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26 Learning Centers for Play Based Preschool Learning

26 Learning Centers for a Homeschool Preschool Curriculum

I love setting up an environment where my young preschool aged children (and older children as well) can be engaged in play based learning. I do this by setting up lots of little centers in every room that encourage creative and imaginative play with a little bit of skill based learning thrown in there as well. This is basically a Montessori approach to learning where children are given a lot of choice in a resource rich learning environment that incorporates plenty of opportunities for guided instruction.

While being a stay at home mom and raising our four children (after being an elementary school teacher for 7 years and getting my Master’s degree in Linguistics), these are the learning centers that have worked for me and have helped all of our children learn how to read at a young age, develop curious and imaginative minds, and get ready for school.

Before I dive into the learning centers, I wanted to set the scene with a few tips and tricks that have helped my learning centers to be successful.

Tips and Tricks

  1. Little Learning Centers: Set up small tables, little chairs, small couches, and other areas that are easy to access for little ones.
  2. Organization: I love using baskets, bins, cardboard boxes (with the flaps cut off), and tubs to sort and organize my toys and supplies. I like to label things when I can as well.
  3. Children’s Choice: Introduce children to new learning centers, but after introductions are made, let them choose what they want to do. Follow them and provide guidance and support wherever they choose to be.
  4. The Way to Start Your Day: Start the day with the most learning intensive projects first. You’ve got maybe an hour or two after they wake up for optimal attention, so use your time wisely!
  5. When to Pack it Up: If I have a center set up (like a Play-doh or a water table center) that’s really messy, but doesn’t sustain their attention for very long, I will pack it up. I’m usually okay with cleaning up a big mess as long as it was really and truly worth it. *With a new baby on the way, I’m starting to pack away all centers that make a big mess, just to help me manage things a little better. 🙂
  6. Rotation: If a center isn’t getting used, I’ll pack it away. Then, when I take it out again later, it’s like a brand new toy all over again! (If they still don’t use it, I’ll just get rid of it.)
  7. Routines and Procedures: Having a good behavior management system in place will make the day run much more smoothly. I have found both as a teacher and now a parent, that most behaviors can be managed with consistent routines, procedures, and expectations.

Whether you are setting up an atmosphere for homeschool or just looking to create a stimulating learning environment for your little one(s), these learning centers are sure to engage, stimulate, and provide hours and hours of play based learning opportunities for your child(ren). Also, keep in mind that we have four children ranging in age from 21 months to 7 years, and they ALL enjoy using all of these centers to varying degrees. 🙂

Here is a little video of me showing most of the learning centers we have set up in our home.

1. ABC Magnet Letters

Learning the ABCs isn’t just about singing a song, it’s about learning BOTH the letter names AND letter sounds really really well. Doing so will lay a strong foundation for reading.

ABC Magnet Letters

ABC Magnet Letters

This ABC magnet letter center is a perfect way for little ones to explore what they are learning about letters in a fun and hands on way. *Watch a video of Ophelia using ABC magnet letters here

Using the ABC Magnet Center

Using the ABC Magnet Center

Materials Needed:

  • Magnet Letters: I like these foam ones the best (120 pieces, capitals and lowercase letters), but they are currently only available from third party sellers on Amazon. These would be pretty good too if you don’t mind the pastel colors. I do like the Melissa and Doug wooden letters (52 pieces, one capital and one lowercase for each letter), but the magnets separate from the wood after time. This set of 240 lowercase letters (blue consonants and red vowels) from Lakeshore Learning is also a really great teaching tool, but the letters just aren’t as fun for kids to use. I like using it more for a teaching tool or to set up a lot of words at once. If you look at my letter set up, you’ll notice that I like setting the magnet letters in a shallow box so that little fingers can easily dig through them. Don’t worry about sorting the letters out, they’ll just get mixed up again! 🙂 I also like having these Leapfrog ABC letters for the refrigerator.
  • Muffin Pans: I like using this 2 x 3 pan for learning three letter words, this 12 muffin pan for either three or four letter words, and this mini muffin pan for longer words (and counting practice).
  • Magnetic White Board: There are lots of different options here. You could get a larger white board to hang on the wall, mini white boards to fit on laps, a standing mini white board, or even an easel. It all depends on your space really.
  • Small Table: You don’t really have to have a table (the floor would be just fine), but it does make it more fun! I made this mini table (pictured above) using scraps of wood we had lying around, and I measured it specifically to fit this funny little place in our “homeschool room”. When I was a teacher, I liked taking the lower parts of the table legs off from my rectangular tables to make a lower work surface for kids, and they loved it!

Here is a video of 21 month old Ophelia using a variety of different ABC magnet letters.

*For more of my favorite ABC resources, check out my blog: 10 Best Resources for Teaching the ABCs.

2. Counting

Learning how to count lays the foundation for math like learning the letter names and sounds lays the foundation for reading. It can take young children a very long time to learn one-to-one-correspondence (meaning that each object represents one thing, so it is definitely a good idea to encourage children to count often.

In the picture below, you’ll see that I have a mason jar numbered and labeled. I used to have 20 or so different counting jars with different things in them from beans to legos to small cars, but these counting bears were always the favorite, so that’s all I use now. 🙂 *The Investigations math curriculum is great for teaching math concepts in a fun and exploratory way.

Counting Bears Center

Counting Bears Center

I like using anything that encourages counting like the game Connect 4. Not only is this good for counting, but it’s good fine motor skill practice for little hands too.

Counting with Connect 4

Counting with Connect 4

Materials Needed:

  • Counters: These are the counting bears that I like to use.
  • More Counters: Lakeshore Learning has TONS of great counting resources. Check them out here.
  • Mason Jars: These wide mouths jars are best for storing the counters.
  • Muffin Tin: I like using this mini muffin tin to practice counting and for my ABC Magnet Center too.
  • Connect 4: This Connect 4 game is a great way to practice counting (we usually go to 20).

3. Drawing

I really like having one table in the house set up just for drawing. This table is in our homeschool room, and I always have coloring books, workbooks, how to draw books, printouts of favorite things to draw, stencils, paper, crayons, markers, other office supplies like scissors and tape, and a little box for finished drawings laying out and ready to use.

Drawing Table

Drawing Table

Not pictured to the right is a tall bookshelf that I keep stocked with a variety of coloring and work books, mini books we have made, blank mini books ready to be filled, extra markers, and more supplies.

The pencils here in the picture below belong to our 7 year old daughter Ruby. She LOVES drawing and can be found doing one project or another here at this table every single day.

Ruby's Drawings

Ruby’s Drawings

Materials Needed:

  • Coloring Books: I like collecting coloring books and workbooks from garage sales, thrift stores, and trips to the grocery store based on whatever our children are interested in.
  • Crayons, Markers, Pencils: These are the pencils my older daughter loves. They are kind of expensive, but really good quality. I really like having this pencil sharpener too.
  • Paper: I get paper scraps from my parents’ business and cut it up for drawing paper, but blank computer paper like this works well too.
  • Printouts: I like going to Google and typing in “free coloring pages” and then whatever my kids are into like monsters, princesses, Dora, or the ABCs. I have a cool storage rack like this that I hang on the wall to hold available printouts for children to grab.

*Check out more of my arts and crafts blogs here

4. Painting

Yes, painting is messy, but soooooooooooo much fun for kids! Having a bunch of painting supplies on hand and ready to go makes for a really fun project.

My Painting Supplies

My Painting Supplies

I like letting kids draw whatever they want when we paint, but sometimes I’ll paint with them and we’ll talk about different things to paint like the sky, flowers, trees, cats, or whatever! If I’m feeling really artsy, maybe we’ll look up some famous artists someday and try to mimic their work.

Painting Over Masking Tape Letters

Painting Over Masking Tape Letters

Ruby Painting

Ruby Painting

Materials Needed:

5. Arts and Crafts Box

I love collecting things from garage sales, thrift stores, or the crafting aisles at Walmart to fill my craft box. (*I must also thank local artist Kelly Allen for giving me a bunch of crafty things when Wisemaker shut down.) I like to put most things in plastic bags and label them. It’s really fun to just take out the whole box, and get crafty!

My Craft Box

My Craft Box

Materials Needed:

  • Craft Box Items: Pom poms, little googly eyes, artificial flowers, buttons, sequins, glitter, pine cones, headbands, cotton balls, shells, pipe cleaners, paper scraps, yarn, and ribbons are some of the things I have in my craft box. Or you can just buy a random assortment of things here or here for example.
  • Glue: Glue sticks are nice for paper things, but you’ll want Elmer’s glue for bigger things, and maybe even a glue gun if you want things to be really permanent.
  • Paper: Sometimes it’s nice to make things on paper, so I like to have an assortment of large and small blank paper as well as construction paper.
  • Craft Ideas: I like letting the kids make whatever they want, but sometimes you need some inspiration or a pre-made kit like this headband kit or this bracelet kit.

6. Cutting and Gluing

Cutting is a really hard skill for little hands to master, and so any opportunities for young children to cut and glue will help prepare them for kindergarten. Sometimes it’s fun to just cut shapes out of colored paper and glue them onto large pieces of white paper. Other times, it’s fun to just cut and cut and cut! 🙂 One thing I’ve noticed though is that if a child isn’t ready to cut, don’t push it.

Fancy Cutting Scissors and Construction Paper

Fancy Cutting Scissors and Construction Paper

Materials Needed:

7. Stickers and Stamps

Stickers and stamps are a really fun way for kids to be creative, work on vocabulary and language skills, and develop their fine motor skills. I like to let the kids have complete freedom and do whatever they want with stickers and stamps, but sometimes they need a little help getting started. When this happens, I just get out my own piece of paper and think aloud as I choose what stamps to use and how to arrange my stickers. For extra vocabulary practice, I like to write descriptive words underneath the stickers or add word bubbles to the characters.

Stickers and Stamps

Stickers and Stamps

Materials Needed:

8. Write On/Wipe Off

Write on/wipe off boards are such a novel thing that it makes writing really different and fun. It’s a good way to give your child guided practice as they start to learn how to make lines, shapes, letters, numbers, and more.

Write On/Wipe Off Books and Whiteboard Center

Write On/Wipe Off Books and Whiteboard Center

Materials Needed:

9. Water Play

I usually save my water play centers for the dead of winter when we really need something to liven things up. It can get very messy, but kids LOVE it, and hey, it’s just water. When my water centers are in motion, I pretty much constantly have a load of towels in the dryer. 🙂

Water Pouring Center

Water Pouring Center

Ruby and Ophelia Pouring Water

Ruby and Ophelia Pouring Water

A less messy option is to just do water play in the sink, or better yet, in the bathtub! There have been many long winter days where we take a bath in the afternoon just for fun!

Elliot Doing Water Play in the Sink

Elliot Doing Water Play in the Sink

Materials Needed:

  • Cups and Saucers: There are many different types of tea sets that are really fun to pour with, but sometimes larger cups are fun too.
  • Tubs and Buckets: It’s nice to have a tub or bucket for collecting the water and another for pouring into. I like these rectangular dishpans a lot.
  • Water Table: I did buy this water table last winter, and it was a lot of fun, but not really as fun as the tables with cups and saucers. In the summer we keep it outside, and that has been fun, although a bit of work to keep clean.
  • Towels: I like keeping a stash of old towels hanging near the water centers.

10. Cars and Trains

Our youngest son Julian (21 months) is absolutely OBSESSED with anything that has wheels. All day long he loves pushing his cars and trucks. At the end of the day, there are little areas of cars and trucks everywhere. It’s adorable!

Toy Cars

Toy Cars

Julian Loves Pushing His Big Truck Throughout the House

Julian Loves Pushing His Big Truck Throughout the House

Even though we have an official “Car Center”, there are cars and trucks stashed in just about every room in the house!

Julian's Bedroom

Julian’s Bedroom

Materials Needed:

  • Cars and Trucks: Like with just about everything else in our home, I like finding cars and trucks at thrift stores and garage sales for $0.25 – $0.50/piece. This 20-pack Matchbox set would be a nice way to get started though, and these bulldozers and trucks would make a nice addition. I try to stay away from things that require batteries and make noise because a) they can be really annoying and b) I think that they stifle the imagination. We like using a large truck like this to store all of our cars in.
  • Ramps: We have this ramp, and it’s amazing, but apparently, they’re not making it anymore. Bummer. Something like this or this would be really fun too.
  • Train Tracks: Our kids have a lot of fun with these wooden train tracks. Smaller cars fit on them perfectly too.
  • Road Rug: The kids love our road rugs and play many imagination games using them. You can get a small one like this, or a large one like this. We got our large rug from a thrift store, but you can find some great ones on Amazon like this.

11. Building Toys

Toys that require building are my absolute favorite. They engage the children for extended periods of time, and they really help to get their creative juices flowing. When they’re first learning about how to use the building tools, my husband and I spend a lot of time building with them to model the possibilities. But once they get going, they really start learning from each other, and it’s incredible.

Many Different Kinds of Blocks

Many Different Kinds of Blocks

Big Legos, Kinex, and Unifix Cubes

Big Legos, K’nex, and Unifix Cubes

I love having this table set up just for Legos. The big kids play here as a part of their nightly bedtime routine every night while we put the little ones to bed first. We enjoy buying and making Lego kits from time to time, but mostly they just enjoy building whatever they’d like.

Lego Table

Lego Table

Ophelia and Ruby Building with K'nex

Ophelia and Ruby Building with K’nex

Materials Needed:

  • Big Legos: I like using two bags of these big legos at once. I have a large cardboard box that I cut the flaps off from, cut the front down so that little hands can reach in, and reinforced it with duct tape.
  • Small Legos: We inherited my husband’s old lego set from when he was a kid, but you can buy some basic legos like these. We have also enjoyed making many kits together, but when we’re done, the pieces just get thrown into the collection. I love using large shallow Amazon boxes with the flaps cut off, or a storage tub like this to store the legos in so that kids can find the pieces they’re looking for more easily.
  • Mathlink Cubes: These cubes are great for learning about patterns, counting, or just using to make swords and towers.
  • K’nex: There are so many different ways kids can play with these K’nex building toys. While there may be many different kits available, we have never tried any out.
  • Wooden Blocks: These large wooden blocks are something you must have! We also like these small colored blocks, these ABC blocks, and while we don’t have these large cardboard bricks, I always thought they would be fun to have.
  • Other Fun Building Toys: We don’t have the following building toys, but they are on my wish list!

12. Reading Nooks

I like having little reading spaces all over the house. By making the books easy to see and easy to reach, children are more likely to become engaged with them.

Little Chair and Boxes with Books

Little Chair and Boxes with Books

I like rotating my books based on who is reading them and where. The older children are able to go to the bookshelves to select books, and they each have huge assortments of books in their rooms, so I kind of like to keep my baskets of books and little chairs geared for the little ones.

Little Reading Chairs with a Basket of Books Inbetween

Little Reading Chairs with a Basket of Books Inbetween

Materials Needed:

  • Little Furniture: We bought our mini chairs at our local Walmart, but if I were to buy some online, these mini bean bag chairs look great and have great reviews, and this sturdy wooden framed chair would be the dream! I highly recommend getting something that has a removable cover that can be washed! We inherited a mini couch like this from my parents who bought it for my twin sisters (who are now grown). I think it really pays to buy quality when it’s an item that will get used a lot, but this foam mini couch would be really fun too.
  • Book Baskets: I started collecting wicker baskets like these when Ruby was born to hold diapers and such, and the size and shape is just perfect for storing books! I think this lined wicker basket would be even better, but it’s twice as much. I think it’s really important to fan the books out so that as many can be seen as possible (so big ones in the back), and so they are really easy to grab.
  • Bookshelves: I like storing chapter books and books waiting to be rotated in, as well as our adult books, on bookshelves. We have picked up small ones like thisbig ones like this, and square ones like this over the years at garage sales and thrift stores that have worked really well. I never bought one, but I always thought this book rack storage shelf would be really cool too.
  • Best Books: I have a blog about my favorite books for babies and an Amazon astore with my favorite books for children of all ages, but mainly, I just try to find really good garage sales where the books are like $0.10/each and stock up on ones that cover content, have interesting pictures, and contain text that is on the larger side. I’m always looking for really good sturdy board books especially.

*Read more of my blogs about teaching reading here.

13. Favorite Things Books

I believe in giving children a foundation of learning by helping them master the basic skills, but after that, I like to let them choose to engage in whatever they are interested in. These favorite things books are a great way for me to encourage each child to follow his or her own learning path. Basically, I just do Google image searches and print out pictures of their favorite things.

