Category Archives: Unit Themes

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

Repost: Preschool Goes Prehistoric with Dinosaurs!

I’ve got dinosaurs on the brain again, so I thought I’d repost this dinosaur unit from July of 2009.  What are some of your favorite dinosaur activities?

There’s just something about preschoolers and dinosaurs.  Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of tiny children that have been on this earth just a few years and the enormous specimen that left millions of years ago.  In addition to being a fascinating topic of study, a look at dinosaurs serves as a vehicle for learning a variety of skills and concepts.

First and foremost, the study of dinosaurs fosters curiosity and a thirst for learning.  Children can’t help but leap into a pattern of scientific inquiry when they look at these monstrous creatures!  You can also easily explore several preschool life science themes (needs of living things, meat eaters vs plant eaters, theories of extinction) as well as earth science themes (volcanoes, climate changes, etc.).  You just can’t study dinosaurs without incorporating a myriad of science and sensory activities!

Dinosaur study is also a great time to incorporate the math concepts of measurement and scale.   Children will certainly be engaged as they try to understand just how big (and how small) some of these beasts were!

Vocabulary explodes as the children need new words for “big” to describe these guys!  Children begin to use words like “huge”, “enormous”, and “gigantic”.  They may also need words like “extinct”, “paleontologist”, “ferocious”, and “fossilized”.  Additionally, you will be amazed with the capacity some children have for learning and remembering dinosaur names.  This is not a frivolous skill as these names often have Latin roots and, in addition to the initial value, will transfer over to learning and understanding other Latin-based words.

Exploring the world of dinosaurs also opens up the creative minds of our little ones.  Because no one was here to see them, there are only ideas – no right answers- to questions about how these creatures looked and sounded.  Invite your children to make their own conclusions as you study the clues together!

Here are some of the activities you may want to consider in your preschool dinosaur unit (links will follow as detailed activities are added):

Dinosaur Mural (Creative, Social)

Five Silly Dinosaurs  (Music, Math, Language)

Crayon Melting, Dino Style (Creative, Science)

Dinosaur Erosion Table (Sensory, Science)

Fossil Imprints (Science)

Frozen in Time (Sensory, Science)

Preschool Paleontologists  (Science)

Rhyme-A-Saurus(Language, Pre-Reading)

Dinosaur, Dinosaur, What Time is it? (Social, Large Motor)

A Visit to the Museum (Science, Social, Language & Literacy)

Dino Scales (Fine Motor, Creative, Science)

The Classic Volcano (Science)

Hot Lava Hop (Large Motor)

We are the Dinosaurs (Music and Movement, Language)

How Big is a Dino?  (Math)

Dinos Invade the Block Area (Math, Science, Language)

Best Dino Books  (Language)

What activities would you add to the list?

 Top photo by Sarah Dawn Nichols.
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Filed under Learning through Play and Experience, Uncategorized, Unit Themes

Thematic Unit: On the Move with Transportation

While this time of year is a great opportunity for studying a Food Unit (or jumping right into Winter Weather if you’re getting the kind of storms we’ve been having) it’s also an ideal time to explore transportation.  With the holidays coming, many children will either be travelling themselves, or waiting for family members to arrive.  It’s a perfect opportunity to make connections between what they’re learning and exploring and what they’re experiencing in their lives.

Here are some links from around the web for some fantastic learning activities, as well as some of my own, marked with an asterisk, which I will be posting (and linking back here) in the days to come!  Please share links to some of your favorite transportation activities as well!

Concepts:  (You didn’t think I’d just give you a list of “cute” activities did you?)  A transportation unit is the perfect time to spend some time sorting and categorizing; exploring science concepts like motion, momentum, thrust, and buoyancy; and experimenting with the ways we can move our own bodies.

Dramatic Play

Rocket Ship*

Train Station*

Working Tables (small manip/fine motor)

Geoshape Transportation Patterns : You can buy a set, or just look at some of the patterns to create your own outlines on manilla folders!

One of my favorite transportation puzzles


Driving Cars in Paint: Try it with or without the road, on a paper covered table or on individual papers in art trays!

Transportation-themed Cookie Cutter Painting or Gluing

Marble Painting (remember, it’s about motion)

Cut and Glue Roadways

Decorate these Straw Rockets (I found die-cuts at the dollar store!), then find a spot to experiment!

Sensory Table

Cars in Colored Rice

Water and objects for Sink or Float Experiments

Outer Space Sensory Bin (I found some great astronaut figures at a party store!)

Block Area

Add to your usual blocks with:

Train Tracks

Car Mats (Even create your own like these)

Marble Tracks or Gutter Play


Car Wash with Toy Bikes

Trikes and Traffic Signs/Chalk


Wagon Wheel Pasta: Talk while you eat–> Brainstorm all the vehicles you can think of that use wheels.  I was impressed when one child recently reminded me that even airplanes have wheels!

