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A Word Coloring Pre-Reading Activity

Coloring Over Words Pre-Reading Activity

I love getting out large pieces of paper, writing words and pictures on them, and have my toddlers and preschoolers color over them. This is a great pre-reading activity that helps children to memorize words (which is a much bigger part of learning to read than most people think). Best of all, it’s so easy to set up and do!

I have done different versions of this activity with every one of my children, and it has been a HUGE part of what has helped them to all start reading at very young ages.

Materials Needed

  • Paper – You can use rolls of paper, large sheets, smaller sheets, or even just plain computer paper. You can also do this activity using a spiral notebook or composition notebook so that you can save all of your drawings to read later.
  • Markers – I love buying markers like these in bulk when it’s back to school season. You can also use crayons or colored pencils, but markers require less effort for little hands and produce a very satisfying line.
  • Stickers – I love getting the big Melissa and Doug sticker set like this and this. You get a lot of stickers for $5/book, and the kids love them.
  • *Write-On Wipe Off Books – I have tried many different write-on wipe-off books, and the ones by Priddy Books are by far the best. (Don’t forget some Expo markers.) Little ones don’t need to be ready to write their letters to enjoy coloring in these books. My toddlers and preschoolers love coloring over the letters, pictures, and words and this is another great way to get children familiar with their ABCs andto learn more vocabulary.

Directions

    1. Write a smattering of short and familiar words on the paper. I like to use words that reflect their interests, but start each child with many of the same basic words like: hi, clap, wave, cat, dog, sun, bus, car, etc. (You can always type “teaching three letter words” into Google to get more ideas for words to use and resources like this as well.)
    2. Draw little pictures next to some of the words. When a word is new, I like to draw a little picture next to it. Many times I’ll even choose words based on how easy the picture would be to draw! But then after they are familiar with the word, I don’t draw the picture every time so that they can memorize the word without the visual aid.
    3. Keep writing while they color. My little ones love coloring side by side with me. I don’t typically prepare these ahead of time (unless I’m holding a baby and trying to video record at the same time), but rather we do it together. Sometimes we’ll work on the same sheet and other times they’ll color one while I prepare another.
    4. Write down names of family members. Even though names are typically longer and have more complicated spelling patterns, these are among some of the first words my little ones are able to read. In addition to the names of family members, you could also include their ages, relation (brother, sister, cousin, etc.), favorite color, girl/boy, etc.
    5. Write down letters, numbers, shapes, and colors. Children who have a strong understanding of these basic concepts will have a very strong foundation in the basics needed to succeed in preschool and kindergarten. Some of my children like seeing the whole alphabet written out, others just like a smattering of letters and the same goes with the other categories as well.
    6. Use stickers for a treat. Every so often, I like to mix things up with stickers. After putting the sticker on the paper, I will label it.
    7. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I am a big believer in following a child’s lead, and so I like to do this activity whenever my child shows an interest. This might mean we’ll do it every day or only a couple of times a month. Right now, Julian(2) LOVES coloring and so we do this activity often. I use the same words over and over again until he has mastered them or loses interest, and then I’ll cycle in new words.

Here’s a video of Julian coloring some words that I have prepared.

In Conclusion

This activity seems so simple and so easy it’s like, why even write a blog about it? But I’m telling you, it is PROFOUND in helping children learning how to read.

Not only that, but it is a fun and special bonding time between you and your child where you’re working together, sitting side by side, having little conversations, learning about his or her specific interests, practicing the fine motor skills necessary to hold a writing utensil, and having fun!

We get so busy as parents, that doing an activity like this allows for a moment in a hectic day where you can teach, bond, and build memories together, and what could be better than that?

Coloring Station

Coloring Station

Coloring Stickers

Coloring Stickers

Coloring Write-On Wipe-Off Books

Coloring Write-On Wipe-Off Books

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.
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 My Favorite Preschool Playlists on YouTube

My Favorite YouTube Playlists for Teaching Kids Ages 0-6

These are our favorite playlists that we have used with our four children (currently ages 1-6)  to help them learn the basics such as their letter names, letter sounds, numbers, shapes, colors, nursery rhymes, and more. The repetition of the songs combined with the simple and engaging graphics in these videos have helped our children to develop oral language which is a precursor to learning how to read.

