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26 Learning Centers for Play Based Preschool Learning

26 Learning Centers for a Homeschool Preschool Environment

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.
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 how to raise children who want to read by surrounding them with books and cuddles

How to Raise Children Who WANT to Read

Teachers, librarians, parents, politicians…we’re all guilty of saying it. Our intentions are noble and so we say, “Read, read, read!” Or, “The more you read the better you’ll get!” But it’s not about setting a timer to read for 15 minutes every day, it’s not about filling up a monthly reading calendar to get a prize, and it’s not about reading because someone told you to. It’s about igniting a passion within your children for reading so that they will be inspired to read because of their own intrinsic motivation. It’s about getting them to choose reading on their own because it is something they want to do.

In order to build a positive relationship with reading, we need to create memories of reading that evoke emotions of love, joy, and happiness. By following these steps, you can ensure that your child will build a positive relationship with reading.

1. Start Young

As soon as they are old enough to hold their heads up, stick a book under them! I started doing this with my not even three month old, and I was flabbergasted when he started to smile and look at the book. I use the same two or three books when he does tummy time, and he loves it!

3 month old baby looks at a book while doing tummy time

3 Month Old Julian Looks at a Book

Babies are definitely ready for some real reading routines by six months old. (Check out my blog :How Children Really Learn to Read to see how you can teach your baby to read.) We have always enjoyed incorporating story time before bed at around this age. This is also when we really start talking about letters, watching word videos, playing with ABC toys, and sitting them on our laps for story time. (Check out my blog Oral Language Development…More Important Than You Think to learn about one of the biggest precursors to learning how to read and Tips, Tricks and Resources for Teaching the ABCs to learn about how to give your child the foundation of reading.)

2. Go to the Library

It is very interesting to me to watch other families at the library who don’t share the same love of reading as we do. They come into the library with a very specific agenda, they let their child check out two books, and then they are out of there as quick as can be. With us on the other hand, going to the library is a special event! We get comfortable and enjoy the library atmosphere by playing with the magnets, using the chalkboard, playing with blocks and puzzles, and snuggling up in the chairs to check out a few favorite books. (Our library is VERY small, but we still enjoy it to its fullest!) Meanwhile, I am combing through each aisle finding books that I know my children will love.

Ophelia Playing with Magnet Letters at Our Library

Ophelia Playing with Magnet Letters at Our Library

Elliot is Busy Searching for Books

Elliot is Busy Searching for Books

Ruby Reading at Our Library

Ruby Reading at Our Library

I like to find short books that will appeal to all the kids for bedtime reading, longer books to read while snuggled on the couch, and books for all levels and interests of the readers in our house. When my children are ready, I help guide them towards picking out their own books. I teach them how to look at the spine for the title, how to choose interesting books based on the cover, and how to flip through the pages to make sure it’s a “just right” book. When our bags are full of the maximum number of books (35, but sometimes they let us go over), we check out. Also, I’m not afraid of a few late fines or lost or damaged books; it’s a small price to pay for such a wonderful service.

3. Build a Library of Books

Going to the library is fun in order to get some new books to read, but even better than that is having an eclectic collection of books at home that you can read over and over again. Sometimes it can seem overwhelming to start a home library, but you have to start somewhere! My favorite place to get books is at thrift stores and garage sales (that way you don’t have to worry if they get ripped, damaged, or torn…which they will). I love it when I can find garage sales where the people are transitioning away from younger children and are getting rid of everything in one massive dump. Getting piles of quality books for 10 cents each is the best, and I totally stock up! The collections you’ll find at thrift stores are more hit or miss. It definitely helps to have an agenda and know what you are looking for here, but sometimes you just want to add a little “bulk” to your library and this is a great place for that.

bins of books for children

Building a Home Library Full of Quality Books

Once you know what kind of books really intrigue your children, you can start building Amazon wish lists for birthdays, Christmas, and anytime you have a few extra dollars. You can even buy used books on Amazon that are in pretty good shape. (Although I’d recommend staying away from the used books if they are the lift the flap kind, I haven’t had the best luck in this department.) For some book suggestions, check out my Amazon stores: Best Books for Babies, Best Books for Toddlers, and Best Books for Kids.