Ruby’s Favorite Things book is filled with her favorite Miyazaki films, My Little Pony characters, Digimon characters, and pictures of special memories that we printed out. Elliot is really into monsters, superheroes, Godzilla, octopuses, and anything gross. Ophelia loves learning about the ABCs, counting, Dora, seasons, weather, maps, and more, so her book is more educationally themed.

Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot's Favorite Things Books

Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot’s Favorite Things Books

Inside Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot's Favorite Things Books

Inside Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot’s Favorite Things Books

Ophelia Reading Her Favorite Things Book

Ophelia Reading Her Favorite Things Book

Materials Needed:

  • Paper: I like using laminated covers and card stock like this for the pages. Sometimes I just print the images right on the page, and sometimes I cut and glue them. This paper cutter has been very handy.
  • Printer: Finding a good printer is tough, and I am not too happy with the printer choices we have made in the past. But my dad owns a small business where he does a lot of printing and highly recommends the Epson WorkForce ET-4550. He says it prints great and the replacement ink is VERY affordable because it uses liquid refills. Once we’re out of ink for our current printer, we will be purchasing this one!
  • Laminator: This is the laminator I have. It is really basic, has a good price, and works great! This one is about the same price and has even better reviews though.
  • Binder: I have tried the comb binding (with binding spines) and it is affordable and easy to use, but not super durable (yet simple enough to fix). I have also tried the cinch binding (with binding wires) that is much more durable but the binding wires are quite expensive.

14. Little Figures and Houses

Creative and imaginative play is one of THE MOST IMPORTANT aspects of childhood. When I was a third grade teacher, I was always amazed when kids had no idea what to do with themselves during recess. When I was growing up, my brother and I always played intricate imagination games that would take us to other worlds and keep us engaged for hours.

Playing with little figures and houses is an excellent way for young children to use play to make sense of the world around them. Sometimes their play is about real things (going to bed, taking a bath, getting dressed) and sometimes it’s a completely made up fantasy.

Little House and Mini Figures

Little House and Mini Figures

When Ruby and Elliot were first starting to show interest in little house and mini figures, we would get on the floor and play with them as we modeled different scenarios with heroes and villains as well as other story lines that they could play along with. Now, Ophelia and Julian are learning from their older siblings how to do the same thing.

Doll House with Toy Baskets

Doll House with Toy Baskets

We have little houses and figures in just about every room in the house, and they always keep our children engaged in imaginative play for extended periods of time.

Ruby and Elliot Playing with Little Houses and Figures

Ruby and Elliot Playing with Little Houses and Figures

Materials Needed:

  • Little Houses: Just like with everything else, we look for all sorts of houses, castles, barns, tree house, and any other structures at garage sales and thrift stores. These things are so expensive to buy new, but just look on Craigslist or find a way to buy them used. Otherwise, Fisher Price Little People houses like this small one or this larger one are great too.
  • Figures: We are always buying these My Busy Books at the grocery store, not so much for the book and play mat, but for the mini figures inside. I am always on the lookout for small figures like these superheroes and these Peanuts characters. I try to stay away from Barbies and anything else that objectifies women.
  • Baskets: I like using wide shallow baskets like this because children only like to play with what they can see. This toy rack has also been very nice for organizing toys (although I just dump anything anywhere, it at least looks organized).

15. Dress Up

Playing dress up is another really great way for children to use their imaginations. By getting dressed up, they can become a different person with new characteristics. This imaginative play is a very important aspect of their development and actually a key piece of the highly successful Tools of the Mind Preschool Curriculum.

Dress Up Clothes and Hats

Dress Up Clothes and Hats

Sometimes when children get dressed up, they don’t know what to do. I like to provide scenarios and props to help spin them into action (usually some kind of problem and solution involving a hero and villain works well). Being able to engage in extended imaginative play (without adult interaction) is a very important skill for little ones to develop. It teaches them how to sustain their attention on something for an extended period of time and fosters all sorts of creativity that is a much more important aspect of an optimal learning environment than some would think.

Dress Up Dresses

Dress Up Dresses

Ophelia is a Cowgirl!

Ophelia is a Cowgirl!

I like looking for dress up clothes at garages year round, but my favorite thing to do is to hit up thrift stores right before Halloween to pick up more outfits, hats, and props to add to my collection.

Materials Needed:

16. Music

My husband is very musical, and so we have him to thank for filling our house with such wonderful instruments. He is talented at playing just about everything and has a very good ear for music. The kids love sitting on his lap while he plays the drums and we all enjoy making family music together.

Drums, Keyboard, Bass Guitar, Electric Guitar, and Amp

Drums, Keyboard, Bass Guitar, Electric Guitar, and Amp

I have placed colored stickers on the keyboard with letters on them to teach kids the names of the keys. We like printing out simple song sheets (look for ones that have the notes and letters for each note) and color coding them so that the children can learn how to read music.

Keyboard with Labeled Keys

Keyboard with Labeled Keys

Materials Needed:

17. Puzzles

Puzzles are an excellent way for children to practice their dexterity while also learning about the vocabulary and content of the puzzle. Yes, there are times when I have to hide my puzzles when the little ones want to just dump all of the pieces out in one big jumble, but when they’re ready to actually sit down and attend to one (or maybe two) puzzles at a time, then I leave them out!

Puzzle Rack

Puzzle Rack

Playing with Puzzles

Playing with Puzzles

Materials Needed:

18. Pocket Charts

There are many different pocket charts that you can get for a variety of purposes. I like having my pocket chart as an interactive wall center. Sometimes I use pre-made cards, sometimes I use my own flashcards, and sometimes I use flashcards that the kids have colored. There are so many different options for pocket charts and the best thing is that they don’t take up any floor space!

Pocket Chart with Beginning Word Sounds

Pocket Chart with Beginning Word Sounds

Materials Needed:

19. Play-Doh

Play-Doh is a fun moldable adventure for children. Little fingers love squishing and squashing it, and there are so many different options for creativity.

Ophelia and Elliot Playing with Play-Doh

Ophelia and Elliot Playing with Play-Doh

I like keeping my Play-Doh supplies stored in cardboard boxes (from Amazon) with the flaps cut off and labeled with mailing labels. It’s nice to have a table or space on the floor to play with the Play-Doh so that it doesn’t get ground into the carpet. Right now, my Ophelia is obsessed with this

Materials Needed:

20. Puppets

Puppets are a wonderful way to teach children new things or entertain them using funny voices and silly dialogue. I enjoy using puppets to talk to my children or read them books and we all like putting on puppet shows.

Puppet Stand

Puppet Stand

Materials Needed:

  • Puppet Stand: I made this puppet stand using spare scraps of wood we had lying around. It’s a good thing it’s covered up with fabric, because it’s a very crude job! I even had to screw it into the wall just so it would stay standing. 🙂 If you don’t feel like making your own, you could certainly just buy one like this.
  • Hand Puppets: These animal hand puppets are great (and a good price), but I really like the puppets with mouths that open, and my kids LOVE our Ernie and Kermit the Frog puppets because they recognize the characters. You can get this Sesame Street Puppet Collection here, but it is pretty pricey. This set of 8 multi-ethnic puppets is a better value.
  • Finger Puppets: This is a great 16 piece finger puppet set.

21. Games

I love, love, LOVE these big cupboards with shelves that we inherited when we bought our house, and I have one entire cupboard where we keep most of our board games. Many games I have found at garage sales and thrift stores, and many others have been on wish lists for Christmas and Birthdays. The frustrating thing about the popular games these days is that they seem to be made cheaper and cheaper with each generation. I like finding older versions of classic games like Connect 4 and Guess Who that are of obviously superior quality.

Our Board Game Cupboard

Our Board Game Cupboard

When little ones are first learning about board games, I find that it is very important to let them play however they want. When they are ready, they’ll want to play by the rules, so in the meantime, don’t make everyone frustrated by forcing it.

We try to make it common practice to just take out one game at a time, and we try to not make TOO big of a mess. Also, I’m sure there are a ton more great games (especially educational ones) out there, but we usually look for ours second hand, so we just get what we can find! 🙂

Materials Needed:

22. Science

When I think of teaching little ones science, I think about teaching them how to see the world up close and giving them opportunities to explore it. I want them to get magnifying glasses and look at bugs…how they move, where they’re going, they’re characteristics, I want them to catch frogs and learn how to gently handle them, I want them to observe the colors of the sky and to see the patterns in the clouds, I want them to get messy as they compare the texture of dirt to mud, and most of all, I want them to play, explore, wonder, question, and see…really see the world.

Ruby and Elliot in the Garden

Ruby and Elliot in the Garden

Ruby and Elliot Doing a Vinegar and Baking Soda Experiment

Ruby and Elliot Doing a Vinegar and Baking Soda Experiment

Materials Needed:

23. Social Studies

Learning about where we are in place in time should be a gradual infiltration of knowledge instead of a sudden mind dump. As a third grade teacher introducing concepts such as “we live in a city that is part of a state that is part of a country that is part of a continent” and “before we lived here other people lived here with fewer advancements in technology” are all really big ideas that can be hard to grasp when introduced too quickly.

The more children can be exposed to these concepts at a young age, the more receptive they will be to learn about them more in depth at a later age.

State, World, and Universe Maps

State, World, and Universe Maps

Materials Needed:

24. My Favorite Workbooks

During the summer (and weekends, holidays, etc.), I have a pretty nice routine that involves all of us adopting a homeschool framework that helps all of us to be productive and accountable. First thing in the morning, I like to have my older ones do about 2-4 pages from any workbook of their choosing. Sometimes the little ones like to do workbooks too, sometimes they just color, and sometimes they’re playing elsewhere. 🙂

My Favorite Workbooks

My Favorite Workbooks

Some kids really really like sitting down and doing workbooks, and some just don’t. I think you have to find what works for your child. Try to expose them to some pencil paper activities where you can and let their interests lead the way.

Materials Needed:

  • Kumon Books: Every single Kumon book is simple, fun, direct, to the point, and a very effective teaching too. I love everything they make from tracing and mazes, to addition and subtraction, to upper and lowercase letters, to rhyming words, and much much more.
  • Brain Quest: I love everything Brain Quest makes! Their workbooks are high quality with full color, simple graphics, age appropriate content, and fun for kids. You might like starting with the Pre-K or K workbook for your little one.
  • Star Wars: When I was doing homeschool preschool with my son Elliot, he was pretty reluctant to sit down and do any sort of workbooks, but he loved these Star Wars workbooks! We enjoyed the Kindergarten Phonics and ABCs and Kindergarten Math Skills. There’s also some really great Preschool ABC and Preschool Number workbooks.
  • Investigations Math: This curriculum does an amazing job of making learning math fun! There are lots of different games that help to build math concepts. You can buy individual student books by grade level on Amazon like this K workbook. If you go to the Investigations ordering page, you’ll see that it’s not super easy to order from them unless you’re buying the whole kit and kaboodle.
  • Grocery Store Books: If you go to the book section at any grocery store or Walmart, there’s always a selection of different workbooks. I have enjoyed using these as well. If you live near any teacher stores, I highly recommend going there and just looking through the resources in person.

25. Technology

We have always enjoyed using technology as a teaching tool with our little ones. Read more about why we don’t ban screen time for our little ones under two here, and also read more about how we set limits with technology here. If you are the type of parent who has trouble setting limits, leaves the TV on all day even if no one is watching it, or is struggling with young ones who want to spend all day in front of a screen, then you might want to skip this section. But if you’re okay with using technology in a structured and supervised way, then you might love the following blogs:

Our Favorite Preschool Apps

Our Favorite Preschool Apps

In Conclusion

By setting up a stimulating environment filled with many different learning centers, your little ones will not only be engaged, they will be growing and developing so fast that you might find it hard to keep up, and that is definitely not something to complain about!

You don’t have to be a teacher in order to provide your child with a stimulating learning environment, and you don’t need to wait until you send them off to school before you can expect them to learn anything. Babies and young children crave stimulation and learning. and you’re not going to find all that you need in workbooks and paper/pencil activities. Kids need opportunities to learn through play, and play based learning centers are a great way to get started!

For Further Reading

  • Zone of Proximal Development: Children of all ages, babies included, love to be challenged. By providing learning opportunities that are at the right level for your child and by scaffolding them to new learning, they will be engaged, happy, and continuously making advancements.
  • Learning Goals: Now, I’m not talking about state standards, lesson plan books, and goal sheets, I’m talking about knowing where your children are developmentally and thinking about where they could go next based on their ages, abilities, personalities, etc. Knowing this will help you to design your learning environment with each child’s needs in mine. See examples of the learning goals I set for my children here.
  • How Children Learn: When you look at brain development and see that the neurons in a child’s brain peak at about 2-3 years of age, you will understand why I believe that this is the most crucial window of opportunity there is.
  • Oral Language Development: Learning how to speak is what represents the background knowledge that children will bring to every new learning experience that they encounter.

The Importance of Learning the ABCs

Learning the ABCs is something so intrinsic to childhood that as adults, we might hardly recognize the importance, but learning the ABCs is more than just singing a song, it’s understanding that each letter has a name, each letter makes a sound, and that these sounds come together to make words. Having a strong understanding of this concept at a young age will make learning how to read seem to happen “as if by chance” (which is how Finnish children typically learn to read).

What Does It Mean to Learn the ABCs?

  1. Letter Names: Learning the names of the 26 letters is pretty basic and straightforward. When children learn what each letter is called, it paves the way for learning the sounds that the letters make.
  2. Letter Sounds: Learning the sounds that the letters make is a bit more complex…probably due to the fact that our 26 letters actually make 44 different sounds. Knowing the different sounds that the letters make is called phonemic awareness.
  3. Letters Come Together to Make Words: Before children start putting letters together to make words, they need to understand that words represent something…a person, action, thing, idea, etc. Then, they learn that the letters “c”, “a”, and “t” can be sounded out as /c/-/a/-/t/ to make the word “cat” and this is the gateway to reading. This is what is known as phonics.
  4. Writing Letters: I often hear of children learning how to write their letters at the same time they are learning letter names and sounds, and I believe that these are two very different skills that should not be taught simultaneously (unless the window for learning has been missed, and there are no other options). Learning how to write letters requires an advanced level of fine motor skills that children do not typically possess until about 4 or 5 years of age, but learning the letter names and sounds is something that can begin as young as 6-8 months of age.

*Check out my Embracing Motherhood Shop to see all of the resources I have made to help you teach your child the ABCs! Also, check out this blog about my favorite additional ABC resources.

How Children Really Learn How to Read

There is a misconception in the United States (and other countries too) that children are not ready to learn how to read until they begin formal schooling. The U.S. Department of Education actually supports the notion that Louisa C. Moats coined in 1999 that,

“Teaching reading is rocket science.”

They go on to explain that,

“Becoming a reader is not a natural process, but requires direct and explicit instruction.”

This type of rhetoric perpetuates the stereotype that only qualified professionals are equipped to teach children such a complicated skill as reading. And while yes, teaching the letter names, sounds, and simple phonics does require a wee bit of direct and explicit instruction, it mostly occurs naturally when a learning environment is created that encourages the teaching of these skills.

If you look at the way they do things over in Finland (which boasts some of the highest reading scores in the world), you’ll see that children there are immersed in reading skills from a very young age and learn how to read “as if by chance”. (Read more about the differences in the U.S. and Finland’s educational system here in my blog: 15 Reasons Why Schools in Finland are Performing Better Than Schools in the United States).

In my blog, How Children Really Learn to Read..in 10 Steps, I explore the true progression that occurs when a child learns how to read based on what I’ve learned during my seven years as an elementary classroom educator and ESL teaching coach, throughout the acquisition of my Master’s degree centered around language acquisition, and from raising our four children who have all learned their ABCs from a very young age and then went on to read “as if by chance”.

Basically, learning how to read is about acquiring a battery of skills that starts at birth. It begins with feeling safe and loved and having all basic needs met, then it progresses into vocabulary development in a language rich environment that includes lots of songs, nursery rhymes, and repetitive reading, after that children need a solid foundation in letter names, sounds, an understanding that words have meaning, and explicit guidance to see how letters come together to form words. It then all culminates with a massive amount of word memorization that occurs almost effortlessly when a love of reading is nurtured and allowed to grow.

