When your little one gets rather heavy for balancing on your hip throughout the day (once a favorite pastime of mine) and isnt content to sit on your lap for very long, there are different activities that can keep him happily occupied.
Each year I am asked for advice on what to do with preschoolers in the homeschool. They crave something to do. Young children have a strong curiosity. Therefore we can introduce them to a morning activity before (or in between) older childrens lessons.
A childs curiosity is his desire to know: to touch, to build, to climb, to explore how things fit together, to become familiar with color, size, shape, touch, smell, and to identify these by name once he begins to talk. Studies have documented that children parented at home during the preschool years ask ten times as many questions as do children in the finest nursery schools or day-cares. They also have wider vocabularies. Do not underestimate the power of motherhood even on days when you think you are accomplishing little (whether in housekeeping or with your children). The rhythm of real life and the loving relationship you share with your preschooler do more good than any crowded classroom can do. What does a preschooler need most to learn and grow? He needs you.
Three Brown Bags
My three children played so nicely together when they were young. I remember a certain September, however, when my little boy suddenly was the odd one out. Both his sisters were doing lessons. The younger sister was no longer free for morning play as she had been before. In order to homeschool my two girls and keep my three-year-old boy both busy and happy, I set up a system of three brown bags. I placed special toys in each one and kept them on a high shelf in the coat closetto be taken down only during morning lessons. This made their existence a bit more intriguing to him. Each day I would choose to bring down just one of the three bags. This way he would be presented with a different selection of toys everyday. By alternating their availability, there would be a hint of newness to them. At lunchtime these toys were tucked away in the bag and hidden until the next appropriate school time arrived. When the lunch dishes were washed up, we all took a change of scenery by spending some refreshing time outdoors.
Besides the bags of toys I also scheduled some time to introduce my son to one new learning activity a week (or so.) He enjoyed repeating certain activities on his own for some days afterwards.
The following learning activities I describe for you are for ages two to four. Some may be too complicated for a two-year-old, some not interesting enough or challenging enough for a four-year old, but within the range of activities it is my hope that you will find the ones that suit your situation.
Stacking Cubes or Nesting Cups
Build me a tower, Douglas. Like this, Mother says, demonstrating. She places the largest cube on the bottom. The cubes graduate in size. Each cube stacked in succession is a little bit smaller. The smallest ends up on top. Plastic nesting cups work the same way and can also be fitted inside each other. It may be days or weeks before the tower is made with the proper size cubes in each spot. The tower teaches size comparison. This is the big one, Mother teaches, and this is the small one. The next day she asks him to hand her the big one and then the small one.
Even though our youngest child is now taller than I am, Ive always kept our set of wooden stacking donuts. It is one of my favorite toys. Whenever there is a little child visiting, I take it out and enjoy watching him or her play with it. Just the other day I had the cutest round-faced two-year-old girl in my living room. Her mother had come for tea and a chat. The stacking donuts immediately attracted her daughters attention. The wooden donuts were stacked on their stick-stand, dumped, and stacked again, four times. After each stacking she held it up to her mother and said, Luh, Ma! I always like to hear that.
The cry, Mom, look, what I made! continues over the years. Children are so pleased and surprised by their own abilities and want to share their joy with us.
Long shoelaces with plastic tips, purchased at the grocery store, can be used to string together empty spools. Because I didnt sew enough to accumulate more than a few spools, at a friends suggestion, I purchased two sets of large wooden beads. Two sets kept my youngster busy for a longer time, while I did some lessons with my girls. He would either make a very long snake or a necklace for a giant.
Sequencing with the beads was an activity we did together (another good reason for having two sets). Id place a blue bead on the lace, then a red, another blue, a red and ask him, what comes next? To play this game he threaded a blue one next, which continued the pattern. I did this with yellow and green, then orange and purple. The next time we played I would put two reds, two blues, and two reds and ask him. What two beads come next? I dont remember how old he was when he could complete a three-colored pattern but that was the next, more complicated, pattern I gave him.
Sequencing is a kind of preparation for reading. Because Nigel is right-handed, he held the lace in his left-hand and the beads in his right. Therefore the patterned snake grew from left to right. Words on a page are a sequence of letters: consonants and vowels read from left to right. This is what a child will become acquainted with later.
Ziti pasta can also be threaded, just for the fun of developing dexterity.
Matching Lids to Containers & Pouring Rice
This suggestion is from Ginia West, who wrote an article in my Parents Review some years back. Save up different sized plastic containers, like yogurt containers, soft cheese containers, etc. Give the child a pitcher or large container of rice to pour into the smaller containers, which he then covers with the corresponding lids. This can also be done with beans or elbow macaroni. Pouring back and forth with an aim not to spill is a good controlled motor activity that develops coordination.
