Friday, July 29, 2016

Beyond the Book: Extension Activities for "Growing Vegetable Soup" and "Planting a Rainbow"

Sharing a love of literacy was something I wanted to pass down to my son from before the time he was born. While I was not much one for reading to my pregnant belly, I did try to sign up for PJ Library while I was in labor. Then I realized I needed to know the gender, birth-date and name of my child--none of which I knew at that point, even though my contractions were getting closer together. Instead, I added that to my list of things to do in the first week postpartum. I imagined daily story times would be one of my daily anchors, that we would snuggle up and read together every day and read favorite children's books in every room the of the house. In reality, this didn't happen. We do have daily anchors--little things we've done from day one and do every day, no matter what, that ground us and make us the family we strive to be even on the most hectic and exhausting of days. We've taken my son to the library from the time he was very little, and one of our favorite activities this summer now that he is two is attending local story times at our county libraries. My son does love books and he has some definite favorites. We do have books and read in many rooms of the house, but we don't always do it in the way I imagined. Sometimes he wants to sit for twenty minutes and read the same book again and again, cover to cover. Other times he wants to play while the book is read in the background. We listen to audio books, I read him chapter books before nap/bed, and we keep books accessible and at his reach throughout the house. Our story times are a lot more mobile and hands on than I had originally imagined and I love that.

Because our story times involve so much movement and I recognize the value and importance of expanding on my son's interests and experiences on a multi-sensory level, I've sought a lot of extension activities for the books that we read together. Beyond the Book posts here will include a variety of those activities for various children's books. Many activities I come up with on my own and others I find in a variety of resources available online and in your local library. One of my favorite resources on reading to young toddlers is the book Story S-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-r-s for Infants, Toddlers and Twos: Experiences, Activities, and Games for Popular Children's Books by S. Raines, K. Miller, L. Curry-Rood, and K. Dobbs. There is a series of books under this title aimed at different age groups. Pinterest is also a valuable resource for creative extension activities. Overall, I go with my son's interest and attention level. If he is in the mood to read and reread a book again and again, I try to oblige. If he is not in the mood to sit and listen, we kick it up a notch and try a project or game or activity--perhaps we come back to the book later. As he gets bigger, he likes to be able to hold and handle the books we read. When I can, I try to check out two copies of a book at our library, perhaps a paperback/hardback for myself and a board book for his smaller hands. 

During our gardening theme this summer, we read several books by Lois Elhert. Her illustrations are bright and captivating and her story lines are very toddler friendly. Two of our particular favorites were Growing Vegetable Soup and Planting a Rainbow. These were particularly good picks as we progressed with our own home vegetable garden (a fabulous place to play and learn). We also took the themes from these books on the road as we visited our local Botanical Gardens and went on a "rainbow scavenger hunt." I provided copies of both books on my son's bookshelf as well as a variety of materials related to planting gardens both indoor and out. Among his favorites were a collection of seed packets inside snack sized ziplock bags through which he could observe both the size and shape of different vegetable, herb and flower seeds as well as the photograph of "finished product." This was also a handy way to store the seeds we didn't use for our home garden. 

This gardening sensory bin was another favorite activity

We often use toys and props to act out stories or parts of stories

Here we are preparing some pretend vegetable soup

and here we are again preparing some real vegetable soup

washing veggies is a favorite activity and also keeps this little one very occupied in the kitchen

I encourage my son to handle a lot of different foods in the kitchen in the hopes that exposure prior to plate will lead to trying it once it's on the plate (or bowl in this case)

Quality Control Department: Occupational Hazard--and I'd love to say he was this eager to try the soup once it was on the table, but he was mostly interested in feeding it to his parents and practicing with the spoon

I prepared this ladder style book ahead of time and my son enjoyed planting a rainbow of fruit shaped stickers to their matching colored page with my support after we read Planting a Rainbow

