Open-Ended Play Must-Haves

Open-ended play is play that allows children to express themselves freely and creatively. It is the type of play that there are no rules to follow and no pressure to produce a specific finished product. Over time, I have minimized our toy selection down to only a small amount of open-ended toys, with the exception of puzzles and this letter sound toy. It is also the only toy we own that requires batteries. My reasoning for this is that I would rather my children be the ones making the firetruck siren or the moo of the cow as they are playing.

There is certainly value in some “close-ended” activities such as puzzles and board games. For the majority though, I find that because open-ended toys have multiple uses, they encourage much more imagination, spur on creativity, and engage children longer.

Here are my Must-Haves for Open Ended Play:

Blocks– In our house blocks have been used time and time again as towers, barns, dog houses, and many more things. My son has had these wooden blocks since he was barely crawling and still plays with them regularly. We recently got these big interlocking blocks and love them as well! If your child has developed enough fine motor skills, smaller blocks like these are also great.

Playdough and clay– We enjoy making our own playdough, but this natural dye clay is also a really quality set if you prefer to buy yours. You can find my DIY playdough recipe here. Our favorite playdough tools include this ALEX toys wooden tool set and this Melissa and Doug dough and tool set.

Baby dolls and accessories– My daughter plays with babies every single day. We had a “Baby Doll Brunch” for her second birthday and she got all stocked up on every baby doll accessory she needs to take great care of all of her babies. Some of her favorites are this stroller, this baby carrier, baby bottles, a rocking chair, a baby bed, blankets, pacifiers, and a high chair.

Stuffed animals and puppets– We have a huge box of random stuffed animals that we have collected over the years and a similar puppet set. My kids give them voices and names and stories. They often play puppet show, tea party, or picnic with a bunch of their animal friends.

Art supplies– We incorporate art and crafts into specific homeschool lessons, but we use the same materials for free playtime as well. I’ve compiled a list of our favorite art supplies. In addition to this list, my kids love drawing on our easel.

Play kitchen and accessories– We have the IKEA play kitchen in my daughter’s room and it gets a lot of use! We love this dish set, these pots and pans, and any play food by Melissa & Doug. I have also picked up wooden kitchen bowls and utensils from garage sales and thrift stores to add to her kitchen as well.

Dress-up clothes– This can be anything from Daddy’s shoes or a blanket cape, to a doctor set. We have a princess dress, a dinosaur costume, sunglasses, pearls, purses, firefighter helmet, and more little dress-up accessories that are always being used.

Toy animals and mini replicas – Miniature real-life toy replicas are probably the most used item on this list in both schooling and playtime. We use them to act out stories, for letter sound matching, categorization, in playdough, and many other ways. I am slowly collecting different animal groups, but so far we have these dinosaurs and these sea creatures. I also love these jumbo farm animals from Learning Resources. I recently also got these fruits/veggies and flowers and created 3-Part Cards to match them for our garden theme. This post offers the free matching printable and other ideas to use them.

Tent or fort– Of course this could be made from blankets and chairs, but we got this play tent with a tunnel for our kids for Christmas last year. I have been amazed at how many ways my children have creatively played with it. The tent has been the Three Little Pigs’ house, a library, the post office, and many more things. They also like to bring books in it and “read” with a flashlight.

Marble Run– My kids absolutely love this marble run. We got it about a month ago and they haven’t stopped creating pathways for the marbles. It has been neat watching them learn what works and doesn’t work as they build, and having to work as a team to create.

Household items– Last but not least, some of the best toys for open-ended play are everyday household items! More than toys, you will usually find my kids playing with blankets as capes or fort walls, our clothing for dress-up, cardboard boxes for cars or boats, and the list goes on. Try to look around your home through the lens of a child. You’ll be surprised what you see.

I hope that gives you some ideas if you are leaning towards a more simplistic, open-ended play atmosphere for your household. What are your children’s favorite toys that encourage imagination and creativity? I would love to hear!

Preschool Bookclub Playdate: Go Dog, Go!

