Category Archives: Learning through Play and Experience

Three Little Pigs

The next time you share the story of the Three Little Pigs, don’t just tell it, have the children be a part of it!  These masks are inexpensive and easy to make.  And the kiddos have a blast as they step into the story!

Start out with some simple supplies: a toilet paper tube, felt, scissors, glue, a Sharpie, and yarn or elastic string. (Oh, and the hole puncher and pencil were sluffing class when the picture was taken, but they’ll come in handy too.)

For a pig snout, cut the tube so that it’s not quite in half.  I would use the piece on the right for the snout.  Then trim down the other to match and you’ve got two snouts from one tube.  (It works out to about a half-inch strip cut out of the center of the tube.)

Punch holes in each side of the tube to aid in stringing it later.  Use your pencil to mark how wide your tube snout is and then roll the tube along to measure how long it is.  You’ll end up with one long rectangle to cut out and then glue around the snout, covering the sides (and the holes – don’t worry, we’ll get to those later).

Set the snout down on the felt again and trace around the outside.  That extra little bit from the pencil will push the outline out a bit and create a circle that is slightly larger, which is exactly what you want.  Cut out the circle and draw on those cute piggie nostrils with your Sharpie.  Then glue the circle to the top of your snout.  (Be sure to align your nostrils with the holes you punched for your string.) 

If you’re using yarn, snip the felt over the holes and thread the yard through, knotting at the holes.  So you’ll end up with two yarn strings that can be tied together.  If you’re using elastic thread, thread it through a needle and feed it right through the fabric and the hole and knot it at each side, creating a band to be stretched around your child’s head.  For the wolf, follow the same directions, but use a full tube.

Enjoy acting out the story with the children you love and teach.  After acting out the basics of the story, let them continue the story or create new stories in their dramatic play.   Not only is storyacting more engaging, but it builds comprehension and fosters language and literacy skills for our budding readers.

Now that’s one fierce wolf!
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Filed under book activity, Building Readers, language activity, Learning through Play and Experience, Uncategorized

Let’s Build! Activities for a Preschool Tools and Construction Theme

Young children seem to be almost as intrigued by building and creating as they are by demolishing and dissecting.  That’s just part of why a tools and construction theme is so great for young kids!  And while they’re having a blast, they’re also learning some great concepts.  Here are just a few:

  • Tools and simple machines make work easier (Science)
  • There are shapes in architecture (Geometry)
  • You can measure using objects as units (Math)
  • Tools can be used in a variety of ways (Science, Inquiry, Motor Skills)

Here are just a few of my favorite activities to use within this theme (*’s mark those with details to come in future posts):

Dramatic Play:

Using large blocks (I made mine copying something like these…when I had just one toddler….who took long naps) build a creation against a wall and then outline the blocks using blue painter’s tape.  Ta-da!  You now have a full-scale blueprint!  Encourage children to follow the blueprint or create their own.  Other props in this theme might include hard hats, play tools, tool belts (Home Depot sells a tool apron for only $1), clip boards and pencils, real blueprints, phones/radios, orange cones, and caution tape.  You could also include a large appliance box and let your children use it to design and create their structure.

Working Tables (Small Motor):

Let children explore with nuts and bolts or doorknobs.  They’ll love taking them apart and putting them back together!  Push or pound golf tees into styrofoam.  Sort small nails and screws and count them out into numbered cups of a muffing tin.


Color on sandpaper for new tactile experience.

Build toothpick structures like these.

Paint with real paint rollers.

Drive toy construction vehicles through paint for cool tire track designs.

Do some “bulldozer painting” by pushing paint across paper with combs and flat edges.

Draw blueprints and create shoebox building models.

Sensory Bin:

Finally come to grips with the fact that you don’t need that old ghetto-blaster or VCR and let the kids Take it Apart!  (Keeping it in the bin helps to keep track of loose parts.)

Hide treasures in sawdust.

Drive small construction vehicles through sand.

Block Area:

Use a variety of building materials in addition to your standard unit blocks.  Kids love using pipes like these, or gutters like this.


Set up a woodworking area.  Find ways to let children saw, hammer, and sand!  If you don’t have a wood bench, just hammering nails into a stump will do.  Try using the pipes or gutters from the block area in the sandbox or on the lawn with water.  Set up some simple machines like ramps, pulleys, and levers.  (Of course use rope with supervision…..but do use rope.)

Large Group Activities:

Act out the Three Little Pigs (Props Here)

Sing Johnny Pounds with One Hammer 

Sort building and fixing tools (screwdrivers, hammers, etc.) from kitchen tools (whisks, spatulas, etc.).  (Emphasize that both groups are tools because they make our work easier.)  Use it as an opportunity to talk about some tools they may not be familiar with.

