describing how to write the letter (the verbal path for L might be “big stick down and little stick across”). Make the opportunities as kinesthetic as possible – don’t just use pen and paper every time. Use chalk, paint, play doh. Write with your finger in sand, in play doh, in shaving cream, in dirt. Write with pencils, write with crayons, write with markers, write with sticks. Be creative. It doesn’t get boring if you’re changing it up constantly, and the research behind kinesthetic writing is SOLID.


It’s so important to not just “one and done” it. When he’s mastered a letter or he’s mastered his name, you’ll want to revisit it often. Like the saying goes, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” [Side note…is that how the saying goes? I’m not sure I got that right and if I didn’t, well it’s my saying now.] And also don’t be surprised if, as you begin to introduce other letters, you see regression. (N?! That doesn’t look like an N and you were just doing N’s perfectly last week!!!!) That’s ok! Think of how many things that little brain is trying to keep track of. As you add new things, other things get squeezed and moved around. Everything needs ongoing practice to not get rusty or smushed out! Lots of ways you might do maintenance activities, from quick rainbow writes all the way to fun crafts and art projects involving your child’s name.


Once you’ve considered a certain letter or word (in this case, your child’s name) mastered, you now should hold them accountable for reading and writing it regularly. In a sense, accountability is just another strategy for maintenance. And remember, you only ever hold a kid accountable for something you KNOW he knows and can do easily. Right now, I hold my 4 year old accountable for his first name because he knows it and has mastered it, even if each letter isn’t formed perfectly every time. I don’t hold him accountable for his last name yet because he hasn’t mastered it. He has mastered the first letter, but still sometimes mixes up other letters and has trouble remembering proper formation of all the letters. So if he has to write his full name, I hold him accountable for writing his first name, then I jump in and write his last name for him. We’re at the point now where I’m beginning to hold him accountable for the first letter of his last name, then I fill in the rest from there.

Ultimately, you should be able to see how a lot of these suggestions go for any letter learning. You might see some of these things show up again in future posts. If there’s one thing you remember, it’s that we start with names because names have meaning. If you’ve ever taken a biology class or a cognitive psych class, you may remember Bartlett’s famous experiment. Anyone? Bueller? Anyone? Well, long story short, Bartlett helped us (or maybe just me) understand “schema”. Schema are a set of preconceived ideas that your brain uses to perceive and interpret new information. While schema are better known in terms of how one views the world, they apply to learning too. Your toddler is literally being pummeled by a million bits of new information on a daily basis. How your toddler’s brain decides what sticks and enters his schema and what bounces back (to be absorbed hopefully on another day) is based on what has meaning to him. How do we begin to make letters stick? Start with a name because NAMES HAVE MEANING!

Taking a Toddler Through the Stages of Writing

So writing. Yeah. Probably the most hated subject by kids in elementary school. For lots of reasons – it’s hard! It takes lots of executive functioning to transform an idea into a plan into a draft into a revised draft into a published version. Not to mention the mechanical side of it – the physical act of handwriting (or typing if your kiddo is older!). It takes a lot of effort and a lot of patience.

But I LOVE writing (duh, blog!), and I LOVE to teach it. And I absolutely love to teach it to the kids who struggle with it the most.

And writing is for all ages…looks more like language development and storytelling for babies and morphs into pictures and drawings for toddlers and finally transforms into conventional writing as kids move up the grades in elementary school. And it has such a reciprocal relationship to reading, that when you see a reader fall in love with writing or a writer fall in love with reading, your little teacher heart just melts.

I’m so happy that my own kiddos have taken to drawing and writing so much. My 4 year old is my little artist, and my 2 year wants to do everything he does. So it works. We do “drawing lessons” most days, and we’ve done quite a few full on books, whenever the 4 year old asks to!

This is my first foray into vlogging/visual blogging, so enjoy watching the stages of writing through the mind of a toddler!

No age is too young to start. His little brother is his shadow, so of course I incorporate him into our activities too. And since big brother is doing it, he usually eats it right up!

Like I said, there are so many other ways to encourage writing in young kids too – you don’t have to co-write big long books all the time. We do interactive drawing and writing all the time, and sometimes even directed writing too. Here’s an example!

And lastly, no need to just stick with fiction. Can do nonfiction too! Here’s an example!

(Still working on left to right directionality with that one!)


Inquiry with Toddlers

Purposeful and authentic learning is good for the soul. The mama soul AND the teacher soul AND the kid soul.

Parent-supported remote learning is hard. Really, really hard. It’s hard for me, and I’m a teacher. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be for working parents not in the field of education. Some of the best times with my bruises this past spring stemmed from learning experiences driven solely by them – their curiosities and questions (rather than the purely academic and pre-created tasks, activities, and/or worksheets). During these times, they were learning and growing and engaging in “school” without even knowing they were engaging in school. That’s the best kind of learning, and I’m here to hopefully give you enough info and background knowledge to at least get your brains wrapped around it, so you can hopefully try it out too.