This week we have been reading Go Dog, Go! By P.D. Eastman (Dr. Seuss). It’s an adorable book that teaches positions, prepositions, and colors. Throughout the story, a whole slew of dogs are making their way to a big tree. Once they get there, they all climb up a huge ladder to join a great big dog party. Loads of dogs with party hats, treats, playing games and having a grand ol’ time. Mixed into this plot is a dog continually asking another dog if she likes his hat, to which she always replies “No, I do not like your hat!” Then they say their good-byes and part ways. Until the end when her hat is decorated like crazy with streamers, flowers, and random things and when she asks him one final time his response is “I do. What a hat! I like it! I like that party hat!”

I thought it would be fun to mix things up and invite some friends for a “Dog Party” like in the story. We asked them each to bring a stuffed dog along. We started our playdate by gathering in a circle to read the story. Then I led them in a traffic light song with some simple sign language motions. There is a stoplight a few times in the story when the dogs are traveling around in cars, so I thought this would be a fun theme to bring in.

Twinkle, Twinkle Traffic Light

On the corner shining bright

Red means STOP

Green means GO

Yellow means go very SLOW

Twinkle, Twinkle Traffic Light

On the corner shining bright

Then we gathered at the table and decorated some party hats. I offered a bunch of random supplies like feathers, pom-poms, sequins, gems, and ribbons. I had regular white glue available to the kids and a hot glue gun plugged in away from the kids for any moms that wanted to glue something a little trickier on for their child.

While they were decorating their hats I melted and mixed together the chocolate and peanut butter for the Puppy Chow. You can find the exact recipe I used here. I doubled this recipe to feed 9 kids a good amount and some mamas too. If you have never had it before, it’s so incredibly delicious. I feel like it’s a childhood staple. A few kids helped me stir it up with the Rice Chex when they had finished their hats. Then, one by one the kids came and held open up a big zipper bag for me to scoop in some Puppy Chow and sprinkle in the powdered sugar. We zipped it back up, leaving some air in there and then they shook the bags to coat the Rice Chex.

We listened to music, snacked on our Puppy Chow, blew party blowers, and wore our freshly decorated party hats. Then the kids played with their stuffed dogs, these large blocks, and a big barn we have had for ages. They built towers and buildings for the dogs and pretended the barn was a dog house. Lots of fun imaginative, cooperative play was happening!

We ended our playdate by going outside for some Red Light, Green Light. We used the red, green, and yellow blocks to hold up as a visual cue to support the auditory cue. I feel like this really helped the young ones who had never played before catch on to the game. They took turns being the leader, holding up the blocks, and calling out the direction.

It was such an inexpensive, low-prep morning and the kids had so much fun! I love making books come alive for my kids and it’s even better to invite others along too. I’m already dreaming up our next Book Club Playdate!

 

The Softest, Simplest No-Cook Playdough

It is a rainy week, which means our outside adventuring plans for the next few days have been canceled. Usually this means the kids and I do lots of baking, but it’s the beginning of bathing suit season and I am so not ready. I still wanted to have us all come together around the dining room table to work on something to beat the rainy day blues, so I decided it was a good time for a fresh batch of my favorite DIY playdough.

I am not afraid of letting my kids mix colors or create something and leave it out to dry up and eventually get tossed. I am also known for encouraging them to use natural materials like sticks and rocks in their creations, so once the creating is over, that portion of dough gets tossed. Making our own playdough is so incredibly cheap in comparison to store-bought that it allows me to not fret about “wasted” dough in the name of creativity! Also, it is completely edible, so when your child makes a plate of green beans that look so real that your other child actually takes a bite while playing, you don’t have to freak out. He will spit it out, though. It tastes super salty, but at least you know all of the ingredients that went in his mouth.

Here’s my go-to recipe. This makes a great amount. I usually divide it into 6-8 parts and color them differently. Most of these items I pick up at the grocery store, the cheapest store-brand. But the food coloring and the cream of tartar I have found the best prices on Amazon. I use food coloring for lots of baking and crafts so I’ve linked to a large set with lots of colors.

As for essential oils, I get mine from Gina, a sweet homeschool mama, at http://fitoilsmomma.com/. I’ve also offered Amazon links if that’s your preference. This time, I used Wild Orange and Peppermint oil for the energizing elements on a dreary day, but I have also used Lavender in other batches for more of a calming experience.