I absolutely love using technology to help our children learn! Some people don’t think that children under 2 should be watching any sort of TV at all, but I strongly disagree. Check out my blog about why I don’t think we should ban screen time for young children AT ALL here. Basically, if you’re using technology to teach, if you’re watching it with your children before you leave them to watch it alone, and if you’re purposeful about how you use it, technology can be an amazing tool that really benefits young children and helps their brains to develop neural pathways that will help them to be more prone to learning in the future.

*Keep in mind that these playlists (and technology in general) are just one modality of teaching. Kids benefit from many other strategies as well. Check out my blog: How Children Really Learn to Read to see how all of these parts come together.

The Right Set Up

You can certainly show your children these playlists on any computer, but for an optimal viewing experience, I recommend connecting your TV to your computer to use the following playlists (and to become more purposeful about what you watch).

  1. Connect Your TV to a Computer (or Laptop): Basically, you can connect your computer or laptop to your TV using an HDMI cable. Read more about how to do this here and what other resources we like watching instead of cable TV here.
  2. Download the Chrome Browser: The reason why you want this browser is so that you can download Ad Blocker (which I’ll get to next). I also like it because I can customize it with my favorite bookmarks and have it look the same on all of our computers and devices. This is especially helpful for the kids once they learn how to navigate computers on their own. Click here to download the Chrome browser.
  3. Download Ad Blocker: Without Ad Blocker, this whole playlist plan just doesn’t really work. The reason why I like my kids watching playlists custom designed for their interests and needs is that unlike TV, they aren’t getting bombarded with commercials. When we’ve had Ad Blocker off, it’s really a horrible experience because some commercials go on for 30 minutes if you don’t hit “skip this ad”. So without any further adieu, download Ad Blocker here.

How to Save Playlists

Before I share my favorite playlists with you, here are the steps you’ll need to follow to save them.

  1. Make a YouTube Account: In order to save any playlists, you first of all need to have a Google account. (Get one here.) Then, you use that to create your own YouTube account where you can subscribe to your favorite channels, upload your own videos, save playlists, and create playlists.
  2. Finding Playlists: You can certainly just use my playlist recommendations, but if you find a single video that your child really likes, type the maker of that video plus “playlist” into the YouTube search. Sometimes I’ll just play the longest playlist and sometimes I’ll select the playlist from the maker of the videos. These playlists are typically more up to date and predictable with their content than a random user who creates them.
  3. Save a Playlist: Once you  click on a playlist that you like and want to save, look in the top right hand corner for a plus button. Once you select it, it will turn into a check. Now you can go to your channel, look under “saved playlists” and you can see all of the playlists you’ve saved.
  4. Subscribe: Instead of saving all of your favorite playlists, you might just want to subscribe to the channels that you really like. Look under the “playlists” tab of your favorite channels, and browse the playlists they’ve created.

My Favorite Preschool Playlists

There are a TON of resources on YouTube that you can use to help your child learn, and I don’t presume to have found the be all and end all of all learning videos online. The important thing is to find videos that resonate with you and your children. I find it helpful to always watch videos WITH my children repeatedly before letting them watch them on their own. This way, I can determine what they like, help them to decipher and interact with them, and make sure there is nothing inappropriate or confusing.

These are the playlists that our children have been mesmerized by, learned from, and the ones I haven’t minded having on in the background on a regular basis.

1. Kids TV 123

This educational playlist of songs about the letter names and sounds, basic counting, brushing your teeth, animal sounds, planets and more has been ridiculously popular with all of our young children. (It has been especially helpful with teaching our children their letter names and sounds.) The animations are very simple and everything is personified with little sets of eyes, arms and legs.

kidstv123 youtube web pic

The elusive creator A. J. Jenkins (read an interesting article about him here) records simple songs with just his voice, guitar, and sometimes keyboard and light percussion that are very cute and catchy. Go here for all of his playlists and here for some free printables that go along with the videos.