First, let’s understand inquiry, in it’s true sense of the word and in relation to the educational world. Here’s’s definition of inquiry:

What does this tell us? A few important things. First, it stems from questioning – and how many questions does your toddler ask per day? If they are anything like mine, it’s 39084094857450 billion. And lots of times toddlers especially can get fixated on topics that they don’t quite understand, but are trying in their brains to organize and sort information to help them understand it. (Right now my 4 year old is trying to understand death/dying/dead….need some advice on this one [perhaps a future post] so help a sister out if you have any ideas!) How amazing is it that I’m telling you, instead of you trying to answer these questions and not really knowing what to say, there’s a way you can turn it around on them and let them discover it themselves? Second, it requires investigation. It’s not just straight to google. Kids learn to answer their questions by doing – and ‘doing’ in all sorts of ways. Reading, writing, researching, experimenting, building, revising, reflecting.

Now, simply put, here’s the inquiry method as a teaching philosophy:

Kids go through a series of stages in order to investigate and answer their own questions. Ask and investigate are self explanatory. The creating stage revolves around finding some way to share work publicly. The best questions to investigate are purposeful – the answer to the question helps you DO something with it. And when you DO something, you get to share it with the world. This is extremely motivating for kids of all ages, but especially toddlers. Think about how proud they are of that massive lego tower or that painted self portrait. Discuss is important because we know as educators that kids learn best when they are able to socially construct knowledge – i.e., two brains are better than one mentality. And lastly, reflect is so important, now more than ever, because it signifies to kids that just because you may have ‘finished’ you project or ‘answered’ your question, it mostly likely will lead to more questions, ideas for how you might make it better, or how you might replicate it in bigger or better ways.

Sounds great, right? Well, sounds more like something you’d see in a high school or college classroom. Wrong. We use this model in the elementary classroom too (not like traditional school – way different than what you and I remember from when we went to school). I’m going to show you a few examples of how our family has made it work for a 2 and a 4 year old, and I think you’ll begin to see it better.

Exhibit A: Our Vegetable Garden

This one launched naturally and has been a larger project that has continued over time. It was around March, and we started to see the first daffodils of the season pop up. Dominic would see it in our driveway and scream “LOOK AT THE FLOWERS!”. And Luca would follow up with “Mommy how did those get there? Where did those come from?” Because he’s 4 and he asks questions about everything. Teacher brain kicked in, and over the next several days we researched flower and vegetable gardens, decided which one we wanted to try, and got to it. This part was amazing, because it required us to read and to watch and to write (literacy!), and measure and plan and price (math!). And it’s ongoing, with daily opportunities to engage in literacy and math in order to move forward – we’ve had to ask and answer more questions along the way. Like why our first ripe strawberry mysteriously went missing overnight (animals!) and what we could do to keep them away (coffee grinds!). Or how we keep tomato plants from bending and snapping due to their own weight.

Exhibit B: Hearts for Healthcare Heroes

This one came out of left field one day, in the early days of shutdown due to the pandemic. And it was shorter – only took us one morning to complete from start to finish. We had been watching the news at night, and Luca and Dominic would pick up on a lot of it. So we ended up having kid-appropriate conversations with them about what was going on with COVID (there’s a bad sickness spread easily by germs right now, school’s canceled and we have to stay home so other people don’t catch our germs and we don’t catch theirs!). One random day Luca asked what we could do to help people get better and feel better. A BIG question coming from a 4 year old, and I didn’t have any answers in my back pocket lined up. So we talked a lot about how there were heroes that were working really hard to help people get better and feel better while the rest of us stayed home. And he said, “Like doctors?”. Yes buddy, exactly. And nurses, and hospital workers, and lots of other people too. You should have seen his eyes when I asked, “Do YOU want to help too?”.

“But Mommy, I’m too little to help!” No, sir, no you are not. Enjoy the progress photos below to see what I mean. 🙂

Hands down, the best part about these projects? The pure JOY that radiates from these kids’ faces when we go out every morning to see if we have any fruits or veggies ripe for picking, or that moment they turned around outside and looked at our front door full of hearts for the first time. And can you imagine the excitement they had when they then noticed hearts appearing in our neighbors’ windows?!


Guys, I get it though. I really do. These moments described above are amazing. But also remember they aren’t every day. There are plenty of days where we did discrete academic activities or tasks, and days where I didn’t know what to do at all. And days where we actually did do NOTHING AT ALL. I did find some resources that helped me come up with some fun science and engineering investigations that I thought would be interesting and engaging for the kids, so of course I’m sharing them below. Click on the photo to be taken right to Amazon to fill your cart. Happy shopping!

How To Increase Your Toddler’s Attention Span (Yeah, right!)