The Softest, Simplest No-Cook Playdough

Adapted from Momspotted.com

Ingredients:

  • 4 Cups of Flour

  • 1 Cup of Salt

  • 1/4 Cup of Vegetable Oil

  • 1/4 Cup of Cream of Tartar

  • 3 Cups Boiling Water

  • Food Coloring

  • 20-30 drops of essential oils (optional)

Instructions:

1. Combine flour, salt, cream of tartar & oil in a large bowl. I usually have my water boiling while I do this step.

2. Add in boiling water and stir. I start with a wooden spoon, but I change over to using my hands once it cools a little to knead it all together.

3. Add in the essential oil and knead again.

4. Flatten out the ball as evenly as possible and cut it with a butter knife into 6-8 parts, depending on how many colors you would like to make.

5. Place each section in a zipper bag with drops of food coloring and zip shut, pressing the air out of the bag. Knead the color into the dough. I usually take it out of the bag once it is kneaded in a little bit and continue to knead with my hands. Starting it off in the bag helps eliminate food coloring stains on your hands. Another option is to use the paddle attachment on a kitchen mixer.

This is a great activity to get your little ones involved in. There is much to be learned in measuring, stirring, kneading, color mixing, and counting drops!

Playdough is a great sensory activity and so much open-ended play comes from smooshing, rolling, imagining, and creating. This ALEX Toys kit is one of our go-to playdough tools. They’re pricier than the plastic pieces, but wooden toys are always more durable and let’s be honest, more aesthetically pleasing when they’re sprawled all over your kitchen table.

Letter Recognition & Formation Strategies

In our homeschool preschool rhythm, my children and I spend two weeks learning each letter of the alphabet. As we move through the alphabet, we also review previously learned letters. Each week, we repeat these 8 solid strategies to expose new letters and practice their formation. I find that familiarity with the activities allows my children to focus on learning the letters, rather than how to master a new activity. At this point in their schooling, my goal is simply to expose them to the letters and their sounds and give them the invitation to practice forming them.

We usually do 2-3 of these activities each day that we have structured school time. For us, that is typically four days a week. I expose them to both the uppercase and the lowercase letters the first week, but when it comes to formation activities we do uppercase the first week and add in lowercase the second week.

1. Sandpaper Letter Tracing – I show them these cards for each letter we are learning, and then I model how to form the letter using my index finger and then an unsharpened pencil. My children then repeat what I just demonstrated.

2. Sensory Writing Tray – I often use salt for this, but sometimes I use similar items instead to go with the theme we are learning. I recently did birdseed when we studied birds and sugar mixed with sprinkles when we were reading books about cupcakes. First, I pour the sensory item onto a cookie sheet and provide a half sheet of cardstock with the letter printed on it for them to look at as they play. I model how to form the letters with my index finger on the tray. After writing a letter they lightly shake the tray to have a “clean slate” to write again. Oftentimes they will use the cardstock letter and bury it and then uncover it with their fingers.

3. White Erase Tracing – These dry erase pockets are one of my favorite supplies we have! I print an outline of the letter and slip it into the pocket. I model to the children how to form the letter using a dry erase marker and then give them a chance to try. Sometimes, my four year old does it correctly and sometimes they both just color the letter in with markers. Either way, they are watching me write it and say it and getting exposure to it. The curriculum I use comes with letter outlines, but here are some I found if you are not using the same curriculum.

4. Clay Forming – Using the same dry erase pockets with letter outline inserts and clay or playdough, I encourage my children to pinch pieces off and roll it into long strips. They then form the letter on top of the pocket. Sometimes I offer small items for them to press into the clay or playdough that start with the letter we are learning. We did coins for C. They pressed them in all around the clay letter and then pick them out over and over again.

5. Stamp It, Poke It, Write It – I get these printables from Simply Learning. She offers them for free with each letter unit. We have these capital letter stamps and these lowercase ones. My kids love stamping the correlating letters for the Stamp It section. Then, they use large push pins to poke the small circles in the Poke It section. I place the printable on a piece of foam board and tape down the corners of the paper for this. We have been using the same piece of foam for over a year. They aren’t ready for the Write It! Section yet, so I just point out what the word says.

6. 3-Part Cards – Nomenclature cards, or 3-Part Cards, are simply images with corresponding labels. They really help my children learn the letter sounds and have been one of the major factors in my son beginning to read. I wrote a blog post about how we use them in our schooling here. I currently make these cards to correlate with the letters we are working on. You can download these free printable 3-Part Cards here.