One of my children, nearly age five, was noticeably awkward at carrying things and often dropped things, spilled things, or bumped into things. Therefore I required her to carry a tray of containers of rice without lids. The goal was to balance the tray (hold it level) in front of her and carry it carefully across the room to set it on the table. In so doing she was walking in a new way, that is, without seeing her feet in her line of vision nor seeing a bit of the path in front of her. It gave her the balancing practice she apparently needed. Quite soon she could pour her own apple juice and carry it to the table without spilling it.
Fill the Can
Ginia West provides us with another idea. You begin with a large can that has a plastic lid. A coffee can works well. Cover it with decorative contact paper. Then collect metal tops from frozen concentrate fruit drinks. Cut a slot in the plastic lid of the can. The tops, one by one, are then put through the slot in the lid, filling the can. An abundant supply of lids enables a little one to be occupied for a longer time. This helps to increase a childs powers of attention.
Sink or Float
My son loved to bring the stepping stool up to the bathroom sink and play with toys and things in a sink full of water while I taught my girls. I gave him a plastic ladle, an ice tray, spoons, plastic boats, a clean sponge, a funnel, a piece of wax paper, etc. He liked using the sink stopper and filling the sink himself. I would then ask him which things floated and which always sank. I was giving him the vocabulary with which to explain this phenomenon and make a comparison. While I was in the adjoining room with the girls doing arithmetic, he and the bathroom were getting soaked. One cant have everything, I thought to myself. But I really didnt mind, because he and it were easily made dry afterwards: he with a large towel and a change of clothes, the bathroom floor with a handy sponge. Eventually I got wise: a rubber-backed mat under the stepping stool provided needed absorption.
Something that wouldnt fit in a brown bag was my stack of wooden puzzles. I had collected these over the years, making sure I had puzzles of varying levels of difficultyfrom three pieces on up. On the flip side of each puzzle piece I had crayoned a letter to mark the pieces that belonged to each other. For example: all the panda bear pieces had a P behind them. If the pieces of all the puzzles somehow got mixed into a messy pile, they could be more quickly sorted. Mostly I would hand my child the puzzle trays that contained the amount of pieces most suited his ability.
The aim is to complete the puzzle.
Knobbed puzzle pieces are very good for strengthening little fingers. A child will use three fingers on the knob, similar to the way in which they will hold a crayon and pencil. Ginia West suggests that if youd like to try adding some knobs to puzzle pieces, drill a hole one eighth to one forth of an inch into the piece, depending on the thickness of the wood, and glue in a knob.
While you have the drill out, you might want to make some sewing cards. First cut some sturdy cardboard into pieces of whatever size you choose. Then draw some colorful pictures on themperhaps a big face, a cat, a flower, or any other object easily recognized by the child. Drill holes in appropriate places: beside the cats mouth for whiskers, around the perimeter of the object, etc. The holes will be threaded with shoelaces. If drawing is not your forte, glue on pictures from magazines. My childrens first sewing cards were pictures I drew on sturdy paper plates. You can also purchase sewing cards.
When story-time and song-time were over, an activity enjoyed by my Sunday school class of preschoolers was to match the mittens. At home, I simply outlined sets of mittens on some white paper. Holding several sheets of paper together, I was able to multiply my efforts by cutting out a dozen at a time. The mittens were made the size of the childrens hands. With colored magic markers I added stripes or poka dots, zig-zags or swirls to make matching sets. I cut more out of colored construction paper. A low clothesline was set up in class and I handed out clothespins. The children liked using the clothespins to match the mixed-up mittens. They scrambled around the line, very keen to pin them up in sets the way I had showed them. Fabric remnants can also be cut into mitten shapes for matching. A collection of real mittens would be even more wonderful, but I know these arent as readily available.
More difficult than matching mittens by sight is matching fabric swatches by feel. Collect a variety of fabrics of different textures. Cut fabric into two squares of the same size. The pieces I cut were about the size of my own hand. Ive used swatches of terry cloth, cotton muslin, flannel, corduroy, fake fur, shower curtain material, and two crocheted granny squares. To start, place two sets of fabric swatches into a brown bag and mix them up. Blind folded (or with eyes closed) the child is to reach into a bag to match a set of fabric squares only by feel and hand the set to you. Adding more sets to the bag to increases the challenge. This activity is good for developing concentration.