Brain Development

In my article, “How Children’s Brains are Wired for Learning“, I explain in depth how children’s brains are wired to learn A LOT from a VERY young age. If you look at graphics like this one and this one that show the number of neurons and synaptic connections in between neurons, you’ll see that there is an EXPLOSION of connections beginning at about 6 months, culminating at an unprecedented height between the ages of 2-3, and then dwindling beginning at the age 4 when synaptic pruning occurs. During this process, the connections that are used become reinforced and the connections that are not used go away.

What does this have to do with the ABCs? When children begin learning about the ABCs at a very young age (like 6-8 months), the brain learns that this is something VERY IMPORTANT, something that needs to be reinforced, and something that will be used to help lay the foundation for all further connections that will be made in the brain.

Understanding the letter names and sounds from a young age is absolutely crucial to being able to sound out new words and add them to the memory bank of words. When this knowledge is solidified at a very young age, it makes learning how to read happen “as if by chance”.

Research Supports Early Learning of the ABCs

In every bit of research I have ever studied about early literacy, there is insurmountable evidence that a strong foundation in phonemic awareness produces amazing results. Take a look at this meta analysis of 71 intervention control groups in studies reporting post test and follow up data looking at the long term effects of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension interventions. What they found is that,

“Comprehension and phonemic awareness interventions showed good maintenance of effect that transferred to nontargeted skills, whereas phonics and fluency interventions…tended not to.”

This reinforces the fact that learning phonemic awareness (the letter sounds) in conjunction with comprehension (so not just isolated phonemic awareness drills, but phonemic awareness in the context of learning say, vocabulary) is extremely important and WAY MORE so than phonics and fluency.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) research has studied 10,000 children over the past 15 years and found that the one of the main reasons why children struggle with reading comes down to their inability to do one simple thing, and that is to connect letter names to letter sounds. The research shows that children need to be explicitly taught the letter names, the letter sounds, and how to decode words, and that these are not skills that children will just “figure out” on their own with exposure.

The bottom line is that it is MUCH easier for children to learn things correctly the first time around. According to the research in “Learning to Read: A Call from Research to Action” by G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D 85-90% of all reading disabilities can be corrected if early intervention occurs (like in kindergarten). But unfortunately, many kids don’t become identified as having a reading disability or being behind in reading until they are 9 years old and by then, their brains aren’t as ready to accept new pathways of learning, and only 25% will be able to reach average reading levels with interventions.

The biggest disservice we are doing for children is that we are waiting WAY too long to teach them reading skills in the first place. If we can start to build the foundation for reading as parents when our children are young, then we won’t have to wait until it might be too late.

Observations with My Own Children

When our first daughter was born, being an educator, I naturally had great plans to stimulate her mind and help her grow, but after using portions of Your Baby Can Read and teaching her letter names and letter sounds I have been continuously BLOWN AWAY by all that she can do. When she knew all of her letters at 15 months, I was astounded, when she was reading words (that she memorized) well before the age of 2, I was blown away, and when she was full on able to read at the age of 4. Now, at the ripe old age of 6, she absolutely loves reading chapter books. (See more videos of all of our children learning how to read here.)

With all four of our children, we have taught them the letter names and letter sounds from a very young age (starting at about 8 months). At the same time, we have used repetitive reading and my own videos teaching vocabulary and the concept that words have meaning. After we taught my three older ones (now ages 3, 5, and 6) how to decode simple three letter words and continued reading to them regularly, we noticed that they all started to read (each in their own good time) “as if by chance”.

These observations have fascinated me and motivated me to document their reading progression in these blogs and to create my own “Teach Your Child to Read” program (a work in progress…check it out at my Embracing Motherhood Shop) so that any interested parent can purchase a kit that will replicate the great success I’ve seen with our own children.

In Conclusion

By teaching children the ABCs from a young age, not only will they enjoy it and be entertained by the challenge, but they will move into the next phase of learning how to read with such strength, confidence, and ease without any of the challenges that come from not knowing the letter names, sounds, or how they work together.

How Children Really Learn to Read…in 10 Steps

When should children learn how to read? Do we have to teach children how to read or does it just happen on it’s own? Why do some children struggle with reading? What can I do to help my child learn how to read?

The U.S. Department of Education would have you believe that learning to read is rocket science, which makes it sound extremely complex and like something that should only be left to trained professionals. As a former elementary school educator for seven years with a Master’s degree focused on Linguistics, I almost believed this to be true. But then I had my four children, and after following these 10 steps, I saw them all learn how to read from a very young age, much like the Finnish children do which is “as if by chance”.

So without further adieu, here are the 10 steps that I have found which have led my children to reading.

1. Make Them Feel Safe and Loved

This may sound like a strange first step for learning how to read, but it is the most important aspect of human development. I know that against all odds, there are many who have succeeded even when they have been raised in the most unfortunate of circumstances, but the best environment for a child to thrive is one in which his or her basic needs are all being met and where he or she is shrouded in love.

Ophelia Reading with Great Grandma Gene

Ophelia Reading with Great Grandma Gene

Children who are noticed, children who come first, children who matter, and children who are loved will be able to reach their own personal best in whatever areas they are so inclined to grow.

2. Provide a Language Rich Environment

When adults realize that children are blank little slates who know nothing about the world or the things in it, and then take the time to talk to them and show them all of the little things that they see and interact with, it helps their oral language development to flourish and grow thus providing them with a rich foundation of vocabulary.Add-subtitle-text-3

When little babies sit in the grass across from their parents, rolling a ball back and forth for the first time, they don’t know what a ball is, what it means to roll, to throw, or to catch. They don’t know what colors are or that the little blades poking their legs are called grass…they don’t know that the sound they hear is a bird chirping or that the tall green thing next to them is a tree. They don’t know about clouds, or wind, or sun, or rain…these are all things that they must learn, and the more we talk to them and the more they hear these words repeated over and over and over again, the sooner they’ll learn the names of the things in their little worlds and their worlds will get bigger.

Research shows that a child’s vocabulary is correlated with reading comprehension in upper elementary school and that children who enter school with limited vocabulary knowledge fall further and further behind as compared with students who have rich vocabulary knowledge. Children who enter first grade as linguistically rich will know 20,000 words and children who are linguistically poor will only know 5,000.

When children have a rich vocabulary based on experiences, this is known as background knowledge, and is a key piece of learning how to read.

3. Sing Songs and Nursery Rhymes to Build Vocabulary

Another aspect of language and vocabulary development occurs when children memorize songs and nursery rhymes. As children’s brains are growing, whatever is repeated over and over and over again will strengthen the neural pathways and lay the foundation for further brain development. Neurons that are used will remain; neurons that are not used will die. Starting at about 6 months (see a really cool image here), you’ll notice an explosion of neural connections which will reach its peak when children are between the ages of 2 and 3. By age 4, synaptic pruning begins. You want to lay the foundation BEFORE this happens and what better way to do it than with songs and nursery rhymes.

Not only are songs structured in a way that is predictable and patterned, but singing them is enjoyable and therefore, we do it a lot. It is this repetition that helps us commit what we sing to long term memory. Check out my YouTube playlist of favorite nursery rhymes here. Here’s another playlist of all of my favorite preschool songs and another one just for the ABCs. The standard Mother Goose Nursery rhyme book is good too.

With my children, I love making up songs about everything all the time! I have songs about how much I love them, songs about waking up in the mornings, a song before we go to bed, songs about getting dressed or getting in the van…and they LOVE it! It’s absolutely fascinating to me that our youngest son, who is 20 months and still developing his ability to communicate using complete sentences, yet can sing all of the words to his favorite songs and nursery rhymes.

4. Foster a Relationship with Books

Reading is so much more than just words on a page. It’s a feeling, it’s an expression, and it’s a whole new world that can be discovered just by turning a page. By building a foundation of reading that is based on bonding and love, your child will grow up having positive associations with reading that will motivate him to peruse reading on his own…not just when it’s “reading time”.

Reading with Julian in My Comfy Rocking Chair

Reading with Julian in My Comfy Rocking Chair

This is why I love creating reading routines that are just part of our day. When my babies are little, I have nursing stations set up around the house with my comfy rocking chair and a table nearby for water, burp towels, and anything else I might need. When my babies are ready (usually around 6-8 months), I start keeping little baskets of books nearby too. I love reading before bed, when they wake up in the morning, before naps, or anytime we’re just cuddled up and rocking together.

While this early reading is going on, children are learning about some very important pre-reading skills such as how to hold a book, how we read from left to right, how we turn pages, how books have a beginning and an end, and how words are used to represent pictures on the page. Check out my blogs: How to Engage Your Baby with Reading and Best Books for Babies for more ideas on reading with babies.

Throughout the entire process of learning how to read, this step remains crucial. We need to find the time in our busy lives and in our busy days to read often. We need to build libraries of books, use reading as part of our routines so that it doesn’t get missed, make reading fun, and make reading about snuggling up in the arms of someone you love to explore something new. As your children grow and changes, find out what engages and excites them, and continue to look for new books that they will like.

4. The Most Important Pre-Reading Skills

Instead of listing these separately, I wanted to lump them together to emphasize that they are best taught simultaneously, but each one is of vital importance. In fact, without these skills, children will struggle as readers for their whole lives, but with a solid foundation in them, they will learn to read from a young age “as if by chance”. When my children are about 6-8 months old, I have found that this is the optimum time to start teaching them these skills.

Ophelia (2) and Her Fridge ABCs

Ophelia (2) and Her Fridge ABCs

  • Words Have Meaning: Before children start learning about the alphabet, they need to know what the alphabet is used for, and they need to see that words have meaning. I learned about this valuable skill when our first born daughter was 6 months old and we started watching Your Baby Can Read videos together. It took awhile for her to master the first batch of words, and she didn’t really start articulating her understanding of them until about 12 months of age, but once she did, her word memorization skills cascaded like a waterfall. (The Your Baby Can Read program did have it’s flaws, and has since gone out of business. This has inspired me to create my own reading system called “Teach Your Child to Read” which is coming soon…check out the progress at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!) I have also loved using books like this – Hinkler First Words to teach my babies that words represent things.
  • Letter Names: Teaching letter names is where it all begins. Learning uppercase letters is in some ways easier because they are more distinct and easier to differentiate, but children will encounter the lowercase letters more often, and so I like to teach them simultaneously. In the English language, we have 26 letter names that children must learn, which is a pretty straightforward process that simply requires repeated exposure and rote memorization.
  • Letter Sounds: Learning the letter sounds is a bit more tricky because while we may only have 26 letters, they make up 44 different sounds. Being able to understand and recognize the different sounds in a language is called phonemic awareness. (So it’s really more auditory than visual.) When children are learning their letter sounds, I have found that it’s best to work in layers. First teach the consonants (using the hard c and g) and short vowels. After these are mastered, you can start getting into more complex letter sounds such as long vowels (and all of the different ways they are represented…starting with the most basic), digraphs (two letters that come together to make a single sound like the /ph/ sound in “phone”) and dipthongs (vowel combinations where neither vowel sound is heard such as in the words “coin” and “moon”).

5. Decoding Three Letter Words

Learning how to decode three letter words is where the true act of reading begins. When children can look at the word “cat” and are able to isolate the individual sounds that each of the letters make, “/c/-/a/-/t/” and then blend those sounds together, “c-a-t”, to make the word “cat” this is what is known as phonics.

Ophelia and Elliot Spell Words

Ophelia and Elliot Spell Words

Children are ready to embark on the journey of learning three letter words once they have completely mastered their letter names and letter sounds. If you push them into decoding too soon, they will get frustrated, lose confidence, and possibly hate reading forever. Okay, maybe it won’t be that severe, but it’s much much better and way more effective to wait until they are ready.

One of my favorite tools for teaching three letter words is Starfall’s Word Machines. (Watch a little video of us using it here.) This is a really fun and cute way for children to become familiar with decoding three letter words. After that, I love using a muffin tin like this and some foam letters like these to teach word families. It’s best to first start with three letter words before branching out to words with four letters or more. Read more about this process in my blog: Using Magnet Letters to Teach the ABCs.

I wouldn’t have realized that this step was so important unless I had seen it with my own eyes with all of my children. It’s like once they figure out this step, the floodgates open and they start reading more and more words at an increasingly rapid rate.

6. Memorizing Words with Repeated Reading

Once a children have sounded out the word “c-a-t” many many times, they eventually will just know that this is the word “cat”, and they won’t have to sound it out anymore. Children can also just memorize words that they encounter often without ever learning how to sound them out at all.daddy reading with elliot

The more children are read to and the more that they “read”, the more they will be exposed to words over and over and over again which will help commit them to long term memory. Going back to the brain development I discussed in the songs and nursery rhymes session, it is this repeated reading that will help children commit words to their long term memory.

When you think about how you read as an adult, especially when you encounter a slightly challenging text like a college textbook, think about how you read, and in particular, notice how you read when you come to a word you don’t know. Many times, we simply see the beginning and ending letters of a word and this leads to recognition, that’s why we can still read and make sense of a paragraph like this. Other times, we will rely on a plethora of other skills (not just decoding) to figure out a new word such as our background knowledge, context clues, and looking at the structure of the word (i.e. root words, syllables, etc.).

In the primary grades, there is a HUGE emphasis on teaching phonics, as if learning every single rule of the English language is the true key to learning how to read, but the reality with all of these phonics lessons is that while they are really good for helping children learn how to spell, they are not a crucial component of learning how to read. In fact, a meta-analysis of 71 intervention control groups looked at the long term effects of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension interventions and found that phonemic awareness and comprehension interventions made a difference whereas phonics and fluency interventions did not.

As a teacher, but mostly as a parent, I have been enlightened as to what learning truly is and is not.

Learning isn’t about memorizing a series of facts and rules. Learning is about creating meaning. True long term learning occurs when something is so entertaining, so engaging, and so useful, that the repetition needed to commit it to long term memory seems effortless.

7. The Different Stages of Reading

There is a progression of reading that children will go through at different ages based on a variety of factors. You might just notice your children are going through each of these stages on their own, or you might see that they need a little nudge and some guidance in getting to the next stage.

  • Picture Reading: This is basically where children flip through the pages of the book and just talk about whatever is seen in the pictures. You can read to your children this way to teach them what picture reading is like or you might just observe them doing it. This was something our daughter Ophelia would do on her own starting at about a year and a half. After watching Dora programs, she LOVED all of the Dora books and would flip through all of the pages saying words that she knew. With our son Elliot, who wasn’t quite as interested in books, I would encourage him to read picture books like this and this and this because he was ready to “read”, but not quite ready to tackle the words on the page.
  • Repeated Reading: When you read books over and over and over with your children, especially really good interactive books where they can lift the flaps and such, you’ll probably fall into some patterns based on what entertains them. For example, if there’s an animal, you might ask what the animal says, or if there’s a rhyming word, you might pause to let them fill in the blank. By having these predictable routines, your child will love anticipating his or her participation.
  • Reading Single Word Books: This is an excellent way for children to memorize words that will help them read while letting them practice their reading skills. Sometimes, word books can get very busy making you think you’re getting a better value because in 10 pages, they cover 100 words, but trust me, less is more. I absolutely love the simplicity of these Hinkler First Word books and how they keep it simple with just one picture and one word per page.
  • Reading Sentences: Once children are out of the baby stage and have a good foundation of basic reading skills, they will love reading books with simple sentences. Gone are the Dick and Jane books of the past, today’s easy readers are Mo Williams books! One of our favorites is this, but we try to buy as many as we can because every single one is pure gold.
  • Reading Books of Interest: Teach your children how to find books that they like at the library and even on Amazon. Organize your books at home using bookshelves and baskets of books so that your children can easily find new books that peak their interest. They might choose books that are too hard and just look at the pictures, they may select all of the baby books they enjoyed reading over and over with you from long ago, or they might discover a new genre that they can read on their own.
  • Reading to Comprehend: There are a variety of comprehension strategies that you can engage your children with as they become more accomplished readers, and I explain these more in detail in my blog: How to Teach Reading Comprehension. One of the best ways to help your children with their comprehension skills is simply to talk about the books they are reading. You might want to read the same book as they are or read together so you know what the story is about, but sometimes it’s fun when you don’t know what the book is about and they have to tell you as much as they can.

8. Let Children Progress At Their Own Rate

As I created my “Teach Your Child to Read” program (coming soon…check out the progress at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!), I debated calling it “Teach Your Baby to Read” because I have seen that it is totally possible, but at the same time, I have learned that it is not always probable.