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Think Outside the Box Thursday: (Very) Early Literacy through Alphabet Activities

At two years old, I don't feel strongly that my son must learn his alphabet by rote or be gaining letter recognition and beginning sound awareness. This is something in my teaching that I observed and screened at around age 4-5, but at the end of the day, early literacy development happens in different ways and at different paces for different learners. What I do feel strongly about is exposure to language and literacy in a playful and pleasant way that inspires curiosity and fosters a lifelong love of learning. In the early childhood years, this happens through conversation, through picture books and library visits, through story times at home and at playgroups and most importantly, through play. I do promote exposure to letters early on through play by introducing letters in a variety of ways that can be appreciated visually, audibly, and hands-on. 

Every couple of weeks or so, I introduce my son to a new letter using a "letter sound box" I fill with toys and objects from around the house that begin with that letter sound. I especially love using felt or textured letter stickers on card stock that he can touch/trace with his finger. Tactile appreciation of a letter is a vital early writing skill (albeit quite early!).

I use flashcards playfully with pictures my son will recognize to foster language development, picture recognition and the beginnings of letter sound awareness. Most of my flashcards are homemade or purchased at the Dollar Tree. I use a hole punch and metal ring to organize them.

Here's an example of toys and objects added to our Letter T Sound Box. I always use the same pencil box with a dry erase label that I can re-write letters on as we bring out new ones. I keep it at child level on my son's toy shelf and he can open/close it independently and play with the objects as he pleases. 

Truck Tire Tracks across the letter T made for a fun art extension. After it dried, I laminated the finished work and used it as a playdough mat for more tactile/pre-writing exploration.

Letter magnets are something we somehow have a huge collection of. Those can be used with a magnetic easel, cookie sheet, refrigerator or other magnetic surface as well as in sensory bin with dry materials like sand or beans for tactile exploration of letters. Older children can use magnet letters in a variety of ways as they learn to recognize letter names and sounds, site words and their own names.

Playdough "tracing" with laminated letter artwork. I introduce it with minimal tools and frequently my son requests more or adds his own. He went over to the plastic bin of playdough tools this time and added a rolling pin, cookie cutters and a plastic knife...

...and then he went to his toy shelf and grabbed a toy truck to drive through the playdough--I LOVED his ingenuity!

My son likely doesn't know his letters and alphabet at just two years old and I'm not in a rush. He is building a ton of language through play and exposure and what he does have is a love of learning in his own way and at his own pace. Happy playing!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Waterplay Wednesday: The Baby Edition

Water-play is a great introductory sensory activity for very little ones. During the first year, almost every type of play is a sensory experience for babies as they explore textures, colors, and all of their five senses for the first time. With children of all ages, adequate supervision is imperative with water-play, as even a small amount can be a drowning hazard. My son always loved (and still loves) playing in the bathtub, so using our shared apartment complex backyard space for a kiddie pool seemed like a great way to expand on this interest during the summer when he turned one. Because of minimal indoor space and the backyard being a common area, we opted for an inflatable kiddie pool that we could easily store inside under one of our beds. 

If space or comfort level prevent the use of a kiddie pool, large plastic bowls paired with favorite discovery basket items (i.e. kitchen utensils, teething toys, colanders and containers) make for just as much splashing and fun!

discovery basket in action

fishing for teething toys was a favorite activity especially when cutting those first chompers

We have a favorite Shabbat song about preparing chicken soup--we used plastic food and dishes in the kiddie pool for a hands-on backyard rendition of "Put the Chicken in the Pot"
Then, just for fun, we added some "matzo balls!" 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Tuesday Table Time: Invitation to Doodle & Draw