If preparing fabric swatches is too fussy a project for you at present, you can still keep to the blindfold and the bag idea. Instead of swatches, secretly place in the bag a few objects from around the house. A hairbrush, a fork, a tube of toothpaste, a matchbox car, an apple, are just a few suggestions. The child calls out the name of the items as he identifies them and hands them to you. Watch the smiles that come with his guessing.
A more difficult blindfold activity involves recognizing smells from the kitchen or garden. Simply hold the object (such as a lemon) under his nose. He must keep his hands folded under the table because the tendency is to want to touch the object.
Action Songs, Nursery Rhymes, Picture Books
Each of my preschoolers received his or her regular dose of nursery rhymes. The same rhymes and the same picture books were read aloud to them again and again . Children like to hear a familiar rhyme or story read to them. Consequently, after so much repetition, I didnt need to read all the nursery rhymes because I knew the short ones by heart. All I needed to do was to open the book, glance at the picture on the page and I could say its rhyme by memory. With my hands free of the book, I could do a few gestures. I only knew two action songs from my own childhood: The Itsy-bitsy Spider and Im a Little Tea Pot. These, too, I taught them.
Nursery rhymes and verses, as well as short poems and stories, are part of the joys of childhood. They also provide a child with a strong start in languagea sturdy foundation that will be built upon years hence. Later these familiar rhymes, verses, and stories will be a big help in teaching the child how to read. Therefore do not undervalue the many repetitions of reading aloud the same nursery rhymes . When you read aloud you are connecting a child with the language sense. He will pick up that language has order and cadence, that it represents ideas and creates pictures in the imagination. Picture books even teach grammar by familiarizing children with what good grammar sounds like. All this from your times of getting cozy!
With my two-year old children I would play point with our picture books. I would say, Point to the green leaves on the tree. Point to the red wagon. Point to the dog running, the dog sitting, the dog barking, etc. For children somewhat older I would not only read the picture book but on occasion I would ask simple questions relating to what was in the pictures.
My second child took a particular fancy to nursery rhymes. She is the same child who was the most fond of poetry during high school at home. When she was four years old I bought a cassette recording of nursery rhymes. The rhymes were sung with interludes of music between each rhyme. She learned how to use the tape player and would go off by herself to play it while I did some lessons with her older sister. I wonder whatever happened to that tape. After three months of daily use, it nearly drove one of us batty. Can you guess who that one was? To remedy the situation that one decided it was time to buy a new tape.
Shades of Color
The older we get the more we recognize and understand shades of meaning. A writer can choose from a vast array of vocabulary to express just what he wants to say. An artist mixes on his palette just the right shades of color for a sunset. But when we are young, things, of course, are kept simple. A child learns the names of the basic colors. Upon reading about the Montessori color tablets, I decided to make my own sets. I had already taught my daughter the names of those basic colors found in a box of eight crayons. A step up from this is this shades-of-color activityan activity that isnt sold in toy stores.
Here is how to arrange it. First, visit the hardware store where you usually purchase your buckets of paint. In the paint section choose a variety of colors of paint selection strips. At home, hold the strips up to a lighted window and with a pencil, lightly number the flip side of the rectangular sections. Then cut out the colored rectangles. Show the child how to arrange the rectangles in order according to shadedark to light. Then mix the rectangles and let him try to put them in order. The colors will vary a bit in tone as well as shade. Some rectangles in the middle of the strip will be close in shade. If you need to check proper placement, turn them over to see their numbers. This color exercise may later lend finer meaning to a six-year-olds box of sixty-four crayons.
This is another Montessori activity. Its purpose is to match containers by their sound. Eight identical empty containers are needed. Prepare the containers secretly. Measure the same amounts of rice, lentils, beans, salt, little macaroni, oats, buttons, tiny beads, or other small items, in matching pairs. To make them shakable the bottles should not be filled to the top. In one set you might even put the same size marble in each or a tiny piece of paper rolled into a ball. You can change the rattling objects monthly with a little creativity. Older siblings will take an interest in assisting you, or even think up new contents and fill the bottles entirely on their own.
If you dont mind using glass, empty spice jars are one option. These would have to be covered with paper to hide the contents. If you often take photographs you can save up your empty film containers. Grandparents may be willing to contribute their empty ones. These darkened containers are ideal and fit nicely in a little childs hand, too.
Start by placing four containers in front of your child. Show him that he is to shake the containers and find two that sound alike. A match makes a pair. When the first two are matched the other set will automatically be matched, but shake them to verify it. Increase the challenge by mixing in more bottles. Because the vibrations while shaking will be slightly different according to what is inside, a child will actually be feeling a difference in the bottles as well. For children a little older, you may wish to sneak in an odd bottle as a trick during a subsequent playing of this activity.