2. Super Simple Songs

The team over at Super Simple Learning have done an amazing job of creating videos designed to help children develop oral language. These videos are specifically designed to help children who are learning English as another language and who are special needs, but they are amazing for all young children! Most of the songs encourage movement and motions and our children love watching these videos over and over and over again. (*We have a shortcut to this playlist on our desktop and watch it every single night as a part of our bedtime routine.)

super simple songs

Our children have all especially loved this Twinkle Twinkle Little Star video, and my dad loves using it to calm down little ones and help them fall asleep. Last I checked, this video had over 500 million views! Go here to see all of their playlists and here to download TONS of free printable resources such as coloring pages and flashcards.

3. Storybots

These cute little robots and catchy songs aren’t just good, they’re great! The music is very well produced with kind of a Beatles rock n’ roll feel to them, the lyrics are clever and well thought out, and they have been VERY captivating for our young children. They have songs about letters, numbers, shapes, planets, professions, behaviors, emotions, and more that are educational and fun!

storybots

Unlike the first two playlists I’ve recommended, this one doesn’t have an “All Videos” playlist. Maybe someday I’ll create one (or maybe you can!), but for now, here’s the link to all of their playlists for all of their videos. They also have a website where you can get some printouts for free and others for a subscription fee and some apps. Our kids love the ABC app!

4. Mother Goose Club

This channel has just about every nursery rhyme you could ever imagine! They also have a variety of different playlists to choose from.

mother goose club

Our kids love these simple classic songs and the way they are acted out by children using minimal props and special effects. Learning basic songs and nursery rhymes is great for oral language development!

5. Busy Beavers

This playlist is great for teaching all of the letter names and sounds in addition to many great nursery rhymes. The simple animations and repetitive songs are designed to teach children who are learning English, but they are great for teaching oral language development for ALL children! You can also watch these playlists to teach your children French, Chinese (Mandarin), Korean, and more.

busy beavers

These videos can be a little annoying, but the fact is that kids love them and they are a great teaching tool. They will also invite you repeatedly to pay money to subscribe to their channel to get the videos ad free, but if you’re rocking Ad Blocker, you won’t need  to worry about that! You can get some free printables to go along with the videos here or get full access to all of the printables for a monthly subscription fee. Go here to see all of their playlists.

6. ABC Kid TV

There are a lot of different ABC playlists designed for kids out there, and it feels like we have watched them all! For some reason, these particular videos have been a favorite with our 2 year old daughter Ophelia recently. I think she really likes the combination of real children and cartoon graphics.

abc kid tv

The playlist is about an hour long and covers all of the letters of the alphabet with simple graphics and several examples as well as the ABC song. See all of their playlists here.

My Playlists

While I was writing this blog, I decided to just go ahead and create my own favorite playlists. Creating playlists is a bit time consuming, but so worth it to have custom designed lists that are just write for your children. In order to create your own playlist, just look for the “add to” button on the bottom left of the screen of the video you want to save (make sure it’s not on full screen), click it, and you can add the video to an existing list or create a new list. Once you make a list you can edit it by changing the order of the videos, adding videos, deleting videos, changing the title of your list, and adding a description. Go here to see all of my playlists. You can subscribe to my channel to keep informed of new videos that I upload and the playlists I create.

