Thematic Study

And why it works, especially for this age!

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.

Why Themes?

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!

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!

Executive Functioning and Toddlers

(Photo Credit: Skills on the Hill Pediatric Therapy)

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!

Sensory Play, Explained

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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.

Maintenance

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.

Accountability

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!