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26 Learning Centers for Play Based Preschool Learning

26 Learning Centers for a Homeschool Preschool Curriculum

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

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

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

Tips and Tricks

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

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

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

1. ABC Magnet Letters

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

ABC Magnet Letters

ABC Magnet Letters

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

Using the ABC Magnet Center

Using the ABC Magnet Center

Materials Needed:

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

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

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

2. Counting

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

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

Counting Bears Center

Counting Bears Center

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

Counting with Connect 4

Counting with Connect 4

Materials Needed:

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

3. Drawing

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

Drawing Table

Drawing Table

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

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

Ruby's Drawings

Ruby’s Drawings

Materials Needed:

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

*Check out more of my arts and crafts blogs here

4. Painting

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

My Painting Supplies

My Painting Supplies

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

Painting Over Masking Tape Letters

Painting Over Masking Tape Letters

Ruby Painting

Ruby Painting

Materials Needed:

5. Arts and Crafts Box

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

My Craft Box

My Craft Box

Materials Needed:

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

6. Cutting and Gluing

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

Fancy Cutting Scissors and Construction Paper

Fancy Cutting Scissors and Construction Paper

Materials Needed:

7. Stickers and Stamps

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

Stickers and Stamps

Stickers and Stamps

Materials Needed:

8. Write On/Wipe Off

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

Write On/Wipe Off Books and Whiteboard Center

Write On/Wipe Off Books and Whiteboard Center

Materials Needed:

9. Water Play

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

Water Pouring Center

Water Pouring Center

Ruby and Ophelia Pouring Water

Ruby and Ophelia Pouring Water

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

Elliot Doing Water Play in the Sink

Elliot Doing Water Play in the Sink

Materials Needed:

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

10. Cars and Trains

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

Toy Cars

Toy Cars

Julian Loves Pushing His Big Truck Throughout the House

Julian Loves Pushing His Big Truck Throughout the House

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

Julian's Bedroom

Julian’s Bedroom

Materials Needed:

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

11. Building Toys

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

Many Different Kinds of Blocks

Many Different Kinds of Blocks

Big Legos, Kinex, and Unifix Cubes

Big Legos, K’nex, and Unifix Cubes

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

Lego Table

Lego Table

Ophelia and Ruby Building with K'nex

Ophelia and Ruby Building with K’nex

Materials Needed:

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

12. Reading Nooks

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

Little Chair and Boxes with Books

Little Chair and Boxes with Books

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

Little Reading Chairs with a Basket of Books Inbetween

Little Reading Chairs with a Basket of Books Inbetween

Materials Needed:

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

*Read more of my blogs about teaching reading here.

13. Favorite Things Books

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

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

Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot's Favorite Things Books

Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot’s Favorite Things Books

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

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

Ophelia Reading Her Favorite Things Book

Ophelia Reading Her Favorite Things Book

Materials Needed:

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

14. Little Figures and Houses

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

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

Little House and Mini Figures

Little House and Mini Figures

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

Doll House with Toy Baskets

Doll House with Toy Baskets

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

Ruby and Elliot Playing with Little Houses and Figures

Ruby and Elliot Playing with Little Houses and Figures

Materials Needed:

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

15. Dress Up

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

Dress Up Clothes and Hats

Dress Up Clothes and Hats

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

Dress Up Dresses

Dress Up Dresses

Ophelia is a Cowgirl!

Ophelia is a Cowgirl!

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

Materials Needed:

16. Music

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

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

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

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

Keyboard with Labeled Keys

Keyboard with Labeled Keys

Materials Needed:

17. Puzzles

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

Puzzle Rack

Puzzle Rack

Playing with Puzzles

Playing with Puzzles

Materials Needed:

18. Pocket Charts

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

Pocket Chart with Beginning Word Sounds

Pocket Chart with Beginning Word Sounds

Materials Needed:

19. Play-Doh

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

Ophelia and Elliot Playing with Play-Doh

Ophelia and Elliot Playing with Play-Doh

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

Materials Needed:

20. Puppets

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

Puppet Stand

Puppet Stand

Materials Needed:

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

21. Games

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

Our Board Game Cupboard

Our Board Game Cupboard

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

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

Materials Needed:

22. Science

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

Ruby and Elliot in the Garden

Ruby and Elliot in the Garden

Ruby and Elliot Doing a Vinegar and Baking Soda Experiment

Ruby and Elliot Doing a Vinegar and Baking Soda Experiment

Materials Needed:

23. Social Studies

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

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

State, World, and Universe Maps

State, World, and Universe Maps

Materials Needed:

24. My Favorite Workbooks

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

My Favorite Workbooks

My Favorite Workbooks

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

Materials Needed:

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

25. Technology

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

Our Favorite Preschool Apps

Our Favorite Preschool Apps

In Conclusion

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

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

For Further Reading

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

19 Educational Programs for Young Children to Watch

Setting reasonable limits for screen time means that your children can enjoy some quality educational programming as a part of their balanced day. Studies show that children who watch educational programming at a young age actually perform better academically than children who do not. (Especially when “anti-educational” fast paced programs, like SpongeBob, are avoided.) Setting reasonable expectations for screen time, even for educational programming, is a very helpful part of the process.

In order to watch these programs, we connect our TV to our computer and are purposeful about all that we watch. If you decide to cancel your cable subscription, you can use the money you save for to spend $9.99/mo. on a Netflix subscription and/or $99/yr on an Amazon Prime subscription, and purchase some of these DVDs, and then (with the help of free YouTube, PBS, and Nick Jr. programs) you will have all you ever need to entertain and teach your kids!

So, when our children DO watch TV, the are the educational programs our little ones have been entertained by, learned from, and wanted to watch over and over again.

1. Preschool Prep

These videos have played a fundamental role in teaching our children their letter names, letter sounds, digraphs, consonant blends, sight words, shapes, colors, and numbers. We show them to our little babies to introduce them to the concepts, again as toddlers when they are fully engaged, and again during the preschool years for good review.

Preschool Prep DVDs

Preschool Prep DVDs

Buy the entire 10 DVD collection here for $60! If you get anything, at least get the Letter Names and Letter Sounds DVDs and your children will learn their ABCs in no time (which will help them learn how to read at a much younger age than you might imagine, check out more of my favorite ABC resources here and my Embracing Motherhood Store here.

2.  Leapfrog

These videos have a story line that makes them more engaging for an older child learning his or her alphabet, but I still love them for reinforcing letter sounds and other great concepts such as numbers, shapes, opposite words, and more. The characters are cute and engaging, and all of our children really like these programs in addition to the corresponding educational toys.

Leapfrog

Leapfrog

Get a 3 DVD collection of some of our favorites (Amazing Alphabet, Learn to Read, and Numbers Ahoy) here for $10.29, or you can watch 12 episodes on Netflix (if you have a subscription). There are also lots of great toys, like this Leapfrog Fridge Magnet set, this Leapfrog Letter Discoveries Board, and this Leapfrog Scribble and Write Tablet that will help your children learn their letters.

3. Your Baby Can Learn

I stumbled across what were originally called “Your Baby Can Read” videos before our first daughter was born and started watching them with her when she was 6 months old. By watching these videos, teaching her the ABCs, and reading lots and lots of books, she was reading by the age of two. I am very sad that they went out of business because some people were mad about the idea of having children under two watch TV, but they are rebranding themselves and coming out with new and wonderful videos that your little ones will love and learn a lot from.

Your Baby Can Learn

Your Baby Can Learn

You can buy the entire learning kit online ($150) that includes videos, flashcards, and teaching tips that will make learning how to read very fun and possible for children at a very young age. Or, you can check out their YouTube Channel to see free videos. I love how they are now making learning videos for all languages. My three year old daughter Ophelia LOVES language, is an amazing reader, and is really excited to learn other languages too. You can also just type in “your baby can read” into Youtube and find some of their original videos that I simply love!

Your Baby Can Learn Deluxe Kit

Your Baby Can Learn Deluxe Kit

These videos have inspired me to create my own system to teach young children how to read. You can see what I have so far at my Embracing Motherhood store and stay tuned for more!

ABC Flashcards

ABC Flashcards

4. Bada Namu

This is a cute little show that my kids actually found through YouTube Kids. It’s really great at teaching vocabulary and has lots of cute songs. I love how the lyrics are displayed at the bottom of the screen so that children can read along as they listen to the songs.

bada-namu

You can go to their YouTube Channel to see all of their videos and check out their pre-made playlists. If you go to their website, they have an entire curriculum to teach your little ones everything they need to know. The resources look really awesome!

