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. (Check out some resources I created to help young children learn how to read here.)
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
- Little Learning Centers: Set up small tables, little chairs, small couches, and other areas that are easy to access for little ones.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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. 🙂
- 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.)
- 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
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.
- 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, or a standing white board. It all depends on your needs.
- 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!
*For more of my favorite ABC resources, check out my blog: 10 Best Resources for Teaching the ABCs.
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.
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.
- 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).
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- Tempra Paint: Lakeshore Learning has some AMAZING painting resources like these tempra paints, or you can get them from Amazon.
- No Spill Paint Jars: These no spill paint jars from Lakeshore Learning and corresponding paint brushes are just pure brilliance. You can also get them from Amazon.
- Smocks: Something like this would be great, or even an old button up shirt would work fine too.
- Painting Paper: If you want to go the extra mile, this painting paper is really nice and doesn’t bleed through as much as printing paper.
- Easel: We just use our homeschool table, but if you have the space a really nice painting easel would be really fun.
- Other Fun Painting Tools: Finger paints, painting dots, watercolors, sponge designs, glitter glue, and tempra painters are all great additions to any painting center.
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 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- Scissors: I like having an assortment of simple kid scissors, some nice adult scissors, and crafting scissors (like the ones pictured above).
- Paper: I like having an assortment of construction paper, blank computer paper, and large sheets of paper. I also like to cut the edges off from a rectangular shaped box and label it “paper scraps” so that we can save our paper scraps and use them to practice cutting.
- Glue: I LOVE having tons of large glue sticks around, as well as several bottles of Elmer’s Glue. I find that I can get the best price for glue sticks on Amazon, but I always shop the back to school sales for my Elmer’s glue and stock up!
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: I haven’t found anything I like better than the Melissa and Doug sticker packs. We usually buy them in the toy aisle at our local grocery store, but you can get the blue sticker collection, the pink sticker collection, the alphabet activity pack, and the fashion sticker collection online too. Priddy Books has some good sticker collections too.
- Reusable Stickers: While these can be a bit difficult to keep organized, the kids LOVE them! My kids have enjoyed this fairy, princess, dress up, and house bundle, this adventure collection, this vehicle collection, and this face collection by Melissa and Doug. Peaceable Kingdom also has some great reusable sticker collections like this zoo, ocean, and mermaid tote.
- Stamps: You’ll want a bunch of stamp pads like these, and I have been able to find most of my stamps at garage sales and thrift stores, but you can buy these nature stamps, pirate stamps, or fairy princess stamps online. Hero Arts has a really good collection of stamps for all occasions.
- Paper: I like using large sheets of paper like this, but you could also have fun with a fancy sticker book like this. Compassion books are great ways to save stickers and stamps too. I like buying them in bulk during back to school sales. I also really like buying huge rolls of paper to use for a variety of things.
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: I have tried many different write on/wipe off books, and the Wipe Clean Books by Priddy Books are by far the best. I like the Uppercase Alphabet, Lowercase Alphabet, Tracing and Pen Control, and Numbers.
- Dry Erase Markers: I like having an assortment of large and small Expo markers. You can get some with an eraser and cleaning spray, but on old sock put on a child’s hand works really well (and is fun) too. I also like keeping them in a pencil box like this.
- White Boards: You can get a small lap white board, a large wall hanging board, a small desk easel, or a kid’s easel. I like to get white boards that are magnetic so that I can use them with my magnets too.
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. 🙂
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!
- 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!
Even though we have an official “Car Center”, there are cars and trucks stashed in just about every room in the house!
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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 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 this, big 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- Dress Up Clothes: Keep in mind that it’s nice for children to be able to easily get in and out of costumes, so it’s nice to have things that don’t require a lot of pieces and that are durable. Things like these superhero masks and capes, princess dresses, fire chief costume, construction worker costume, and police officer costume can really help to get the creative juices flowing.
- Hats: Hats are one of the easiest ways for children to play dress up, and I love having many different hats, wigs, and tiaras for kids to choose from.
- Props: Lakeshore Learning has tons of great dress up and role play costumes and props that can help provide entire scenarios for children to act out like the post office, doctor’s office, vet, and more. More than anything, Ophelia loves our little riding horse. 🙂 Imagination games are much more fun with props.
- Hangers and Hooks: If you put everything in a box or leave it in a pile on the floor, it won’t get used as much. By hanging things on little hangers (I really like this drop down hanger organizer and these children’s hangers) and using hooks to spread things across a wall, children can easily see their options. You can also find some pretty cool little coat racks that would work well too, and of course this little dress up station would be the dream!
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.
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.
- Keyboards: If you have the money and space for a real piano, go for it! But just a simple keyboard like this should do just fine. We put ours on a large storage tub that I keep fabric in and put a little chair or stool in front of it, but you can get a keyboard that comes with a nice stand and little stool too. Also, if you don’t want to make your own stickers, you can just buy these or these. This is a really nice kid’s piano book if you don’t want to print out your own sheet music.
- Drums: We have a very cheap adult drum set (check out Craig’s List) that the kids enjoy, but you can get one just for kids too. I highly recommend these soft drumming mallets! Our kids also like playing little bongo drums.
- Guitars: We have a nice electric and bass guitar with one cheap amp and one really nice amp, plus an acoustic guitar, and although our kids do enjoy strumming them haphazardly, they are way too big for them. This kid’s guitar and this toy guitar would be better suited.
- Extras: It’s really fun to have a bunch of extra noise makers that are easy to play like maracas and tambourines. This little set has everything you will need!
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!
- Peg Puzzles: Puzzles with pegs on them are much easier for little hands to grasp. I love these Melissa and Doug ABC, number, and shape puzzles along with these animal puzzles and this dinosaur puzzle.