Cut and Paste
One winter I was cutting out detailed patterns of paper snowflakes with my girls. My son watched with wide eyes and then nudged to participate. I didnt think he was capable at age three of what we were doing, but he wasnt content to just watch. He opened the pie safe where I kept supplies and took out a sheet of green construction paper from the lowest shelf. He brought it over to the table and folded it in half and then in half again, with surprising neatness. Whered he learn that? I wondered to myself. With a pair of blunt-edged scissors, he began to imitate our activity by cutting snips along all four sides of folded paper. Opening it up to see the myriad of holes must have been gratifying to him, because he repeated the activity with more sheets of paper. He was still quietly absorbed in his folding, snipping, and opening tasks for some time at a low table while I began lessons with the girls at the kitchen table. I like your green snowflakes, I told him after a while.
They arent snowflakes, he said. At that I felt stupid. Snowflakes are white, of course. I didnt ask him what they were. I guessed they were mere experiments with paper.
One glimpse at the shag carpet below the low table where he was working revealed a considerable sprinkling of snippets of paper. (The whole house in that place we rented was carpetedeven the kitchenso a broom was useless.) I vacuumed up the snippets. The next morning he cut up more papers. After lunch I stood at the edge of the room facing the mess with my hands on my hips, thinking, I thought I just vacuumed this place. But I didnt bother to vacuum up the snippets again. I made haste to be outside with my children. The new fallen snow had a stickiness superb for snowman making.
It was a good thing I didnt take out the vacuum the next couple of days either, because my son continued to add to an increasing accumulation of snippets throughout the rest of the week. On Saturday the blaring noise of the hard-working vacuum seemed to be a rude signal to him that his cutting appetite was satisfied. Not one more green cut-out was made after that day. Time for a new activity, I supposed.
Cutting out shapes and snipping out holes are skills children seem very willing to develop. Pasting what is cut out onto another piece of paper is its partner.
Since we are on the subject of paper, here is an activity that is a great help to the baby-sitter who needs something to keep energetic children busyespecially children who are bouncing off the walls on a rainy dayso my daughters have divulged. Thus the knowledge of paper chain making does comes in handy.
Sheet for sheet, colored typing paper is less expensive than construction paper. We have one ream of paper that features five colors. A dozen sheets of each color goes a long way for chain making. Show the children how to cut strips along the short side of the paper at least an inch wide or wider. Very young participants may need some lines drawn on for them to follow with their scissors. Cellophane tape is used to secure the loops. The finished chains can be draped around the dinning room with balloons to help celebrate a birthday. If no one is having a birthday near the time you are chain making, invite Teddies to the party.
Walking the Trail
Run some yarn along an obstacle course through the house. Show the child how to follow the beginning of the trail, then let him carry on himself. Masking tape may be used if you have smooth floors. Where will the trail end and what will he find there? Would he like to make his own trail for you to follow?
I dont know what to tell you about finger painting, because we never did it. I guess it was something I avoided. I did, however, supply my children with a short easel and some paints and thick-handled paintbrushes to make pictures. You can also use the same paint to do potato stamping. Mother cuts the potatoes in half and then into various shapes on the flat edge. The decorated paper can be saved and used for wrapping paper.
Ill never forget the time we had a Canadian missionary to Pakistan stay with us. She was working in the missions headquarters in England, where we were stationed. My husband noticed how tired she looked after returning from Pakistan, and suggested she be our houseguest until she got some needed rest. Her apartmentfull of other female volunteerswasnt very restful.
I had some nice chats with this quiet-spoken, serious woman. She and I and my two little girls sat around the kitchen table. The girls were happily forming figures out of play-dough. It was then that our houseguest made a comment that startled me. She told me that her young students in Pakistan shared their play-dough. When the dough was divided up, each child was given a piece not much bigger than a pea. I concluded that people in poorer countrieswhere food is not as plentifulmust eat, and not play, with food (flour). I was a great deal more appreciative of our bounty that day and felt sad for her students.
When you give your child (age three and up) play-dough, sit with him the first few times. Make some figures with him. This will get him started on another activity that can be done now and again on his own while you are assisting older children with their lessons.
Last week I laughed at a Family Circle comic that will make my most frugal readers cringe. A four-year-old red-haired boy was balancing on his knees on the edge of the kitchen counter, reaching out for the paper towel roll that was attached under the cupboard. The next scene pictured him walking away with a jolly face carrying what he wantedthe cardboard roll. Behind him was the kitchen garbage bin filled with billows of unrolled paper towels.