Travel Mix*

Large Group Activities

Take a Trip*

Parking Cars: You can extend the linked activity to include numbers, shapes, or even make your stalls out of colors and find cars to match.

Seat Belt Safety*

Transportation Graphing*

Row Row Row Your Boat: I assume you don’t need this linked!  Mix it up by teaching them how to sing in a round, or play a simple “Go”/”Stop” game using signs to signal when to start and stop singing.  Helps improve attention and impulse control.

Bodies in Motion: Have children move like they’re in a car, boat, train, plane, rocket, etc.  Use it to transition from one place to another, as well!

Who Has the Car: Like this game, but with….a car, of course! 

Book Activities

Bunnies on the Go: Getting from Place to Place

Bunnies on the Go by Rick Walton: Sorting

I Spy a Freight Train

I Spy A Freight Train by Lucy Micklethwait: Balloon Rocket

Sheep on a Ship (Sandpiper Houghton Mifflin Books)

Sheep on a Ship by Nancy Shaw: Foil Boats

Roaring Rockets (Amazing Machines)

Roaring Rockets by Tony Mitton: Film Canister Rockets (With some experimenting, we discovered that less water = higher blast off!)

If I Built a Car

If I Built a Car (love this book) By Chris Van Dusen: Creative Cars

Stay Tuned for More!

Top photo by Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo.

Center photo by Jane Cleary.
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Filed under Uncategorized, Unit Themes

Preschool Themes: A Few Favorites for Fall

Even though our air conditioner is still running, I know fall has nearly arrived.  I really think it is my favorite season (in spite of the fact that two of my pregnancies began in the fall and I still associate that first brisk day with a hint of nauseousness). 

Fall is full of wonder and magic!  There are so many amazing things going on in nature as well as in the lives of the children.  I’ve linked to some of my favorite unit themes to explore during this fascinating time of year!

Welcome Weeks

These are some of my favorite activities for starting off the school year.  Some of the best “staples of preschool” as well as activities for getting to know each other and getting into a groove!

Fall Favorites

These are fall’s “greatest hits”.  A conglomeration of topics such as trees, leaves, apples, pumpkins, and the changing seasons.

Set the Table: A Preschool Food Study

As Thanksgiving approaches, it’s natural to take some time exploring (and tasting) food!  It’s time to make learning delicious!

Don’t forget this little gem for purposefully planning your themes.

What is your favorite fall activity?

Photo by Mateusz Stachowski.

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Filed under Learning through Play and Experience, Unit Themes

Mapping Out Your Preschool Study Themes

Last year I wrote about mapping out your year  with an enduring idea and unit themes.  This year, I thought I’d help you out (and myself) by creating a Thematic Brainstorm Form to help you with the steps in the planning process.  This isn’t your lesson plan, this is merely to get the ideas going. 

Purposeful Planning 

Once you clarify the purpose of your theme (concepts and developmental objectives, etc.) it’s easier to stay focused on what types of learning activities you are looking for (as opposed to filling your unit full of “cute” activities).  As you fill in the boxes with learning activities, it’s easy to step back and see which area is lacking and then you can have a more purposeful search through your resources.  (I confess, the “Books” section is far too small for a really great unit- I’m hoping you’ll fill the entire back of the sheet with wonderful books to incorporate into book activities, story times, and reading areas.)

If you like, there is room in the left margin for punching holes and keeping your brainstorm form in your lesson planning binder.  As you use this form more frequently you will find that you naturally begin planning your lessons with more purpose, looking for activities that fill in objectives and round out your experiences.

Recognize. Emphasize. Maximize.

This form is also helpful for what I call the “Recognize, Emphasize, Maximize Method“.  Quite simply, when you take the time to recognize what it is you are trying to teach with an activity, you are more prepared to emphasize those objectives as you work and play within a unit.  You are able to take advantage of natural learning experiences because you are aware of what to look for.  As you emphasize these objectives, you maximize the learning outcomes.  By following this method, you can ensure that the activities you use are “Not Just Cute”.

 Top photo by iprole.
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Filed under procedure/organization, supplies, Uncategorized, Unit Themes

What’s On Your Back to School List?

It’s hard to believe, but another school year is on its way!  Whether you’re teaching a class or your own little ones, as you sit down to map out your year, what are some of the topics and themes you look forward to exploring?  I’d love to hear about your ideas, and would appreciate the opportunity to bring more activities here that you could use! 

Additionally, I would love to give readers a sneak peek into your classrooms and homes if you are interested in sharing some of your activities with us.  Send links, pictures, instructions, and comments to, and I’ll work them into a post!

Top photo by loleia.
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Filed under Ask Me, Unit Themes