By going through this progression, three out of four of our children have become very early readers (before the age of two), but one of our children only started reading recently at the age of 5. Now, this may be due to the fact that we skipped the memorizing words stage with him (due to the fact that we were in the middle of a huge life transition at the time…see my blog: How I Became a Stay at Home Mom) or it could just be that due to his personality, he wasn’t interested in learning until now.

At any rate, I believe strongly in letting each of our children develop at their own rate and according to their individual interests. My strongest teaching philosophy is rooted in the zone of proximal development that encourages teachers to continuously provide students with learning opportunities that are not too challenging, but just challenging enough, and then providing scaffolding as they learn the new idea or skill until they can do it on their own. In this manner, I am always creating learning goals for all of my children that helps me to meet them right where they are.

Learning how to read is not a race, and nobody is going to give you an award for being the best parent just because your child reads at a young age. BUT, when you place these pre-reading tools in front of an eager learner, and they POUNCE on them, it seems almost cruel to think our society would have us wait until they are in school to begin reading.

9. Encourage Your Child to Ask for Help

This is a reading comprehension strategy known in the teaching world as “Monitor and Clarify” meaning that good readers know how to monitor their reading to make sure that they are understanding what is being read and working to clarify anything that they don’t understand.

When I was a teacher, I designed many lessons to teach this concept, but it wasn’t until I read with my children, side by side, every day, that I truly grasped the importance and the organic nature of this process. Every night as part of our bedtime routine, I read with our oldest daughter Ruby (currently 6). She has a HUGE stack of chapter books she keeps in her bed next to her little nightlight, and every night we cuddle up and she reads to me for 10-20 minutes any book of her choosing. As she reads aloud to me, she’ll pause at a word that she doesn’t understand to say, “What does this word mean Mom?” I never taught her how to “Monitor and Clarify”, and yet somehow she just does it.

Ruby Reading in Bed

Ruby Reading in Bed

How? Well, when she asks me a question, I answer it. I don’t put it back on her and say, “What do you think it means?” or “Let’s look at the context clues to figure this out.” Yuck. No thanks. When Ruby asks me the meaning of a word, I simply tell her, and we move on. When she struggles to correctly pronounce a word, I quickly read it for her, and she doesn’t skip a beat. There is this misconception that we need to let our children struggle in order to learn, and I disagree. What typically happens after I tell her the meaning of a word is that she knows what that word means and she applies that knowledge the next time she encounters the word or phrase in question. If she somehow can’t remember and asks for help again, I’ll simply tell her again…just like that.

10. Become a Family Who Reads

Both my husband and I love reading. Our children know this, our children see this, and they know we are a family of readers. Our house is FULL of books, and we have bookshelves and baskets of books in every room. We read books every night before we go to bed, we cuddle up and read throughout the day, we listen to books on tape, we go to the library and get as many books as they’ll let us check out, we pay regular library fines for late books, and we don’t even mind, we have book wishlists on Amazon for ourselves and for every child, and we buy books to add to our library for birthdays, Christmas, from the tooth fairy, and anytime there’s a really good book that we just have to have.

When you become a family of readers, your children will become readers. When you teach your children not only how to read, but how to access books (from your home library, from the public library, and from Amazon), they will become masters of their own destiny. Instead of going to you like an empty vessel waiting to be filled, they can fill their own tanks with whatever knowledge they desire. Here’s what I mean…

When we found out we were pregnant for baby #5, our daughter Ruby went straight to our Basher Books collection (an EXCELLENT source for teaching young children higher level concepts…we have purchased just about every single one), and read the book about the human body. She came to me later and said,

“Mom, did you know it’s really up to dad if our baby becomes a boy or girl because he’s the one who carries the x or the y chromosome?”

And that’s what I’m talking about folks! This is what reading is all about. It’s not about reading early or getting high grades, and it’s not about becoming proficient or advanced or reading the right number of words a minute. Reading is about unlocking the world around you, discovering new things, exploring new ideas, getting lost in another world, and having access to all of the knowledge that the world has to offer.

In Conclusion

Learning how to read is not rocket science, it is not something that should wait until formal schooling to be learned, and it does not need to be taught by a trained professional. In fact, very little “teaching” is actually needed in order to lead children to reading. What is needed is an environment conducive to reading, deliberate exposure to word recognition, letter names, and letter sounds, guidance in discovering the structure

By creating an environment conducive to reading and by building a foundation of some key basic skills, children can learn to read “as if by chance” and in the process unlock an entire world that is just resting at their fingertips. Check out the teaching tools I have created to help children learn how to read at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!

Happy reading!

Videos of Our Kids Reading

  • Reading with Julian 18 months. Notice how much he interacts with the books I am reading. These are some of his favorites that we read all the time.
  • Ophelia reading at 2.5. Ophelia started reading from a VERY young age, and it really blew our minds!
  • Elliot reading some Mo Williams at age 5. Elliot started reading on his own fairly recently, and he is so proud! He has a nightlight by his bed, and we hear him over his monitor reading to himself every night.
  • Ruby reads The Princess in Black at age 6. Ruby start reading at a VERY young age like Ophelia and absolutely LOVES reading!
  • Here’s a playlist of our kids learning how to read over the years. *Showing children videos of other kids reading can be a great way to get them motivated to read!
Embracing Motherhood Teaching Children in Their Zone of Proximal Development

How to Set Learning Goals for Young Children

As a former teacher and now parent, would you expect anything less than me setting learning goals for my children? 🙂 But this isn’t about me trying to breed academically superior children (although they probably will be), it’s about me wanting to give my children the best childhood possible…and guess what? Children actually LOVE learning!

What Are Learning Goals?

As a teacher, my learning goals were tied into grade level expectations and state standards (Common Core), but now as a parent, I have the freedom to look at where my children are…not where they should be. By teaching my children in their zones of proximal development, I am able to create learning goals and activities to accompany them that match the exact strengths, interests, and developmental levels of each individual child.

Learning goals can pertain to a desired behavior, the next steps in an academic progression (reading, writing, math), an artistic or musical goal, a concept or idea, a new understanding, movement, or anything.

Setting and Using Learning Goals

Here are a series of steps that I follow to set and use learning goals for each of my children. If you would like to see examples of these learning goals check out my blog: Examples of Learning Goals That I Use with My Children.

1. Know Where They Are

Being a stay at home mom has truly been a blessing in my life. I love being home with my little ones and having the time to really get down on the floor with them and play. Sure I have my hands full with laundry and preparing healthy meals, but my favorite parts of the day are just spent immersed in whatever my children want to do.

On any given day, I can be found building Lego towers, tickling and wrestling, reading piles of books, playing catch outside, using our imaginations and dress up clothes to transport ourselves to new worlds, playing music on the keyboard, making Play-Doh creations, doing flashcard activities, playing Starfall, or any other number of things. I just love to let my children lead me to what they want to do and then get lost in their worlds with them.

When I get down on the floor and play with my children, it really helps me to know first hand what things they are good at, what things they enjoy doing, what they are curious about, where their passions lie, and what things they are struggling with.

For example, when I play imagination games with Elliot, I can see how crazy obsessed he is with getting into these imaginary worlds where good versus evil, and I think, “How can I bring this idea into reading? Could I make some favorite things books with his favorite characters and give them word bubbles? How can I help him to expand his imaginary world? Are there some new problems and solutions that I can show him that he can use in his made up world?”

2. Discuss It

It’s one thing to just think about it, but these thoughts can get lost in the daily minutia if we don’t express them somehow. I am constantly talking to my husband about each of our children. We love talking throughout the day and into the night after the kids are all in bed about all of the cute, funny, and amazing things they are doing. We also like to discuss the things they are struggling with along with possible solutions.

I also love keeping journals where I record the milestones and special moments of our daily lives, and sometimes I will even make charts with each child’s learning goals. Through thinking, writing, and/or communicating in some form about where my children are, it helps me to be able to visualize where to take them next.

3. Set Learning Goals

Each child is completely unique and different. I don’t think about what they need to learn before kindergarten, I don’t worry about what other kids their age are doing, and I don’t go to the Internet to look up “preschool activities” or something overly general of that nature. I just look at them, listen to them, observe them, think, get in their minds, and let my creative juices flow as I ponder,

“What would excite them? What would engage them? What would they love to do over and over and over?”

Sometimes, we have a technical goal to work on like correcting a backwards letter in writing or pronouncing a word correctly, but mostly, I like to set goals according to each child’s strengths and interests.

*To see examples of specific learning goals that I’ve set for each of my children and what I do to to help them achieve them, check out my blog here.

4. Share with the Children

Whenever I set a learning goal, I like to share it with each child. For the younger ones, I don’t explicitly say, “This is your learning goal”, but with my 2 year old, I might say something like,

“You’re reading all of the words on the whole page! I’m so proud of you for reading so well! You’re learning how to be a reader!”

With my older ones, I’ll either write down their learning goals or just talk to them about it. For Ruby (6 years old), I would say,

“I’ve noticed that you’re really interested in meiosis and mitosis. What would you like to know more about? Would you like to make a poster or a book to show what you are learning?”

Or with Elliot (4 years old) I would say,

“You are really good at addition and subtraction. I think you’re ready to start learning about multiplication! What do you think?”

When we praise children for vague and general behaviors simply giving the old standard, “Good job!” they lose sight of why they were doing a certain activity. “Is the ultimate goal to get praise?” they might wonder. But by praising them for specific actions, ideas, or behaviors, we are using praise to actually help their brains give a name to what they are learning, and this helps them to form their identities. (To read more about children and praise, check out my blog: When You Tell Children They are Smart It Actually Makes them Dumb.)

I like to encourage my older children to set their own goals too. Sometimes I’ll just say,

“What would you like to get better at?”

Or I might give them a little more guidance and say, “We’ve been learning a lot about the body and how it works, what would you like to learn about next?”

4. Find the Time to Teach

It can be hard finding specific teaching times, especially if you’re like me with a bunch of little ones, but instead of designating certain teaching times of the day (or year), I simply find ways to embed teachable moments throughout each day.

Many people have asked my why I don’t homeschool my children. Read my blog here if you want to read the long answer, but the short answer is that I’m doing homeschool all the time. From the moment they wake up until the moment they go to bed, during summer break, winter break, spring break, and even on the weekends, I am always looking for teachable moments. My entire home is set up for learning, and I’m always looking for ways to make our environment conducive for learning in a fun and engaging way.

Throughout the day, I balance getting things done, dealing with basic needs, and finding time for teachable moments.

It’s like I have this little dial in my brain that keeps track of who had one on one time last, who needs it next, who seems to need more of it, who needs a little nudge, who is doing wonderfully on their own, and so on.

While I try to balance things out during the day, sometimes my balancing is a little more long term. For example, I might feel like there’s one particular child who needs my attention more than the others, and so I’ll really work to make that child the focus for an extended number of days.

5. Teaching

Teaching in my home as a parent looks very different from what teaching looked like in my classroom. As a teacher, I would see all 28 students like one gigantic mega blob student that I had to keep under control at all times. When I would get ready to teach a lesson, I would either gather everyone up to circle time or have them sit in their seats as I would begin with an anticipatory set to get their attention. I would then launch into a mini-lesson where I would make the learning goals very clear. Next, I would model what I expected, give students guided practice (working with me in a small group, working with others in small groups, working in pairs, working with an aide, etc.), and then give them a chance to practice what they learned independently.

Now, as a parent, all of these steps are intermingled and actually, most of the learning takes place with the two of us side by side going through things together. In this way, the learning always stays in their zone of proximal development, and I’m able to scaffold appropriately where needed.

As Elliot and I are sitting on the floor together playing with Legos for example, I’m modeling how to build a multi-dimensional tower as he works on his own. He might look over at mine and use some of my ideas, or he might continue on his own path. As we play, I encourage him to talk out loud about what he is doing, and I listen asking questions along the way. Every once in awhile, I might suggest something new, like I might take a toy figure and have him climb on Elliot’s tower saying, “Hey, what’s going on up here?”

The bottom line is that as a parent working one on one with my child, I’m able to make the learning outcomes open ended. As a teacher, it was very hard to design lessons and activities where the students could have the freedom to go in their own direction while trying to hold both them and myself accountable. I think that the learning is far more engaging when children can decide their own direction. It also takes a lot of the pressure off from me to try to guide them to just regurgitate the right answer.

I’ll share another example with Ruby and a writing project. I know that she’s really good writing single words and short phrases, but she hasn’t been able to write complete sentences or paragraphs independently very well. So the other day I suggested we do some writing about her favorite topic, Digimon. “Would you like to write a story or make a favorite things book?” I asked her. She chose to make a favorite things book and excitedly gathered all of her materials.

As she glued each of her favorite characters down and wrote about them, I actually didn’t really do or say anything to guide her along. I just listened. I was an audience. I asked her questions or talked about what was interesting and I helped her to spell a few words, but I wasn’t trying to force her to do something my way.

I knew that whatever she created would be amazing…and it was.

6. Independent Practice

Once I sit side by side with my children and help them navigate through a new activity, it then becomes something that they can do independently.

When I work with my children on new learning goals and new activities to support these learning goals, I like to think about guiding them towards activities that they can do independently for extended periods of time.

In this way, my “homeschool not homeschool” day usually functions with everyone working on independent centers which frees me up to work one on one with a child, with a few children, or to get caught up on some cooking, housework, or take care of the baby.

We don’t have just one playroom or one designated homeschool room where all of the learning takes place. Instead, I have little areas set up around the house where learning can take place, and let me tell you why. First of all, even though my four children do like to all play together sometimes, other times, they like to be alone. I often hear an older one scolding a younger one for taking his or her toys and I always have to remind them, “You used to be just the same way until _____ (us, older sibling) taught you how to play.” At any rate, it’s nice to have things spread out so that they can be spread out.

Another benefit for spreading things out is that I usually have work to do in just about every room (particularly the kitchen), and I like to have them nearby me so I can hear what’s going on. The final and most important reason I like things spread out is that I find that children seem to do more with less. They like little spaces with a minimal amount of toys where they can use everything. Sometimes a gigantic playroom with lots of toys can seem overwhelming. As an added bonus, as kids migrate from room to room, it’s easier to pick up after them.

In Conclusion

By setting individualized learning goals for our children, I can be ready to jump into teachable moments as they arise. When children are gently scaffolded in their zones of proximal development and given the freedom to learn in an open ended environment, I think they can make the most amount of growth in the areas that are of the most interest to them. The amazing thing about setting learning goals (like these) is that instead of performing “at grade level”, your children will blow all of your expectations out of the water and take you to places you would have never even dreamed possible.

Happy learning!

How to Set Up a Summer Routine That Keeps Kids Productive

With school out and summer upon us, I find myself wondering how I can make the best use of time with all of my children. Yes, I want to sleep in late, be outside as much as possible, go to the beach, make forts, be silly, and have the freedom to do whatever we want at a moment’s notice, but by having routines in place, I can ensure that my children continue to learn and grow while we have fun together.

The Importance of Routines

I am a huge fan of routines, and as a teacher and now a parent, I have seen them work wonders in many situations.

When routines are in place, especially ones that allow for flexibility, kids feel safe and can run on autopilot without constant hovering and redirection.

After my daughter has been in kindergarten all year, and will now be spending her summer days with her three younger siblings, I knew that a routine for her and her four year old brother especially would be very beneficial to keep them productive, to minimize the fighting, and to minimize them wanting to just watch TV or play on their ipads all day.

Using Charts

I am also a big fan of making charts, and I love how making them with my children gets them to buy in to what I’m trying to teach them. I usually set up the structure for the charts on my own, then get their input as I begin to fill it out, fill in most of the rest of it on my own, and then get their final input. They especially like to get their help with the coloring!

Ruby Helping Me Color Our Charts

Ruby Helping Me Color Our Charts

For the purpose of this summer routine chart, I knew that I would need to provide my kids with routine, ideas, and flexibility, so I decided to include our daily routine, ideas for activities they could do, and a separate goal chart to remind all of us of what they needed to work on.

homeschool summer school and goal chart

Summer School and Goal Charts

Your charts have to work for you and your kiddos. They have to reflect both your needs and theirs. I have a lot of work to do around the house on a daily basis, and I need to spend a lot of time with the younger two, so my charts reflect this. I also want to be able to guide and scaffold my children during teachable moments, and these charts serve as a good reminder for how I can use my time wisely with them.

Setting Up a Learning Environment

I know that my teaching experience may make it easier for me to get into “teacher mode”, but the things that I do are so simple and easy that anyone could do them.

The number one thing that I do is create a stimulating learning environment.