5. Maisy

This show is particularly engaging for babies and toddlers, but the older ones don’t mind it too much either. This show focuses on simple concepts like bedtime and birthday which is great for teaching little ones about their world. I especially like watching this show so that my little ones will get engaged with the Maisy books like this 16 book collection (for $53.99).

Maisy

Maisy

You can watch full episodes for free on YouTube or you can buy the DVDs. We like the Goodnight Maisy DVD (for $8.97), the Good Morning Maisy DVD (for $9.36), and the Playtime Maisy DVD (for $9.32) to name a few.

6. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood

This show was modeled after Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and even approved by Ms. Roger’s herself. It teaches children a lot about how to handle their emotions and about really basic concepts that they may deal with on a daily basis like trying new foods and making new friends. We pretty much love all PBS programming, and this is no exception.

daniel_tigers_neighborhood_logo

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood

You can watch episodes for free, play games, watch stories, and color on the PBS website.

7. Harold and the Purple Crayon

Growing up as a child, I always loved reading Harold and the Purple Crayon. The simplicity and creative imagination it evoked seemed to open up a world of possibilities in my mind. We stumbled across this show, narrated by Sharon Stone, and were mesmerized by the melodic tone of the show. It’s a great show to watch during rest time or before bed because of the calm music and gentle stories that put you in a sort of dreamland with the feeling of being read a story.

Harold and the Purple Crayon

Harold and the Purple Crayon

You can watch full episodes for free on YouTube or buy the DVDs on Amazon if you would like to watch this lovely program. I also highly recommend checking out some of the many Harold and the Purple Crayon books.

8. Blue’s Clues

This show is simple, predictable, engaging, and has fun cute characters that are very entertaining for young children. I love the concept of solving a mystery and how real children are incorporated into the show.

blues clues

Blue’s Clues

You can buy DVDs, like this Blue’s Clues Alphabet Power for $5.99, or you can watch full episodes for free on Nick Jr. Our children also enjoy the many Blue’s Clues books.

9. Peep and the Big Wide World

This show is extremely simple and engaging for toddlers in a way that feels like someone is reading them a story. I also like how it connects to real children trying out experiments that relate to the concepts in the show.

peep and the big wide world

Peep and the Big Wide World

You can buy DVDs, like this 3-disc collection of Peep and His Pals for $12.99, you can watch it for free here on YouTube, or you can watch free episodes and play games here.

10. Sesame Street

I grew up loving Sesame Street as a child, and to this day, sometimes I just prefer watching the older episodes. 🙂 But Sesame Street has continued to change with the times while still maintaining their recognizable and lovable characters.

sesame-street

Sesame Street

You can go to the PBS website to watch full episodes, play games, and do art activities, but I’m most impressed with their comprehensive YouTube Channel. You can watch videos here sorted by your child’s favorite character, watch different playlist compilations, or just explore all of their videos.

11. Peppa Pig

This is a fun little show that we recently stumbled upon. Our kids of all ages (1-7) love watching it. Maybe it’s the narrator’s accent that they love most of all, but at any rate, the simple story line and message of the show is really cute and engaging.

peppa_pig

Peppa Pig

You can watch full episodes for free on YouTube just by typing “peppa pig full episodes” into the search bar. You could also buy some DVD sets on Amazon along with some cute books and toys.

12. Backyardigans

This is a great show for modeling the use of imagination. I love how all of the characters come together in their backyards and then enter these creative worlds that they design in their minds.

Backyardigans

Backyardigans

You can watch free full episodes on the Nick Jr. website, watch full seasons of episodes on Amazon Prime, do a YouTube search for “Backyardigans full episodes“, or buy DVDs on Amazon. Our kids have also enjoyed reading the many Backyardigans books.

13. Super Why

Even though this is really designed for more of a preschooler to school aged child, our toddler has still really enjoyed it. It does a wonderful job of teaching the basic concepts of reading using characters and problems that children can relate to. I also like the Super Why books and learning games available.

4-superwhy-group

Super Why

You can buy DVDs, like this Fairytale Double Feature for $8.29, or you can watch seasons 1 and 2 on Netflix (if you have a subscription), or watch it on PBS if you have a cable subscription. *PBS has some Super Why games too.

14. Wild Kratts

This is a great program for teaching children about animals. I love how it switches from the cartoon characters to real life characters and animals. There is also a nice set of corresponding Wild Kratts books.

Wild Kratts

Wild Kratts

You can buy DVDs, like this Wildest Animals Adventures 5 disc compilation for $23.69, watch seasons 1, 2, and 3 on Netflix (if you have a subscription), or watch a select amount of videos on PBS for free.

15. Little Einsteins

I love how each program incorporates famous artists and composers and uses them throughout the program as part of the storyline. The show is very engaging, moves at a nice pace, and provides a balanced amount of learning and entertainment. There are also many Little Einstein books to enjoy.

little einsteins

Little Einsteins

You can buy DVDs, like this 3-Pack of Favorite Adventures for $24.96, or you can watch seasons 1 and 2 on Netflix (if you have a subscription). You can also watch a select number of videos and play Little Einstein games on Disney Jr.

16. Dora

Both of our girls (and the boys somewhat too) have LOVED this program as toddlers! I love the way the show teaches sequencing with the beginning, middle, end concept of a story while teaching Spanish at the same time. I especially love how watching the show has made our girls LOVE reading Dora books.

dora

Dora the Exlplorer

You can watch free full episodes on the Nick Jr. website, you can buy Dora DVDs, like this Greatest Adventure’s DVD (with a run time of 198 minutes) for $7.99, or you can watch full episodes on YouTube if you search for “Dora full episodes“. We used to watch full episodes on Netflix, but they’re not there anymore. You can find them on Amazon Prime, however. Our kids also really like Dora in the City. There are also some great educational Dora apps.

17. Magic School Bus

This show really appeals to more of preschool to school age children and does a wonderful job of teaching scientific concepts in a fun and engaging storyline with the unpredictable Ms. Frizzle! There are also tons of Magic School Bus books (like this one about the solar system, this one about the human body, and this one about the dinosaurs), and that connect to the TV programs.

the-magic-school-bus

The Magic School Bus

You can buy the entire 52 episode collection on 8 discs for $35.99 here, or you can watch all four seasons on Netflix (if you have a subscription).

18. Sid the Science Kid

This program is great for younger children and does an amazing job teaching basic scientific concepts such as why we need to brush our teeth, how we grow, and simple machines. The simplicity and predictability of the program are engaging, and I love how it shows clips of real kids and gives you ideas of things you can do at home. We really like the Sid’s Science Fair app too.

sid-the-science-kid-logo

Sid the Science Kid

You can buy some episodes on Amazon, like this one about rainbows (for $5.99), this one about weather (for $4.99), or this movie (for $5.99) or you can watch episodes at PBS Kids.

19. The Amoeba Sisters

This is definitely for the older preschool child (up to an adult), and may not be engaging for all, but our son Elliot started watching this when he was 4 year old. He LOVES the cute little characters with word bubbles and he LOVES learning about the science of biology, so this has been perfect! I really like it too because it helps me to learn as well!

Amoeba Sisters

Amoeba Sisters

Go to their YouTube channel here. You can watch all of the videos in order on their playlist, and I highly recommend subscribing so that you can stay up to date with any new videos.

In Conclusion

I love having some simple shows for the kids to watch when I need them to be entertained and know that they are going to be learning and benefiting in some way. I know that some people feel that banning all technology and TV and screen time is a good idea, but that’s just not something that works in our family. By setting reasonable limits with screen time using routines, I feel like we have a very good balance in our household.

Check out more of my technology blogs here, or check out more of my nature blogs here to see how we engage our children with outdoor activities as well! You might also like my blog: My Favorite YouTube Playlists for Teaching Kids Ages 0-6.

My 10 Favorite Resources for Teaching the ABCs Embracing Motherhood

10 Best Resources for Teaching the ABCs

Learning the ABCs (letter names AND letter sounds) is the bedrock for learning how to read. While you can certainly do a lot with just YouTube videos and some homemade supplies, these are the resources that have helped our four children learn their ABCs really really well in a way that revolves around play.

While everything you’ll need to teach the letter names, letter sounds, and word associated with each letter is included in my ABC Kit at my Embracing Motherhood Shop, these resources have been fun, engaging, and loved.

1. Leapfrog Fridge Letters

If you could only buy one thing to help your child learn his or her letters, it should be these Leapfrog Letters!  All of our children have enjoyed playing with these letters, learning about letter names and sounds, spelling words, and listening to the sounds and songs that are played.