This week's Table Time is a great one for a rainy day. In fact, this is one we did on just such an occasion. We used white craft/butcher paper to cover the length of our dining room table, although you can also do this on a child's table or even the floor. I set up a different material at each of several of our seats and let my son doodle and draw at each of the stations at his own pace. We used crayons, markers, do-a-dots, chalk pastels and "creamy crayons." If you're feeling extra adventurous or have older children who need less support and could help support younger ones, you can also add watercolors and other paints. This would be fun as well with stamps and ink pads, stickers, collage materials... Something about a large work space and an open invitation to create is enough to add new life to old familiar art materials. Whether it's 100 degrees and sunny or pouring rain, this is a great way to captivate the attention and creativity of artists of all ages. My husband liked the finished product so much, he suggested we put a plastic table cover over it and use it as our Shabbos tablecloth that week!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Bringing "Messy" Art Outdoors

Painting is a fun and fundamental part of childhood, but let's face it--it gets messy! From the time he was very small (as in, just big enough to sit up independently), we've brought painting outdoors for some artistic fun and fresh air. One benefit to summer art adventures outside is the easier cleanup and instant access to water! We have some messy and colorful fun, do a quick primary wipe-down, leave finished work to dry in the sun and hit the pool or sprinkler. You can bring out a tarp to work on, set paper on the sidewalk/pavement, bring out an easel or even work directly on natural items (I've seen some amazing outdoor sculptures done on wood/lumber remnants). Here's a glimpse of some of our outdoor painting activities:

When he was just old enough to sit up, we started bringing paint outside inside a large plastic bin. The back of the bin also provided extra support so he could go wild and crazy with the paints and not risk flopping over in the process! 
We had the kiddie pool already filled and ready for when he was done...

We also enjoy bringing story times and extension activities outdoors. Here's some fun we had with Leo Lionni's little blue and little yellow using squeeze condiment bottles with slightly watered down yellow and blue tempera paints

For his 2nd birthday, I set up a "birthday mural" for him to romp and stomp on. It kind of turned into a full body experience (slightly resembling the world's messiest slip and slide)...

Friday, July 22, 2016

Fun-day Friday: a Peek into our Playroom

Fridays are Fun-days here on the blog--a time to reflect on the week's activities and take a virtual peek into our playroom. I plan theme-related play and activities because planning and curriculum building is something I find enjoyable as a preschool-teacher-mommy. It also helps me to feel less overwhelmed when I am planning and choosing activities if I have a framework to build upon. That said, I do not introduce new themes each week--I go with my son's flow and my own energy levels. Additionally, you can also build activities built specifically on your children's interests or seasonal events and upcoming holidays. If you're searching here for play ideas, all posts include links to relevant labels that you can use to search from.

My son LOVES things that GO! We've been exploring a transportation theme over the past week that we will continue into the week to come. When it comes to theme-related play, I like to specifically take out toys and books we already have related to that theme. Not having all of the books and toys out at the same time helps reduce the sense of clutter in our already small apartment. Additionally, I think toy/book rotation in general helps to maintain a sense of novelty for little ones. I don't ever put all of the toys that are out away and swap; I think that might throw my toddler for a loop! There are certain things we keep out all of the time, like his kitchen set/dramatic play area. With a transportation theme, I might, however, add a couple of hard hats and construction vests to the dress up area. We also take theme-related library trips to check out books, CDs/DVDs and activity sets related to our topic of interest. If my son is particularly interested in a certain toy or material, I will even leave it accessible past the time that we complete a topic exploration and I am always amazed at how he integrates themes together!
"Blue Boat" Painting

Here's a look at some of our play over the past week:

I introduce alphabet letters to my toddler mainly through play and exposure. He is only two and pre-literacy happens in a lot of ways at this age--most importantly through exposure to language, sensory play and every day conversation. I will share more about how I introduce letters in future posts.

My kiddo gets very attached to particular books. Red Truck, Blue Boat, and Yellow Copter all by Kersten Hamilton have been longstanding favorites. Reading, rereading and rereading again can feel daunting, but I know repetition is an important tool for him. Story stretching activities, like our "Red Truck," "Blue Boat" and "Yellow Copter" paintings [the latter is not pictured below]j, are a wonderful way to expand on an interest and beat the monotony of a story you both probably have memorized by now.

