Tag Archives: play

Fun with Toddlers: Pet Theme

This month’s theme was Pets, especially dogs and cats. Here are some fun pet-related things to do with your toddler:

Outings to Go On: Visit a pet store. Look at the fish, or the rodents, or the birds or reptiles. The pet store is just as educational as the zoo, and it’s free! It’s a great chance to talk to your child about animals, and to practice observation skills: “Can you find a yellow fish?” “Which is the biggest bird?” “These are all reptiles. What makes them different from the rodents we just looked at?” If you don’t have a pet at home, don’t feel like you have to buy anything. Most pet stores are used to parents coming in and hanging out with their children for a while. If you want, you could buy a bag of pet food to donate to the store’s pet food drive. (Look for a donation bin at the front of the store.)

Toys to make for your child

Balloon Puppies. Take a balloon. Blow it up. Draw animal features on, add a string and you have an instant pet for your child to take on a walk! If you want to be fancy, you could use a helium balloon and fasten on “legs” made of accordion-folder paper – the home made version of the toy pictured.

petsDoggy ears (or kitty ears). Make a circle of paper that fits around your child’s head and add ears, or turn a child’s headband into the base for ears.

Imagination Games to Play

The Dog House. Take a big cardboard box. Cut an arched doorway in it. Decorate it like a dog house. Add things to represent dog food dishes, dog bones, dog toys and more. Add stuffed puppies if you have them, and then let the play begin.

Pet Store. Set up a pet store with stuffed animals, and accessories for animals (food bowls, collars, treats, toys, and so on, and go shopping.

Songs to Sing / Rhymes to Say

Where has my little dog gone?
Oh where, oh where has my little dog gone?
Oh where, oh where can he be?
With his ears cut short and his tail cut long,
Oh where, oh where can he be?

How Much is that Doggie in the Window
How much is that doggie in the window? The one with the waggly tail?
How much is that doggie in the window? I do hope that doggie’s for sale.
[Search on YouTube for many videos of this song!]

I have a cat
I have a cat (stroke your fist); My cat is fat (arms form a stomach)
I have a cat (stroking); My cat wears a hat (hands on head)
I have a cat (stroking); My cat caught a bat (clap hands together above head)
I have a cat (stroking) Purrrrrr, Meowwww

Circle Time Ideas

Poor Kitty. There is a game that elementary school aged children love called “Poor Kitty”. One person pretends to be the kitty and goes around a circle, trying to make the other kids laugh (by purring rubbing against them, licking them…). The others are supposed to keep a straight face and just pet the “cat” and say “poor kitty” without laughing. You can adapt this for a one-on-one game with toddlers or preschoolers. (Though they probably won’t get the whole “you’re not supposed to laugh” idea.)

Puppy puppet. Bring a puppy puppet and some dog treats (or dog toys.) Give a treat to each child. Bring the puppy around the circle and have each child give the dog a treat. Have fun with pretending to be a happy puppy.

Purple cat, what do you see. Make a felt board collection of pets – brown dog, black cat, yellow bird, gold fish, etc. Give one animal to each child. Do the rhyme, similar in style to Eric Carle’s Brown Bear. Go around the circle to each child in turn, having them place their animal on the felt board. So, if you started with brown dog, and the first child has a black cat, you’d say “Brown Dog, Brown Dog, what do you see? I see a black cat looking at me.”

Books to Read

Roly-Poly Puppies by Elaine Moore. A counting book with a nice rhyming structure.

Pete the Cat by James Dean. There are lots of fun Pete books, but the best is I Love My White Shoes. (Check out our Pinterest page for lots of activities to go with Pete books!)

Aggie and Ben by Lori Ries. Ben’s dad takes him to the pet store to pick out a pet.

More ideas (and source citations) at: www.pinterest.com/bcparented

For my full collection of theme-based “Fun with Toddlers”, click on “Fun with Toddlers series” in the right hand side bar. Or if you would like them in printable handout form to share with students, click here.


Engineering and Preschoolers

Engineering challengeI loved this post on “The Educator’s Spin on It” which gave an idea for an engineering experiment to try with a preschool age child, and also included broader tips on how to build Engineer-Thinking skills in your child, book recommendations about engineering, and so on. But when I read it yesterday, I didn’t expect to try the experiment today!

Then today, we had one hour before nap-time, and needed a new idea for an activity. My son asked for fizzy science experiments, and we played for a while with vinegar and baking soda. Then he asked for a new science experiment.