Leapfrog Fridge Phonics

Leapfrog Fridge Phonics

Below is a video of my daughter Ophelia at 21 months playing with her Leapfrog Fridge Phonics set, and also some wooden magnet letters (that I’ll talk about next).

2. ABC Foam Magnet Letters

I love these foam letters because they are durable, fun to handle, and I love there are multiple copies of each letter including upper and lowercase.

foam-abc-magnet-letters

Foam ABC Magnet Letters

You can get also these cute Melissa and Doug wooden letters, but I have had some problems with them peeling apart (especially after they’ve been thrown into the water table or toilet a time or two). I also like using a muffin tin like this for teaching my children how to spell three letter words.

My ABC Magnet Station

My ABC Magnet Station

3. ABC Bath Letters

The bath can be kind of boring without a few toys, so why not make it fun and educational with some bath letters? If you’re taking a bath with your little one, this can be a great time to talk about letter name and letter sounds.

ABC Bath Letters

ABC Bath Letters

You also might like this really great storage caddy to keep them organized and within easy reach during the bath.

4. Leapfrog ABC Toys

Pretty much all Leapfrog ABC toys are great, and this Leapfrog ABC Tablet has been a real favorite.

abc-tablet

Leapfrog ABC Tablet

I like looking for Leapfrog learning toys at garage sales and thrift stores, but you can also buy some new like this ABC Dinosaur, ABC dog, and Alphabet Zoo.

Below is a video of Ophelia playing with our Leapfrog tablet.

5. VTech ABC Toys

This company makes really great educational toys for small children, and this ABC Apple is something that all of our kids fight over.

abc-apple

VTech ABC Apple

Some other great looking VTech toys are the ABC Bus, Spelling Station, and Write and Learn Creative Center.

6. Preschool Prep Videos

Meet the Letters and Meet the Phonics – Letter Sounds will cover everything your child needs to know about letter names and letter sounds in a very fun and engaging way.

preschool-prep-letter-names

Meet the Letters

preschool-prep-letter-sounds

Meet the Phonics: Letter Sounds

You might also enjoy getting the entire boxed set which has everything your child will need to know about letter names, letter sounds, digraphs, blends, numbers, shapes, colors, and sight words.

7. ABC Puzzles

Puzzles are a great way for toddlers and young children to explore the alphabet in a tactile manner. I really like this Melissa and Doug ABC puzzle because the pegs make it really easy to handle each letter, and I like the pictures associated with each letter too.

Melissa and Doug ABC Puzzle

Melissa and Doug ABC Puzzle

This stand up wooden puzzle and this flat wooden puzzle with upper and lowercase letters are great ABC puzzles too. When your child is ready for a more complex puzzle, I love floor puzzles like this giant Eric Carle ABC Floor Puzzle. We also love using our matching pairs puzzle.

abc-matching-pairs-puzzle

ABC Matching Pairs Puzzle

8. ABC Rug

If you have the space for it (and the money), this rug has been one of my favorite purchases ever. The kids love running in circles around it saying the letters, and the solar system in the middle is another great teaching tool.

abc-rug

ABC Rug

At 5’4″ x 7’8″, this rectangular rug fits in our homeschool room perfectly, but you can also get a 7’8″ x 10’9″ rectangular rug, a 5’4″ x 7’8″ oval or 7’8″ x 10’9″ oval rug as well. This ABC rug looks really cute too.

 

9. ABC Posters

All of my kids have loved learning their sign language ABCs, and this ABC sign language poster is a great addition to any room. Check out this great sign language ABC video, and this one, and this one too.

abc-sign-language-poster

ABC Sign Language Poster

I like having handwriting posters up as well. Here’s the one I like for print, and here’s the one I like for cursive. This ABC “poster” (pictured below) is really cool because each letter is actually a sticker which allows you to get creative about where you put it.

ABC Bulletin Board

ABC Bulletin Board

For a more interactive poster, I love using my wall hanging pocket chart with these beginning sound cards. There are many other cards you can get from Smethport that are useful for teaching other skills as well.

10. Robot Letters

These ABC robot letters from Lakeshore Learning have been an absolute favorite with our son Elliot. He has always loved transformers and robots, and these were great for helping him to learn about his letters. We got these for him for his 3rd birthday, and at that time, we had to help him transform the robots. When he was about 4, he was able to transform them on his own.

alphabet-robots

ABC Robot Letters

Lakeshore Learning has so many amazing and wonderful things, like these alphabet tubs for learning letter sounds, this alphabet maze, these learning locks, and so, so much more!

alphabet-tubs

Letter Sound Alphabet Tubs

*Starfall

Okay, so this is really #11, but it is the most amazing resource I have ever come across. Now, you will need a computer, ipad or iphone to access the Starfall website or app, but it is an absolutely amazing resource for teaching children the ABCs and so much more.

Starfall abc

Starfall ABCs

People have asked me what I think of other programs such as ABC Mouse, Always Ice Cream, and Clever Dragons, and nothing I have seen or used holds a candle to what Starfall provides. You can play the ABC portion on the website for free, or you can get a home membership for $35/year. You can use your phone, ipad mini, or regular ipad to play the ABC app (for free) which is very easy for little ones to use with the touch screen. *Here’s a video of me using Starfall Math with our son Elliot.

*If you’re looking for more great apps for preschoolers, check out my blog here: Best Teaching Apps for Young Children (Ages 0-6).

In Conclusion

Of course, I want you to get my ABC kit with flashcards, book, mini cards, poster, video, and teaching tips booklet to teach your little one the ABCs found at my Embracing Motherhood Shop, but these additional resources that I’ve gone over here are things that my children have enjoyed as I have created an environment conducive to learning and have made their learning experiences seem effortless and fun.

Buying a New Computer Shouldn’t Cost a Fortune

If you’re in the market for a new laptop or home computer, check out these recommendations from our resident computer guy!

By: Guest Blogger Scott Maaser

scott

Scott “The Computer Guy”

Bio: Not only does my husband fix computers for a living by day, but he writes code for desktop apps in a few different programming languages by night. He is also the resident computer guy in both of our families and circle of friends. He pretty much lives, eats, and breathes computers, and so when I saw this website recommending “great deals on computers for homeschool families”, I naturally showed him wondering if it really was a good deal. He laughed, and explained how buying a new computer these days shouldn’t be an expensive ordeal, and how “deals” like these aren’t really deals at all . I asked him to write me a post explaining his answer in more more detail, and here it is, from our resident computer guy!

Buying a New Computer Shouldn’t Cost a Fortune

School is back in session, and that means back to school shopping. Pens, notebooks, backpacks – everyone knows how to shop for those items, but when it comes to computers, sometimes the amount of options and features can be overwhelming. Where do people go to get recommendations for computers? Most people I know go into a big-box store like Best Buy, but stores like that have to cover a lot of overhead and aren’t really looking out for your best interests.

Who Am I?

I’d like to take a quick break here and talk a little about myself and my experience. I’ve worked at Best Buy in the past, and I’m currently working as a Client Technology Technician, which is just a fancy way of saying I just fix computers at a large company. I’m fixing laptops day in and day out – both in the workplace and with my co-worker’s computers. I’ve been doing work like this on and off for the last 20 years.

What They’re Really Selling You

My wife just sent me a link to this website which advertises discounted laptops for homeschoolers. I looked through what they offered, and I noticed a couple of things. First of all, I saw a few models of the laptops they offered as ones I had worked on 4-5 years ago. Looking at their pricing, I didn’t really see how their price points offered any kind of noticeable discount. I know they do include a 4 year warranty, laptop bag, and 8GB flash drive, but not everyone wants to purchase all those add-ons. They also offer a slight discount on Microsoft Office at $118 (more on this later).

If you take a look at their Lenovo T400 at $250, for example, I noticed that it came out in 2010 and really does not have the specs to compete with modern processors and memory technology. In fact, Amazon currently has T400s selling at $118.49 (this includes shipping).

So look, all this aside, I know there are some really good laptops (and desktop computers) out these days that come with a manufacturer’s 1-year warranty, have modern technology, and cost significantly less than the computers you can get from big-box stores and most online retailers.

My Laptop Recommendation

Lenovo 100s with Windows 10 ($210) – I have been using Lenovo laptops and ThinkPad laptops for over a decade. They hold up the best over time and have had the least number of issues during normal wear and tear. This version of the 100s has double the standard storage space with 64GB of solid-state storage. This model also comes with a full version of Windows 10 which means it’s ready to handle pretty much any kind of educational software and web browsing you can find to supplement education.