"Trace the T" Table Time
BIG DIG Construction Sensory Bin

Sensory play is a great way to take the playroom outdoors 
"Car Wash"

Shaving cream is great for soaping up toy cars and finger-painting on the sidewalk!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Think Outside the Box Thursday: Music-free Car Trips

Think-Outside-The-Box Thursdays will include posts that aim to solve tricky family situations at home and beyond. This week I am tackling one of many aspects of car trip challenges: what to do about the stereo? Perhaps you have multiple passengers ranging in ages who have different tastes in music (i.e.: mommy can't listen to The Wiggles even one more time today) or perhaps you live in a Jewish home like ours and are coming up on The Three Weeks, a period in which many Jewish families take on customs of mourning including the custom to not listen to music. The good news is that my toddler and I both love listening to music in the car and it makes car trips a lot easier for us both. The bad news with these music-less three weeks coming upon us is that my toddler and I both love listening to music in the car and it makes car trips a lot easier for us.

So, thinking outside the box a bit, I traveled to one of our local libraries and perused the audio books section. For older children, there are a host of audio books in fiction and non-fiction available. For younger ones, there are packs containing both a CD of a recorded story and a copy of the book along with it. This seemed like a great fit for our car over this period of time and perhaps one we will keep stocked even afterward. You can certainly all enjoy just playing audio stories alone and if your children are prone to carsickness, this may be a best option. If your little ones can read in the car or enjoy having books or toys in the car seat, an audio and physical copy of a book can be a great car activity. I let my son drink water and eat snacks in his car seat and didn't entirely trust library books back there as well. I opted to seek out audio book sets with some of his favorite stories we already have copies of at home so he can flip away at the pages worry free. Board books are a great travel friendly option for toddlers. If you have multiple passengers in the back seat, many libraries have multiple copies of children's books so each passenger can hold his/her own copy for the trip. Additionally, there are a variety of great audio-book apps out there and podcasts that can be downloaded prior to a trip. And if your child's favorite story doesn't happen to be already recorded, you could record yourself reading it on your phone and play that in your car.
I burn copies of audio books onto my iPhone's playlist so I always have them handy. I keep the audio book sets and CDs we check out of the library organized in our car by keeping them all in a tote bag that's ready for library trips and returns whenever we are. To organize individual sets, you can also use ziplock bags.

Whether you're trekking near or far, listening to The Wiggles or Pride and Prejudice, may you have safe and easy travels and happy playing!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Water-Play Wednesday: Spicing Up the Sprinkler Park

Yes, that's my son holding a plastic shot glass! The first time I took him to a sprinkler park this summer, he was too nervous to get in. Giving him a little cup to hold, fill and pour out helped him feel more comfortable and led to a lot of playful fun!
During our summer routine, I aim to include at least one day a week where we do some water play. We are fortunate enough to live in an apartment complex with a pool and near several wonderful sprinkler parks. Water play is an absolute must for this mama every summer (and admittedly, I find ways to incorporate it indoors either in the bathtub or a shallow plastic bin during the colder months as well). Playing in water is one of those things that just never stops being fun no matter how old you are. I still love running through sprinklers! Being a play-at-home-mom and the summer schedule of a school teacher are definitely conducive to running on a less specific schedule, but getting out of the house is still important both for my son and for me. We live in an area with a lot of low cost/no cost activities for children and families in the summer provided by our parks & recreation department and our library system. More and more sprinkler parks are cropping up these days and they are a wonderful place to take a family field trip. If you don't happen to live near one, I have plenty of wonderful summer memories of running through the hose or sprinkler in my own backyard as a child.