I remembered the post, and said: “Let’s build a rain shelter.” We made a bunny-like object out of a paper towel and talked about how we could keep it dry. First, I asked my son how to keep dry, and his first idea was to wear a raincoat and rain pants. (He goes to an outdoor preschool in Seattle, so is well practiced in this method!)  We put bunny in a ziploc bag (aka his raincoat – my son is not quite savvy enough to realize how bad a plan a ziploc would be if the bunny actually needed to breathe!). And then we ran bunny under the faucet. Sure enough the “raincoat” kept him dry.

Then we took off the raincoat, and practiced having bunny hide under a flat roof. (The lid off a bistro box from Starbucks.) That worked for a little “rain” but when we had a lot of rain the flat roof spilled over. But the “roof” we were using had “gutters”, so we cut out a section and added a straw for a downspout. (Then we had lots of chances to sing the Itsy Bitsy Spider and talk about waterspouts.) We then folded the lid in half to see the advantage of peaked roofs over flat roofs.

Then we made a “tree” out of shredded up plastic bag… that also shielded our bunny till there was just too much rain and the “ground” (the plate the bunny was on) got so wet there were big puddles that ran under the “tree” and soaked the bunny.

After that we walked around our house and looked at our gutters and rainspouts. We tracked where the rain would flow out of the spout, down the driveway, out to the road and down the street to the storm drain, and talked about how it goes to the lake from there. We looked at the flat roofs and peaked roofs in the neighborhood.

In the end, it was a fabulous hour of interactive discovery inspired by a blog post I read yesterday morning. I would have never thought of this project on my own, and am so glad that I get to benefit from the shared creativity of other educators and parents!


Schemas of Play

large_7461108728 (2)Have you ever known a child who was continuously filling up a basket and carrying it around the room? Or a child who loved to take objects and line them up in long lines? Or one who had a passion for throwing objects and would do throw all objects whether or not it was appropriate? Or one who only played with things with wheels? Those patterns of repeating behavior can be organized into “schemas” of play.

What is a schematic behavior?

Schema are building blocks for the brain. When a child is able to guide his own play, you’ll often see him exploring things in a predictable, repeated method, testing and experimenting with several objects in turn. This process helps him forge connections in the brain, helps him predict what might happen, and refine his understanding based on the results. Some children cycle through all of these schema every day.

But some children will focus intensely on one schema for a period of days or weeks (or months). Parents may worry that their child is obsessed, or that she will never let go of this one way of interacting with the world, but this is normal developmental behavior.

If a parent of caregiver can  recognize which schema a child is currently most focused on, they can tailor learning experiences to appeal to those interests while still providing a breadth of learning experiences. Sometimes children will pursue their schema in ways that are inappropriate (like throwing things in an enclosed space, or climbing on the furniture) so it is helpful to have other ways to direct that “trajectory” urge or the “positioning” desire.

Activities that Support, Extend, and Re-Direct Schema

Transporting. If you have a child who continually picks things up and carries them from place to place, here are some activities they may enjoy: Easter egg hunts or other gather-things-in-a-basket games; play in the bath with floating toys and a boat or basket to load them into; let them help with putting clothes into the washer and taking them out of the dryer; or helping to clear the table after a meal. Ask them to deliver items around the house (e.g. please put this cup next to the sink). Provide plenty of baskets, bags, boxes, and wagons to move things around in. It may help to put the majority of your small toys away while a child is in this phase so they have fewer total items to clutter the house with.

Transforming. If your child mixes all their food together, and mixes paints together, and likes to get things wet to see how they change, here are some positive ways to play with transformation: containers of colored water they can mix, fingerpaints they can smear together, a container with baking soda in it and eye-droppers with vinegar they can drip in and create “fizz”. Let them help you with cooking – mixing up muffins and seeing how they transform when cooked. It may help to find ways to minimize mess – for example, instead of giving them four containers of fresh paint, you could put four dabs of paint onto a “palette” or dish of some sort where they can mix to their heart’s content without “ruining” the full containers of paint.

Trajectory. If your child throws things, kicks balls, and drops things all the time, she is exploring trajectories – how things move through the air. She’ll probably love: paper airplanes, watching you play tennis or badminton (and fetching back errant balls), blowing feathers or scarves through the air, shooting baskets (tossing crumpled paper balls into the trash can), flying kites, chasing bubbles, bowling, splash painting (go outside with a bucket of water and a paintbrush – she dips the paintbrush in the water and swings it hard so the water splashes onto a wall or fence). If you know a friendly dog who likes to fetch, it may be a match made in heaven. (Although be aware of pet safety issues.)  It may help to put away many of your breakable valuables while your child is in this phase, and/or to provide him with only soft whiffle balls to throw.