My Desktop Recommendation

Azulle Mini Desktop PC with Windows 10 ($169, or bundled with keyboard and camera for $255) – With 2GB RAM, 32GB storage, and a modern Intel Atom processor, it will handle any basic task you throw at it. You will be able to hook this up to your TV and watch Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, or anything else. It also has VGA video output, so you can connect it to most computer monitors.

If you are looking for a monitor, this ViewSonic 22 inch monitor ($99) can really bring your computing experience into vivid existence. ViewSonic has been in the monitor business for decades, and this display really showcases some of their best efforts. It comes with DVI and VGA ports, which allows it to not only connect to most computers, but also can scale up to Full HD 1080p resolution. It even has built in speakers so you can experience stereo sound right on your desktop without purchasing additional speakers.

The Azul Mini Desktop Computer can stand alone as it’s own system and will allow you to install Microsoft Office or any other variant of free Office alternatives. As a teacher or student (yes, even homeschool), you can get Microsoft Office for FREE (along with 1 TB of online storage). If you don’t want to go that route, here are your other purchasing options: purchase it for a one time fee of $149 (1 installation), pay $9.99/mo. (or $99/yr.) for up to 5 installations or $6.99/mo. (or $69.99/yr.) for 1 installation.

It also has 3 USB ports, which means it will not only handle a standard set of USB keyboard and mouse, but it also has one more port in case you want to hook up a USB external Hard Drive ($54.99) for extra storage.

Other Extras

Flash DriveThis device hold 32 GB, which is enough to move anything you need to move from one device to another. Speaking of devices, this has connections for both full sized USB, like on your computers, as well as micro USB, to connect to Android and Windows smartphones. This allows you to copy things to and from your phone or tablet to your computer – super handy. Also, at only $11.99, this is a great price for 32 GB of flash storage.

Keyboard/MouseAt just under $20, this wireless keyboard and mouse combo is a great buy. It’s made by Logitech, which is the industry leader in keyboards and mice. Plus, it’s wireless so installation is simple. Wireless peripherals have come a long way in terms of battery life. I use a wireless Logitech keyboard and mouse at work, and I usually need to change out the single AA battery in the mouse and the 2 AA batteries in the keyboard about once a year. Plus, the wireless feature means less wires coming in and out of your computer.

Printer: We have gone through many many printers, and finally settled on the Epson WorkForce Pro because it was reviewed to be the best quality and most cost effective printer for a small business, and with the amount of printing that we do, this has provided both quality and quantity, but not without hassles. It can’t handle thick card stock, we have dealt with many paper jams, and the ink is pricy, but overall, we have been quite happy. If we had to purchase a new printer today, however, we might take a look at some of these models.

In Conclusion

All in all, getting a new computer that can help you move your home computing experience into some newer, faster technology shouldn’t break the bank. Feel free to leave a comment (or send an email) if you have any questions about anything, and I will be happy to answer them!

Embracing Motherhood Teaching Children in Their Zone of Proximal Development

How to Set Learning Goals for Young Children

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

What Are Learning Goals?

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

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

Setting and Using Learning Goals

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

1. Know Where They Are

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

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

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

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

2. Discuss It

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

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

3. Set Learning Goals

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

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

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

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

4. Share with the Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What would you like to get better at?”

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

4. Find the Time to Teach

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

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

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

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

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

5. Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Independent Practice

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

Happy learning!

How to Set Up a Summer Routine That Keeps Kids Productive

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

The Importance of Routines

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

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

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

Using Charts

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

Ruby Helping Me Color Our Charts

Ruby Helping Me Color Our Charts

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

homeschool summer school and goal chart

Summer School and Goal Charts

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

Setting Up a Learning Environment

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

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

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

Activities

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

Examples of Activities:

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

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

Daily Routine

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

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

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

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

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

Goals

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

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

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

Other Tips and Tricks

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

When Things Aren’t Working

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Our First Day Went

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

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

Elliot is Learning How to Write His Name

Elliot is Learning How to Write His Name

Ruby Coloring Her 1st Grade Writing Packet

Ruby Coloring Her 1st Grade Writing Packet

Ophelia Loves Learning Her ABCs using leapfrog abc games

Ophelia Loves Learning Her ABCs!

Julian Doing Tummy Time

Julian Doing Tummy Time

Elliot Reading a Star Wars Book

Elliot Reading a Star Wars Book

IMG_3394

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

Ophelia Loves Reading Dora Books

Ophelia Loves Reading Dora Books

Julian and I are Having a Conversation

Julian and I are Having a Conversation

Elliot Playing with His Mini Figures

Elliot Playing with His Mini Figures

Ruby Playing the Keyboard...and Feeling It!

Ruby Playing the Keyboard…and Feeling It!

Using Unifix Cubes During Imaginative Play

Elliot is Using Unifix Cubes During Imaginative Play

Ophelia is Mesmerized with Balls and Ramps

Ophelia is Mesmerized with Balls and Ramps

Making healthy oatmeal cookies with kids

Making Cookies!

Elliot Playing with Legos

Elliot Playing with Legos

Ruby Collecting Leaves

Ruby Collecting Leaves

Ruby, Elliot, and Ophelia Playing Together

Ruby, Elliot, and Ophelia Playing Together

Elliot is King of His Domain

Elliot is King of His Domain

In Conclusion

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

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

Embracing Motherhood Setting and Achieving Learning Goals for Young Children

Examples of Learning Goals That I Use with My Children

I love setting learning goals with my children so that I can keep track of where they are and what I can do to help facilitate their growth to the next level. Teaching children in the zone of proximal development helps me to achieve this. By scaffolding their learning to where they are, not where they should be as deemed by grade level and age level expectations, I can help each child grow in a way that fits their specific needs.

Even though we are involved in public education, I still design a homeschool atmosphere for my younger ones who are home with me all the time and the older ones who are learning at home after school, on the weekends, during breaks, and over the summer. During the summer months, I am especially focused on their goals because it helps me to establish a successful and productive routine.

Examples of Learning Goals

How I set learning goals is just as important as what the learning goals are, but I thought it best to separate these topics into two separate posts. By seeing a brief description of each child along with their learning goals and how I can facilitate their learning, I hope to provide a clear picture of what it means to set learning goals.

These goals are always shifting and changing depending on their interests and moods, my interests and available time, the time of year, whether or not everyone is sick, how much sleep I got the night before, and so on. Sometimes I write them down, but usually I just tuck them away in the back of my mind. I don’t follow some strict daily schedule, but rather try to incorporate these learning goals into our daily routines and into the one on one time I spend with each of them throughout the day.

*Note: I wrote this article a year ago, and am finally publishing it now, so my current learning goals are different.

1. Julian (11 Months)

Julian is the happiest little baby you’ll ever meet. He gets to have his mom at home all the time and breastfeeds on demand. After he gets lots and lots of love and cuddles from me, he loves to crawl around like crazy and explore his world. He is very fascinated by whatever his siblings are doing, and he loves chasing around our cat! He also loves watching Your Baby Can Read videos (which sadly aren’t available anymore so we are currently making our own videos) and cuddling up on my lap to read interactive books.

Julian’s Learning Goals

  • Learn about his environment
  • Crawl safely
  • Go up and down the stairs
  • Walk
  • Babble and talk
  • Learn how to make different sounds
  • Learn about the names of things that he interacts with in his environment
  • Say words
  • Turn the pages in a book
  • Interact with books
  • Grasp objects
  • Play with toys
  • Interact with others
  • Play independently

What I Can Do to Facilitate Julian’s Learning Goals

  • Babyproof the house so he can explore freely
  • Sit behind him as he learns about the stairs
  • Hold his hands to help him walk
  • Sit him on my lap and let him explore my mouth as I make exaggerated sounds
  • Have conversations with him where I speak, then pause waiting for him to speak, and so on
  • Say certain words over and over (His favorite words are clap, mouth, and daddy. I’ll say, “Clap. Clap. Can you clap your hands? Clap your hands like mommy. Good clapping Julian!” Or I’ll say, “Mouth. Mouth. Can you open your mouth? Mouth. I can open my mouth.”)
  • Talk to him about his environment, whatever we’re doing, and tell him the names of things (Check out my blog about oral language development for more tips and tricks for developing oral language.)
  • Repeat what he says
  • Watch Your Baby Can Read videos WITH him and talk to him about what is happening, use these words often when not watching the videos (Here’s a video we made to teach our children vocabulary.)
  • Sit him on my lap and read cloth books, board books, and any other kind of interactive book that he can touch and feel (Check out my blogs: How to Engage Your Baby with Reading and Best Books for Babies)
  • Help him to turn the pages of a book
  • Set up baskets of toys that he likes and can explore by himself
  • Set up furniture so it is easy for him to pull himself up to stand
  • Show him how certain toys work and play with him

2. Ophelia (2, Halfway to 3)

Ophelia needs to have her tank filled with lots of cuddles and love, but after this happens, she’s ready to be independent…extremely independent. She loves language like crazy and is already reading quite well. When she finds something that she likes to do, she will do it over and over and over again. She also loves putting things into things (like marbles into a metal tin), sorting objects, and stacking things.