  1. ABCs: This collection starts with basic ABC songs, then transitions into videos that focus on each letter, and finally ends with some compilations so that my children will probably lose interest before I run out of videos!
  2. Nursery Rhymes and Familiar Songs: American children will grow up hearing these songs over and over and over again. The repetition of these rhymes and songs encourages oral language development, which is a precursor to reading.
  3. Simple Songs: Children may not automatically know these songs like they may possibly know nursery rhymes, but if you watch these videos, they will quickly become just as beloved. Many of these songs incorporate movement and motion. They are also great for developing oral language, which is a precursor to reading.
  4. Preschool VocabularyThese songs facilitate the development of language through their catchy melodies, intriguing yet simple images, and use of vocabulary that helps children to understand their world. Learning the names of things is a big aspect of oral language development and a precursor to learning how to read.
  5. Learning to ReadChildren are capable of learning to read at a much younger age than we give them credit for. Once children are able to sound out a word and commit it to memory, they don’t need to sound it out every time. Being able to sound out words is a great strategy for when children encounter new words, however, and this playlist is designed to support the strategy of sounding out words and to encourage the memorization of simple words.
  6. Preschool Science and Social StudiesLearning about science and social studies happens in layers just like reading. The younger children are when they are exposed to the ideas of maps, planets, how the body works, and more, the more they will understand it later. These videos are cute and catchy and will help children to learn about these higher level concepts with ease.
  7. Preschool Math: Learning that counting means each object is counted only one time (the one-to-one principle) is as fundamental to math as learning the letter names and sounds is to reading. It is not a concept that is easily or automatically learned, but through lots of repetition, exposure, and practice, children can master it. Another foundation of math is learning the names and attributes of shapes. I’ve also included other basic math concepts.
  8. Learning LanguagesThese simple songs are great for exposing children to the sounds of other languages. By the time children are one, the phonemes they can pronounce are pretty much hard wired into their brains. Exposing children to other languages at a young age leaves the door open for further language development. There are longer playlists (I like the ones through Busy Beaver) of just one language, but I like having this hodge podge mixed together.
  9. Favorite Preschool Videos: This is a compilation of all of my favorite preschool videos spanning all topics and subjects. This is the playlist I go to when my kids are fussy or for a time when I want them to watch a hodge podge of things to keep them entertained rather than to just teach.
  10. Our Kids Learning How to ReadBeing a teacher, I have always been fascinated by children and how they learn. Now that I have four of my own and am a stay at home mom, I have enjoyed teaching them how to read. I have been fascinated by how young they have been able to read. All of our children have learned to read at a young age (2 being the youngest). This is a collection of videos of them reading over the years.

How to Make a Desktop Shortcut to Your Favorite Playlists

I like having access to my favorite playlists at the click of a button, so I like to create shortcuts on my desktop to find them. For some people, you might think, “Oh, that is so easy!” But for others, like me until I did some research, we may have no idea! So, here’s how you create a shortcut on your desktop to your favorite playlists:

  1. Right click anywhere on your desktop.
  2. Select “new” –> and then “shortcut”.
  3. You will then see a blank space to add a url called “Type the location of the item”. (You can browse to choose an existing file, but don’t do that right now!) Copy the address of your favorite playlist and copy it into this blank space. Then click “next”.
  4. Now you can name your shortcut whatever you’d like.

In Conclusion

I think that one of the most fundamental and most helpful things to teach young children is the alphabet. By teaching the letter names and sounds from young age, we are helping children’s brains to be wired in a way that makes learning to read easy and fun. (Read more about how children’s brains are wired for learning here.) These playlists are just one way of doing this. Check out my blog: Tips, Tricks, and Resources for Teaching the ABCs to see all of the ways I have enjoyed doing this with our children.

Happy watching and happy learning!

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

Tools of the Mind: A Play Centered Approach to Learning

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

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

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

Proof That Tools of the Mind Works

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

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

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

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

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

Tools of the Mind in Action

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

Components of Mature Make-Believe Play

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

Other Components of the Tools Curriculum

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

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

Why Tools of the Mind Works

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

Embracing Motherhood The Importance of Creative and Imaginative Play

The Importance of Creative and Imaginative Play

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

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

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

Tools of the Mind: Taking Play to the Next Level

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

Bronson and Merryman explain how,

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

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

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

Play Time at Home

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

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

Tips and Tricks for Encouraging Creative and Imaginative Play

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

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

1. Involve Kids In Your Day to Day

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

2. Provide Scenarios

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

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

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

3. Give Prompts

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

4. Role Playing

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

5. Props

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

6. Favorite Characters

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

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

7. Little Figures

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

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

8. Puppets

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

9. Imaginative Toys

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

10. Arts and Crafts

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

11. Environment

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

12. Routines

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

13. Sustained Attention

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

Using Magnet Letters to Teach the ABCs

How to Teach the ABCs with Magnet Letters

Teaching letter names and letter sounds is a crucial component of reading. When children learn the alphabet at a young age, it lays a strong foundation for learning how to read. I have four children five and under, and I have been blown away by their capabilities and desire to learn. As a former elementary school teacher with a Master’s degree in Language Acquisition, I have always been fascinated with teaching and learning, but it wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized the true potential of a child’s brain.