Rotation. If your child loves cars, trains, and anything with wheels, and also loves to spin around, they enjoy rotation. He may like: unscrewing lids from empty water bottles, playing with a kaleidoscope, riding on a merry-go-round, spinning in an office chair, playing with water wheels, spinning things dry in a salad spinner, whisking scrambled eggs, playing with hula hoops, and drawing circles. These children may like playing with volume knobs or other knobs, so think about whether there’s anything you need to childproof. They also may like taking lids off containers, they may even figure out “child-proof” containers, so make sure medicines and chemicals are out of reach.

Enclosure and Enveloping. Does your child love to hide under blankets, bury toys in the sandbox, and put things in boxes? Those are enclosure skills. Build forts together, save large boxes for them to hide in and to pack things in, set up tunnels, set up a tent to sleep inside, play with a parachute, give her a shovel and take her to the beach or a sandbox to bury things, save small boxes to hide things in. Play lots of peek-a-book or hide and seek. These children often hide objects, so be careful not to leave essential items (like car keys!) in their reach.

Connecting. Some children love to build puzzles, assemble legos, and tape things together. Here are some ideas for things they can connect: tape together items from the recycle bin, make paper chains, punch holes in something and let them lace a ribbon through it, loop weaving looms, paper trains, construction toys of all sorts, dress-up clothes with buttons, zippers, snaps, and more. If you have a connector, be prepared to spend time untangling, untying, and prying apart! You may find it best to keep string, tape, and glue out of sight and out of mind.

Disconnecting. Other children go through a phase of destroying things: knocking down block towers, scattering Legos, tearing apart books. Give them a bin full of paper they’re allowed to tear apart, try to re-frame your way of playing with blocks – know that it’s all about building something that they will enjoy knocking down, teach them how to use the dustbuster to clean up their messes, put them inside a big box with some styrofoam sheets to break up (the box contains the mess). Now is a good time to put away toys with lots of small parts (e.g. train set or the collection of toy food) for a while, because all they’ll do is scatter them.

Position. Some children really like order: lining things up just so, and believing that everything has a proper place. They love “sets” of things that have a certain order they can be arranged in: alphabet blocks, number magnets, planets, and pictures of shapes with three sides, four sides, etc. They like peg boards, and stacking cups, and shape sorters. Putting things in order often calms them, but having someone mess up their order can be very upsetting, so help them learn to manage those upsets.

Orientation. Some children love to look at the world from a variety of perspectives: hanging upside down, turning their heads sideways, or climbing high to get a better look. Spend lots of time at the playground, or in gymnastics / tumbling classes. Give them binoculars and telescopes or even just cut a hole in a box for them to look through, give them an unbreakable hand mirror for exploring reflections. They will often climb on things not meant to be climbed on, but rather than just saying “no”, say “I can’t let you climb on that, but you can climb on this” or “there’s nothing safe for climbing here, but later today we’ll go to the playground and climb.”

If your child is currently “obsessed” with some schema, it can get tiring and frustrating to deal with, but remember that they are growing their brain, and organizing their ways of thinking about the world as they explore this schema again and again.

Sources for more information:

Schemas in Areas of Play  – suggests several types of activities a child might enjoy while working on a particular schema, also addresses problems a schema might create for parents and caregivers

What is a schema – includes descriptions of the schema, and then for each one offers activities to support that schema and key words to keep in mind while planning activities for kids working on that schema.

Schemas – How to understand and extend children’s behavior. Includes examples of types of activities a child prefers based on schema and how to help an activity (e.g. cooking) appeal to kids depending on whether their focus is on connection, rotation, etc.

Also, click on those three links in the first section of this post on “What is a schematic behavior” to learn more about brain development and play-based learning.

Resource for parent educators:

I have made up a set of printable postcards describing these schema that you could hang about a children’s play area for parents to read while their children play.

photo credit: Megan Hemphill (Prairie & Co) via photopin cc

Stages of Play

Children’s play evolves as they get older. Mildred Parten developed a theory in the 1930’s that is still used today, although some of the details and timing have been re-interpreted over the years.