Measure using objects for units.*

Examine shapes in architecture.  (Check out Shapes, Shapes, Shapes and Cubes, Cones, Cylinders, and Spheres by Tana Hoban.)

Explore and experiment with simple machines.

Create a Word-Building Crane*

Book Activities:

Alphabet Under Construction by Denise Fleming*

The Construction Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallota*

Jack’s House by Karen Magnuson Beil*

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton*

Construction Zone by Tana Hoban, or the same title by Cheryl Willis Hudson*

So….Let’s Get Building!

What are some of your favorite building-themed activities for young children?

Top photo by Lars Sundstrom.

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Filed under Learning through Play and Experience, Unit Themes

Dr. Seuss’ Birthday is on the Way!

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Dr. Seuss.  Not only is his writing creative, humorous, poetic, and lovably quirky, but as an educator I’ve found it to be the perfect vehicle for promoting phonological awareness, a critical skill for building readers.  With his birthday looming just around the corner (March 2), this is a popular time of year for all things Seuss!

Last year I wrote about some of my favorite Dr. Seuss activities in these three posts:

Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss!

Five Favorites…To Start

A Triple Scoop of Seuss

This year, I went looking around the blogosphere for some new ideas and found some I can’t wait to try! 

  • An entire Dr. Seuss unit from Chalk Talk, with 40 pages including patterns and printables!
  • Make a hat like the Cat in the Hat using an oatmeal canister with these pointers from Frugal Family Fun Blog.
  • Amy lists some irresistible ideas at Serving Pink Lemonade (Thanks for including mine by the way!)

Do you celebrate Dr. Seuss’ birthday?  What are some of your favorite activities?  (Feel free to add your links!)

Top photo by EvelynGiggles.
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Filed under book activity, Building Readers, language activity, Learning through Play and Experience, Unit Themes

Do You Use Flashcards?

Flashcards are a common catch-phrase for developmentally inappropriate teaching methods.  Even I use it that way.  But like many teaching approaches, it is important to separate the objective, the content, and the method.  You might be surprised to find flashcards may not be as evil as you thought.

The Objective

Flashcards are often used for enhancing quick recall of information, particularly to match symbols to their meaning.  Recognizing letters and numbers by their names, recalling sight words that have to be learned rather than decoded.  These objectives are not heinous in themselves.  Rapid recognition and recall is necessary, and requires practice.  (Stick with me here.)

Flashcards are used for recall and recognition.  Review.  That is quite different from teaching.  Concepts that are practiced through flashcards must be taught in another way to build connections and meaning, otherwise, the rapid recall is useless.

The Content

Flashcards range in content.  Sight words, colors, numbers sure, but as high school and college students we all used flashcards to study Spanish verbs or vocabulary for Anatomy class.  The key is in determining appropriate content for your objective and your audience.  Just as college students don’t generally need to be learning their colors, babies don’t need to review sight words.

The Method

Now here’s where my realization began.  Flashcards are often synonymous with the “drill and kill” method.  But as I’ve mentioned before, the same content can be taught with different methods.  If you’re a proponent of play-based learning, there are ways to incorporate a play approach and learn the same recognition and recall skills in more appropriate ways. 

Here are some ways you may already be using (or may choose to use) “flashcards” with a play approach.

  • Bingo: Cards may match numbers, letters, and pictures in a fun and engaging approach to recognizing symbols. (Here’s an example from Teach Mama.)
  • Card Games: Remember the card game war?  I loved it as a kid and now I use what is essentially a pack of number flashcards to play it with my kindergartener, who probably doesn’t even realize it’s a great way to incorporate number recognition as well as value comparisons.  We’ve also played “Go Fish”, matching upper case to lower case or grouping numbers or letters together.  Uno is another fun card game that kids happily play as a fun alternative to color and number drilling. (Check out an assortment of card games for young children at Preschool Express.)
  • Dance: Scatter numbers, letters, or colors on the floor.  Turn on some fun music and dance or march around.  When the music stops, pick up one to identify and place in a basket.  Continue until it’s all picked up.  Hap Palmer’s Marching Around the Alphabet is designed for this activity, but any music will do.
  • Active Games: Incorporate concepts into fun games like Twister (substitute color cues for other concepts like letters, numbers or sight words for older children–“Right foot on a triangle”), arrange terms or concepts across the room and hop from one to the other as you call them out in a hot lava game, or pin cards onto shirts and play red rover calling for numbers, letters, or shapes instead of using the children’s names.  (No Time for Flashcards has a fun shaky game here.)