If I could recommend one thing for anyone with small children, it would be to focus on teaching the ABCs. In my blog, Tips, Tricks, and Resources for Teaching the ABCs, I have outlined everything that I have done that has worked for me and my children (who are all very different). My oldest daughter Ruby is five and in kindergarten; she reads fluently at a 3rd grade level. My son Elliot is four, knows all of his letter names and sounds, and is reading basic words, phrases, and repetitive text. My daughter Ophelia is 21 months old and knows all of her letter names and sounds, can read memorized words and phrases, and is starting to sound out words. For more details on how children really learn to read (hint: it’s not about starting with phonics), check out my blog: How Children Really Learn to Read.

Using Letter Magnets to Teach the ABCs

We have had these LeapFrog Letter Magnets on our fridge for just about as long as we have had children. The style has changed a bit since our original purchase, but the concept is the same. Basically, each capital letter fits into the player and when pushed with say a little chant with the letter name and letter sound(s). There is also a little music button that will either play, “The Wheels on the Bus” or “The Alphabet Song”. There is also a volume control for loud or quiet play and an off switch (for when you just need a little peace and quiet).

The other magnet letters that I really like are these Melissa and Doug Wooden Magnet Alphabet letters. The bold colors and simple design are fun for kids and easy to use as a teaching tool.

Here is a 3:28 video compilation of our 21 month old daughter Ophelia using letter magnets. Notice how I do very little direct teaching. I like to let my children explore and use these types of learning toys however they want, and then I find ways to gently guide them along the way.

LeapFrog Letter Magnets

There are many different ways to use these LeapFrog Letter Magnets. Sometimes I like to line all of the letters neatly up on the fridge in alphabetical order for my children to discover, but they never stay that way for long! My daughter Ophelia, who loves order and neatness, will play with each letter one at a time in a patient and intricate way. My son Elliot, on the other hand, who loves movement and chaos, will smush all of the letters together, build towers out of them, or personify them in some imaginative play.

Ophelia Plays Neatly with Magnet Letters

Ophelia Plays Neatly with Magnet Letters

Each method has merit and is a reflection of the inner workings of their minds. As their mother, I love being a quiet observer as I take note of their different methods of play and think about how I can support their different learning styles. Just having educational toys available and allowing children to play with them however they choose is a huge benefit. The next step is to reinforce their learning along the way by verbalizing what they are doing and repeating what they are saying. Then the real icing on the cake is figuring out how to challenge them to just go slightly above where they are with guidance. This is known in the educational world as working within their zone of proximal development and scaffolding them as they work towards the next level.

Elliot Smushes the Magnet Letters Around in Imaginative Play

Elliot Smushes the Magnet Letters Around in Imaginative Play

 Wooden Magnet Letters and Tins

One activity I love doing with the kids involves using the magnet letters and tins. This is a great way to stretch their knowledge of letter names and letter sounds to the next level. By turning these muffin tins upside down, they make great templates for sounding out CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant) or four letter words as with Elliot’s tin on the left.

Elliot and Ophelia Play with Magnet Letters and Tins

Elliot and Ophelia Play with Magnet Letters and Tins

What I do is pick a simple word like cat, sun, or dog, and then show them how to sound out each letter /c/ /a/ /t/ by touching each letter and saying the sound. Then I show how I say all of the sounds together quickly to make the word cat. They’re not ready to practice this skill independently yet, but it’s good to keep introducing things to kids that are just barely out of their reach so that they can get used to it through lots and lots and lots of repetition and as much time as they need.

Independent Learning Station

Once we have played with something like these wooden magnet letters and tins together, I like setting it up at an independent learning station. While here, the kids can practice what we’ve done together at their own pace.

Ophelia is Playing with Magnetic Letters at an Independent Learning Station

Ophelia is Playing with Magnetic Letters at an Independent Learning Station

Ophelia Loves to Have Little Stations to Play At

Ophelia Loves to Have Little Stations to Play At

There is No “Right” or “Wrong” Way to Play

I love it when the kids using these learning manipulatives as toys in a fun and creative way that works for them. I spend time setting up these learning stations and enjoy watching the kids use them however they like. When Ophelia takes the letters out of one box and says their names as she puts them in another box, this is an excellent way for her to practice her letter naming fluency.