Sprinkler and splash pad play really require no added materials to be fun. That said, I like to spice things up a bit by mixing in some usual and unusual household materials for my son to use and share with other kids at the park. Think of it as instant play activities: just add water! And you can do this at a sprinkler park, in your yard, in the bathtub or pool or water table.

Our Favorite Sprinkler Park Add-ons: Just Add Water!

Household Items: These are items you likely have at home already or that can be purchased from a discount store very inexpensively specifically for sensory play use.
Sprinkler Park Car Wash--great for transportation theme

  • cups, containers, things you can fill and pour from
  • colanders/strainers
  • measuring cups & measuring spoons
  • large paint brushes & sponge brushes
  • scrub brushes and sponges
  • recycled plastic containers from produce (the ones with holes in the bottom can be especially fun!), pudding cups/applesauce cups/fruit cups
  • spray bottles
  • empty condiment bottles for filling/squirting

Toys: Using water-friendly toys you already have at home or building a collection from second-hand stores or discount stores specifically for sensory play can be a great way to expand water and other sensory play activities. There are a host of "traditional" water and bath toys on the market and a lot of them crop up on the seasonal aisles this time of year. Here's a list of less traditional toys that are fun to add to the water play scene:

  • toy cars and sponges make a great car wash--you can even add shaving cream for suds!
  • plastic animals or plastic dinosaurs
  • plastic baby dolls and washcloths
  • Legos/Duplos or Mega Blocks--if building towers indoors on dry land is fun, think how fun it will be in the sprinkler outside!
  • Balls, plastic bowling sets
  • Plastic food and toy dishes--outdoor tea party, anyone?
  • shovels/pales and toys traditionally used in sand are also fun to explore in water
Miscellaneous: Let's think outside the box with this one and include some natural materials, too!
  • Craft foam makes an instant bath sticker when wet! You can stick them to the walls, you can stick them your belly, you can stick them on your friend's belly. You can use pre-cut shapes or cut your own. Foam puzzle pieces work the same way (Think: alphabet scavenger hunt at the sprinkler park!)
  • Seashells
  • Rocks and large pebbles
If you can get it wet and easily transport it, you can bring it with you! Note: we use a large bucket or wash bin to transport materials in and it almost always ends up getting used for play as well. Stay cool and happy playing!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Tuesday Table Time: What Is Table Time Anyway?

It's Tuesday morning, but it could be any weekday morning in this house. My husband leaves for work by 5:30AM, and since being home for the summer and no longer needing to set the ol' alarm every night, I've yet to wake up after my toddler--but I'm aware it could happen. It is a known fact that I am a morning person. I just need to have my coffee first. One of my sweet little boy's first words was "coffee," and he's been known to pick up my cup, hand it to me and say "Mommy, more coffee" on occasion when my amazingly perky demeanor hasn't woken up yet. I needed a plan going into this summer as well as the year ahead--something that could occupy my toddler while I activate my pleasant daytime mode or prepare breakfast or just take a few deep breaths to start the day. And so, from a simple child's sized card table and chairs as well as a dose of ingenuity, Table Time was born.

And it's not just a morning thing. Table Time refers to any activity that can occupy the attention of a child of any age for a developmentally reasonable length of time (with a toddler, this varies) with minimal adult support and involvement. To be clear, this is not the time I set out the Netflix (although that also has its time and place in our home). When he was a baby who could not yet sit at a table, I frequently set out discovery baskets-- a basket with household items like measuring cups, measuring spoons, metal colanders, spoons and spatulas, or sensory bottles for shaking and exploring, or a variety of fabrics like scarves, washcloths, fuzzy socks and silk fashion scarves for my son to explore. This was one of his first entrances into the world of independent play and tinkering. I might leave the same basket out for a week or so at a time and then swap the materials out. Now that he is two, one aspect that makes Table Time successful is the novelty of it. I do set out a different activity each night before I go to bed that he can use in the morning and throughout the following day as desired. I do not, however, reinvent the wheel on a daily basis. Many of our activities follow a weekly routine and rotation. Every Friday morning, my son comes to a table set up with a plastic cup and stickers he uses to decorate his own kiddush cup for the upcoming Shabbos meals. Usually about once a week lately, the activity involves playdough as that is a current favorite of his. This is an activity he will often revisit multiple times throughout the day. As we explore themes in our "Mommy Camp/Mommy School," or as certain holidays or seasons approach, I aim for the activities to be theme related. Pinterest is a great resource for this and there are many blogs as well as books devoted to sharing ideas for age-based activities, projects and games. Sometimes I will even set out a toy he hasn't played with in awhile or put a couple of toys out that he may not have thought to use together before.  My son does not always choose to use what I set out on the table nor does he always use it in the way I anticipated. I am totally OK with this. It is there if he is interested, he knows what to expect and many times if an activity does not draw his interest on its own, my sitting at the table and beginning to play will draw him in and lead to independent play.