7. Handwriting Without Tears Letter Blocks – I discovered these materials when I was teaching a special needs child how to form letters. He went from absolutely hating writing to writing full stories in just a few months. They are certainly an investment, but I knew I would use them for years with multiple children. I have seen how incredibly they work, so it is worth it to me. We currently use the Capital Letter Wooden Blocks and the Capital Letter Cards. I lay the wood pieces out and give my children the cards. Then I ask them to choose which pieces they think they need and they build the letter on top of the card. Then we flip the card over and work through it together.

8. Chalkboard Write and Wipe – This is also a Handwriting Without Tears method that I learned while teaching. I model the entire process, then they repeat. First, I write the letter on a small slate. Then I dip a little square sponge into water and squeeze the excess water out. Finally, I erase the letter in the same way that it is written. My kids love it, the repetition is gold, and the pincer grasp gets a lot of work.

What letter formation activities do you use at home? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments!

How-to Use 3-Part Cards

I first discovered 3-Part Cards when researching the Montessori method of schooling. The official name for these cards are “Nomenclature Cards”, coming from the Latin word nomenclatura, which means “assigning of names”. They are basically an image with a corresponding label. They come in a whole form and in a split form. The whole cards include the word and image together on one card. The split cards separate the word from the image. This provides endless opportunities for matching and word recognition. 3-Part Cards can be used in every subject area, and the main purpose is for vocabulary building and reading.

We first began using 3-Part Cards when I discovered Kaitlyn from Simply Learning. She provides them with her free literature units, which is what we were using before The Peaceful Preschool. I saw my 3-year-old begin to put meaning to words, and I was amazed at how quickly he caught on to them. I truly believe that 3-Part Cards were a huge contributor to his early reading.

Kaitlyn now uses The Peaceful Preschool as well, and is a great resource for supplemental ideas and free printables, including 3-Part Cards for each letter of the alphabet. I love using them so much in our schooling that I began to create Real-Life 3-Part Cards to correlate with her illustrated ones. I wanted to introduce my children to the real animals and items, unlike they see in most picture books, which aligns with Montessori teaching. For each letter of the alphabet, I will be creating Real-Life 3-Part Cards to correlate. So far, you can find A-L here.

I prefer to print our 3-Part Cards on cardstock and laminate them. I plan to use these cards for years with multiple children, so they really benefit from durability. I love this color printer and use this inexpensive laminator with these laminating pouches. Scissors will do for cutting out laminated cards, but having a paper cutter for this task makes prep so much faster.

There are multiple ways you can use these cards, depending on the ability and interest of your child. It is also fun, but not necessary to have small items for your child to use for matching as well. Here are four main ways we use them.

1. Basic matching of any combination. Item to picture, item to word, picture to picture, word to picture, and word to word. I often leave them out on our Tot Tray shelf for the children to explore on their own throughout the day.

2. Movement matching. I also use movement games when we are matching, such as having them pick a word, complete a short obstacle course, and match the word to the picture at the end.

3. Memory matching. Flip all of the cards face down and take turns flipping them two at a time to try to make a match. I suggest using the whole cards for this, so that they are constantly seeing the word as well. If you have a reader, you could do the same game but match the split picture to the word.

4. Hide and Seek matching. During sensory play, hide the split pictures in rice or lentils and keep the words on the table. For my younger daughter I will hide one form of the pictures and the other form of the pictures will go on the table. They will dig to find a picture and then find the correlating word on the table to match.

There are endless ways to use these simple cards and I know over time I will just continue to find new ways to use them to engage my little ones. How do you use them? I would love to hear!

Tot Trays, Simplified

I adore Tot Trays. If you have never set them up for your children, they may seem like a lot of work from the outside. They could be, but they can also be incredibly simple. You can usually find a mix of super low-prep and moderate-prep trays on my shelf at any given time. Here are the two main reasons I love having Tot Trays as part of our schooling.

They encourage independent learning.

I typically introduce each tray to my children by sitting with them to complete it until I can tell that they understand. Typically after one or two demonstrations, I don’t use the trays in a scheduled teaching time. From them on, they are available at my children’s level to take off the shelf and interact with on their own. Sometimes they ask me to to work with them and other times my two preschoolers work together with each other. I do not push them to explore any one tray. However, our homeschool shelf which holds all of our trays is in the living room where we spend most of our day. Throughout the day I frequently see them each go over to the shelf and pull something off to explore.