Ophelia Puts Magnetic Letters in a Box

Ophelia Puts Magnetic Letters in a Box

Lakeshore Learning Alphabet Letters

Lakeshore Learning Magnetic Letters

Lakeshore Learning Magnetic Letters

If you really want to take things to the next level, these Lakeshore Learning Magnetic Letters are a wonderful teaching tool. If you have a child with a lot of patience, you can sit down side by side and build words together on magnetic white boards. This is something I used to love doing with my oldest daughter Ruby when she was younger.

Elliot and Ophelia Play with the Lakeshore Learning Magnetic Letters

Elliot and Ophelia Play with the Lakeshore Learning Magnetic Letters

In Conclusion

Magnetic letters can be a wonderful educational toy and teaching tool. By spending a little bit of time working on letters when your child is young, he or she will be much better prepared for preschool, kindergarten, reading, learning, and more. By making playtime fun and educational, children thrive as their brains are given permission to learn and grow at their own pace.

You might also like the following blogs:

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

third grade classroom

Kids Working with Pattern Blocks

third grade classroom

My Mom Dissecting Hearts with My Students

third grade classroom

Dressing Up for a Reader’s Theater Play

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

1. Organization Behind the Scenes

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

kids playing with creative manipulatives at a moments notice

Creative Play at a Moment’s Notice

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

Organized Cupboards Filled with Learning Supplies

Organized Cupboards Filled with Learning Supplies

2. Decide Which Supplies to Make Accessible

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

organized table with craft supplies

Organized Homeschool Table

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

computer table and shelves organized with learning supplies for kids

Shelves Organized with Learning Supplies

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

3. Create Learning Stations at Tables

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

kitchen table with learning placements and activity bins

Our Kitchen Table

kids using dry erase boards at the kitchen table

Kids Working at Our Kitchen Table

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

Little Kid Table in the Kitchen

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

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

Coffee Table Learning Station

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

Coffee Table Learning Station

homemade table magnet learning station

Magnet Station at the Little Homemade Table

Play-Doh Station at a Little Homemade Table

Play-Doh Station at the Little Homemade Table

Write On Wipe Off Station at the Little Table

Write On Wipe Off Station at the Little Table

toddler pouring water using little fancy cups

Indoor Water Pouring Station

toddler stacking at a coffee table learning station

Ophelia Stacking Letters at a Coffee Table Learning Station

4. Tips for Creating Learning Stations

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

toddler standing and Coloring at a Little Coffee Table Learning Station

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

child Sitting and Writing at a Little Coffee Table Learning Station

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

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

5. Create Stations on the Floor That Facilitate Imaginative Play

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

Little Bins of Toys Neatly Organized in Every Room

Little Bins of Toys Neatly Organized in Every Room

child playing with little figures and a batman house

Imaginative Play with a Housing Type Structure

Play Area with a Dollhouse and Little Figures

Play Area with a Dollhouse and Little Figures

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

A Road Rug Defines this Play Space

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

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

treehouse used for imaginative play

This Type of Housing Structure is Perfect for Imaginative Play

little toy figures used in imaginative play

A Bin of Little Figure Toys Perfect for Imaginative Play

6. Create a Dress Up Station for Role Playing

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

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

Little Hat Station Tucked in the Corner of a Closet

dress up costumes for a boy

Superhero Dress Up Clothes

7. Tips for Organizing Toys

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

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

little bin to organize little figure toys

Little Figures Organized in a Bin

baby toys organized in a box

Baby Toys Organized in a Box

8. Create Comfortable Reading Stations

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

books being sorted into different baskets for kids to read

Reorganizing Kid Books into Various Baskets

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

This Little Couch Gets a Lot of Use

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

Accessible Books get Read Independently

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Reading Before Bed is a Special Nightly Routine

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

Little Chairs and a Basket of Books

9. Use Your Walls

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

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Letter Magnets on the Fridge get Used all the Time

Flashcards Taped on the Dresser and the Wall

Flashcards Taped on the Dresser and the Wall

hand made alphabet poster on the refrigerator

Using Chart Paper to Make My Own Posters

10. Rearrange As Needed

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

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

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

All Together in One Room

All Together in One Room

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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