4. Make Books Accessible

Once you have books, you’ll want to make them easy to access! I love having books on bookshelves, but those are easier for storage and for adults to access. Kids like to see books displayed in a way that makes the books easy to see and easy to reach. My favorite method of storage is baskets. Here are the wicker baskets that I like to use. They are a nice way for me to keep the books organized with the covers facing out, and then I can strategically place them in places where the kids like to read. I love putting baskets next to little chairs and couches, near their little potty chairs, by their beds, and at little coffee table reading stations throughout the house. I’m pretty sure that every single room in our house has baskets and piles books!

toddler reading to herself from a bin of accessible books

Making Books Accessible

I have also screwed gutters (found at Lowes or Home Depot) onto the walls to store books. They looked really cool, but didn’t get used as much as I thought they would. Plus, the kids would sometimes pull or hang on them and they weren’t super sturdy, but if put a tacking strip behind it and found some studs, it would probably hold up really well!

Using Gutters as a Bookshelf

Using Gutters as a Bookshelf

gutters as a bookshelf

3 Year Old Elliot Loves His New Bookshelf

There are also some cool book storage racks that display the book covers all facing forward. I liked having things like this in my classroom when I was a teacher. You’ll have to find the perfect way to make your books accessible based on the needs of your children and the design of your home.

5. Make Reading Time Special

During the day, we love snuggling up on our big soft couch to read piles of books. I store new library books in our coffee table and I keep baskets of books nearby. But I will usually set up a little pile of their favorite books that I know they will want to read before I sit down. Then I track down their silkies, pacifiers, and anything else they like to snuggle up with. Sometimes I’ll grab some milk and cookies or some other tasty treats before we begin reading. Then, we all snuggle up close together and enjoy some fun cuddles and special reading time.

reading cuddled up with mommy and baby

Reading Time is Special

Before bed at night, we always read books in our oldest daughter’s room. We have a big full size mattress on the floor that is covered with blankets and stacked with pillows. There are baskets and piles of books strategically placed nearby and we all enjoy cuddling up at night while Daddy reads stories.

Bedtime Reading Routine

Bedtime Reading Routine

I have some old Christmas lights stapled near the ceiling that create a nice soft glow perfect for night time reading. After that, we read to our older children (or they read to us) while they are tucked into bed, and then we read to our littlest ones in rocking chairs before putting them to bed.

Reading Rocking Chair

Reading Rocking Chair

6. Carve Out Time for Reading

I am always ready to drop everything and read books when my children are ready, but I also like setting aside special reading time during the day. Either mid morning or after lunch are my favorite reading times. I like to read after my kids have eaten, had play time, and are changed, dressed, and ready for the day. We enjoy cuddling up for nice long reading time and it’s really fun. I know that our days can get busy, but I think that just like we make time for eating every day, we need to make time for reading every day too. If you always read books at bedtime, you’ll always have reading as at least the end part of your day. Reading before bed is one thing that we never ever skip. If we’re in a hurry, we have a basket of little mini books that we can read in a hurry, but we never skip reading time.

7. Pick Interesting Books

When you sit down to read with your children, start by reading the books you KNOW they will enjoy rather than introducing something new. After you’ve read a few favorite books and you’re in the rhythm of it, then you can introduce some new books.

Each of our children have been into different types of books at different ages and stages. Our babies have really liked Sandra Boynton, touch and feel, ABC, and lift the flap books. When both of our girls were younger, they REALLY liked Dora books, and our son has always enjoyed books about superheroes and anything funny or gross. Whenever we know that our children are really into a particular type of book, we look for it at thrift stores, garage sales, Amazon, and the library, and we keep those favorite books stocked nearby. These are the books they gravitate towards and start to read independently. The cutest thing is seeing our toddler picture read the books we have read over and over.

8. Have Fun With It

If you get books that you really enjoy and really truly have fun while you read, your little ones will be able to tell, and it will make it a fun experience for them too. When I was taking classes while in pursuit of my teaching degree, I had one class about teaching reading that really stuck with me. The teacher did something truly remarkable and seemingly unorthodox…she read to us! And she didn’t just read the words on the page, she made them come alive. It felt so strange to sit in a class with a bunch of young adults and have a children’s story read to us, but I felt myself getting lost in the story as she read using different voices for the different characters and read with lots of expression and passion. Ten years later, I still remember the first book she read to us. It was Buzzy the Bumblebee. I bought that book, a nice hard cover copy, and thoroughly enjoyed reading it to my class and then later to my children. Because I love it and read with lots of expression, they love it too.

