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Keeping Kids Busy

It's a challenge most moms have, especially moms of preschoolers... what to have them do all day. Toys only do so much and relying on TV to entertain them should not be an option... often. So what do you do when you run out of options?

Now, I have the advantage of having been a preschool teaching and having a degree in education and a certificate in child development. I have a pretty decent bank of simple, fun activities that take very basic materials just stored up in my brain (when I am able to retrieve them, that is- this gets harder as I get older!). Even then I get busy and life gets in the way. And even more often I forget that, while my kids are able to entertain themselves better than most they need varied materials and inspiration in order to continue to do so successfully.

Just so we're clear on where I stand, though, so far as kids and independence goes, I have to say that I don't play with my kids. That sounds awful but in effect it is true. I interact with my kids all day- I talk to them, I read to them, I ask them to tell me about their art or tell me about what they are doing, I ask them to help me do various tasks, I answer their (constant!) questions and help them when they need help. But I don't play. Part of it is just my personality- I'm just not a playful person. But also I feel like learning to entertain oneself is a life skill, and by allowing, even encouraging my children to play by themselves I am encouraging them to develop this skill. As an added bonus I get most of my housework done while they are playing instead of rushing to get it all done during nap or when they are in bed, so (on the best of days, at least) I get most of my stuff done AND have a little me time each day. And you know what that means? Happy Mommy... and you know what they say about Mom being happy:)

At my best I try to provide at least three new activities for my kids each week. I show them how to do them or give basic direction, provide the materials, and allow them to repeat the activity as often as they want. The number of activities you introduce per week may differ from mine based on a number of circumstances- we are gone a good portion of each morning either at preschool or at the park and dog park, and most of the afternoon is lost to nap, snack, and other routine activities. I am picky about the activities I choose- again, because of my past experience I have very definite ideas about what activities are appropriate for preschool and toddler age children. There are a lot of ideas out there (the internet, the library, teacher supply stores) and of course you can make your own choices, but I choose activities for my children based on the following criteria:

  • free/cheap materials- occasionally I will splurge on a material if I feel it will be super beneficial, but in most cases there is a lot you can do with very basic materials, so seldom is there a need for this.
  • little or no prep required (other than gathering and arranging materials)- in some science or math activities a little mixing or cooking may be involved ahead, but most particularly in art activities the more prep required by the adult the less is actually done by the child.
  • Valuable learning experience- what does the child gain from the activity? This sounds pretty heavy, but just about anything a child does at this age is a learning experience. I'll list some examples of activities and concepts to build activities around by subject matter and you'll see what I mean. On a related note, this was why weekly themes in preschool classes always annoyed me. Sometimes they were relevant- themes like "all about me" and "my family" and "my friends" all have meaning to a child and can be developed upon easily for just about any child. More specific ones like "dinosaurs" and "apples" are not terribly good mostly because they are too simple and may not appeal to every child. However, I digress and I generally wouldn't recommend planning themes for your child at home (you should, however, take cues from your child and try to find activities that develop interests he or she already has... so if your child is in LOVE with dinosaurs some activities involving dinosaurs would be fantastic... just remember, dinosaur coloring sheets are NOT an art activity. At least in my opinion:).
And, to give you a head start, here are a few very simple activity suggestions by content area:

Pre-math: preschool math activities should all be variations of the following activities (there are more, but these are the most important and the easiest to set up);
  • classification- pre-sorting, children start to notice and point out characteristics of items. Asking questions and pointing out characteristics will help them do this.
  • sorting- give your child a mix of raisins, cheerios, and goldfish (or whatever you like, as long as it's visually different) and a muffin tin and encourage them to sort the different snacks into different sections. Of course it's fine to eat it, too:)
  • patterning- Take anything your child has a set of with two or more of the same item (my children have these pop beads and there are three of each color... or you could use different colored blocks, stuffed animals... use your imagination!) and show them how to make an "ABAB" pattern (for example "red green red green"). Just show them this, but don't push it, until they start to replicate the behavior. Depending on your child (some just aren't interested at first) it may take a while. Just be patient.
  • shapes- You probably don't need my help on this one- make shape and color cards or read books about them to your child. Once they have a basic grasp on some shapes and colors start helping them recognize shapes in their environment. You could have your child put a sticker on every square they can find, for example.
  • measuring- having your child help you cook is one of the best ways to teach measuring. In between cooking, though, you can provide your child with a similar experience. fill a dishtub or similar sized vessel half full (or less) with oatmeal (I find this is the easiest to clean up while being cost effective and providing decent scooping... and especially for younger children it doesn't hurt if they decide to try a mouthful!). Put several measuring spoons and cups into the tub, along with a smaller bowl to measure into. Encourage them to count their scoops. I ususally do this outside, but oatmeal is easy to sweep up if this is done on tile. I also frequently let my 3 year old play with a tape measure- an older child could use a tape measure or ruler and record the lengths of various items around the house.
  • Blocks are a great math and science tool as well, and a great set of wooden unit blocks is a great investment.
Science: There are two main scientific concepts that are important for preschoolers-
  • Nature- take a nature walk and gather materials, then sort them when you get home (math and science in one!); grow plants, search for birds' nests, make bird feeders from pinecones, chart the weather, pick and press flowers.
  • Cause and Effect- mix vinegar and baking soda (a favorite- I've also mixed purple cabbage juice with it for color, but I feel this is an unnecessary step... food coloring would work), give them salt and ice (and some food coloring!) and tell them to see what happens, mix colors (yellow and blue makes green...), disolve eggshells (look for instructions online, I can't remember how), see if different items sink or float, cook. Many more available online!
Language and Pre-Literacy:
  • Read to your child! A lot! And encourage him or her to do lots of independent reading. Keep lots of books available and rotate them to keep them fresh. Go to the library.
  • Allow your child to handle your books and to handle pens and pencils in addition to their crayons and markers. I let my kids each have a "journal" of lined paper to "write" (or color or whatever they want to do) in.
  • Ask open ended questions. Speak to your child the way you want them to speak. Sounds simple, I know, but it's all it takes.
Art: Don't cut stuff out for you child to glue. Don't use coloring sheets/ books (or use them sparingly- I like them about as much as I like juice- I feel they stifle creativity and present children with unrealistic expectations for what "art" should look like. Remember, your child's art should be YOUR CHILD's art. I may seem repetitive, but this is one of my pet peeves (and Izzy's preschool teachers are guilty of this, sadly). If you have to do something, what's the point? Your job is to provide them with new and varied materials and stand back. Freedom and expression are THE most important things.
  • Make sure they have the basics available all the time- paper of various types/colors, scissors (cutting with safety scissors is age appropriate around 2 depending on the child's motor skills- Izzy mastered them long ago and regularly cuts with my sewing scissors because she really likes to cut up my fabric scraps), markers, crayons, colored pencils, paint, and paintbrushes. Let them at it as often as possible. Paint is the hardest, I realize- I used to have plastic babyfood containers with a small amount of paint in them available for Izzy to access as she desired. Since Oliver has been mobile, however, I haven't been brave enough to do this, so I get the paint for her when she wants it.
  • Take the painting outside- paint outside on the ground, a table, or an easel. Take art to the park. A different setting can be inspiring.
  • Use different materials- my favorite "paintbrush"- tennis balls! Plastic trucks, sponges, potatoes, and of course hands and feet make fantastic paintbrushes as well.
This is getting WAY longer than I thought it was going to be and I'm tired:) Next time I'll finish up with Sensory experiences and Social/Emotional activities.

Happy Monday!

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