Though you may despise the kill and drill format typically associated with flashcards, there are other methods based in play that can teach the same concepts.  The key is to keep it fun, active, and engaging, and to remember that these activities help with recall and recognition.  The real learning comes from meaning and connections built from experiencing and applying the concepts in real and meaningful ways.

What area some fun twists you put on the flashcard approach?

Top photo by Tory Brown.
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Filed under Article, Learning through Play and Experience, Uncategorized

Have a Snack: Caramel Popcorn in a Bag!

My sons and I were making this delicious recipe for caramel popcorn yesterday and I thought you might enjoy a fun snack on your holiday!  (Originally published 3/30/2009.)  Making popcorn is a great way to involve and discuss the five senses.  You can read more about the developmental benefits of cooking here, and check out this great post on cooking with kids from Simple Bites.


Cooking is a great activity to do with kids!  There are plenty of ways children can help with almost any recipe, but some recipes just lend themselves to increased interest and participation from your little culinary artists.  This is one of them!  Caramel popcorn… in a bag… in the microwave!  It’s almost magical! 

(*As with any recipe be sure to know the limits of your children and your facility’s policies for safety if applicable.  Popcorn in particular may not be suitable for certain children or allowed in specific programs.)

Start with 8 cups of popped popcorn in a large paper sack (grocery store size).  I’ve found that 1/2 cup of kernels popped in my air popper equals about 8 cups, or a little more.  (Typically I’ll sneak in some extra popcorn just to “stretch” the recipe.  That’s what growing up in a big family will do for you!)
In a microwavable bowl, combine:
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup Karo syrup
1/2 tsp salt
Microwave for 3-4 minutes, until frothy.
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp soda
Stir to combine well, and then pour over the popcorn in the bag.  Roll down the top to seal and shake to coat.  (When microwaving and shaking the bag, some of the melted butter will seep through.  Just be sure to avoid touching those parts, and particularly point them out to your little ones that might be shaking the bag.)
Microwave, the bag and all, for 30 seconds and shake again.
Repeat until you have done a total of 2 minutes in the microwave.  (The original recipe says 3-4 minutes, but that was always too much in my micro.  If you do 2 minutes and the caramel corn still looks too sticky and thick, repeat the 30 second micro and shake sessions until it looks well coated.)
When it’s done, pour the popcorn into a large bowl, and let it cool.  Enjoy!  (When we had it along with apple slices recently, the combination was a tasty caramel apple sensation….and it got some fruit in!)

Involving children in making this recipe, exposes them to math concepts as you measure together, motor skills as you both stir and shake, science concepts as heat changes the properties of matter, and certainly sensory experiences as they hear, smell, see, and taste their creation!  Cooking is a great cognitive activity in general as it demonstrates cause-effect and ordered procedures.  Most of all, it’s a great activity for bringing everyone together in a positive social interaction!


Photo by bgraphic.
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Filed under Learning through Play and Experience, Recipes - Edible, sensory activity, Snack Time

Repost: A Handful of Fun

(After a very LONG day, I decided to reach back into the archives to provide this post on sensory play that originally came through during March of last year!)

 Think of your average preschooler.  How long has this child been proficient with language?  Depending on the age, the child may not really be too proficient yet!  Others seem to have been talking non-stop since 2 1/2, but that means they’ve been talking now for all of…..about a year!  Now think of how long these children have been seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling, and tasting.  Their whole lives!  Children are wired to receive and utilize sensory input from day one.  This is why children will dive in hands first, exploring a new substance.  The senses are their most familiar, most basic way to explore, process, and come to understand new information.

This is why we must allow young children to learn through experience, not just lecture.  These children need to use their senses and be engaged in meaningful experiences.  As we talk with them about what they are observing and sensing, we give them new language tools to connect with these more familiar sensory tools, building language as well as supporting cognitive concepts specific to the experience. 

Now, the flip side to this equation is important to remember as well.  Just as children learn through their senses, they also are developing the ability to use those senses and are building the neurological pathways associated with each one.  With added sensory experiences, combined with the scaffolding of adults and peers, children become more perceptive.  Their sensory intake and processing becomes more acute.  As they are better able to use their senses, they are then better able to learn through their senses.

Sensory play is really part of the scientific process.  Whether out loud or within the internal dialogue of the mind, children have developed a question, leading them to investigate– by grabbing, smelling, listening, rubbing, staring, licking , what have you!  They are using their senses to collect data and from that, attempt to answer their own questions.  Whether or not young children are always able to verbally communicate this process, it is still a valid exercise in scientific inquiry.