Ophelia’s Learning Goals

  • Read words she knows automatically
  • Read words in sentences
  • Read words in books
  • Picture read books
  • Read flashcards independently
  • Review letter names and sounds
  • Sound out words
  • Learn new vocabulary words from her environment
  • Learn new vocabulary words that are abstract (in books, etc.)
  • Sing favorite songs and learn new songs
  • Expand her imaginative play
  • Learn Spanish words and phrases (and maybe other languages)
  • Count to 20, count higher
  • Demonstrate one to one counting principle
  • Say the names and descriptors of shapes (number of sides, etc.)
  • Do puzzles independently
  • Continue stacking and sorting
  • Color on paper with multiple colors

What I Can Do to Facilitate Ophelia’s Learning Goals

  • Make flashcard rings of words and phrases she knows
  • Make flashcard rings of words and phrases that she is learning
  • Set out her favorite books in easy to reach baskets
  • Read books with her, model picture reading, point to words as I’m reading, read simple level 1 books and point to words that she can read on her own, give wait time (You might like this blog: How Children Really Learn to Read or this one too: How to Raise Children who WANT to read.)
  • Make mini-books with her favorite words and phrases
  • Make favorite things books with lots of pictures
  • Talk to her about her world as we play together
  • Sing songs together, teach her new songs that have hand motions
  • Model imaginative play, play with her
  • Find some intro to Spanish videos to watch
  • Make counting books, practice counting objects and pointing to them
  • Make shape books with descriptors
  • Set up an independent puzzle station
  • Set up stacking cups, add some small objects like golf balls that she can put into cups
  • Color together

3. Elliot (4, Almost 5)

Elliot marches to the beat of his own drum, literally. He absolutely loves rhythm, music, dancing, and any type of music. He is very empathetic with a big heart and desperately needs his daily dose of cuddles. He has an incredible imagination and loves making toy figures come to life during imaginative play. He also loves anything that has to do with building like Legos, blocks, and especially Minecraft.

Elliot’s Learning Goals

  • Play the keyboard
  • Play the drums
  • Play on the guitar
  • Dance to music
  • Learn how to dribble a soccer ball, and shoot a basket
  • Play different games that involve lots of running and motion independently
  • Build elaborate structures with a variety of materials
  • Pick out books that he would like to read together
  • Read his favorite things books independently (picture reading, basic words)
  • Read words that he knows when we read together
  • Read simple 3 and 4 letter word flashcards
  • Read all Your Baby Can Read words
  • Read all Dolch words
  • Read simple sentences
  • Draw pictures of his choosing
  • Learn about science topics he’s interested in: dinosaurs, weather, rocks and minerals, etc.
  • Do science experiments
  • Play imagination games with elaborate and complex themes
  • Play independently with activities of his choosing for extended periods of time
  • Learn about basic math functions: Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division as well as learn a variety of math vocabulary
  • Memorize basic math facts
  • Count as high as he can
  • Count by 2s, 5s, 10s, 20s, and 100s

What I Can Do to Facilitate Elliot’s Learning Goals

  • Teach him how to play simple songs on the keyboard
  • Teach him how to read music using a color coding system
  • Teach him how to play drum beats using both hands and a foot for the bass drum
  • Teach him how to make different guitar sounds
  • Set up music playlists that he likes to dance to, have dance parties
  • Do yoga, play basketball, play soccer, fly a kite, play tag, run races…anything to help him move
  • Show him how to use different building materials (Big Legos, small Legos, wooden blocks, small colored blocks, K’nex, etc.) to make new and elaborate structures
  • Make sure his favorite books are accessible in our book baskets
  • Set aside time to cuddle up and read his favorite books
  • Work on his favorite things book
  • Make flashcards with his favorite characters and add little phrases for each one that he can read
  • Cut up flashcards with pictures on one side and 3-4 letter words on the other, practice reading, play little games like flipping them over, putting them on my head, etc. (or something like this)
  • Quiz him on Your Baby Can Read words
  • Practice Dolch word flashcards
  • When reading together, pause and let him read the words he knows
  • Read Basher books together and make the characters talk to him
  • Encourage him to draw pictures using a variety of colors, draw together, print out and color his favorite things together
  • Play imagination games with him, introduce new problems and solutions, new characters, new settings, use props, etc.
  • Play board games together, let him make up whatever rules he wants
  • Do science experiments together, start with vinegar and baking soda ones and move on to others, find some online, Usborne Science Experiments book
  • Play Starfall math during breakfast time, let him choose whatever he wants to do and talk to him about what he is doing (Here’s a video of us doing Starfall Math together.)
  • Quiz him with math flashcards
  • Find times to count throughout the day

Ruby (Just Turned 6)

Like Ophelia, Ruby also started reading at a very young age, and now in 1st grade, she is reading at a 3rd grade level. Being able to read really helps her to do many different independent projects. She likes getting really deep into a certain show (right now it’s Digimon) and then printing out pictures, writing stories, and making drawings with that theme. She is very creative and crafty and she is always working on drawing, art projects, and a variety of crafts. She is also really fascinated by science. My mom talked to her about biology from a young age, and I have fed her curiosity ever since.

Ruby’s Learning Goals

  • Find and read beginning chapter books on her own
  • Comprehend longer texts
  • Write complete sentences
  • Write a paragraph
  • Make mini books
  • Make Digimon books
  • Create a variety of craft projects
  • Color using a variety of mediums and styles
  • Free draw using drawing templates
  • Complete needlepoint projects
  • Learn about meiosis and mitosis
  • Learn about biology, chemistry, and any science topic she is interested in

What I Can Do to Facilitate Ruby’s Learning Goals

  • Take her to the library and show her how to pick out beginning chapter books
  • Encourage independent reading during “rest time”
  • Read chapter books together and talk about the story
  • Sit with her while she’s writing to encourage her to write more about a single topic
  • Make more blank mini books and write stories together
  • Make Digimon favorite things books together
  • Find drawing videos and drawing templates for Digimon characters and draw with her
  • Teach her how to free draw by erasing and adding more
  • Sit with her while she does needlepoint so that she doesn’t get frustrated and give up
  • Make a new YouTube Channel for the science topics she wants to learn about
  • Make mini-books about the science topics she is interested in, print out pictures and leave room for her to write about what she is learning

In Conclusion

I know that children are children and should have the freedom to explore nature, use their imaginations, be wild and free, and to even yes…get bored. But their brains are growing at a rapid rate (especially until the age of 3), and by the time they enter school, the pathways of their brains are established and ready to be specialized. By constantly and consistently nurturing them with new learning opportunities from a young age that match their strengths, interests, and developmental levels, we can give them the best chance to reach their fullest potential in life.

And let me make it very clear that I am not suggesting learning goals as a way to make our children academically superior (although they probably will be), I am advocating for them because children actually LOVE to be challenged, they love to learn, and they love to be engaged, especially when it means that they get to spend more time with their favorite person in the world…you!

Embracing Motherhood Should We Homeschool Our Children?

Should We Homeschool Our Children?

Many times I have wondered if homeschooling would be for me. With my experience as a classroom teacher, my Master’s degree in Language Acquisition (basically), and my own experience being homeschooled from 2nd – 8th grade, it has always just seemed like something that in the back of my mind I thought I would do. But with two little ones close in age (1 and 2) and two older ones (5 and 6) who needed lots of guidance, it has never seemed possible. Until now…

Our oldest daughter, Ruby, is 6 years old, in the first grade, and loves school. She loves recess and her weekly show and tell, but I feel like there is so much more academically that I could be doing with her at home. But then I am nagged by the social piece. When would she interact with others? How would she make friends? And the other nagging question,”Could I do it?”

As I contemplate whether or not homeschooling would work for us, here’s a list of my pros and cons.

Pros of Homeschooling:

1. I would get to be with all of my kids as much as possible. They grow up so fast, and I want to be there for as many of the moments as I can.

2. I would know exactly how they spend their days. Whenever I ask Ruby about her day, it’s like pulling teeth. I have to go through each subject and each time of day just to try to elicit the smallest response.