I believe that children like to learn, they like to be challenged, and they like to stay busy. By setting up little learning stations all over the house, I can ensure that my children can do all of these things independently. This also allows me to jump in at opportune “teachable moments” to help scaffold them to the next level. (Check out how I set up a learning environment in my blog: How to Create an Environment that Encourages Independent Play and Learning.)

Activities

I am a big advocate of giving children choices, and the charts allow children to see what all of the possibilities are. Sometimes I like to make a big list of all possible activities so my kids know what all of these are and sometimes just need a reminder of all that is possible. When thinking about new activities for my children to do, I like to create learning goals to guide the activity choices. (To read about how I write learning goals, check out this article, and to read some examples of learning goals that I have created for my children, click here.)

Examples of Activities:

  • Imagination games
  • Dress up
  • Reading
  • Coloring
  • Write a story
  • Favorite things books
  • Play music
  • Build with Legos or blocks
  • Board games
  • Play outside
  • Rock garden

Usually, my children know how to use their imaginations to entertain themselves (because I’ve worked really hard on this with them), but if they ever falter, then I just drop what I’m doing and get down on the floor and play with them to help scaffold them to independence.

Daily Routine

After writing out a list of all of the activities, I created our daily routine.

I wanted to create a routine that would get them to use the best parts of their brain first thing in the morning.

I have found that we can all be most productive if we get up and get dressed right away. My oldest daughter is so used to this anyways from her school routine and both her and my four year old (who will be attending preschool next year) will need to do it again, so I think it’s best to leave it in place. I also needed something that would allow me to do some direct instruction, but also allow me some flexibility if I need to be with the younger two. You’ll need to tailor your daily routine to meet your specific needs, but here is what works for me.

  1. Get Dressed/Bathroom
  2. Eat Breakfast
  3. Brush Teeth
  4. 2 Workbook Pages – Handwriting, ABCs, basic math, cursive, mazes, etc.
  5. 1 Chore – Pick up, clean room, help with laundry, cooking, etc.
  6. 3 Activities – The workbook pages, chore, and activities can occur in any order.
  7. Lunch
  8. Choice Time (Rest Time) – When the little ones take a nap, the big kids can watch a movie (any length), watch one hour of an educational program, or play an educational game on the computer for one hour.
  9. More Activities
  10. Free Choice – If the big kids are good and do all of their workbooks, activities, and chores, then they can have 30 minutes to do whatever they’d like. (Lately it’s watching Digimon on Netflix or toy videos on YouTube)
  11. Daddy’s Home!

*I updated this routine June 2016 after we decided to take a break from ipads, touchscreens, and video games for a bit. (Find out why here.)

Goals

I like to tell my children specifically what they are good at (Check out by blog: When You Tell Your Children They Are Smart, It Actually Makes Them Dumb to see how I use specific praise.) and in addition to that, I like to talk to them about what they should be working on next. So with Ruby, for example, who at 5 is reading fluently at a 3rd grade level, we are going to start focusing more on writing. With Elliot (4), we will be working on reading skills and basic math, with Ophelia (2) we will be working on reading as well as language development, and Julian (1) is all about beginning reading and vocabulary development.

While it is helpful for the children to know what their goals are, it is even more helpful for me so that I can keep my mind aware of where each child is and what he/she is working on.

Then, I can design learning stations, create activities, and look for resources to support each of their goals. Click here to see my blog about learning goals that I set for my children.

Other Tips and Tricks

  • It will seem really hard at first, but it will get easier. The first day always seems impossible and like an incredible amount of work, but the longer you stick with it, the easier it will get. After about a week, they will get the “feel” for their new routine, and you will be surprised how well they do with it.
  • Find time to fill their tanks first. I love trying to find one on one time to play and cuddle with each child as soon after they wake up as possible. Once their tanks are full of love and cuddles, it’s much easier for them to play independently.
  • Create an independent environment. Make sure that there are games they can take out, toys they can play with, and activities they can be engaged in that don’t require your direct involvement or supervision.
  • Be consistent. Be really strict and consistent in the beginning, otherwise they will know that the routine is merely a suggestion instead of “just the way things are”. No matter how much you want to take a shower or get some free time, don’t turn on the TV no matter how much they beg! If you give in even once, it will set a prescience for future behavior.
  • Be patient, you’ll get some time for you…eventually. When the summer first comes, I initially say goodbye to any free time I ever had, but once we settle into our new routine, I start to find more pockets of time for myself.

When Things Aren’t Working

It’s inevitable that problems will arise even with the best laid plans.

One of the best lessons I ever learned as a teacher is that if you see a routine not working, don’t try to change it right away.

For example, one day in my 3rd grade classroom, I noticed that as we got lined up to go to lunch it was too chaotic, too noisy, and it was just not working. It was a gradual progression that all of a sudden came to a head, and I knew that something would have to be done.

Rather than talk to the students about the way they were lining up and how it was not okay in the moment, I bit my tongue and I waited. When they came back from lunch, I planted a seed by asking them how things went. Kids started sharing about how it was noisy, how it took a long time, and how we were late for lunch. I simply told them that we’d try to do better the next day.

The next day, I had a chart ready. I made the title “Lining Up” and then made two columns. One said, “Looks Like” and the other had the words “Doesn’t Look Like”. Then, long before we needed to line up for lunch, I had the kids act out what it would look like to do a really bad job of lining up. We wrote down on the chart paper all of the things they observed. Then, I had them act out what it should look like, and we wrote down on the chart what that looked like too.

When we lined up for lunch that day, it went so smoothly, I could hardly believe the difference. After lunch, we talked about how it went, and they were very pleased with themselves.

Every day for the next week, I reflected on the chart, and then after awhile, I didn’t need to anymore. Every once in awhile, they needed a reminder, but for the most part, things ran smoothly for the rest of the year.

We make a huge mistake when we simply bark orders at children to do better without really showing them what that looks like. If we can take the time to be very clear with our expectations and make sure that they understand what those expectations look like, then children will have a much easier time of doing what we expect them to do. This is why I think it’s very important to be clear about your summer routine and be consistent with your expectations.

How Our First Day Went

The biggest struggle we had was getting dressed. Whenever Ruby doesn’t have to go to school, she loves staying in her pajamas and will often want to stay in them all day. This is all well and good on the weekends, but during the week, I want to create a sense of formality and a sense of pride about our day that transcends pajamas. By getting dressed, brushing our teeth, and brushing our hair even if we won’t see anyone else, I feel that it instills a sense of pride and purpose. At any rate, it makes me feel better, and I like doing it, but try explaining this to a five year old! *Update: One year later, June 2016, Ruby and Elliot get dressed on their own without complaint every single morning. Yeah!

After that, the kids were really excited to all be together, and they loved the idea of “Homeschool Summer School”. They were very motivated to do their activities, and they worked very well independently. I think this was because this is so similar to what we do on a normal basis anyways. Because they are so used to independent play, they didn’t need much guidance from me. I would help them get started on new projects, scaffold them a bit, and when they were done, give them a reminder to clean up. It was a great day, and it’s going to be a great summer!

Elliot is Learning How to Write His Name

Elliot is Learning How to Write His Name


Ruby Coloring Her 1st Grade Writing Packet

Ruby Coloring Her 1st Grade Writing Packet


Ophelia Loves Learning Her ABCs using leapfrog abc games

Ophelia Loves Learning Her ABCs!


Julian Doing Tummy Time

Julian Doing Tummy Time


Elliot Reading a Star Wars Book

Elliot Reading a Star Wars Book


IMG_3394

Ruby Reading “A Book with No Pictures” by BJ Novak


Ophelia Loves Reading Dora Books

Ophelia Loves Reading Dora Books


Julian and I are Having a Conversation

Julian and I are Having a Conversation


Elliot Playing with His Mini Figures

Elliot Playing with His Mini Figures


Ruby Playing the Keyboard...and Feeling It!

Ruby Playing the Keyboard…and Feeling It!


Using Unifix Cubes During Imaginative Play

Elliot is Using Unifix Cubes During Imaginative Play


Ophelia is Mesmerized with Balls and Ramps

Ophelia is Mesmerized with Balls and Ramps


Making healthy oatmeal cookies with kids

Making Cookies!


Elliot Playing with Legos

Elliot Playing with Legos


Ruby Collecting Leaves

Ruby Collecting Leaves


Ruby, Elliot, and Ophelia Playing Together

Ruby, Elliot, and Ophelia Playing Together


Elliot is King of His Domain

Elliot is King of His Domain

In Conclusion

If you have children, summer is a fun time for them to take a break from school and enjoy playing outside in some much needed sunshine and fresh air. (Especially if you live in a place like Michigan where you are trapped inside by the weather for at least 9 months of the year.) But I believe that children need more than just undirected play all day. I feel like they thrive most when they are challenged and can see themselves grow. If you are fortunate enough to be able to stay home with your children over the summer, then I think that devoting a bit of time in the morning towards learning will be beneficial for everyone involved.

Happy learning, and here’s to a great summer!

Embracing Motherhood How Children's Brains are Wired for Learning

How Children’s Brains are Wired for Learning

As a former elementary school teacher and now mother of four young children, I have always been fascinated by the brain and how it works. One of the most interesting things I’ve learned and observed with my own children is the how capable they are of learning at a very very young age with just little nudges in the right direction when they are ready (i.e. teaching in the zone of proximal development).

We often think of children being ready to “learn” when they are old enough for formal schooling, but by the time children are old enough for kindergarten, the frameworks of their brains are pretty much set for life. The crucial window of brain development begins at about 6 months and peaks at 2-3 years of age. I think this is a window that is largely ignored, but if can recognize its importance and provide stimulating experiences during this golden opportunity of time, we can help our children to develop their best brains.

Romanian Orphans

Before we start getting into some of the nitty gritty about how the brain works, I wanted to point out what happens at the other end of the spectrum when it doesn’t work. In this example, you’ll see what happens to childrens’ brains when they are ignored, neglected, abandoned, and mistreated.

In his NPR article, “Orphans’ Lonely Beginnings Reveal How Parents Shape A Child’s Brain“, Jon Hamilton explains how when the corrupt Romanian government was overthrown in 1989, the world was shocked to learn about the more than 100,000 children in government care that were left alone in their cribs, wallowing in their own filth, and with nothing but the white ceiling to stare at and the cries of the other babies to keep them company…for days and days and days. There was no one there to soothe their cries, no one there to hold them and give them affection, and no one there to talk to them and help them to interact with their environment.  The result was stunted growth and a range of social and emotional problems.

The odd behaviors, language delays, and range of other symptoms suggested problems with brain development, and so researchers began studying the children using a technology known as electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain. What they found were disturbingly low levels of brain activity. As the children grew, there were able to conduct MRIs on them, and it showed that their brains were actually smaller and that they had a reduction in grey and white matter. (The grey matter is near the outer part of the brain and is mostly all of the neurons bunched together. The white matter is on the inner part of the brain and is mostly the myelinated axons that connect the neurons together.)

fresh brain sliced open to show gray matter and white matter

White Matter and Grey Matter – Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (2007) Suseno

In another experiment conducted after the orphaned children had been adopted, it showed that their brains could not discriminate the face of a stranger from the face of their adoptive mother. Because their brains were not able to identify with a loving caregiver at a young age, that part of their brain wasn’t developed, and then when someone was ready to give them love, they didn’t know how to accept it.  This is called reactive detachment disorder, and with lots of patience and love, it is possible to rewire the brain, unfortunately it’s just not very probable. Today, the system in Romania is still corrupt, and there are currently 70,000 children waiting for adoption. 🙁

How the Brain Works

Okay, so now that we’ve established that the environment is a crucial factor in brain development, let’s take a look at why that it. I love this video clip below because it shows how the brain is an interconnected web of not just the neurons, but the connections (synapses) that are between them.

Neural_signaling-human_brain

How the Brain Transmits Signals – Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (2013) Gif created from Inside the Brain: Unraveling the Mystery of Alzheimer’s Disease

Understanding Neurons

When you look at an individual neuron, you’ll notice that it’s made up of three main parts.

parts of a neuron

Diagram of a Neuron – Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (2005)

  1. Cell Body: This is the main part of the neuron, It’s where the nucleus is and it directs all activities. This is what makes up most of the gray matter in the brain.
  2. Dendrites: These short fibers sticking out of the cell body receive messages from other neurons. If you were to zoom in close to look at the tip of a dendrite, you would see that it never actually touches another neuron, but connects via a synapse (more on this in a minute).
  3. Axon: This long single fiber carries messages away from the cell body to other cells. It might send a message to a nearby neuron or to a far away muscle fiber. Axons that are used over and over get coated with a myelin sheath which helps messages to transmit faster and is what makes up the white matter in the brain (more on this in a minute too).

Synapses are Where It’s At

Neurons on their own can’t really do much, but when they are connected, that is what creates brain activity. When neurons connect, they actually don’t ever touch each other, but instead communicate across a gap called a synapse. One single neuron can have anywhere from hundreds to thousands of synapses.

Chemical_synapse_schema_cropped

How Synapses Work – Wikimedia Commons (2009) US National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging created original

How Synapses Work:

  1. First, A neuron fires an electrochemical signal from its cell body that travels through the axon and out to the tip of the dendrites.
  2. From here, neurotransmitters cross the synaptic cleft and are met with receptors on the other side that welcome it to the next neuron.
  3. This happens from one neuron to the next in a sort of a domino effect.

Synapses As We Age

We are born with about 100 billion neurons, which is pretty much the same number of the neurons the brain will ever have. The number of synapses, however, is a number that does change over time. In the first decade of life, a child’s brain can form trillions of synapses. The number of synapses peaks at about 2-3 years of age. (source)

When children are born, they have about 2,500 synapses per neuron and by age 2 or 3, they can have about 15,000 synapses! (source) From the time a child is about 6 months old until they are about 2-3 years of age, there is a SYNAPTIC EXPLOSION!!! Because children are not very mobile or explicitly expressive about what they are learning and what they need in addition to the fact that parents are often overwhelmed with sleep issues, teething, and other parenting concerns (With four children 5 and under, I am WELL aware of this! :), I feel like the importance of this learning period is often overlooked and undervalued.

There are an ENORMOUS amount of connections that are being formed at 6 months and 2 years of age. Click here to see a really cool chart showing the synaptic explosion happening between 6 months and 2 years.

Experiences Make Neural Connections

Genes provide the basic framework in the brain, but experiences determine which neurons are used and which pathways are formed and strengthened. When children are very young, their brains are very “plastic” (malleable), meaning that they are easily able to learn something new through experience, but this changes over time and the brain becomes less “plastic” and it becomes more challenging to learn something new from experience.

Click here to see a really cool graph that shows how when we are 2, experiences are easily able to shape the brain, but the ease with which this happens declines with age. When we reach our 20s, we’re kind of at an even plateau, and then as we age from there it gets progressively harder for the brain to change from experiences.

The reason why it’s easier to learn something new at a young age is because the brain is like a blank slate. This tabula rasa allows for children to shape their brains about their environment and experiences, but as we age and our brains become more established, learning something new requires rerouting the information through existing pathways rather than simply creating new ones.

Myelination Speeds Up Connections

Neuron

Structure of a Neuron – Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (2011)

It wasn’t until fairly recently that we realized the true importance of myelination. Myelination can be seen as the white matter in the brain and is comprised mostly of the fatty substance called myelin that coats the axons. This myelin sheath is made out of schwann cells that over time and with continued use wrap around the axon like a spiral. (Check out a cool video here to see this in action.)

The myelin sheath serves two functions:

  1. It protects the axon so that it doesn’t lose the electrical impulse.
  2. It increases the speed at which the electrical impulse travels. In an unmyelinated axon, the electrical impulse travels in a wave, but in a myelinated axon, the electrical impulse sorts of hops through it.

The first time a child tries to walk, the pathway hasn’t been myelinated yet, so he only takes a few shaky steps and then falls down. But over a long period of time and lots and lots and lots of repetition, he will take two steps, and then three, and before you know it, he’ll be running everywhere! The pathway that controls walking becomes myelinated so that he doesn’t even need to think about it anymore, it just happens. It’s why they say, “You only need to learn how to ride a bike once.”

Whatever experiences a child has over and over and over again will determine which pathways will become myelinated. The myelinated pathways are the ones that will remain, the rest will become pruned away.

Synaptic Pruning

Much like a painter likes to work with more paint than is needed for the job and a builder likes to construct with more materials than is needed for the project, a child’s brain is provided with far more neurons and synapses than are functionally needed and/or preferred. Synaptic pruning is the process by which these extra neurons and synapses are eliminated. This is what increases the overall efficiency of the neural network.