I wonder what he was going to do with his cardboard tube. He had his mind set on something. Maybe it was to be a tunnel to drive his matchbox cars through. What else can be done with a cardboard tube? Mr. Rogers Neighborhood might give you some ideas. His program was the only one I put on (on occasion) for my little ones to watch.
Order and Routine
Time to get up,
time to get dressed,
time to set the breakfast table,
time to eat,
time to clear the table,
time to brush our teeth,
time for a story,
time to play indoors,
time for lunch,
time to play outdoors,
time for a walk,
time for a bath,
time for another story or two,
time for bedearly.
Phew! These are just some of the routine times our little ones experienced daily. They are major activities for little ones. A pleasant home atmosphere prevents any of these times from becoming alarming or rushed. They are teaching timesreal life learning activities. They help in developing a childs character, his abilities, and his knowledge.
A little child needs his rhythms of work and rest just as we do. The play of a preschooler is his workso is dressing, for instancebut he can also do small chores to get a sense of being a helper. He can fold napkins, set the table, find wild flowers or pick garden flowers for the table and put them in a vase. A mother shall teach her child slowly and patiently (and without too much distracting chatter) how to sweep the crumbs up off the floor, shine his Sunday shoes, straighten his bed, hang his clothes on a row of low pegs, etc. These chores take timebut not a lot of timeand should give a young child the feeling of accomplishment even if (as is likely) they are done less than perfectly. A child is a person with a place in his environment, a place in the family. His character will be strengthened with each repeated act of obedience. A disciplined child is a child who is being trained (very gradually) in good habitsone at a time. Forming a habit is an hour by hour, day by day process. With little children we take lots of little friendly steps.
A childs joy comes when he is acknowledged and appreciated. Look, Mom, look, Dad! I did it all by myself. A hug from Mom or Dad marks the moment of success with shared joy.
Childrens curious minds must be fed. They do not need, however, to be entertained every moment of the day. We ought to guide them and provide them with materials and opportunities. A simple sturdy dollhouse, for instance or a box of dress-up clothes gives children the opportunity to be imaginative and creative. It is okay for children to be bored sometimes. It is then that they will learn to rely on their creativity to occupy themselves, if you do not give in to whining.
Exercise and fresh air are essential for growing bodies and quite often all that peevish children need is to get outside. A homeschool mother could also do with a welcome diversion from the usual indoor domesticity. This brings me to the last part of this writing.
When my first two children were of preschool age and kindergarten, we moved from one apartment to another. Each was surrounded by pavement. I remember trying to fill one bored moment with a math activity. We leaned over the back of the couch at the front window counting how many red cars would go by in three minutes. It didnt go over very well. Two blocks away from one apartment there was some grass and a set of swings and a long slide. We walked to this park every day we could. Later, when we rented a house with a back yard we made the most of it. Backyards are such a blessing when you have small children. I breathed a long sigh of contentment the day we entered our own backyard. In the fall we ate our lunches outside. The children raked, then jumped in piles of leaves. We collected colored leaves and acorns, and dug in the soil to plant daffodil bulbs. The bulbs were really for my own anticipation. They are not a particularly good project for very young children, as they take all winter to season. Therefore, come spring, for a quicker return on our labor, we sprouted seeds indoors. Our sunflower seeds soon came to life in their soggy egg-carton and we proudly transplanted them just outside the front door. What dramatic progress they made! By summer they stood taller than the children who planted them. Our zucchini seeds were just as robust and hardy and proved to be a rewarding first vegetable.
At the breakfast table in the winter, we observed birds and squirrels at the backyard feeder through the kitchen window, while in the front of the house the neighborhood children stood shivering, waiting for the school bus. At night time, in the clear cold air, we looked up at the moon and the stars.
When the weather warmed, after morning lessons we spent every afternoon we could outdoors observing ants, bumblebees, or butterflies. We held caterpillars, toads, snails, earthworms, and tried to wake the sleepy moths that congregated around the back porch light. Children are fascinated with nature. Their oohs and ahhs are so good to hear. None of these things are new to us grown-ups, of course, but they are new to the children. Encourage nature observation in children when they are young and a habit will be formed that will be a source of delight to them when they are older. God created nature for our pleasure, but nature will reveal its treasures only to those who will take the time to look. To develop powers of attention while you foster a sense of wonder, participate in Nature Study.
Examples of more than two hundred living things that can be observed with children (of all ages) are scattered throughout the pages of Pocketful of Pinecones. It is a story and teachers guide all in one. Its chapters will carry you through the seasonal adventures of a fictional homeschool family. Meant to be a pick-me-up for the frazzled mom, it gives a peek at the gentle art of learninga life-style of learning benefiting both mother and child.