3. I am totally qualified to do this! Not only did I teach for 8 years and get my Master’s degree in Education, but I loved it as well! In my heart and soul, I am a teacher. Who better to teach than my own children?

4. I could make sure they learn everything right the first time. The other day, I noticed that Ruby makes a few of her letters in a really backwards and random fashion, and I just thought, I was not the one to teach her how to make her letters. Now, I am sitting side by side with Elliot working through every letter, and we’ll get it right the first time around.

5. They could work at their own pace without competing with others. Ruby is really struggling with her addition facts right now. We continue to try to work on the concept of addition at home, but there’s only so much time in a day. At school, they keep giving her these weekly timed tests that are causing her a lot of anxiety. If she were at home, I would be able to work with her as long as she needed in the areas where she struggles, and zoom through the areas she’s good in.

6. I could differentiate every subject as needed. Ruby is a very advanced reader, but she still spends just as much time as all of the other kids learning about phonics. Sure, she may have chapter books for homework, but there is a lot of wasted time in her day where she is “learning” things that are way too easy. At home, I could make sure that all subjects were in the zone of proximal development for all of my children.

7. I could choose my own resources. I would be able to pick and choose whichever resources seemed exciting to me, and whatever I thought would meet the specific needs of each of my children.

8. They would maintain their innocence. Here’s an example of what I mean by that. It was spirit week awhile back and everyone had to wear a Christmas hat one day. We didn’t have a Santa hat, but I had Ruby try on one of Scott’s old Christmas stockings on as a hat. It looked like a cute little elf hat, and she loved it. Sometimes her school posts pictures to a closed group on FaceBook throughout the day of what’s going on, and my husband and I both noticed a picture of Ruby’s class that day with Ruby sitting in the back, head down, and no stocking hat. I asked her about it at the end of the day, and she said that kids were teasing her for her hat because it was really just a stocking. It really hurt her feelings. Not only that, but her teacher told me after school that day that I might want to work with her on addition problems with three sums because she had kind of a melt down when doing them that day. She just took a test where she aced addition problems with three sums, but the teacher had no idea that her meltdown was really because she had been teased about the stocking cap,and her feelings were hurt. I know I can’t protect my children from everything, but that doesn’t mean that I need to throw them to the wolves either.

9. They wouldn’t feel as much pressure to conform. On more than one occasion, I have had to talk to Ruby about being more of a follower than a leader in order to fit in, and when I say it out loud, it just sounds ridiculous. For example, during spirit week, everyone had to wear their holiday best. Ruby proudly wore her big beautiful poofy dress from her grandma. She felt beautiful and she loved it, but when I was in the classroom teaching an art class that afternoon, I heard several girls make comments like, “Ruby’s dress is soooo big!” (And not in a fascinated complimentary way, but in an unflattering questioning way.) These comments haven’t changed her as a person yet…but how long until they do?

10. We could accomplish way more in a day than is possible at school. With 28 kids in a classroom of varying abilities, transition times, lunch time, two recesses, busy work, behavior management, and so on, I know from experience that the amount of actual learning in a 7 hour school day could easily be done in 2 hours at home. That would allow me to get through all of the standards and skills with plenty of time for free exploration, imagination games, outside time, crafts, field trips, and more!

11. Their tanks would be full of love. When Ruby comes home from school, decompresses, does her homework, plays with her siblings, and has some choice time, there is very little time that we actually get to spend with her. What will life be like when all four kids are in school? How would we ever be able to fill all of their tanks with love? If they are all at home with me all day, however, I can parcel out special one on one time for each child throughout the day.

12. They would learn from each other. Yes, there are varying abilities in any classroom, but in a homeschool environment with siblings ranging in age, the younger ones can learn from the older ones and the older ones can learn from teaching the younger ones.

13. I’m here anyways! I am going to be home anyways with Julian for the next five years, so why not throw a few more kids into the mix while I can!

14. We wouldn’t waste time driving. Because we go to a school of choice, it’s a 20 minute drive each way. Without that drive, Scott could save an hour during the mornings when he usually drives her to school, and I wouldn’t have to disrupt naps and such to get her in the afternoon. We would also save on gas. (Although we would probably drive just as much going on field trips!)

15. We could take vacations whenever we wanted. Instead of worrying about the school schedule, we would be able to make vacation time happen whenever we wanted.

16. My heart is telling me to homeschool. In my heart of hearts, this just feels like the right decision, but I want to make a decision that is best for our whole family and equally consider everyone’s needs.

Cons of Homeschooling:

1. Public school provides a big social scene. Ruby loves recess and doing her weekly sharing time. At school, she gets to be a part of a group where they have PE, music, concerts, group activities, field trips, and more. There aren’t any homeschool groups in our area right now, and if we wanted a social group, we would have to create one.

2. School has introduced new things. In kindergarten, Ruby really took off with writing more than I was ever able to do with her at home. This year, she learned about Pixie 4 in her computer class, started reading chapter books, and gets excited about taking care of the Earth or whatever else they are learning about.

3. Ruby’s special time with daddy in the morning. Right now, Ruby enjoys breakfast with daddy and they listen to a book on tape on their way to school. This is very special time for them.

4. Would I have enough time for everyone? Ruby likes to do a lot of intricate projects that require a lot of help from me. In doing these projects with her, I’m not able to spend as much time with the younger kids who need me too. I’m just worried that if I were to homeschool, there just wouldn’t be enough of me to go around.

5. One day our kids will be out in the world, shouldn’t we prepare them for it? Being independent, being autonomous, being on their own, learning how the world works…these are all things that public schools help to teach our children. How young do children need to learn this, however, and/or do they?

6. Would I get stir crazy? I kind of enjoy getting out of the house to get Ruby every day, and I like being a part of the school community and going to math nights and school carnivals. Although, I must say that I have tried to get involved in the PTO, and it’s the same story as the last school. Everything is decided by the committee, and you can come to meetings to see what they’re up to, but they’re not looking for any real input from anyone.

7. It would cost some money. Workbooks alone would be about $50/child (just stuff I found on Amazon to cover the basics at this point), if we wanted to get involved in any Koinonia classes, they are about $200/each, and then there’s all of the extra materials that I might need to do science experiments and such, not to mention field trips, and so on.

8. When I was homeschooled, I missed the social interaction and wanted to go back to public school. I was homeschooled from 2nd – 7th grade and went back to public school in the 8th grade. When I was in 6th grade, I really started missing the social interactions, but when I went back to school, I was just too innocent and it was not a positive experience for me at all (lots of bullying). So, then the question becomes, “Do we prepare our children for the social pressures of middle and high school by exposing them to it from a young age, or if we homeschool, is it possible to provide them enough social interaction so that they don’t feel like they’re missing out?”

9. What if they complain? What if I work really hard to get materials, books, and supplies, set up a routine, and get everything all into place only to have them whine and complain about it? I imagine that I would just keep going back to the drawing board until I got it right, but it could be frustrating.

10. What if they spend too much time in front of a screen? I plan on having a pretty set routine that wouldn’t allow for too much screen time (pretty much like we do now, but a little stricter, like no choice time until after lunch), but what if I’m up late in the night with little ones, or feeling sick, or have too many things piling up?

11. Will Elliot be able to get his energy out? To be honest, I’ve kind of been looking forward to Elliot going to school because it’s hard to keep him busy all day, especially during these cold winter months when the little ones are sick and we’re not going outside much. We’ve talked so much about kindergarten next year so much that Elliot is actually really excited to go to the same school as Ruby.

12. Ruby doesn’t want to homeschool. I thought that once I talked to her about homeschooling, she would be really excited about it and want to switch right away, but that hasn’t been the case. She is too into the routine of it. Some people have recommended “deschooling”. If I want to give her a fair choice, I’m really going to have to show her the fun of homeschool, the social opportunities, and the benefits of it before she can really decide. Ultimately though, if she’s not excited about it, I don’t think it would work.

In Conclusion

It really comes down to the fact that if I were to homeschool our kids, I would be able to provide them with better academic support, but I wouldn’t be able to provide all of the social opportunities that school provides. What do you think? Have you ever weighed the pros and cons of homeschooling?

Stay tuned to see what we choose!

Embracing Motherhood Best Teaching Apps for Preschoolers

Best Teaching Apps for Young Children (Ages 0-6)

With these apps, these YouTube playlists, some simple flashcards, and a library card, you can teach your little ones to read, write, do basic math, and basically know everything they need to know for kindergarten. Children’s brains are primed and ready for learning at a young age…much earlier than we would think. They crave stimulation, they love learning, and they need to be challenged in their zone of proximal development. Our youngest daughter is full on reading at the ripe old age of two, and these apps definitely played a role in that (among other things).