- Puzzle Rack: If you’re going to have a bunch of puzzles, storing them in a rack like this wire one or this wooden one is so nice.
- Two Piece Puzzles: These two piece puzzles are a great introduction to how puzzle pieces lock together. I like this ABC puzzle, opposite puzzle, animal baby puzzle, and this heads and tails matching puzzle.
- 3D Puzzles: If you think outside the box, there are many different types of puzzles for little ones to enjoy, like this puzzle board with pegs teaching counting, this wooden peg puzzle toy, this stacking pegboard, and these chunky pegs.
- Easy Puzzles: This 12 piece vehicle puzzle is a good example of the next level up after two piece puzzles. This 24 piece pet puzzle is a good example of the next level up after that.
- Floor Puzzles: We love doing big floor puzzles together like this abc floor puzzle, this solar system puzzle, and this fire truck puzzle.
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: You can get a nice wall hanging chart like this or a table top chart like this.
- Word Cards: I really like the beginning sound cards the most, and you can also get word family cards, sight word cards, alphabet letters, and more!
- Flashcards: Check out my resources here.
- Flashcard Making Supplies: To make your own flashcards, just cut some card stock into fourths and use a sharpie marker to write your words. You can also use these cool sentence strips.
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.
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
- Play-Doh: I have had fun making my own play-doh, but it’s usually just easier (and lasts longer) to buy it.
- Play-Doh Toys: This Play-Doh tub comes with 20 pieces and five colors, this five piece Play-Doh tool set is fun, and this Play-Doh press is our most favorite toy of all!
- Cookie Cutters: It is so fun to roll out a big flat pancake of Play-Doh and use cookie cutters to cut shapes out of it!
- Kitchen Tools: Things like rolling pins, meat tenderizers, potato mashers, and garlic presses are really fun to use with Play-Doh too.
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: 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.
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.
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! 🙂
- Classic Games: I love bringing out the classic games like Connect 4, Guess Who, Chutes and Ladders (Ophelia LOVES the Dora Chutes and Ladders game), Battleship, Candyland, Checkers, and Jenga.
- Learning Games: Some of my favorite learning games are Zingo, Blokus, Alphabet Fishing, HiHo Cherri-yo, Story Cubes, Maisy Games, Dora Dominos, Dora Matching, Sequence for Kids, and Snap Circuits Jr. If you’re looking for more educational games, Lakeshore Learning has TONS of ideas!!!
- Strategy Games: Games intended for adults like Othello, Backgammon, Cribbage, Chinese Checkers, Life, Chess, and Scrabble can be a lot of fun for little ones to play in their own way.
- Just for Fun: Our kids have really loved Deal, or No Deal game, Disney Scene It, Operation, Let’s Go Fishing, Doggie Doo, and Mouse Trap.
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.
- Magnifying Glasses: These jumbo magnifying glasses are amazing! I also like this bug finder and this first microscope. We also have a more high tech microscope that the older ones LOVE using!
- Backyard Fun: We like doing a lot of our “science” outside just exploring nature and getting messy. I love having a sandbox, mud pit, and garden in our fenced in backyard to help facilitate their curiosities.
- Higher Level Concepts: I think it’s really important for young children to be exposed to specific and complex vocabulary at a young age. In our house, we have posters about the smallest units in living things (cells) and nonliving things (periodic table of elements), posters of body systems (skeletal system, muscular system, organs, brain, etc.), posters about the solar system, and posters about photosynthesis and cellular respiration. By using them, I learn right alongside the kids while giving them accurate and in depth answers to their questions. While for a bit of an older preschooler, I love the Magic School Bus videos (we find them on Netflix), Amoeba Sisters (on YouTube), and Basher Books for introducing young ones to big ideas (while giving me a good refresher as well!).
- Science Experiments: There’s just nothing out there as fun as vinegar and baking soda! We like to experiment with bowls of vinegar colored with food coloring, little droppers, and pans with baking soda. There are also lots of other science experiments using vinegar and baking soda, which is a is a great introduction to concept of chemistry. There are also lots of other fun science experiments, like these, that you can do with preschoolers.
- 3D Models: Having 3D models is an excellent way for children to learn about higher level concepts. I love this solar system model, 3D plant cell, 3D animal cell, bacteria model, virus model, torso model, and skeleton model.
- Scientifics Direct: This is an online portal to everything you could ever want or need in every area of science for every age level. I highly recommend shopping here for Christmas and birthday presents!
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.
- Maps: I LOVE having this beautiful children’s map of the world (pictured above), this geographical map of the world, this geographical map of the United States of America, and this road map of Michigan on our walls.
- Place Mats: I love using placements (like this) taped down on small tables so that they are easy to point out and talk about at a moment’s notice. They are very sturdy and if not taped down, can be taken anywhere.
- Globe: Having a 3D globe is an excellent way to show children what the earth really looks like. You can get a basic globe like this or an interactive one like this.
- Books: There are some great books out there for teaching social studies concepts to young children like: Me On the Map, Me and My Place in Space, Where Do I Live?, Maps and Globes (a Reading Rainbow book), There’s a Map on My Lap, A Country Far Away, All in a Day, Whoever You Are, and Me and My Family Tree.
- Traveling: As we’re driving, I always talk about streets we’re driving on, the direction we’re headed, what city we’re in, where we’re going, how many miles it is, and so on.
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. 🙂
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.
- 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.
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:
- Best Teaching Apps for Young Children
- Best YouTube Playlists for Young Children
- Best Best Educational Programs for Young Children
- What We Watch Instead of TV
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.