  1. Unoccupied Play—birth and up. Babies gaze at the world and absorb information, but don’t seem to be doing anything.
  2. Solitary Play—3 months and up. Babies or toddlers explore toys and their environment. They don’t really notice other children.
  3. Onlooker Play—9 months and up. They watch other children play but don’t join in.
  4. Parallel Play—18 months—3 years. Children play side by side. They often look like they aren’t paying attention to each other, but one will mimic what the other one is doing.
  5. Associative Play—3 years and up. Playing separately but on the same project (building a block city  together). Talking together, problem-solving together.
  6. Cooperative Play— 4 years and up. Playing WITH a friend. Some examples:
  • Dramatic / Fantasy play: Dress-up, school, etc. Pretending to be characters in the same scenario.
  • Competitive play: Sports, board games, tag, hide and seek.
  • Constructive play: Building with blocks, making a fort, sculpting a sand castle.

Note: Ages given are for kids playing together with peers. If they are playing with someone of a higher developmental level, they can achieve more. (e.g. a one year old can parallel play with an adult, a 2 year old may be able to do cooperative play with an older sibling.)

When watching children play on the playground, or in the classroom, can you identify each of these types of play?

An Invitation to Play

inviteChildren learn through:

  • being introduced to new ideas and activities (novelty)
  • having the chance to experiment, explore, test & re-test (repetition to achieve mastery)

In play-based learning, a parent or teacher’s role can be to set the stage with new materials, or with familiar materials combined in new ways. Then it’s the child’s role to play: experiment, explore, test and re-test.

“Invitations to play” is one way of approaching these tasks.

Read more about invitations to play

Today, I set up an invitation to play for my 3 year old.(I knew I had a busy day with lots of work to do, so wanted something ready to go that would keep him busy for a while.)

Yesterday, we did “science experiments” with a new set of tools: pipettes and water mixed with liquid watercolors. We would give him two containers of colored water, with pipettes, and a glass vase to mix the colors in.

,Today I set out two colors of water, pipettes, and a glass bowl to mix them in, instead of the vase. I had his container of water beads nearby. When he came into the room, he immediately settled into playing with the pipettes and water, which occupied him for quite a while. When his interest started to wane, I pulled over the water beads and tongs. I didn’t even need to say anything. He immediately started adding water beads. After he’d added them all and taken them all back out, he said “I’ll never do that again.” Apparently he prefers his water beads as a separate activity.

When he ran out of yellow water in his container, I said “Well, you put lots of yellow water in the bowl. Let’s just take some yellow back out of the bowl.” When the pipette pulled up green water from the bowl, I said “Hey! Where’s my yellow water!” That then led to a long play time of trying to pull up blue water or yellow water, and him learning that once things are mixed, they often can’t be unmixed.

This activity gave him chances to further explore materials he’s learned about recently, and combine them in new ways, thus deepening his knowledge of all the materials, and gaining a new insight about color mixing. And, it gave me a chance to get some work done…. Wins all around.


Water Beads

On Pinterest and blogs, you’ll find lots of posts about “water beads” and using them as a sensory item for toddlers and preschoolers. When my son was three, I got our first package, and they were a huge hit! They sat in a container on the kitchen counter all week, and every breakfast and snack time, he played with them – mostly moving them from one container to another and back again. Sometimes pretending that they’re dinosaurs chatting each other up. Sometimes just rolling them around with one hand while he reads a book, or squeezing them between his fingers when watching a video. He used tongs and spoons to move them back and forth. We’ve tried a few in the bathtub, but were careful that none go down the drain. You can do color sorting and counting games and more.

What are water beads?

Water beads are a water absorbing polymer designed to be used in flower vases. They look like tiny plastic balls till you put them in water for 6 – 8 hours, then they swell up to gelatinous marbles. They stay hydrated for days, even uncovered. (If you want to dry them out to store them, you have to spread them out on a cookie sheet so they’re not all touching each other, and it still takes days.)

water bead tub

They are really interesting and appealing to touch – they feel cool, wet, squishy but not squash-able (resilient), malleable. Fun to just run your fingers through. They’re interesting to look at – really beautiful – brightly colored, shiny, reflective, and they pick up all the light in the room (they look great on light tables). They bounce. Luckily, they don’t taste like anything at all or smell like anything yummy, so not a lot of motivation to eat, which is good.