In my opinion, most of the good apps out there are designed specifically for iOS devices, and I have made a note for each app that can only be used on an iOS device. I know the price tag on Android devices can be tempting, but if you want to have access to the most and the best apps, I highly recommend getting an ipad (like this ipad 4 for $345 or an ipad mini 1 for $235) over any other tablet.

It can be somewhat challenging to teach a youngster how to use a touch screen at first. If your child is struggling with the concept of a touch screen, one of the things I have done is opened up the Starfall site on a computer and had the children touch the screen (pretending that it was a touch screen) while I controlled things with my mouse (hidden away of course). The best thing to do though, is to just sit down and play the games together. I recommend doing this anyways with all new games until they are familiar enough with them to play them on their own.

So without further adieu, these are the apps that I have used to teach my children the fundamentals of reading, math, and more.

Best Apps for Preschoolers

1. Starfall ABCs (Free)

If you only get one app, get this one! It covers all of the letters of the alphabet (names and sounds) in one fell swoop. (Unlike ABC mouse that focuses too much on one letter at a time in isolation.) When you click on a letter, it shows both the upper and lowercase versions while saying their names. When you click on the letters, they say their letter sound, and then you click the green arrow to progress through a series of examples showing things that start with that letter along with simple and engaging animations.

Starfall ABC App

Starfall ABC App

The simplicity of the app is absolutely beautiful, and I love the way kids have to click various things to progress things along. Unlike a YouTube video (which can be great too), this gets kids engaged every step of the way. I love how there are little sparkles around where the child needs to touch (or click on a computer). It’s a very good way to teach children how to use touch screens.

Other Starfall Apps:

  • Starfall (Free): This is basically an app giving you access to the entire Starfall website. If you have a membership ($35/year and something I highly recommend), then you’ll have access to everything on the website (including the content of every app). But even without a membership, you can get limited access which will give you a pretty good idea of what’s on the site. I personally prefer using the entire site on the computer and paying for the apps.

    starfall app

    Starfall App

  • Starfall Numbers ($4.99): The layout of this app is very similar to the ABC app. There are numbers 1-20 (plus 25, 50, and 100) plus 7 interactive learning activities that have to do with counting, weight, money, and addition. When you click on a number, it says the number, and shows its quantity. Then you press the green arrow to see a series of examples showing that number. This app does an amazing job of teaching number names and quantities which are the foundations of math just as the ABCs are for reading.

    starfall numbers app

    Starfall Numbers App

  • Starfall All About Me ($1.99): Children get to design their character to look like them and then select categories such as, “Where do I sleep? What will I wear? Who am I? What is my pet? and Which is my toy?” My kids LOVE playing this game because they are very connected to the personalized content. I love the sentences where you have to fill in the blank with a single word that is personified by a corresponding image. It is a great pre-reading strategy!

    starfall all about me

    Starfall All About Me App

  • Starfall Learn to Read ($1.99): This is basically a collection of mini books sorted by vowel patterns. Each book starts with a little clip of how to pronounce the focused letter sound, and then you select the green arrow to progress through the pages. There’s a little ear you can press that will read the text out loud. For each page, you can tap the screen to facilitate some sort of movement. There are also eight “mini-lessons” on the bottom that teach additional reading skills.

    starfall learn to read

    Starfall Learn to Read App

  • Starfall I’m Reading ($1.99): This app has tons of books sorted by genre with plenty of interesting titles. Unlike the website version, this app automatically reads the text while highlighting what is being read in red.

    starfall I'm reading app

    Starfall I’m Reading App

2. Endless Alphabet ($4.99)

This app (and the other Endless apps) are designed for a bit of an older child than the Starfall apps, but I love introducing my children to higher level content with some guidance. This app does a wonderful job of teaching not only letter sounds, but how letters come together to form words, and what those words mean.

endless alphabet alphabetical order

Endless Alphabet App

When you open this app, you’ll find a variety of vocabulary words sorted alphabetically. After you select one, you first have to spell it by dragging the letters to their shadow (each letter is personified and makes its sound as you move it), then the meaning of the word is acted out by cute little characters that look they have been hand drawn on lined paper. This is very entertaining app, and all of our children have loved it!

Other Endless Apps:

  • Endless Reader (Free with in-app purchases): All words are sorted alphabetically, and just like in Endless Alphabet, you drag the letters to make a word.  Then you put the word (and sometimes other words) into a sentence, and the cute little characters act out the sentence. This is a fabulous app and teaching tool to help children learn how to read. I love it! It comes with six free words, and then it costs $5.99 to buy the Reader Pack 1 which has 20 words, $11.99 to buy each additional Reader Pack of 1-4, 5-8, or 9-12, or you can pay $29.99 to buy all of the packs.

    endless reader app image

    Endless Reader App

  • Endless Wordplay (Free with in-app purchases): This game really focuses on spelling because (unlike the other Endless apps) you have to spell the words in order. Each spelling lesson focuses on a certain pattern and the words you spell come to life with a cute little animation. You progress through each lesson on a large board that makes progression fun. It comes with 9 free words, then it costs $6.99 to buy the starter pack of 90 words, $11.99 to buy the remaining words, or $14.99 to buy all of the words. *This app is only available for iOS devices.

    endless wordplay

    Endless Wordplay App

  • Endless Numbers (Free with in-app purchase): When you click on a number, you first have to drag the number to its shadow (as you drag each number, it comes to life and says its name), then there’s a simple addition problem, and a cute little animation that shows the number. It comes with five free numbers, then it costs $6.99 for a starter pack of numbers 1-25, $11.99 for the remaining numbers, and $14.99 to buy all 100 numbers.

    endless numbers

    Endless Numbers App

  • Endless Spanish (Free with in-app purchase): This app is set up like Endless Reader where you select a word from an alphabetical list, drag the letters to spell the word, and then put the word (and other words) into a sentence that comes to life as cute little characters act out the sentence. It comes with six free words, then it costs $5.99 for a starter pack and $11.99 for all words. I love introducing young children to other languages when their brains are super open to it. *This app is only available for iOS devices.

    endless spanish

    Endless Spanish App

3. Easy Music ($3.99)

Just like learning to speak, learning to read, and learning how to do math, there is a logical progression to learning music. This app teaches notes, pitch, rhythm, and melody using beautiful landscapes and peaceful sounds. In one section, you can practice these music skills and in another you can make and record your own musical ensembles.

easy music app

Easy Music

Other Edoki Academy Games:

  • Montessori 1st Operations ($3.99) – Using simple graphics and easy to maneuver interactive features, this app teaches basic addition, subtraction, and doubles and halves. There are three different methods of practice in each category that are very good at teaching the core concepts. Every problem you get right gives you a point and you use your points to build a monster.

    montessori first operations

    Montessori 1st Operations

  • Zen Studio (Free, $1.99 to unlock all templates): Using a grid divided into triangles, you swipe your finger across either a boundless canvas or guided templates using a variety of colors to make different pictures. Relaxing music accompanies each stroke of the finger.

    zen studio main page

    Zen Studio

  • Crazy Gears ($2.99) – A puzzle game that allows you to manipulate colorful gears, chains, rods, and pulleys to pull yourself through each level. Each reasoning challenge was carefully designed to lay the foundation for careers in things like mathematician, computer scientist, and programmer.

    crazy gears

    Crazy Gears

  • The Sight Word Adventure ($1.99) –  Using 320 sight words (based on Dolch and Fry lists) spread across five levels in 10 different mini games (that focus specifically on hide-and-seek),this app is great for giving repeated exposure to sight words.

    the sight word adventure

    The Sight Word Adventure

  • Busy Shapes ($2.99) – This is really designed for a toddler and does an excellent job of teaching shapes, their relation to other objects, colors, and is a good intro for learning how to use a touch screen.

    busy shapes

    Busy Shapes

4. Montessori Crosswords ($2.99)

This game is GREAT for teaching phonics! You can choose from one of 44 sound clusters (i.e. short a, long e, oo sound, etc.) or from the other four word series of increasing phonetic difficulty (simple words with three sounds, words with consonant blends, words with digraphs, or words of any complexity).

montessori crosswords app screen shot

Montessori Crosswords App

When you choose a category, a picture pops up next to the number of boxes needed to spell the word. The word is spoken and the alphabet is listed below (all of the vowels are blue and the rest of the letters are red). The letters needed to spell the word are highlighted, and the other letters are faded. You drag the letters to spell the word and it is sounded out and read out loud. As you transition to the next word, you get to tap the screen and interact with some fun animation. My kids don’t usually enjoy playing this game on their own. It is more of a teaching tool that we sit down and use together.