If you’re a toddler mom, tell me you haven’t experienced this before and I’ll tell you you’re lying:

In a moment of feeling bold, you decide to peruse Pinterest to find the perfect craft for your toddler(s). You start by selecting a cute and polished paper-plate pig that involves pink paint, a pom-pom nose, googly eyes, and some construction paper. You think, “Easy enough!” So next, you head to Amazon to buy the materials you don’t have hanging around the house. The next day, the materials have arrived so you spend all of nap time prepping…portion sizes of pink paint distributed into containers for each kid, old table cloths or newspaper taped to the tables, googly eyes laid out for selection, paper plates pre-cut to match the shape you’re looking for, construction paper pre-cut to the needed shapes. The kids are up and they are super amped for the craft of the day. They sit down at the craft table and before you can blink, there’s pink paint on the windows, pig ears glued where their butts should be (if glued at all!), and ten million googly eyes covering one pig (Guys, pigs only have two eyes, remember?). It’s one of those real Instagram vs. reality moments. There are two types of mom responses here. Either you give up on your Pinterest perfect dreams right then and there and live in the moment of chaos, OR you tell the kids to go find something to do while you finish/fix the paper plate pigs yourself. And then you hang them up on the kids art wall as if the kids actually made them themselves. Oy vey.

Ok so, moral of the story…how do you get a toddler to actually have enough attention span and motivation to do something without it (a) turning into complete and total chaos and (b) entertaining them for all of 5 seconds before they’re on to the next best thing?

Here’s where my professional expertise comes in:

The *fake* answer, but definitely grounded in lots of research and development theory: engagement through motivation and developmental appropriateness. Motivation for a toddler is usually extrinsic…i.e. is the activity or materials you are using new and novel, and bright and shiny? Seriously, think about a kid in a candy shop, or a toy store for that matter. Bright, shiny, new – we definitely don’t have it already. This triggers curiosity and desire, which is step 1 for attention spans and motivation. Developmental appropriateness is huge for toddlers too…i.e. is the activity doable for the toddler? They haven’t yet developed the idea of persistence or growth mindset, so if something is judged as too hard or they get frustrated, they’ll give right up. Let me tell you, those Pinterest perfect crafts are almost always NOT DOABLE for toddlers…show me a 3 year old’s perfect fingerprint tree that looks exactly like the model picture…you can’t!

Here’s where my mom-pertise comes in:

The *real* answer, grounded in lots of trial and error with my own kids as guinea pigs: You can’t and you don’t! A colleague once told me multiply your child’s age by two, and that’s the number of minutes your child can attend to one activity at a time. So if your kid is 2, that’s 4 minutes of attention per activity; if your kid is 4, that’s 8 minutes of attention per activity. I have no idea if this is accurate or not, but it made sense to me, and I’d even go so far as to say some days that mathematical formula is even pushing it. So the best way of getting around it is by adjusting YOUR expectations for their attention spans, not trying to actually change theirs. Avoid big elaborate activities, or at least don’t have such high expectations for yourself that the water park you set up outside (water table, sprinkler, baby pool, slip and slide) will entertain the toddler for the entire afternoon. Because guess what? It won’t!

Soooo, what does that mean? You’re telling me there’s no hope? Negative, there is hope. Just re-adjust your approach and you won’t be disappointed. If you need to kill time at home and want to provide activities for your toddler outside the regular free play, select a small amount of time, and plan lots of tiny, easily-preparable activities for that small amount of time.

In the dog days of the pandemic when school was still in session but kids were home and parents tasked with schooling (or if they are elementary-aged, parents supporting/teaching schooling), I’d pick 1 hour per day as “school time”. But during that hour we’d do about 5-7 different things. We ALWAYS did morning “circle” songs, calendar, and read-aloud; those are non-negotiable. As for the rest…Sometimes I’d have themed activities around a “material of the day”. So if play-doh was the material of the day, we’d write with play-doh, do math with play-doh, do sensory and scissor skills with play-doh, make a craft with play-doh, etc. Or sometimes I’d just have all different small activities related to literacy, numeracy, fine-motor, and problem-solving skills that had no theme at all but introduced new materials that the kids don’t typically have free access to in the playroom. I’ll be showcasing what some of these days looked like more in upcoming blog posts, but just for reference all of the photos in the tile gallery at the beginning of this post are activities we did during one of our first days of “School at Home”, as Luca likes to call it.

[Bare with me as I start to move all my instagram highlight reels over to the blog…]

Tile gallery image caption, from left to right: (1) Name rockets – a fun way for kids to practice writing or making their name. My 2 year old got his name letters pre-written and he just had to put them in order, whereas my 4 year old had to pick blank squares and write each letter on a square. (2) Counting jellyfish – I prepped this while they were doing their name rockets. My 2 year old just had to work on beading each pipe cleaner, which requires a lot of attention to fine motor skills. My 4 year old had to count, recognize numbers, and practice 1:1 correspondence by making sure the number of beads on the pipe cleaner matched the number written above. (3) Mystery book buddies – I would arrange a facetime call with a friend or family member, and the kids would get to pick books to “read” aloud to their mystery book buddy on facetime. Their friend or family member also got to “read” to my kids. Even though they weren’t actually reading any of the words (or if they were, it was from memory, not true decoding skills), they were practicing story structure or reading the pictures and this is a huge step in language development. Not to mention continuing to develop their love of reading. (4) Scientific drawings of things found outside – A great way to encourage pre-writing (that stage before kids actually write letters and words to make sentences) is to encourage drawing and labeling. One way to do this is to find things outside and accurately draw them and label the parts. This helps kids start to understand that writing represents something (i.e. has a message), and once ‘written’ the message doesn’t change.