9. Involve Your Children

Children love to be involved in reading. Before we start reading a book, I like to spend a minute looking at the cover. We read the title, look at the cover illustration, and make predictions about what we think the book will be about or what will happen in the book. As we are reading, I like to involve the children in little ways by having them help me turn the pages, lift any flaps, or point out simple things that they notice in the pictures. For more of a challenge, I ask the them open ended questions about what they think will happen next, why they think a certain event happened, how they think the character is feeling, or if the story reminds them of anything that has ever happened in their lives.

I also like to involve my children by getting them to read parts of the text whenever I can. One of my favorite ways to get them to do this is with books that we’ve read over and over. I pause at certain words I think that they’ll know or at the last word in the sentence (especially if there is a rhyming pattern) and let them fill in the blank. This is a gradual release to the time when they will be reading independently.

10. Be Silly

Most of the time, we read the books as they are written, but sometimes, it’s fun to make the book silly. We do this by making up words to make the story silly. Potty humor always gets a big laugh (Poophead!) and so does saying the opposite word that will give the meaning a silly twist. We also like making songs out of some of our favorite books and using silly funny voices. Our kids beg Daddy to read books the “funny way” especially when it’s bedtime; using humor is a great way to get through any tired fussy moments.

11. Don’t Force It

The worst thing you could do is treat reading like a mandatory time of the day that you must “get through” in order to reap the benefits of the results. If you’re not feeling it one day, skip the reading. If you’re skipping the reading every day, figure out what needs to change in order to make it a fun part of your routine. Are you feeling uncomfortable and unsure of your reading abilities? Don’t worry! Your children won’t judge you, and the more you do it, the more comfortable it will feel. Are you having a tough time getting your children to sit still long enough for story time? This happens with my rambunctious son from time to time, and so I have found that he LOVES it when I read books with interesting figures like these Basher Books and make them “come to life”. I kind of skim and scan the book and make the characters talk to him and he interacts with them. This even carries over into his imaginative play. Do whatever works for you!

In Conclusion

If you make reading a priority in your life, and if you make it fun, your children will grow up having a love of reading that will last a lifetime. I think it’s also really important for kids to see that you enjoy reading as well. My husband really enjoys fiction and he’s always introducing our kids to his favorite books. Right now he is listening to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe with our oldest daughter on their way to school every morning.

I personally like reading nonfiction and doing research for my blog, and I love sharing what I am learning with our kids. Reading is an amazing and wonderful skill, past time, and family event. If you help teach children how to read (Check out my blog: How Children Really Learn to Read) and show them how fun it can be, you will be amazed to see what they choose to do with their love of reading as they grow. One of my favorite things in the world is seeing our children choose to read on their own. When you see this happen, you know you have succeeded!

toddler reading to herself

Ophelia Loves Reading

3 year old reading to himself

Elliot Loves to Read

5 year old reading to herself in bed

Ruby Loves to Read

Check out my blog Oral Language Development…More Important Than You Think to learn about one of the biggest precursors to learning how to read and Tips, Tricks and Resources for Teaching the ABCs to learn about how to give your child the foundation of reading.

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.)

quote-i-never-teach-my-pupils-i-only-attempt-to-provide-the-conditions-in-which-they-can-learn-albert-einstein-282667

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.

third grade classroom

Front of the Room Teacher Station

third grade classroom

Looking Out the Windows in My Classroom

third grade classroom

Looking Towards the Back of My Classroom

third grade classroom

The Back Corner of My Classroom

third grade classroom

Chalkboard Area in My Classroom

third grade classroom

Learning Wall

IMG_0506

Vocabulary Wall and Plants

third grade classroom

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

IMG_3982

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.

IMG_3897-e1415817528499-225x300

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.

Embracing Motherhood Keeping the House Clean with Four Young Children...Is it Possible?

Keeping the House Clean with Four Young Children…Is it Possible?

Keeping the house clean with one or two kids can be a little extra work, but when you have four children five and under and one of them is a new baby, it can be especially challenging! After our fourth child was born, I wasn’t even sure if it would be possible to keep the house tidy enough for my type A personality, but lo and behold, I found a way! This is how I do it.

