For under $1, you can buy 25 pipe cleaners, which offer lots of opportunities for fun and learning. All these activities build fine motor skills (learn why that’s important.) Some also have additional cognitive benefits.
The activity ideas at the top of the list are where to start with a younger toddler. As they master those skills, you can move on to the more complex tasks near the end of the list. (Please click on the links below for LOTS more ideas for great activities to do with toddlers and preschoolers!)
Find a block of Styrofoam, or floral foam (the soft green foam in floral arrangements) or play-dough. Show your child how to stick pipe cleaners into it. They will soon learn that it works better when they hold the pipe cleaner near the end. This will help them later learn that they have better control over a pencil when they hold it closer to the tip. (you can also add straws, as shown in this “first sculpture” from http://craftulate.com/2013/03/first-sculpture/)
Take out the colander: show your child how to thread a pipe cleaner through the holes. (http://teachingmama.org/20-ways-to-keep-toddlers-busy/) You could also use an empty spice jar if the shaker lid has big enough holes. (http://ayearwithmomanddad.com/2012/04/tot-explorations-easy-motor-skill-activity/) This takes concentration and builds hand-eye coordination.
Buy plastic beads (or use cheerios, penne pasta, or cut-up straws). Show your child how to thread them onto pipe cleaners. This is MUCH easier than stringing beads onto a floppy cord. Here’s three stages you can try: first, cut pipe cleaners into shorter pieces and plant one end into some play-dough or foam so your child only has to hold the bead. http://www.momto2poshlildivas.com/2012/09/i-can-week-in-preschool-fine-motor.html Once they’ve mastered that, show them how to hold the short pipe cleaner and thread beads on. http://theimaginationtree.com/2013/03/threading-with-pipe-cleaners-and-beads.html Once they’ve got that, give them a full length pipe cleaner. They’ll have to figure out how to work with it when it bends.
Cut pipe cleaners into small pieces, and put them in a plastic bottle. Show your child how to use a magnet to pull the pieces around the container – good for teaching the basics of magnets.
Bend pipe cleaners into letters, numbers, and shapes. Seeing and playing with physical representations of these academic concepts helps reinforce children’s learning. http://www.makeandtakes.com/learning-letters-with-pipe-cleaners
Make wiggly “worms” with the pipe cleaners, and have your child “catch” them with a clothespin. Great for fine motor control. You can also add in imagination skills by talking about the clothes pin as a bird catching the worm. http://seevanessacraft.com/2012/12/30-busy-bag-swap-ideas-part-1/
Put out three colors of pipe cleaners and three colors of beads. Encourage your child to string the beads on the matching pipe cleaner. This teaches colors and sorting skills, which are vital to lots of academic learning. Once they can do three colors, move to four, then five. http://skellyskindergarten.blogspot.com/2011/08/back-to-school-my-pinterest-inspiration.html
You can also teach patterns with beads and pipe cleaners. http://mattbgomez.com/patterns-with-perler-beads-and-pipe-cleaners/ Start with simple patterns – blue, yellow, blue, yellow. Then get more complex: blue blue yellow, or blue yellow white… Pattern recognition is an essential skill that allows us to recognize and solve problems of all sorts much more quickly.
Get the Styrofoam back out and try building bead mazes.www.teachpreschool.org/2012/04/colorful-pipe-cleaner-bead-mazes/
Have your child shape the pipe cleaners into letters and numbers themselves. They learn more by doing than by watching. You can start by writing the letters on paper and having them “trace” it with a pipe cleaner (http://seevanessacraft.com/2012/12/30-busy-bag-swap-ideas-part-1/), then build up to them creating the letter from memory.
Get alphabet beads, and build words on the pipe cleaners! Stringing them together helps reinforce the order of the letters.
Safety note: Pipe cleaners are wires, and the tips can poke. If you’re worried about this, some people recommend folding over the end (If you happen to own needle-nosed pliers, you can make a nice tight loop. Or you can just use your fingers and fold over a little more.) Some people tape the ends. I personally don’t worry about it… kids can get a small poke with a pipe cleaner, but it’s unlikely to injure… I have found that after my kids poke themselves a few things, they learn a good lesson about handling things carefully.
Safety Note #2: When using beads, or other small materials, do supervise your child closely so they don’t swallow beads, or put them in their noses, or in their ears. If they swallow a plastic bead, it’s likely to pass through in a few days. If they put a bead in their ear, that can be there a very long time without anyone noticing. (Please don’t check my family’s medical records to see why I know that. 🙂 )
Here’s lots more ideas for older kids: http://spoonful.com/crafts/25-easy-diy-pipe-cleaner-activities-kids#carousel-id=photo-carousel&carousel-item=16