The entire process begins to happen at a significant and rapid rate when a child is approximately 3 years old. By the time, a child is 10, most of the synaptic pruning has occurred. In fact, when a child is 10, 50% of the synapses that were present at 2 years of age have been eliminated.

We talked about the synaptic explosion earlier, but now let’s take a look at what happens when the synapses are pruned. (Click here to see a graph that I wish I could include, if only it were on Wikimedia Commons!) When you look at the brain of a 2 year old, it kind of looks like a jumbled mess compared to the brain of a 4 year old. In the 4 year old’s brain, there is more organization and cohesion. The neurons that exist and the pathways that have been used over and over again to connect them are making the brain more efficient. This continues to be more obvious in the 6 year old’s brain.

By the time a child is 10, the framework for the brain is pretty much set, and the brain continues to focus on specialization. The adult brain is similar to the 6 year old’s brain but with fewer, yet stronger, neurons and connections. (Click here to see another image I wish that I could include!)

In one of my education classes, my professor explained it by saying that the brain is like a giant house with hundreds of rooms. Whatever rooms the child goes into over and over and over again, those are the rooms that will remain, and the rooms that are unused will become closed off and die.

So what rooms does your child want to go into over and over again? What experiences and opportunities will you help to provide repetitiously? I believe that every child is different and that every child’s brain should be given the freedom and opportunity to develop as it is meant to. For me as a parent, that means that I provide multiple opportunities for all of my children to achieve this goal.

In Conclusion

This “use it or lose it” concept is fascinating because it gives so much more meaning to the younger formative years as the brain is forming. People assume that because little babies aren’t physically able to engage with their environment, that they are not mentally capable of it. But that’s just not true. Before babies start talking, they are immersed in language and exposed to it over and over and over again. Their brains are busy forming pathways before they even speak!

In this way, each child’s brain becomes specifically wired to adapt best to the environment that he or she is in. If the child is to grow up in a stimulating environment with lots of learning possibilities, then they need a brain that is primed and ready to thrive in that type of environment.

I think that by just being aware of how the brain functions, it can help us to better understand what is going on in the minds of our children. By providing a loving, nurturing, and stimulating environment full of lots of learning opportunities, we can help our children to develop their best possible brain.

To see how to put this information about the brain into practice, check out some of my other articles:

Resources for Further Research

Throughout this article, I’ve linked to my resources where appropriate, but I also read the following articles and watched the following videos that helped me to get a broad understanding of this topic. If you’d like to learn more about this topic, I highly recommend checking out some of these videos and articles.

Embracing Motherhood Tools of the Mind: A Play Centered Approach to Learning

Tools of the Mind: A Play Centered Approach to Learning

Although hardly new (created in 1993), there is a revolutionary way of teaching preschool and kindergarten that is more successful that just about any other curriculum out there. It is called Tools of the Mind, and it centers on one of the most basic and fundamental aspects of childhood: play.

Created by Dr. Elena Bodrova and Dr. Deborah Leong in conjunction with the Metropolitan State College (now Metropolitan State University of Denver), Tools of the Mind centers on Vygotskian-based teaching methods in preschool and kindergarten classrooms. The essential belief is a cultural-historical theory of psychology where children are active participants in their own learning and construct meaning from interacting with their environment and the people in it.

In the chapter, “Can Self-Control be Taught?” from their book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain how one of the most important components of the Tools curriculum is the element of play, but not just any play. The Tools curriculum teaches mature, multidimensional, and sustained play that helps children to develop self-regulation and other executive functions of the brain.

Proof That Tools of the Mind Works

During the pilot testing for Tools of the Mind, ten kindergarten teachers were randomly assigned to teach the Tools curriculum. The student population was largely of a lower socioeconomic status, had limited English proficiency, and was basically starting kindergarten a full year behind.

The following spring, when the children took national standardized tests, the students in the Tools classrooms were almost a full grade level ahead of where they should be. In a district where only half of the kindergartners scored proficient, 97% of the children in the Tools program scored did so.

The pilot program was supposed to go for two years, with half of the teachers using the standard district curriculum as a control, but the principal didn’t want to deprive the other classes of the curriculum providing superior results, so they implemented it school-wide.

In another study conducted in New Jersey where 70% of the students were English language learners, they saw similar success. But it wasn’t just the students’ scores that were impressive, it was their behaviors as well. The students in the control group being taught the standard curriculum had extremely disruptive behaviors (such as kicking a teacher, biting another student, throwing a chair, and cursing) on a daily basis. But these kind of reports never came from the Tools classes.

So what is the Tools curriculum and how is it superior? There are many different components of the program, but the most distinguishing feature is the element of play.

Tools of the Mind in Action

When you walk into a Tools classroom, you will know right away what the make believe theme is (pet store, fire fighters, hospital, space, etc.).  You will see props such as signs, banners, and pictures created by both the students and the teacher around the room, and there will be a buzz in the room as children are deeply engrossed in what they are doing while using language to describe their roles and actions. The teacher can be found interacting with the children by helping them to stay in their role, modeling language, and explaining concepts. One of the major components of the Tools classroom is mature make-believe play.

Components of Mature Make-Believe Play

  1. Scenario: If the theme was “fire station”, the students would first learn all about fire stations by reading books, watching videos, and maybe even taking a field trip. Then, the teacher would organize the room into different areas such as the fire station, a house that needs saving, the 911 operator station, and a fire training camp.
  2. Roles: Before children begin playing, they tell the teacher their chosen role (pump driver, 911 operator, fireman, family that needs to be rescued, etc.).
  3. Play Plans: Then, the children draw or write about what they are going to be and what they are going to do in that role. If kids can’t write they draw a picture or use the sound maps around the room to try their best.
  4. Extended Time Frame: As they play, children stick to their plans and stay in character for a full 45 minutes. If they get distracted, the teacher will gently remind them, “Was that in your play plan?” On different days of the week, children choose different roles in the scenario.
  5. Language: Children use language extensively as they discuss who they are each going to be and what will happen during the play. During play, they adjust their speech depending on their role.

Other Components of the Tools Curriculum

All of the components of the Tools curriculum work together to create children who are not merely behaved but self-organized and self-directed. Here are a few additional components of the curriculum that help to foster the executive functions of the brain.

  1. Calendar: Instead of a typical calendar, there is a straight line of days on a long ribbon of paper. This gives children a linear sense of time.
  2. Sound Map: Instead of the alphabet being organized A to Z, it is sorted into clusters of consonants with similar sounds (c, k, q) and vowels called a sound map that children use to help them sound out the words they are trying to spell which fosters independence in writing.
  3. Buddy Reading: The children face each other and one holds up a sign with a pair of lips and the other holds up a sign with a pair of ears. The child with the lips flips through the book telling the story he sees in the pictures while the other child listens, and then they switch. This is an excellent pre-reading strategy that teaches kids about listening, retelling, and self-control.
  4. Simon Says: This game requires restraint and teaches self-control.
  5. Graphic Practice: The teacher puts on music and the children practice drawing spirals and shapes. When the music stops, the children have to stop their pens. This is another example of teaching self-control.
  6. Talking Out Loud: When children learn how to write, say the letter c, they’ll say in unison, “Start at the top and go around” as they start to print. No one ever stops the kids from saying this mantra out loud, but after a few minutes, the chorus lulls to a murmur and children simply mouth the words to themselves. This private speech is a form of self-reflection.
  7. Letter Checking: When a teacher writes the letter D on the board, she’ll write four versions of it and ask the children to help her decide which is the best D. Then children do the same thing with their own writing and with each other’s writing. This teaches self-analysis.
  8. Clean Up Song: Children know to start cleaning up when they hear the song. They start to realize how long they have to clean up based on the where the song is and this is another example of teaching self-regulating behavior.

Why Tools of the Mind Works

During mature, multidimensional, sustained play, children are developing the pre-frontal cortex of their brains, which is the region that governs executive functions such as planning, predicting, controlling impulses, persisting through trouble, and orchestrating thoughts to fulfill a goal.

  • Abstract Thinking: Almost everything in a classroom requires that children understand the connection between reality and a symbol. The letters of the alphabet are symbols for sound and speech, the map on the wall is a symbol of the world, the calendar is a symbol to measure the passage of time, words on a piece of paper represent actual things, and so on. During play, when children are using some desks and chairs as a fire engine and when their play has interacting components using different symbols, they are holding multiple abstract thoughts in their head and stacking them together. This is very challenging and stimulating for the brain.
  • Self-Reflection: Having an internal dialogue that engages a thought conversation within the mind is the exact opposite of an impulsive reaction and something that students in the Tools curriculum do on a regular basis through play and other activities. After playing, children reflect on how well they followed their play plans. During writing, they circle the letter that they made the best. While making their letters, they say little chants together. They also check their own work or a buddy’s work. All of these things support metacognition (thinking about how we think).
  • Planning: By making a plan for what they are going to do during their play time, children are creating a situation that doesn’t rely upon impulsive responses. This is the very beginning stages of goal setting and sets them up to persist through difficulties.
  • Engagement: Trying to get young children to sit still and listen to the teacher during lecture times is very challenging for the students who just can’t seem to stop moving, but in the Tools program, children are so thoroughly engrossed in what they are doing, that they stay focused and do not get distracted. Being able to attend to one thing for an extended period of time is training their brains for longer and longer engagements which is one of the key hallmarks of learning.
  • Intrinsic Motivation: Children aren’t distracted because they are in control of what they are doing. They are empowered by their ideas, and they are motivated by their own desires. In their book NurtureShock, Bronson and Merryman discuss Dr. Silvia Bunge, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkley, who explains that, “Motivation is experienced in the brain as the release of dopamine. The motivated brain, literally, operates better, signals faster.” So In the long run, this type of motivation is something that will strongly outweigh the motivation of a child just trying to please the teacher.
  • Self-Control: As children are engaged during sustained imaginative play and given the opportunity for self-reflection, they are learning how to practice self-control in a way that makes sense for them, not to please someone else. This constant feedback and self-analysis leads to children being able to govern their own thoughts and actions in ways that best fit any given situation.
  • Confidence: If you ask a child to copy something from the board, he might feel intimidated thinking that he won’t be able to make his handwriting as good as the teacher’s, but if you hand him a pad of paper during imaginative play and tell him he needs to write down the order for the pizza shop, he’ll just start writing, even if he’s not making any real words. Because the action is important to him, he sees beyond it to the function rather than just the action itself.

In Conclusion

Tools of the Mind is a very successful preschool and kindergarten curriculum that is taught nationwide. (To see if there is a Tools school near you, click here.) But even though I am a huge advocate of it, I still don’t think it is as good as what I can provide at home. (Click here to read my blog about how I use the Tools model to encourage creative and imaginative play at home.)

Basically, I love using the Tools curriculum as a guideline for how I structure my time at home with my little ones and to justify the tremendous amount of time I dedicate to encouraging their development in creative and imaginative play, but I only get to have them with me for a little while before they venture off into the world, and I guess I’d just like to prolong it as long as possible. 🙂 I hope that when they are older and they think back to their childhoods, they will have the fondest memories of fantasies, far away lands, adventures, discoveries, and most of all…fun!

Embracing Motherhood The Importance of Creative and Imaginative Play

The Importance of Creative and Imaginative Play

We often think of play as a break from learning and something that kids desperately need to give their brains a rest, but for young children, playtime is not just a break, it is a critical component of development that prepares their brains for more complex learning.

I love spending a part of each day teaching my children the fundamentals such as the ABCs, the joys of reading, basic math functions and concepts, and vocabulary, but the majority of each day my little ones are engaged in the most important aspect of childhood: play.

Research is showing that play is so important in fact, that it has become the foundation for a wildly successful preschool curriculum called Tools of the Mind. In the chapter, “Can Self-Control be Taught?” from their book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain how when children are engaged in this mature, multidimensional, sustained play, they develop self regulation and other executive functions that lead to impressively high levels of academic success.

Tools of the Mind: Taking Play to the Next Level

The way that children play in a Tools classroom occurs in a way that takes play seriously…because that is the way it is structured. In preschools around the country, children have played firehouse. But after about ten minutes of holding a pretend fire hose and putting out a fire, children often get bored and distracted and move on to the next thing. In a Tools classroom, however, children are engaged for sustained periods of time.

Bronson and Merryman explain how,

“Play has a joyful randomness, but it’s not sustained. In Tools classrooms, by staging different areas of the room as the variety of settings, and by asking kids to commit to their roles for the hour, the play is far more complicated and interactive. The children in the house call 911; the operator rings a bell; the firefighters leap from their bunks; the trucks arrive to rescue the family. This is considered mature, multidimensional, sustained play.”

Tools of the Mind is based on the Vygotskian Approach where the belief is that the most important things children can learn aren’t facts and skills, but are instead a set of mental tools…tools of the mind. 🙂 Vygotsky believed that the most effective learning happens when the new skills and concepts being taught are just on the edge of emergence, or in the zone of proximal development. He also believed that children need scaffolding, or gentle guidance, during this time to help them reach the next level of understanding.

For a young preschool aged children, the most important thing in their world is play (and it continues to be very important as children get older as well), and with a little gentle guidance, we adults can help our children take their play to the next level. (If you want to learn more about the Tools of the Mind curriculum, including how, why, and proof that it works, read my blog here, and if you want to see if there’s a Tools school near you, click here.)

Play Time at Home

As much as I love the Tools curriculum and as much as I know my kids would thrive in it, I still don’t think it’s as effective as the preschool experience I can provide at home.  While I don’t facilitate a certain theme, I do have little areas set up all over the house that are designed to encourage creative and imaginative play.

I also don’t have an entire class of students, but I do have three children at home and one in kindergarten. We all follow a pretty basic daily routine, regardless of what day it is and who is here, where the children have to do their morning routine (eat breakfast, get dressed, etc.) and then do three activities before having any screen time. Sometimes we plan out our activities and sometimes we just let one lead to the other, but almost every single day consists of building with legos, reading huge stacks of books, playing with flashcards, doing some sort of coloring or art activity, playing imagination games, and playing outside.

Tips and Tricks for Encouraging Creative and Imaginative Play

Nothing makes me happier than seeing my children involved in elaborate games of imagination with each other. My older ones, who are now four and six, love creating intricate worlds of imagination that entertain them for hours. My two year old loves watching them and getting lost in her own little world of learning, and our ten month old, who is just starting to crawl, is always a part of everything!

When I was a 3rd and 4th grade teacher, it always baffled me when I would see kids on the playground who had no idea what to do with themselves. I remember how much I enjoyed playing imagination games with my younger brother when we were both little, and I always thought it was something that just happened naturally, but now I’m seeing that it works best when it’s gently scaffolded. Here are the things that I enjoy doing with my kids that have fostered creative and imaginative play.

1. Involve Kids In Your Day to Day

I’ve noticed that a lot of the elements of my children’s play is about reenacting our normal daily routines and activities. I just love overhearing them role playing or playing with their little figures as they go through the steps of doing chores, cooking food, shopping, going to the bank, being naughty, getting a punishment, going to bed, and so on. By involving my kids and talking to them about what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and why I’m doing it, they are gathering information to use during their imaginative play time.

2. Provide Scenarios

I love channeling my inner child and just playing with my kids. Sometimes we play dress up and sometimes we use little figures, but together we create these creative and imaginative worlds that can transform a mundane day into something extradonary. Children will sometimes spontaneously create these scenarios on their own, but with all of my kids, I feel like I have had to really help them get the ball rolling in this area.

As I see it, there are two types of scenarios. The first one is just playing something like playing fire house, or pet shop, or grocery store, or house. In this type of scenario, kids are acting out the different roles and performing the duties that coincide with each role.  The next type of scenario involves a problem and a solution, and is a more sophisticated form of imaginative play usually (but not always) involving toy figures.

When my kids were old enough and started to seem a little bored with their standard imaginative play, I introduced a few problem and solution scenarios, and the kids really took off with them. The scenarios are typically set in the whole good versus evil theme, and they are pretty basic. There’s usually a bad guy of sorts, like an evil wizard, a hungry dinosaur, a super villain, or a thief, and they want to something evil like kidnap someone, steal something, destroy some place, or put a spell on someone. My kids are then the good guys (or one is good and the other is evil) and they have to evade the bad guy(s) or gal(s) and save the day. To help drag this out, I might say that they bad guy left a string of clues throughout the house or they are under some terrible magic spell and must collect some specific ingredients to make an anti-potion.