The sensory table is the usually the first place people think of for sensory play.  That’s logical, as the term “sensory” is shared by both.  The sensory table certainly stands as an open invitation for hands-on exploration, but it is not the only place where the senses come into play.  Throughout the preschool room and throughout the preschooler’s day, there are appeals being made to the five senses.  The sound of toppling towers in the block area, the feel of finger-paint sliding under their fingertips, the glow of the Light Brite at the small manip table, the smell of cinnamon playdough.  As teachers, the more we can attend to the sensory involvement of our planned activities, the more our children will be engaged and the more they will learn. 

For example, when discussing the need for warm clothes in the winter time, we can simply tell children about it, or we can have them hold ice cubes, one in a bare hand, and one in a gloved hand, let them really feel the difference and then meaningfully attach a verbal discussion to the sensory experience.

Back at the sensory table, we can find many more benefits to sensory play.  That bin of sand, or foam, or colorful rice is more than just another way to keep kids busy, it is a bustling factory of developmental growth.  In addition to honing sensory and science skills, sensory play builds language, social, and dramatic play skills as the children negotiate with one another to share tools, create stories, and build dialogues.  Both small and large motor skills get a boost as well, as the children manipulate the medium and tools of the day.  Creative, divergent thinking is displayed as the children are essentially invited to explore and come up with new ways to use the materials.  Cognitive skills are fostered as well as the children learn about specific concepts pertinent to the bin’s contents.  Things like gravity, parts of plants, states of matter, and color mixing are easily explored and understood through sensory play.  As you teach appropriate boundaries with sensory play, children develop more self-control and body awareness.

As one of the truest open-ended activities, sensory play provides an opportunity for every child to succeed.  No matter whether you are gifted or delayed, learning a new language or mastering your first, you can’t really fail with a bin full of beans or a ball of playdough.  Children who struggle to succeed or who are apprehensive about failure often find solace in sensory play.  The simple act of pouring water or running fingers through rice is often cathartic and calming to many children who may be struggling emotionally.  It can soothe the nervous child, distract the homesick child, and serve as an outlet for the angry child.  For children with special needs and sensory integration disorders, sensory play may be particularly therapeutic.  (Please note that we must also avoid over-stimulation in many sensitive children.  Special attention must also be paid to children with sensory integration disorder and properly recognizing their thresholds.)

We often think of the sensory table as being a tactile activity, which it largely is, but the other senses come into play as well!  The tapping sounds of popcorn kernels hitting the bin, the pungent smell of baking soda and vinegar at work, the sight of separating colors as tinted water, oil, and syrup are mixed together are all sensory experiences that can be tapped at the sensory table.  Taste sometimes finds less desirable ways to sneak in at the table as well, though taste-tests can also be properly planned as fantastic sensory experiences!

Find ways to optimize sensory play for your children.  Whether that’s providing a bin of sand to explore, giving your child a dish wand and plastic dishes to “wash” at the sink, or finding ways to integrate the senses into your other activities, provide space and time for sensory play!  It’s a natural and satisfying way to explore and learn!

Links you might love:

Creating a Sensory Table on a Budget

Setting Boundaries with Sensory Play

How to Find Sensory Materials on the Cheap

Messy Play: Bubbles, Sand, Dough, and Water  (Great Sensory Play Ideas from lekotek) 

Top photo by osmar01.
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Filed under Article, science activity, sensory activity

Will You Be My Valentine?

Valentine’s Day is rolling in!  I have some Valentine favorites from the past that I often use, like these Five Valentine Treats ,and the sweet math activityValentine Candy Heart Count , and I always bust out my post office dramatic play area to coincide with the season of love letters.  But I’m always looking for some new ideas, and so I thought I’d share some of the posts that got me excited lately!

Check out these great Valentine-inspired activities:

:::It’s no secret that I love the Frugal Family Fun Blog.  The title has so many of my favorite words!  There are loads of Valentine ideas there.  Just two great examples of the funness and the frugalness are the paint chip Valentines and thumb printed hearts.

:::If you’re looking for some new inspiration for a Valentine holder, check out these Valentine baskets from Nurture Store.  (And the lollypop flowers look plenty fun too!)

:::Life as Mom offers some free printable coupons that are darling, customizable, and did I mention free?  She even includes some ideas for ways you can use the coupons.  Talk about making your life easier!

:::MaryLea at Pink and Green Mama shows you how to make darling, easy Valentine hair clips, as well as resourceful stitched cards.

:::The Love Birds project from Moments of Mommyhood isn’t just a darling project, but also a great opportunity to talk about symmetry!  (And that “I love you” card up there in her header’s pretty clever too!)

:::Even a toddler could help decorate this fantastic heart sun catcher from Teach Mama.  I love its adaptability and open-endedness. (Could someone call Mr. Webster and check on that word?)

Have some fun with your Valentine!

Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography.
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Filed under Create, Learning through Play and Experience