We usually use them in containers by themselves and let the kids sift their hands through them, but they’re also fun in a water table. (Be warned that if left in LOTS of water for several hours, they do tend to get overly hydrated and become much more fragile. You’ll likely end up with lots of broken fragments. If I want to use them in class the next day, I fish them all out of the water after class to store in a bowl till the next class.) We’ve also used them with the marble maze.

img_20160326_132519369  img_20170204_134548438

Where do you get them?

We got a small package of BioGel brand beads from Creation Station. They are sold in floral departments of stores, or at dollar stores, or can be ordered online (search for “water beads” or one site said to search for “polymers”). My recent order was MarvelBeads Water Beads Rainbow Mix, 8 oz (20,000 beads) and so far, I’ve been happy with them. Note, this is a LOT of water beads – it would make a bathtub full – I plan to use them several times a year in a class that I teach. You’d likely want a smaller package. Three ounces makes 3 gallons of water beads. At home, I’d typically only use a cup or two. For class, I might make a gallon. So, $5 of beads goes a long ways, even longer if you dry them out between uses and re-hydrate when desired

A couple notes about safety and mess:

Water beads are non-toxic, but that doesn’t mean they’re good to eat! If your child swallowed the dry ones, they could swell in their belly. (With the kind that only swell to marble size, that might be less of an issue, but there was a recall of a similar product called Water Balz that started out marble-sized and swelled much bigger. Very bad for little ones!) So, they should only be used with close supervision, and if your child tends to mouth things, consider some of the more baby-proofed options for water bead play described on Playing and Learning Begins at Home, such as putting them inside a transparent plastic container with a lid. Or, make edible boba (tapioca beads) instead… see this post for my comparison. Or, Fun at Home with Kids recommends basil seed.

Some parents say that their kids dump these all over the floor and it’s a pain to clean them up. My son kept them all up on the counter, and if one dropped to the floor, he would scramble down to rescue it and return it to the container as soon as possible. You have to know your child to know what the mess potential is. One mom recommended confining them to the sink to minimize mess: http://www.thegoldengleam.com/2012/06/messy-play-in-sink-water-beads.html

Apparently some brands stain clothing – the ones we’ve had didn’t. Some brands are squishable – kids can squeeze them into mushy blobs. The Biogel brand we had was very resilient and non squishable – they could be broken if you squeeze long and hard enough – my son broke a couple in half and was very upset but we “fixed them” with a little sleight of hand (swapping in a non-broken bead) and then he stopped breaking them.

Want to see lots of posts on water beads and sensory play?

Just search online! Or, go to our BC Parent Ed Pinterest board of water bead ideas.

My favorite summary is on Artful Parent. And here’s “10 Ways to play with Water Beads

Photo credit, beads in hand: 10MFH via photopin; Tub: LizMarie_AK via photopin


tinkerAt an in-service last week, after seeing this poster, I had a great conversation with one of my class’ teachers about the word “tinkering” and how great it is when parents allow their kids to tinker around, exploring, testing, fixing, breaking, and fixing again. So many skills are learned by this kind of hands-on exploration.

So, what is “tinkering”? Let’s ignore the definitions that say things like “unskillful or clumsy worker.” I like:

Children at play,  discovering new materials, and exploring new uses for familiar materials are Tinkers. People who were allowed to tinker a lot as children often become engineers, or scientists, because of that approach of “what happens if I try this? Oh cool! Now, what if I do that? Ooh, even better!”

People who were allowed to tinker a lot as children also become chefs, woodworkers, architects, computer designers, graphic artists, fashion designers, and builders. Learning early on the joys of building and creating and refining sets a lifelong passion for hands-on work in a variety of fields. (Check out this great post on The Importance of Learning to Make Things.)

How do you encourage your children to tinker? Give them lots of open-ended materials (cardboard boxes, toilet paper tubes, tape, string) and time to experiment. Talk to them about their creations, asking about the process and what they learned along the way. Ask them what they want to do next with their experiment.

I like this post from Kids Stuff World on Ten Powerful Life Lessons from TInkerlab. A couple of her lessons are:

  • The results are not as important as the process.
  • The more exposure you have to a material, the more you will learn what you can do with it.
  • Think of everything as an experiment.

Allowing your child to play, and tinker, and putter around, helps to ensure that as they get older, they meet this definition of Tinker: “somebody good at many tasks: somebody able to do many different kinds of work successfully.” (Bing dictionary)

If you’re in the Seattle area, and want to do some tinkering with your child, join our Family Inventors Lab!