3. Give Prompts

If I notice that the imaginative play is starting to fizzle, I like to casually listen for a few minutes to see where I can provide some prompts to extend the action for a little while. Just like the teacher in the Tools classroom, I am there to gently scaffold them to the next level. Many times, my prompts are just questions, “Why did so and so do that? What is he going to do next? What about this one?” and that is usually enough to encourage another round of play.

4. Role Playing

Role playing gives kids a chance to step outside of themselves, and it gives them the courage to say and do things that they normally wouldn’t. As they’re testing out these different personality traits, they can even find resolutions to things they may be struggling with in their daily lives. I like encouraging my children to really become their imaginative characters, and so I’ll model a variety of different voices and character traits. Once my children are “in character”, I like to ask them questions that helps to define their character’s motivations and plans for action. “How does he/she feel about that? Why is so-and-so sad, mad, happy? What are you going to do about it? ”

5. Props

Playing with props is one way to really help kids become deeply involved in their imaginative play. Whenever it’s Halloween season, I love to go to thrift stores and stock up on costumes to fill our costume closet. I’m always especially on the lookout for different types of hats. Putting on a full costume can take a bit of time, but kids can quickly put on a hat that immediately transforms them into someone else. I also have an assortment of magic wands, swords, pom-poms, hooks, claws, boxing gloves, and a horse on a stick that are within easy reach. The hats and costumes are hung on sturdy hooks that the kids can easily reach in a location that’s accessible to everyone.

6. Favorite Characters

We don’t watch a lot of TV in our house, but when we do, we encourage our kids to watch the same movies or shows over and over (based on their interests) so that they can bring their favorite characters into their imaginative play. For example, our youngest daughter, who is 2,  is really into Dora. She loves playing imaginative games with her Dora toys, reading Dora books, and learning Spanish. Our four year old son, Elliot, loves anything that has to do with superheroes, dragons, Godzilla, and monsters. And our six year old daughter, Ruby, loves Digimon, My Little Pony, princesses, and anything that has to do with Miazaki. (You can read here why we don’t believe in banning screen time for children here.)

When she’s home from school, Ruby is usually the one leading the imagination games, and she is REALLY into Digimon these days, so her and Elliot will play Digimon outside for hours and groan when it’s time to go inside and get ready for bed. The other day, I printed out all of the Digimon characters on card stock with their names printed below, and after Ruby cut them all out and arranged them in the order of their transformations, her and Elliot used the printouts like little figures and played with them for hours. We followed another one of Ruby’s ideas and made sugar cookies and some butter cream/cream cheese frosting sorted into bowls and dyed every color imaginable so that she could make a Digimon cookie for each character. I just love the way her mind works!

7. Little Figures

When children are involved in role playing, it can get loud, messy, and really take over the house, but when they make their little dolls and figures come to life, it can be a very calm and contained activity. My kids have not really seemed motivated to play imaginatively with their little figures much until they have been three and older, but I’ve noticed our two year old daughter Ophelia playing with My Little Pony figures imaginatively in our Batman house from time to time.

I am always on the look out at garage sales and thrift stores for any type of dollhouse or other similarly compartmentalized structure. We currently have three really big doll houses, a Batman cave, a few Little People farm structures, a tree house, and a castle. Next to each play house, I have a little basket of figures that I keep sorted separately from the other toys. Instead of having all of our toys in one playroom, I like having them tucked around the house so that they have something to play with in every room.

8. Puppets

You can make any little stuffed animal come to life and talk to your child, but puppets are really great for teaching children about imaginative play. My ten month old, Julian, loves chewing on the eyeballs of our Kermit the Frog puppet while I make him talk in a funny voice, and he laughs every time I make Kermit try to bite his finger, and Ophelia, two,  loves it when the puppets tickle her and talk to her. As kids get older, they can engage more and more with the puppets and have conversations with them. Sometimes talking to a puppet about a problem they are having is a way to elicit more information than if you would just talk to them directly.

9. Imaginative Toys

We certainly don’t ban toys with batteries or anything, but I have found that the less a toy does on it’s own, the more a child can do with it. We have little baskets or boxes throughout our house with toys like big brown blocks, small colored blocks, alphabet blocks, wooden train track pieces, Lincoln Logs, K’nex, big Legos, small Legos, puzzles, stacking cups, sorting bins, and more that encourage sustained imaginative play. To encourage children to play with these toys, I like cutting the flaps off from my large flat Amazon boxes and use them for storage bins. I have found that children really only like playing with the toys that they can see, and so I try to spread them out as much as I can.

10. Arts and Crafts

Nothing sparks the imagination quite like a little arts and crafts session. I have a place in our house called our “home school table” that has markers, crayons, pencils, coloring books, activity books, blank paper, colored paper, scissors, fancy scissors, tape, glue, stickers, and more all within easy reach. I organize the materials on the table or in the nearby bookshelf with boxes and bins all neatly labeled. I also have some really nice cupboards full of supplies that I can have easy access to and one whole cupboard with board games and puzzles.

11. Environment

I spend a lot of time organizing my home to appeal to children and to be practical for adults. As a busy mother of four, I have a lot to do around the house to keep things up and running, and so I like having my home set up so that the kids can be engaged in creative and imaginative play and/or learn something (ABC videos, etc.) while I fold laundry, prepare food, or clean. To read more about how I set up my home in a way that encourages independent, creative, and imaginative play and learning, click here.

12. Routines

Having routines in place really helps me to be able to meet the basic needs of my kids (sleep, food, love), and when their basic needs are met, they are in a great place to play independently, use their creativity, stretch their imaginations, and learn something new. Check out my blog about creating a summer routine that helped all of us to be productive here.

13. Sustained Attention

Anything that helps children to stay actively engaged for long periods of time is extremely beneficial. When you think about an adult who is able to focus for extended periods of time on a difficult task while problem solving, that is pretty much the epitome of success. Training kids to be engaged and motivated on an activity of their choosing for increasing amounts of time is something that doesn’t just happen overnight. It starts in small amounts when they are very young, and it gradually increases over the years to result in a well rounded and balanced individual who is capable of being self-directed, intrinsically motivated, goal oriented, organized, and a problem solver. As I work with each of my children who are all at different levels, I always try to keep the goal of sustained attention in mind.

In Conclusion

In my experiences as a classroom teacher and now as a parent, there are a few things that stand out to me as being some of the most important aspects in the development of a child, and play is one of those things. My husband and I have learned that it is more important to slow down in life so that we can really listen to each of our children and provide them with the necessary scaffolding to grow than it is to run around going from one activity, one group, and one destination to the next.

Children need an extended amount of time in a warm, safe, and nurturing environment and that is why we are both so fortunate that I can stay home (finally) with our little ones. (Read more about my journey to become a stay at home mom here and how I’ve found happiness as a stay at home mom here.) By giving value to play and by treating it as the important developmental step that it is, I am confident that not only are we giving our children the tools that they will need to be developmentally and academically successful, but we are filling their childhoods with what being a kid is (should be) all about: play.

*Click here to read my blog that goes into more detail about Tools of the Mind.

Embracing Motherhood How to Teach Reading Comprehension

How to Teach Reading Comprehension

My five year old daughter absolutely loves to read, and she’s really good at it too. (Here she is at 4 reading fluently. Check out my blogs here and here to see how that happened.) But now we that we are moving past reading fluency and she is able to write fairly well, I wanted to be able to challenge her while she is home with me for the summer by teaching her more explicitly about reading comprehension. (Read below to see how we’ve already built a strong foundation of reading comprehension.) So, I started to incorporate reading comprehension worksheets into our summer routine, and so far, it’s going great and she’s loving it!

First a Bit About Reading Fluency

After children have decoded many words and committed them to memory, they can start to read sentences without having to sound out each and every word. As children start to read phrases and sentences without any breaks or pauses, this is known as reading fluency. Children that are fluent readers are able to read the punctuation, read dialogue, and be able to match their voice to the mood of the story.

Reading fluency is an indicator that children are good readers, but if a child is not a good reader, it is not something that should be worked on exclusively and in isolation to make him or her a better reader. In my opinion, children who are really choppy readers probably haven’t had enough exposure to literature to commit frequently read words to memory and/or don’t have a strong foundation in letter sounds. (Check out my blogs: Tips, Tricks, and Resources for Teaching the ABCs and How Children Really Learn How to Read to see how to do these things.)

What is Reading Comprehension?

Reading comprehension is being able to understand the meaning of what is being read. It is a complex skill that begins long before children are able to read themselves. It begins (hopefully) when adults read picture books, poems, and nonfiction books aloud to children.

Reading Comprehension Strategies

If you look up “Reading Comprehension Strategies” on the Internet, there are many different interpretations of which ones are the most important, but I like this list from Scholastic, because it does a good job of summing everything up in not super “teachery” language. This is more like what teachers use when teaching reading comprehension. I’ve adapted these ideas below in a way that includes my experience as an educator to encompass pretty much all there is to reading comprehension.

  • Activate Prior Knowledge: If a book is about baseball and the child has never heard of baseball, he or she will be at a loss. I like to pick books and reading passages based on topics that my children have background knowledge about and are interested in like dinosaurs, butterflies, outer space, music, and technology.
  • Set Purposes: Before you begin reading, it’s helpful to know why you are reading. Typically, when we read fiction, it’s for pleasure, and when we read nonfiction, it’s to learn something.
  • Make Predictions: I love, love, LOVE using this strategy with my children because it keeps them engaged throughout the story. I love reading the title and asking them to predict what will happen in the book, and I love pausing throughout the story to ask them, “What do you think will happen next?”
  • Decode Text: Now comes the actual reading. When I’m reading with beginning readers, I like to pause at familiar words, the last word in the sentence, or a word I think they can sound out to give them an opportunity to read. I never make them struggle endlessly to sound out one word at a time. As child become more confident and fluent readers, I like to have them take over more of the reading.
  • Summarize: This is a very, very, very important skill in the school world, but in the home world, it is hardly brought up. Being able to determine the important parts of the text to figure out the main idea and supporting details to succinctly summarize is a very complicated skill. Just ask someone long winded to tell you about their day, and you will wish that they had learned better summarizing strategies! Knowing the story elements of: character, setting, problem, solution, moral or theme and being able to sequence events really helps with summarizing fiction. Go here for some great summarizing worksheets.
  • Visualize: This is something that good readers do without thinking. In the absence of pictures, they are able to see the characters, setting, situation, and ideas even more vividly than any illustrator can capture.
  • Question: Asking good questions during reading helps to deepen the understanding and take it to a new level. By posing higher level questions that elicit more than just a yes or no answer, children will really understand what they are reading at way more than just a surface level.
  • Inference: There are lots of things that are implied during reading that aren’t stated explicitly. By helping children to figure out how to “read between the lines“, they will be able to comprehend the true meaning of the text.
  • Monitor Understanding: This is probably the most noticable difference between good readers and poor readers. Good readers are able to identify when they don’t understand something. Maybe a word was misread, a page skipped, a definition unknown, or something misunderstood, but when a good reader doesn’t understand something, he or she works to clarify it before moving on.

Using Picture Books and Read Aloud to Teach Reading Comprehension

One of my favorite things to do with the kids is to get huge piles of picture books from the library, cuddle up with children on my lap, and read. I love picking out books that are engaging and entertaining for all of us, and I really get into reading these books with expression. While I’m reading, I ask lots of questions that facilitate comprehension.

Before Reading

  • “What do you think is going to happen in this book?”
  • “Can you think of a time when you ________?”
  • “Tell me about what you see on the cover.”

During Reading

  • “Why do you think _______ did that?”
  • “What do you think is going to happen next?”
  • “Do you think _______ will ever _______?”
  • “Why do you think _______ did that?”
  • “Why did that just happen?”
  • “How do you think the story will end?”
  • “What would you do?”

After Reading

  • “What just happened?”
  • “What was your favorite part?”
  • “If you had to tell someone who had never read this book before what the book was about, what would you say?”
  • “What lesson did _______ learn in this story?”
  • “How did _______ change throughout the story?”
  • “What was the main idea?”
  • “Can you think of  time when anything like this has happened to you?”
  • “Does this remind you of another book or movie that you’ve seen?”

Using Usborne Books to Teach Reading Comprehension

Have you ever heard of these books? They are absolutely fantastic, and if we had the money, I would buy every single one. If you can find these books at your library, I HIGHLY recommend them! I’ve seriously concidered being a rep for these books because they are so so good. I credit them highly for helping to teach our children how to read.

how the zebra got its stripes 1

How Zebras Got Their Stripes

They are kind of reminiscent of the old Dick and Jane readers, but the stories are highly engaging while using easily decodable text all printed on thick paper that is surprisingly appealing to the tactile senses. I love how the early series starts out super simple and easy and gets progressively more challenging. These books are so engaging that a new reader will be begging to chime in!

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Introducing the Characters and Setting

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What the Text Looks Like

I also love the comprehension questions in the back of the easier books. They provide a wonderful introduction into reading for comprehension. If my children seem interested and engaged by the end of the book, we love doing the comprehension questions. But I don’t push it. I want reading to be fun, and if they’re ready for the next book, we’ll move on to the next book. What makes me super happy is to see my children reading these books on their own and doing the comprehension part on their own. So good!

how the zebra got its stripes 4

Comprehension Questions in the End

Check out my favorite “Just Starting Out” Usborne books here. I love these because they have one page for the adult to read and one page for the child to read. Also, check out these “Growing in Confidence” Usborne books here. These are just perfect for readers who are ready to start getting into books on their own. The company is based in the UK, but you can visit their USA website here.

Using Reading Comprehension Worksheets

Now, worksheets have a time and a place. As a teacher, I felt that at times they were highly overused as a way to just keep children busy, but when used intentionally as a specific learning tool, they can be highly effective.

When children are in school and they “show what they know” by filling out worksheets and taking tests, there is a certain “language” that is used. When children become familiar with this language, it makes accessing and showcasing their actual knowledge that much easier.

In addition, by using these reading comprehension worksheets, you are guided as the parent/teacher, and I think that that is even more important. Once you do several of these worksheets, you’ll see the jargon, the questions, and the format of things, and it will make it easier to use these skills/strategies in other books that you read with your children.

Reading Comprehension Worksheets in Action

I highly recommend Read Works for reading comprehension worksheets. (You will need to register to access the worksheets, but all you need to do is enter an email and a password. There is no cost.) If you go to “Reading Passages” and then sort by grade level (hit apply), you can scroll until you find a topic that would be of interest to your child.

I really like how all of these passages are leveled, have good questions, come with answer keys, and are engaging. I also like how many of these passages are nonfiction. We already do so much work with fiction with children from a young age because storytelling is so engaging. But even though getting into nonfiction can be a bit of an intellectual leap, the rewards are tremendous. Not only will children be engaged and working on comprehension strategies, but they will walk away with some new knowledge to boot!

Let me tell you about the butterfly worksheet my daughter and I did together. First of all, I know that she learned about life cycles in kindergarten and she loves butterflies, so she already had a bit of background knowledge about the topic. I had her read the passage to herself (she chose to read it out loud), and then we proceeded to do the questions.

comprehension worksheet

Ruby Doing a Comprehension Worksheet

As she read each of the questions together, we talked about what the right answer would be before we even looked at the options. Then we eliminated the wrong answers and circled the answer that was most right. Some of the questions she was able to figure out on her own, and some of the answers we had to go back into the passage to find.

reading comprehension worksheet about butterflies and flowers

Butterflies and Flowers

For the short answer, I told her to write it using as few words as possible. As a teacher, we always advised children to “use the question in their answer”, but this really only works well for longer answers and short paragraphs. I think it’s best to use pronouns and find just enough words to show the right answer.

short answer reading comprehension butterflies and flowers worksheet

Ruby’s Short Answer

Extend the Learning

After reading about how “butterflies drink from a tube in their head”, I wanted to teach her that this tube was actually called a proboscis. So we looked at some images and watched some videos, and she really learned a lot! Then Elliot came over and was curious to see what we were doing, so I told Ruby to tell him what she learned. “Did you know that butterflies drink from a tube in their head?!?” she exclaimed. Then Elliot wanted to watch some videos, and before we knew it, we were watching videos about proboscis monkeys and laughing at their silly big noses. I love that even though I saw the goal as teaching Ruby reading comprehension strategies, she saw it as learning content, and that is a WAY more interesting learning perspective for children.