My essential goal with Table Time activities is to encourage independent play (not as in a babysitter in place of me, although independent play can act as an extra set of hands while a parent gets a few things done around the house). Many times I make observational comments (non-judgmental and non-praising) just noticing what my son is doing. Feeling noticed can feed a need for healthy self-esteem in a more sustainable manner than even comments of praise--think recognition versus approval. For example, I might say "I see you're rolling the playdough into a long, thin shape" as opposed to "I love how you're making a wiggly worm" or "great job with the playdough today!" Sometimes I do join in the activity with him (and some activities do require more assistance than others, like peeling smaller stickers off the paper), and other times I do not. I love watching the ideas children can come up with on their own for using materials and activities set out in this manner. In homes where children span in age, a bit more creativity may need to come into play. While unattended markers might be a great material for an older child to use independently, they may be a recipe for a new paint job for a younger one. On the other hand, an older child can support a younger one in using markers, or Table Time activities that are geared toward older children can be reserved for the times when the younger ones are napping and the older ones are bored.

Lastly, when choosing activities for Table Time, you do want something fun and interesting and developmentally challenging enough to capture attention, but you do not want something that will lead to feelings of frustration. When this has happened, I have altered or adapted my materials or even just put an activity away and shifted gears. You can't win 'em all! I try to keep my expectations reasonable as well. What I think my son my LOVE may not interest him at all, and what I think he will pass right over might become his new favorite thing to do. Keeping an open mind and an ounce of humor to go with it goes a long way.

Below is a small sampling of some of our recent Table Time activities. Future Table Time posts will include one or more activities at a time, sometimes theme related. Enjoy & happy playing!
During our dinosaur theme, I FINALLY found a use for that funny faux grass bottle drying rack (which I HAD to have but never used). I thought my son wouldn't get too into this one, but he LOVED it. He had more success with the smaller tongs (purchased in a 4 pack at a Dollar Tree) and still needed to use his "helper" hand to work with the dinosaurs, but loved trying to use the tongs to pick them up and set them up in the "Jurassic Jungle." 

I HATE surprising loud noises, so we had to stop playing Jenga here! But I found a fun use for those perfectly sized wooden blocks. My little one liked this so much, I ended up storing it in the pencil case and leaving it out on his toy shelf for him to revisit throughout our dinosaur themed weeks at Mommy & Me Camp.

Playdough Silly Faces--a great addition to an "All About Me" theme, "Feelings" theme or any rainy day! This one is great for older children as well.

During a gardening theme, this parts of a plant playdough exploration was a big hit, The "seeds" are dried black beans, the "stems" are pipe cleaners and I took apart some artificial flowers from the discount store for flowers and leaves. This happens to be homemade playdough that I scented with lavender oil, but any playdough or clay can be used.

After a long and happy life on our dining room table, these beautiful flowers were on their way out, but not before my toddler got a chance to play and explore with them. He loved using the magnifying glasses and pulling apart the petals. Older children could also use scissors or tweezers.