They require one-time prep for lots of repeat learning experiences.

Have you ever spent forever preparing a preschool activity to have your child reluctantly half-complete it and then toss it to the side? A few experiences like that is enough to make you want to stop home educating all together. I love Tot Trays because what my child might have zero interest in on Monday, they may love by Friday. Usually, I rotate our trays out every weekend, but some stick around longer if they are getting a lot of use.

There are endless amounts of ideas online for setting up tot trays. I use light-weight trays, baskets, and small bowls. Sometimes, even a cookie sheet. Whatever you have that your child can pick up and carry. We have an open shelf in our living room that my husband built specifically for this purpose, but any shelf at your child’s level will do. When preparing to set mine up I look for a few key things. I want them to be realistic in prep time, not require constant supervision (not messy or dangerous), and the activity should reach the perfect balance of my child’s abilities and a challenge. My shelf usually has at least one sensory tray such as beans with small bowls and Helping Hands tools. I also always have a tray with our current letter’s 3-part cards, which I offer as a free printable. The rest of the trays are usually activities to practice counting, matching, and fine motor skills. Sometimes they correlate with a book we are reading or a theme we are studying.

Here are some examples of recent trays I have set up:

Supplies used:

Cookie tray | Mini broom & dustpan | Little bowls | Black beans

Supplies used:

Tweezers | Pom-poms | Trays | Construction paper

Supplies used:

Basket | Preschool scissors | Construction paper

Supplies used:

Tray | Small bowls | Sticks | Toilet paper roll | About Birds

Supplies used:

Tray | Construction paper | Single hole punch

Supplies used:

Basket | Small bowls | Illustrated 3-part cards | Real Life 3-part cards

My favorite Tot Tray Supplies not pictured:

Homeschool Preschool Supplies

Below I have a comprehensive list of items I find the most useful to have on hand year-round. If you are just starting out, don’t let this list overwhelm you – you don’t need to buy it all at once. When I first began homeschooling, I made an Amazon Homeschool Wishlist and added everything to my list. When a lesson popped up that required an item, I would buy it until eventually I was fully stocked. You can click each item and it will take you to the exact item on Amazon that we use. Sometimes I buy supplies at local stores, but I have included affiliate links for everything if you prefer to shop online.

LESSON PREPARATION

The first three items are for for organizing the printable curriculum. We are currently using The Peaceful Preschool curriculum, and you can read more about how I build off of it here. After much research, I decided on the printer listed above, and it has been perfect. I also use my laminator weekly. If you don’t have a laminator, the one listed here is inexpensive and gets the job done. Scissors will do for cutting out laminated cards, but having a paper cutter for this task makes prep so much faster. Lastly, the trays, baskets, little bowls, and little pitchers are used for our Tot Trays.

ARTS & CRAFTS

Each unit has theme-specific arts and crafts activities. The materials listed here are ones we use time and time again. Additional supplies may come up for certain projects, but the ones above are the staples. If you have never introduced Dot Markers to your child, they will love them! The acrylic and watercolor paints I listed are bigger investments up front but they last a year or longer, even with as much as we use them. I love the Twistable Crayons because they don’t break and little fingers are getting extra fine motor practice when they twist them up.

LETTER RECOGNITION & FORMATION

I use a variety of sensory methods to introduce letters and to invite my children to practice letter formation. You can read more about the multiple activities I use to teach letter formation and recognition here.

TOGETHER TIME

Each morning we sit together in the living room for what I call “Together Time.” This is a time we read stories, sing songs, do fingerplays, play group games, and introduce new Tot Trays. I’ll be writing a more detailed post about our Together Time soon.

SENSORY & FINE MOTOR SUPPLIES

Sensory learning and fine motor practice are essential to our learning. The Helping Hands Tools and the Tweezer Set are two of the best purchases I have made to help my son’s pencil grip. We use the Tunnel and the Hopper Ball in moments that my children need to get their bodies moving and some wiggles out before moving on to the next activity. Sometimes I just let them freely play with them, but usually I incorporate them into a lesson.