Other Montessori Apps:

  • Montessori Numbers ($2.99): This app is great for teaching the association between numbers with the quantity they represent. It also helps to teach the decimal system and place value. There is even a place to trace numbers. *This app is only available for iOS devices.

    montessori numbers

    Montessori Numbers App

  • Word Wizard ($4.99): A talking movable alphabet in this app allows you to experiment with phonics and word building. It has three spelling activities that increase in difficulty, 184 built in word lists (about 1,800 words), and you can add your own words to create unique spelling quizzes. *This app is only available for iOS devices.

    montessori word wizard

    Montessori Word Wizard App

  • Writing Wizard ($2.99): This is a WONDERFUL letter tracing app that keeps kids engaged the whole time. As you trace uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers, and words a fun moving rainbow trail emerges. There are a lot of letter tracing apps out there, and this is one of my favorites!

    montessori writing wizard

    Montessori Writing Wizard App

5. Talking ABCs ($2.99)

This is a great app for teaching letter names! Every letter that you select is molded into a creature that starts with that letter. It is surprisingly mesmerizing to watch.

talking abcs

Talking ABCs App

When you press play, it brings you to the letter A, then you can swipe to the left to go through the whole alphabet or go back to the main menu. It also has four different games (find the letter, find the animal, spell a word, and puzzle) and an autoplay feature that will automatically progress through all of the letters. You can also get this app in Russian. *This app is only available for iOS devices.

6. Metamorphabet ($3.99)

This is an app that will not only teach the ABCs and alphabet vocabulary, but is something that will unlock a certain whimsical wonder in the mind of all users young and old alike.

metamorphabet

Metamorphabet App

The adventure begins with all of the letters on the main screen. When you select a letter, say A for example, every tap of the finger brings about another action. After several movements, the letter name is said and with each subsequent tap it moves a little more and one by one more vocabulary words are revealed such as antlers, arch, and amble. To go to the next letter, you click on the star in the top right hand corner to go to the next letter or you can click the shapes in the top left corner to go back to the main screen. Metamorphabet contains NO in-app purchases. *Available on iOS devices and PCs only.

7. Storybots ABCs (Free…)

This is basically just a collection of all of the Storybots ABC songs. Each song is about one minute long and cute little robots sing about each letter of the alphabet. In the app, you can select a letter from the main menu, or just progress through the letters alphabetically.

storybots

Storybots App

You can also download this app that will give you access to all of their learning videos. The only problem is that these apps were free when I downloaded them awhile ago, but now it seems that you have to pay a $4.99/mo. membership fee which I don’t think is worth it at all. In doing so, so will get access to all of their printables too though which is nice. If you don’t want to pay the membership fee, just check out these playlists on YouTube…for free! *These apps are only available on iOS devices.

8. Dora’s Skywriting ABCs ($3.99)

If your child likes Dora, these apps will be a winner for sure! If not, you might want to skip them. 🙂

dora abc

Dora’s Skywriting ABCs App

In the uppercase, lowercase, and uppercase and lowercase letter games, you use Tico’s airplane to get nuts and trace the letters. Writing letters is more of an advanced skill, so this might be better for the older preschooler. I really like the letter and picture match game the best. In this game, you have to find the pictures that start with the featured letter. *All of the Dora apps are only available on iOS devices.

Other Dora Apps:

  • Dora’s Rhyming Word Adventure ($2.99): In this game, you match pictures that rhyme. Besides rhyming words, there are first sounds, last sounds, and inside sounds to match in different levels.

    dora's rhyming word adventure

    Dora’s Rhyming Word Adventure

  • Dora Hops Into Phonics ($2.99): To play, you have to match pictures with words, change one letter to make a new word, and then make Dora hop across the lily pads. There are also cute little game break games to play along the way.

    dora hops into phonics

    Dora Hops Into Phonics

  • Dora’s Dress Up Adventures ($2.99): In this simple app, you can change the background, dress Dora, and add a variety of props. For kids who enjoy Dora, this is really fun.

    dora's dress up adventure

    Dora’s Dress Up Adventure

  • Dora’s Ballet Adventures ($2.99): This is basically like a really interactive book. The words are highlighted as Dora reads them, and you get to do all sorts of actions.

    dora's ballet adventure

    Dora’s Ballet Adventure

Honorable Mentions

For the remaining apps, I didn’t want to do a full on review, because I think that the six apps and their affiliates that I’ve covered above are more than you’ll ever need, but these are apps that we have downloaded and enjoyed as well.

In Conclusion

If you use these educational apps in moderation as a teaching tool for your children, it can greatly enhance their learning experience. Teaching your child at home doesn’t have to be overwhelming and you don’t have to wait until they are in kindergarten to teach them how to read. With these apps, these YouTube playlists, a $35 Starfall membership, and a library card, you can teach your children everything they need to know…and more!

For more resources, check out my blog about tips, tricks and resources for teaching the ABCs here, or my blog about how we’ve taught our two year old to read here.

You also might like checking out some of my other favorite resources that I use to teach my children. These are affiliate links, so if you purchase any of these items, I will receive a small “finder’s fee” percentage. You, however, will pay no more than if you were to do a regular Amazon search.

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

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

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

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

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Front of the Room Teacher Station

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Looking Out the Windows in My Classroom

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Looking Towards the Back of My Classroom

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The Back Corner of My Classroom

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Chalkboard Area in My Classroom

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Learning Wall

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Vocabulary Wall and Plants

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My Students Learning with Laptops

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Kids Working with Pattern Blocks

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My Mom Dissecting Hearts with My Students

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Dressing Up for a Reader’s Theater Play

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

1. Organization Behind the Scenes

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

kids playing with creative manipulatives at a moments notice

Creative Play at a Moment’s Notice

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

Organized Cupboards Filled with Learning Supplies

Organized Cupboards Filled with Learning Supplies

2. Decide Which Supplies to Make Accessible

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

organized table with craft supplies

Organized Homeschool Table

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

computer table and shelves organized with learning supplies for kids

Shelves Organized with Learning Supplies

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

3. Create Learning Stations at Tables

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

kitchen table with learning placements and activity bins

Our Kitchen Table

kids using dry erase boards at the kitchen table

Kids Working at Our Kitchen Table

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

Little Kid Table in the Kitchen

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

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

Coffee Table Learning Station

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

Coffee Table Learning Station

homemade table magnet learning station

Magnet Station at the Little Homemade Table

Play-Doh Station at a Little Homemade Table

Play-Doh Station at the Little Homemade Table

Write On Wipe Off Station at the Little Table

Write On Wipe Off Station at the Little Table

toddler pouring water using little fancy cups

Indoor Water Pouring Station

toddler stacking at a coffee table learning station

Ophelia Stacking Letters at a Coffee Table Learning Station

4. Tips for Creating Learning Stations

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

toddler standing and Coloring at a Little Coffee Table Learning Station

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

child Sitting and Writing at a Little Coffee Table Learning Station

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

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

5. Create Stations on the Floor That Facilitate Imaginative Play

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

Little Bins of Toys Neatly Organized in Every Room

Little Bins of Toys Neatly Organized in Every Room

child playing with little figures and a batman house

Imaginative Play with a Housing Type Structure

Play Area with a Dollhouse and Little Figures

Play Area with a Dollhouse and Little Figures

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

A Road Rug Defines this Play Space

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

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

treehouse used for imaginative play

This Type of Housing Structure is Perfect for Imaginative Play

little toy figures used in imaginative play

A Bin of Little Figure Toys Perfect for Imaginative Play

6. Create a Dress Up Station for Role Playing

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

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

Little Hat Station Tucked in the Corner of a Closet

dress up costumes for a boy

Superhero Dress Up Clothes

7. Tips for Organizing Toys

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

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

little bin to organize little figure toys

Little Figures Organized in a Bin

baby toys organized in a box

Baby Toys Organized in a Box

8. Create Comfortable Reading Stations

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

books being sorted into different baskets for kids to read

Reorganizing Kid Books into Various Baskets

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

This Little Couch Gets a Lot of Use

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

Accessible Books get Read Independently

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Reading Before Bed is a Special Nightly Routine

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

Little Chairs and a Basket of Books

9. Use Your Walls

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

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Letter Magnets on the Fridge get Used all the Time

Flashcards Taped on the Dresser and the Wall

Flashcards Taped on the Dresser and the Wall

hand made alphabet poster on the refrigerator

Using Chart Paper to Make My Own Posters

10. Rearrange As Needed

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

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

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

All Together in One Room

All Together in One Room

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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