1. Have an Organized System

I am very mindful about where I put certain toys and how I organize the children’s playthings. I love using baskets and boxes to sort and organize things so that similar toys stay together. I have baskets for the little figures used with the castles and treehouses for imaginative play, bins for cars, blocks, and train tracks, tables with trays of paper and pencil boxes of markers for arts and crafts, baskets with books in every room, and places for all of the stuffed animals. Everything is strategically set up to encourage play and in a way that’s easy to manage and clean. If I notice that a particular set of toys is creating a huge mess but not utilizing a lot of play time, I’ll either reorganize it or pack it away for another time. Rather than having one “play room”, I have found it beneficial to have out just enough toys in each room. I only keep out what gets used.

Our Living Room

Our Living Room

Organized Toys and Books

Organized Toys and Books

Play Space in Our Homeschool Room

Play Space in Our Homeschool Room

Organized Bins of Toys

Organized Bins of Toys

2. Make Sure Everything has a Home

I know that it’s the little things that add up and make my house feel cluttered. Every single toy, book, and marker needs to have a home or it will end up as clutter somewhere. So when I see some dolls, cars, or magazines laying on the floor, I ask myself, “Do they have a home?” If not, it’s time I found them one! I like to keep a TINY bowl on the counter for little things that need to be put away. That way I’m not running around every time I find a little hair tie on the floor. But once that little bowl is full, it’s time to put the contents away.

3. Spend Time Organizing

The key to keeping everything looking neat and tidy on the surface is to keep everything neat and tidy behind the scenes. This means that when I open up the cupboards, I can easily find my canned beans, AA batteries, and a light bulb for the night light. This also means that when I open up a drawer, I’m not searching through a pile of junk before I can find a paperclip, a pad of paper, and a working pen. To accomplish this, I know that I may need to devote an entire afternoon or even a whole day to reorganizing things. Whenever I have a hard time finding something, I know that it’s time to do some serious organizing! The bonus is being able to get rid of some of the clutter in the process. I am always throwing out things that are too junky or not being used anymore. I will save a few things if I KNOW that they will get used in the future (like hand me down clothes and baby toys from the older kids), but I am very careful not to pack things away “just in case”. Things that get packed away and forgotten just add clutter.

Organized Cabinets

IMG_3382 Organized Cabinets

4. Every Time You Move, Move Something with You

I try not to leave a room, pass by a mess, or stoop down without picking something up in the process. For example, if I’m sitting in the living room and I need to go to the bathroom, I’ll pick up all of the cups and drop them off in the kitchen. On my way back, I’ll pick up the random toys on the floor and put them on the counter. The next time I walk by the counter, I’ll pick up the toys and drop them where they go. If I don’t have time for that, I’ll at least put them in my pocket to put away later. I love working in layers and cleaning little bits here and there until the job is done.

5. Clean Every Room You Are In

Instead of having a designated cleaning time, I like to just clean as I go. At the end of the day, there is always a mass pick up and put away time, but I like to minimize that as much as I can throughout the day. When I wake up (or more like when my baby wakes up), I make my bed. It doesn’t have to look perfect, I just make it look decent. When I get the toddler up, I make sure her crib is tidied up. When I’m playing with the kids on the floor in the living room, I’ll pick up the stray toys and arrange the pillows on the couch. It only takes me a few minutes here and there, but by the end of the day the house is in fairly decent shape.

6. Distract the Kids

I love waiting until the kids have moved on to another project before sweeping in to clean up a messy room, because there is nothing more frustrating than cleaning a room that continues to get messy. I also don’t really like the kids to see me clean. I like them to think that things just magically go back to their spots! But seriously, I think that if they see me cleaning, they expect me to clean up their messes, but if it’s just done, they don’t really think about it. It’s also a bit frustrating to clean one room to perfection only to find that the next room is completely destroyed. To ensure that this doesn’t happen, I like to make sure that the kids are engaged in a non-messy activity in another room (even if it means parking them in front of a TV or ipad) while I get everything cleaned. I know that it can seem like a good idea to leave their toys out “in case they want to come back to play with them”, but from my experience, they have way more fun making a new mess rather than delving into an old one!