In Conclusion

I think that we’ll only sit down and do reading comprehension worksheets every week or so, but I think that will be more than enough to prepare her for first grade. I really believe in giving children a strong foundation in the skills they will be learning as they enter each grade level BEFORE they enter that grade level. (Crazy, right?) By at least attempting to do this in as many subject areas as I can, I will ensure that my children are strong in their foundational skills so that they can focus on what’s really important as they get older, which is the content, not the process. By focusing on these reading comprehension strategies as children are young, their brains will make strong connections which will ensure their abilities to read and understand what they are reading will come readily and easily even as they encounter increasingly challenging text.

Additional Resources

  • ReadWorks – This is what I mentioned above that I used with Ruby. This is by far my favorite.
  • K12 Reader: Reading Instruction Resources – Plenty of free printable worksheets.
  • Super Teacher Worksheets – When I was a teacher, all of these worksheets were free. Now, only some are and you have to pay $20/year for a full membership. There are great worksheets for every level and every subject.
  • Literably – Literably listens to students read and generates a full running record with miscue analysis, accuracy, rate, and comprehension.
  • Read Write Think – Excellent resource for reading comprehension strategies and lessons.
  • Scholastic – This is just a great resource all around.
  • Razz Kids – My daughter’s school has a subscription to this and we love using it at home. She reads stories online and there are quizes afterwards. You can purchase it for $100/year. If you have the extra money, I’d say it’s a good investment. But if you’re strapped for cash, just get books from the library.
  • TumbleBooks – This is also a paid subscription ($90/year) that your child’s school or your local library might have a subscription for that you can get access through. I really like how they use real books. I would buy this over Razz Kids.
  • Starfall – As my children learn to read, this is pretty much the only online resource we use. It only costs $30/year and it great for all levels of learning. There’s lot of great decoding and comprehension activities as well as math activities and more. We buy this every year. We also buy all of the apps.
Embracing Motherhood How to Create an Environment that Encourages Independence, Creativity, and Learning

How to Create an Environment that Encourages Independence, Creativity, and Learning

When I was an elementary school teacher and now as a parent of four young children, I have always believed that creating an environment conducive to learning was one of the most important things I could do (after making my students and children feel loved that is.)

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Before I became a stay at home mom, I taught at an I.B. school that focused on backwards design and the inquiry model of instruction. These are two things that I believe in strongly and have carried over into my parenting philosophy. In my classroom, I worked very hard to create an environment and a system that could almost run itself. We would spend the beginning of the year going over rules and expectations, and then I would gradually release responsibility and encourage them to become independent learners as I guided them to find their individual intrinsic motivators. In the pictures below, notice the cooperative learning modules, the comfortable little nooks and learning areas, the use of the wall space, the vibrant colors, the plants, and the clean, organized, and warm environment.

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Front of the Room Teacher Station

third grade classroom

Looking Out the Windows in My Classroom

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Looking Towards the Back of My Classroom

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The Back Corner of My Classroom

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Chalkboard Area in My Classroom

third grade classroom

Learning Wall

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Vocabulary Wall and Plants

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My Students Learning with Laptops

third grade classroom

Kids Working with Pattern Blocks

third grade classroom

My Mom Dissecting Hearts with My Students

third grade classroom

Dressing Up for a Reader’s Theater Play

In my home, I have tried to create the same warm, nurturing, organized, creative, and stimulating environment that will promote independent learning at every turn. Don’t get me wrong, I love cuddling with my kids and finding teachable moments to help guide them towards new understandings, it’s just that I don’t see them as empty vessels that need to be filled with whatever wisdom I can pour into them. I believe that they are embarking on a journey of self discovery and I see myself as their guide; the one who will shepherd them along and help them to find the right path. Listed below are the things I like to do in my home that help to create and facilitate an environment that promotes and encourages independent learning.

1. Organization Behind the Scenes

As the facilitator of my children’s learning, I need to have everything ready to go at a moment’s notice. Whenever one of them is inspired to paint, I want to be able to pull out all of the painting supplies lickety split. Or whenever I see the need to improvise a new learning station, I want to be able to quickly pull out materials and create something. I don’t have the luxury of lunch breaks and planning time anymore, I need to be able to guide, create, build, facilitate, and enjoy at a moment’s notice.

kids playing with creative manipulatives at a moments notice

Creative Play at a Moment’s Notice

That is why I love, love, love my cupboards that came with this house. I have my flashcards, construction paper, extra crayons and markers, board games, teaching tubs, craft supplies, and more neatly boxed, labeled, and organized so that I can get to what I need at a moment’s notice. (See my Amazon Store for my recommended Best Teaching Items.) The other day my parents spent the night so that my husband and I could have a Valentine’s date, and the next day my Mom and I spent the entire day reorganizing my cupboards. In doing so, it gave me the ability to continue creating at a moment’s notice in the future. I need times like that to completely reorganize everything. It feels so good!

Organized Cupboards Filled with Learning Supplies

Organized Cupboards Filled with Learning Supplies

2. Decide Which Supplies to Make Accessible

Depending on the age and “mess propensity” of my children, I keep different materials accessible at different levels. Our toddler has just discovered markers and loves coloring on the walls, refrigerator, tables, etc., so I’ve decided to keep those materials out of her reach. My oldest daughter and son, on the other hand, love being able to have the freedom to color and create on their own, so I have set up a table in my “homeschool room” that has coloring books, blank books, blank paper, colored paper, markers, colored pencils, crayons, scissors, tape and other odds and ends to allow them to have the freedom to create and design on their own.

organized table with craft supplies

Organized Homeschool Table

In my cupboards I keep the things that I want my older children to be able to access I keep on the lower shelves. That way, when inspiration strikes, they can take out what they need. I also have a bookshelf with book making supplies, reusable stickers, stamps, and more coloring books for them to use.

computer table and shelves organized with learning supplies for kids

Shelves Organized with Learning Supplies

Everything within reach of my toddler are things specifically designed for her. She can do the things that the older kids can do with guidance, but the things at her level are things that she can do independently.

3. Create Learning Stations at Tables

My “homeschool” table is the most versatile station that I have. It can be used for just about any project that we have in mind. We used to only have one table in our home, but I LOVE having this table set up just for arts and crafts. We have another table in our kitchen (it only seats three) that we use for eating and activities. On this table, I have a few coloring books, some crayons, markers, books, and some dry erase boards, books, and markers that the kids can do while I’m cooking or cleaning in the kitchen. In the kitchen we also have a little table with three little chairs. Sometimes my kids eat here, sometimes they do projects here, and sometimes I use it to set out some food for them to graze on. We do have a family dining table in the dining room that we keep cleared off and use just for family meal time.

kitchen table with learning placements and activity bins

Our Kitchen Table

kids using dry erase boards at the kitchen table

Kids Working at Our Kitchen Table

little kid table in the kitchen with learning strips and a cardboard bin of books

Little Kid Table in the Kitchen

I have a few others shorter coffee tables set up around the house as well. In our multipurpose room I have a coffee table set up that I rotate with different books and activities. Right now it has ABC blocks, a box with Basher books, a box with homemade books and cards, and a place for sheets that I’m working on with our toddler. I also made a short table by our homeschool table to house different activities. Right now it is winter, and our water pouring station has been an absolute favorite for our toddler. I have another table in our quiet room that has puzzles and ABC game boards. Even the coffee tables in our living room are learning stations. With posters on top, books underneath, and little chairs or a little couch to sit in, they are great for eating or doing projects.

kids using ABC learning tablets at a coffee table sitting on little stools

Coffee Table Learning Station

using little cutout figures for learning activities at a coffee table learning station

Coffee Table Learning Station

homemade table magnet learning station

Magnet Station at the Little Homemade Table

Play-Doh Station at a Little Homemade Table

Play-Doh Station at the Little Homemade Table

Write On Wipe Off Station at the Little Table

Write On Wipe Off Station at the Little Table

toddler pouring water using little fancy cups

Indoor Water Pouring Station

toddler stacking at a coffee table learning station

Ophelia Stacking Letters at a Coffee Table Learning Station

4. Tips for Creating Learning Stations

When I create learning stations around the house, I want them to be interactive, fun, engaging, and have some element of learning. The simplest learning station might be some ABC games on a coffee table, and a more complex learning station might be a box with dry beans, cups, and shovels for some fine motor skill work. I like to place small chairs or stools next to the table so that the children can sit if they’d like. I find that my older children like to sit and the younger one likes to stand. When she stands, it’s just the right height!

toddler standing and Coloring at a Little Coffee Table Learning Station

Ophelia is Standing and Coloring at this Little Coffee Table Learning Station

child Sitting and Writing at a Little Coffee Table Learning Station

Ruby is Sitting and Writing at this Little Coffee Table Learning Station

Some other things the kids have enjoyed as a learning station are puzzles, stacking cups, markers and coloring books, dry erase boards and markers, board games, themed books, and more. To help me organize materials for these stations, I save our Amazon boxes and label them with white stickers. Basically, anything I have a lot of can become a station. For example, we collect all birthday, Christmas, and any other type of cards we get in the mail and save them in a little box called “Cards”. The kids love reading through them all.

5. Create Stations on the Floor That Facilitate Imaginative Play

Right now, all of our children are five and under, so they all pretty much can enjoy the same toys. One of their favorite things to do is to play with little houses and figurines. These are things I have picked up at garage sales and thrift stores over the years. They love using their imaginations to bring their characters to life and have them interact in these different scenarios. At times, I play with them to give them some ideas for what their characters could do, but this is something where their imaginations take over and they could play alone or with each other for hours. I like to organize the different baskets of characters that we have a lot of and keep them in different rooms. So for example, you’ll find baskets of dinosaurs, My Little Ponies, and big robots separate from the rest.

Little Bins of Toys Neatly Organized in Every Room

Little Bins of Toys Neatly Organized in Every Room

child playing with little figures and a batman house

Imaginative Play with a Housing Type Structure

Play Area with a Dollhouse and Little Figures

Play Area with a Dollhouse and Little Figures

road rug defines play space with bin of cars, train tracks, and little reading chair and books

A Road Rug Defines this Play Space

Our Living Room has a Little Toy Area in Front of the Fireplace

Our Living Room has a Little Toy Area in Front of the Fireplace

treehouse used for imaginative play

This Type of Housing Structure is Perfect for Imaginative Play

little toy figures used in imaginative play

A Bin of Little Figure Toys Perfect for Imaginative Play

6. Create a Dress Up Station for Role Playing

I also like to use closet spaces for stations as well. The kids LOVE our dress up station. I am always hitting up thrift stores around Halloween to get the best costumes for our collection. I’ve also found some pretty good garage sales that were getting rid of a lot of costumes for $1 each. The kids especially love this little nook in this closest where I’ve hung all of our hats. Being able to display things attractively makes them that much more fun to play with!

hats hanging on a wall in the corner of a closet for dress up

Little Hat Station Tucked in the Corner of a Closet

dress up costumes for a boy

Superhero Dress Up Clothes

7. Tips for Organizing Toys

Rather than having one big room for all of the toys, I like to spread them around the house. In doing so, part of each room is designated for both adults and children, and we can all enjoy ourselves no matter where we are! This also really helps with cleaning because I can get the kids distracted by a project in another room while I clean up the mess from the room they were just in! I very rarely buy anything new. I’m always looking for good baskets at thrift stores and garage sales to organize things and many things simply get housed in old Amazon boxes! When getting baskets for toys, make sure they are low. Kids only like to play with the toys they can see.

If things are buried, they will not get played with. Every toy has a home. I arrange all of the little houses and figurines in sets and keep them together. This requires a little sorting from time to time as things tend to migrate from room to room, but it is worth it.

little bin to organize little figure toys

Little Figures Organized in a Bin

baby toys organized in a box

Baby Toys Organized in a Box

8. Create Comfortable Reading Stations

Yes, we have a bookshelf, but it’s basically a storehouse for books. The baskets of books that I strategically place around the house are what actually gets used on a regular basis. I like to set up little chairs and baskets of books around the house to encourage reading at any given moment. I also like to put books by any beds in the house and near any couches. Whenever you sit down and get comfortable, it would just be the worst if you didn’t have something to read! I like to go through all of our books on a semi regular basis. This is a time when I can repair damaged books, re-shelf books that aren’t being read, arrange the books so they all neatly fit in the baskets with the covers facing out, and organize the books based on where the baskets are and who is reading them. (Check out my blogs How to Raise Children Who WANT to Read and How Children Really Learn to Read for more information about teaching children how to read. Also, check out my blog Oral Language Development…More Important Than You Think for some ideas about helping your child with one of the biggest precursors to reading.)

books being sorted into different baskets for kids to read

Reorganizing Kid Books into Various Baskets

little couch and table with map placemats in the living room with basket of books nearby

This Little Couch Gets a Lot of Use

toddler sitting in a chair and independently reading from a basket of books

Accessible Books get Read Independently

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Reading Before Bed is a Special Nightly Routine

These little chairs and basket of books make an instant reading station anywhere.

Little Chairs and a Basket of Books

9. Use Your Walls

It’s more than just slapping a poster on the wall, it’s about creating a space on the wall where kids can interact and learn. I am constantly rearranging my wall space based on what they kids are interested in and what they interact with. If I have an ABC poster on the wall, and I never see anyone using it to say the ABCs, I will move it to a better location or change it out with something else. Sometimes, kids need to see what it looks like to interact with the walls and so I’ll sit down with them from time to time and we’ll look at things together.

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Letter Magnets on the Fridge get Used all the Time

Flashcards Taped on the Dresser and the Wall

Flashcards Taped on the Dresser and the Wall

hand made alphabet poster on the refrigerator

Using Chart Paper to Make My Own Posters

10. Rearrange As Needed

It’s not about getting the perfect set up and leaving it that way indefinitely, it’s about keeping things fresh, new, and engaging. When I see that an area or a station isn’t getting used anymore, I’ll rearrange it with something new. Sometimes just seeing things in a new configuration can be exciting. Especially during these long winter months, I know that I need to keep this indoor environment as exciting as possible. Every few weeks or so I like to find something to rearrange. It could be something simple like changing a learning station or moving some toys around, or it could be something drastic like moving the furniture from one room to another.

11. Why I Don’t Believe in “Playrooms”

I know that it can seem tempting to designate one room in the house as a “play room”, a place to keep all of the children’s things, a place where the door can be shut on the mess and hidden out of sight from company, and a place where the kids can go to create a mess. But there are several reasons why I disagree with this concept. First of all, part of creating an environment that stimulates learning is that I don’t need to be right there by my children’s sides as they play, learn, discover, and grow. But even though I don’t need to interact with them every single second, I like to be close by so that I can be there to give a gentle nudge when needed. I may need to solve a disagreement between siblings, help a child who is frustrated with a certain activity, be there at an opportune teachable moment to provide guidance, or assess what they are capable of doing independently as I think of new learning stations.

All Together in One Room

All Together in One Room

Having a playroom that is segregated from the other areas of the house may encourage you to be separated from your children more than you’d think. As much as it would be nice to just stay in the playroom and be with your children giving them your complete and undivided attention, I’m sure you’ve got stuff to do! As a busy momma with clothes to fold, dishes to do, a blog to write, and more stations to organize and create, I like to be near my children as they play, learn and discover while also tending to the things that I need to do. I love it when I can multitask by folding clothes while checking in on my toddler at her water station, putting the dishes away while helping my four year old with his Starfall game, and spelling words for my five year old as she writes a mini book while I prepare dinner. In addition, it’s not good for kids to hover over them constantly while they play. In order to learn how to be independent, they need to have independence in a guided situation.

In Conclusion

By creating an environment that stimulates learning and creative play, you will always have things to do at the drop of a hat. The other day, my oldest daughter’s school was suddenly canceled due to the weather. She had a blast staying at home going from one learning station to the next. It was so easy for me to keep her, my four year old, and my toddler all busy and engaged with different activities while I tended to the baby, prepared food, cleaned up, and guided each child along with their activities. To be honest, I was surprised at how much I got done and how engaged they were throughout the day. Putting in the time to create all of these learning and play stations really makes everything very manageable. With a little planning, a keen eye at garage sales and thrift stores, and some time set aside for organization, you’ll have your own independent learning and play stations ready to go, and you’ll be so glad you did!

Click here to read my blog about the importance of creative and imaginative play, and here to read my blog about Tools of the Mind, which is a preschool and kindergarten program that centers on play.

*Click here to see a video tour of our house. I’m always rearranging and changing things around, but you’ll notice all of the little play areas set up throughout the house.