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!!

Building Math Muscles

Tara, this one’s for you!

First of all, I kind of feel like I’m a big cheater with this post. Cheating on my books and my literacy passion. Cheating on my soulmate. I guess that means I’m a pretty faithful and loyal woman, right? Nonetheless, I’m gona cheat, and it’s gona be ok.

I’d also be a fraud if I only ever talked about books and reading and writing on the “books” section of this blog because my roots with math go deep. Way deep.

When I was a little girl, math was HARD. I was the little girl who absolutely loved school – woke up on weekends disappointed it wasn’t a school day, played school with my fisher price chalkboard and stuffed animals (I even stole my first grade teacher’s chalk holder – I guess that makes me a thief, so yeah, there’s that.). But every day, when it was time for math, my heart sank and my stomach did somersaults.

I fell victim to the whole ‘women in math and science’ conundrum. Elementary school turned into middle school and high school, and by high school I was just trying to get through algebra and physics memorizing every formula. I still did well because formulas were rote and as long as I memorized I did ok enough to at least pass. I was never stellar, and despite AP and honors courses in humanities, I was much slower with math. And any time I had a novel problem that required me to think about what was needed to solve the problem rather than just apply a formula I had memorized, I failed. Epically. I cried and I stayed after and I doubted myself and I gave up. I HATED math; I’d never be a math person.

Looking back, I was so concerned with doing well in school that my strategy for memorizing only got me so far. I (nor my teachers) never took the time to actually help me understand what it meant. I didn’t have the number sense to make sense of numbers! I’m still the type that will pull out my cell phone calculator to figure out tips at restaurants or use my fingers for simple addition or subtraction.

Luckily I married a math guy so I don’t think my kids will have it too bad. Needless to say, I swore this off for my own kids. I wouldn’t let them fall victim to my own shortcomings, especially Tessa. I’m a mom on a mission with this one.

So we do math. We do math a lot. Not like “Hey it’s math time get your whiteboards ready!” But lots and lots of conversations and games and play based activities involving math. By golly these kids will have number sense if I kill myself trying. (And funny enough these activities have all helped me build my OWN number sense at 32 years of age..shh don’t tell anyone.)

I went back into my archives and pulled anything and everything math related with my kids that I ever documented. I organized it all into the math standards via Common Core, plus some add-ons. It’s not perfect…I’m much less confident in my math brain than I am in my literacy brain! (And I also know that making mistakes – mommys included – is ok, so I’m not afraid to be imperfect.) Hopefully I get your math brain going, and give you some ideas for what you might want to try with your own littles.

Counting and Cardinality

Operations and Algebraic Thinking

Measurement and Data

Geometry

Math Talk and Math Language

(Honestly, ALL of what I do includes math talk and math language – I could have put every single photo in this gallery.)

Patterns

A couple odd notes because it’s Friday night and I can’t really organize my brain…

I try my best to incorporate executive functioning and fine motor practice into many things we do. Executive functioning is a set of mental skills that refers to one’s ability to organize, be flexible, plan, recall, and maintain self control. As adults, we use executive functioning skills subconsciously as we manage, plan, and monitor the many tasks that we must accomplish each day. It doesn’t come as naturally to kids – they need to be provided with experiences that help them struggle (in a good way!) through challenging tasks with the appropriate help and encouragement from you along the way.

Similarly, I think in today’s day and age we often take fine motor skills for granted. Fine motor skills are the coordination between smaller muscles. Think pincer grasp, cutting with scissors, threading beads, writing, buttoning, zippering (on the contrary think of gross motor skills like walking, running, throwing…). Therefore, I try and build these into as many activities as I can as well, especially and most importantly for the 2 year old.

Lastly, most (if not all) of what I do with the 4 year old is adaptable in some way to the 2 year old. That way I’m not planning double the activities, and they can use/benefit from the same materials. I tried to include the 2 year old in as many of the photos above so you can see how I tweaked activities slightly to match his developmental level. If anything, I ALWAYS let him participate even if it’s just free play with the same materials his brother is using. The brothers are each other’s biggest motivators, so I play on that as much as I can!

If anything, I hope this can be a good resource for you to come back to when you’re in need of something to do. Bookmark this page now so you don’t have to come digging later!

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 dictionary.com’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?!

Epilogue

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.