7. Keep a Mental List of Things To Do

Time is precious, especially with four little ones, and I try to make the most of every minute. One thing that helps me is keeping a mental checklist of the things that I want to get done. When I’m sitting there nursing my baby, contemplating the moments of freedom that I’ll have when he (hopefully) naps for anywhere between 30 minutes to 3 hours, I start to think about all of the things that I want to get done. Even if I know that I’ll only realistically get to one or two items on my list, I still like to think about items three through five that I might be able to get done if I have the time. That way, when the time comes, I don’t waste any time on hesitation.

8. Prioritize the Messes

Once I accept the fact that not everything will not get done on my to do list, I reduce my stress level by at least half of one percent. 🙂 When I’m faced with messes and chores of gargantuan proportion, I know that at any minute the baby will start to cry or someone will want to cuddle, and so I have to choose what things are the most important and what things I can let go of. If the living room is completely trashed and the kids are playing quietly in the next room, then the living room might take top priority. But if lunch time is approaching and the kids are starting to get a little cranky, I know that cleaning the kitchen and preparing lunch must take top priority.

9. Keep a Visible Checklist of Big Projects

I love keeping a white board and dry erase marker on the fridge and keeping a running checklist going of the big and little projects that need to get done around the house. This is especially helpful for my husband on the weekends so that he can see what things need to get done without me telling him what to do. It’s also nice for anyone who visits too. When people come over, I put them to work! 🙂

10. Let Some Things Go

When my husband and I were a couple of DINKS (dual income no kids), we would do all of our major cleaning on the weekends. We would scrub the toilets, wipe down baseboards, vacuum the house, wash the sheets, clean the windows, dust the furniture and a whole list of other ridiculous things. But now we have learned what things are important and what things we can let go of. Our number one priority is keeping the kitchen clean and the house tidy. Everything after that is a bonus. Sure, we may clean our sheets, it just might only happen four times per year. 🙂

11. Spread out the Big Cleaning Projects

Now, just because I don’t clean my toilets every day doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate a clean bowl! It’s just that instead of cleaning them every Saturday, I just clean them when they are getting so disgusting I can’t stand it anymore or if I know that company will be coming over soon. 🙂 I do the same thing with vacuuming, dusting, windows, and any other cleaning project that I don’t tackle on a regular basis.

12. Kids and Cleaning

My four kids are five and under, so at this point, I don’t have any huge requirements for them to clean. From time to time when the mess is small and manageable, and I am there to support them, I will enlist their help. For example, if we’re not in a rush to go anywhere and there’s a basket of dinosaurs on the floor, I will say, “Can you help me put these dinosaurs away?” Then I’ll make it fun by making them talk and say things like, “Please put me with all of my friends, I’m so tired and I want to take a rest! Oh thank you!” But for the most part, I believe that it is their job to play and my job to clean and organize. Gasp! Can it be true??? I believe that if I were to make my little children clean up every single mess that they made that it would a) Take forever and never be done to my specific liking b) Discourage them from making a mess in the first place which is part of the learning process, and c) Encourage them to become mini adults instead of curious, imaginative, and playful children. Because I keep things so organized and tidy, my children are accustomed to everything having a place and I see that they prefer it that way. They don’t usually make a mess just for the sake of making a mess, and if they do, I hold them accountable. The cutest thing was seeing my four year old put away his new toys after his fourth birthday. He had received a big dragon and some robots and he said excitedly, “I know where these will go!” and he proceeded to put them in the big bin with all of the other robots and dragons. This is exactly what I had hoped to encourage! And I didn’t have to beg, cajole, threaten, or punish in order to get it done. 🙂

Elliot's Dinosaurs, Dragons, and Robots

Elliot’s Dinosaurs, Dragons, and Robots

In Conclusion

Having children has changed my standard of clean, and I couldn’t be any happier! I love the messes and I love my job as master organizer. In order for my mind to be able to function and think about bigger things, I need to keep my home neat and tidy. I know that some people may have a higher mess tolerance than me, but in the end, it’s about what’s best for the kids. When my kids see neat tubs of organized toys, they are way more purposeful and engaged than if there was a big messy pile of chaos. And in the end, that’s what it’s all about…being purposeful and engaged in all that we do.