Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Meeting Developmental Needs Through Dramatic Play (and a Peek Inside Our Playroom)

As much as I sing the praises of the importance of play in early childhood, it may come as a surprise to know that the preschool we send S to is not play-based in curriculum. In fact, our preschool is Montessori inspired, and while many of the activities S does in school are playful and fun, he does not have a dramatic play area in his classroom nor is symbolic play a part of their daily routine. The students definitely do get time outdoors and even inside to act upon their natural childhood play instincts and we are truly so pleased with how our school's approach meets the needs of our son. I also feel so strongly that a variety of early childhood skills are met through thoughtful, open-ended play opportunities and I love the chance to supplement with that at home for both of the boys.

But is play truly enough? Are children really gaining skills through playing "house" or "fire station?" Come take a peek at our updated playroom today, and you'll see just how a simple but thoughtfully executed play setup can invite young children ranging in age and development to target current skills and learn through meaningful play.

Every Chanukkah, our community hosts an ice skating party with a public menorah lighting right on the rink. We have always enjoyed the event from the outer perimeters (and you'll still find me there this year!) but S really wants to try skating! He has been talking about it for months and while it is not something I am so fond of (or talented in), I do not want to discourage his enthusiasm. Whether he loves it, hates it, succeeds or slides around on his tush the whole time, I'm glad he is eager to try something new (and equally glad my husband will go out there with him for a bit...)! S has been gleefully skating across our hardwood floors for months in his slippers and the party is just days away now. But why wait until Sunday when you can have a skating rink in your very own home?
The boys have been really engaged in their play at our Bakery. For that reason and also for the sake of my own strength and sanity, it felt important not to completely tear down and rebuild our play area. Sometimes I will do a complete "overhaul" in my home or classrooms and other times, I just morph and mesh things together. Since much of the fun of an ice skating rink is the hot cocoa and concession stand (especially for us wallflowers), I kept out most of our bakery themed items, tweaking and adding a bit here and there. I also felt it was important to let the boys know that there would be a change to our play area. It can be surprising to see a different setup in a playroom or classroom. For some, the element of surprise is appealing and for some it is unsettling. I like to keep it in a middle range, so I also engaged the boys in revealing the surprise. Since they are both still mostly illiterate, I had them color and decorate letter pendants that I would use to create a banner for our skating rink.
And speaking of the banner--I did not create this play setup alone! Many times I do come up with all of my own props, printables and play accessories, but in this world of modern technology and communication, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The incredibly talented teacher behind the website Pocket of Preschool has a variety dramatic play materials for sale on Teachers Pay Teachers, including this Ice Skating Rink Dramatic Play bundle. This is a great way to save on time and support fellow educators.

So come on in to our play area, I mean Ice Skating Rink! Set your shoes in the shoe locker (which, FYI-- is S's new favorite thing in our house) and grab a pair of paper plate skates. Glide around the room with me (even I skated on a pair!) and see how the boys are learning a variety of early childhood skills all while navigating and directing their own play experience...

Art & Creative Expression: In addition to their artwork that helped create our "Ice Skating" banner, I like to engage both boys in creating or helping to create props we use in our play area. Many of the baked goods in our concession stand were handcrafted from Model Magic and gingerbread salt dough by the boys. I did the preliminary work on our popcorn machine (just a cardboard box cut and taped with some macgeyvered accessories to attach popcorn bags (from Dollar Tree) and a scoop (also from Dollar Tree). The popcorn is made from scrunched up squares of yellow paper. This is a task early cutters can help with and even younger ones and scrunch up paper to make popcorn. Alternatively, you could use packing peanuts (especially if in your collection of Amazon Prime boxes you also have a collection of packing materials). While there are a plethora of great dramatic play toys on the market, the expense is not always justifiable or necessary. Children love using props they made or contributed toward in play and it is a great way for them to creatively express themselves in their play space.
Dramatic play in and of itself is a natural opportunity for creative expression. I open up our play experience with a brief tour and demonstration of what is out and available. Nonetheless, the boys come up with their own ideas and play schemes. Sometimes they have an idea for set up or story line that is different from my own. Barring anything unsafe, I allow for it. For example, in our bakery, S really wanted to use a shelf for displaying items that were "for sale." This was not something I had planned for or intended, but it was important to his story line and I cleared a shelf for it. I even left the shelf that way in our Skating Rink Concession Stand because this idea was of value to him and his play. He also learned that a Zamboni (ours is a riding toy with a sign I made from a laminated photo of a Zamboni I printed) is used to clean the ice. He had the idea to use our dreidel collection as ice chunks and clean them off the ice with the Zamboni. Totally not what I had in mind. Totally something I allowed and supported. Then he realized that the surface of our Magnetiles was quite ice-like in nature and used those to build a perimeter around our skating rink. Again--not in the "plans,"  but definitely part of purpose.
I find that one of the areas I often get hung up on in my home or classrooms is letting go of my intentions for an activity and making space for the children's play needs and ideas. Critical thinking skills and creative expression are such an important aspect of early childhood development. Dramatic play offers a scenario where children can own and dictate their own story line and experience. Our role is to support their safety and success. I definitely prompted the Zamboni driver to haul off the dreidel shaped ice chunks to a proper receptacle after the ice was cleared and we decided driving the Zamboni on the Magnetiles wasn't super safe in the end. But overall, I sit back and follow the boys' lead. If they are stuck in an element of the story or how to execute an idea, I offer suggestions and support and other than that, they are in charge of the experience.

Early Literacy & Writing: The use of labels and incorporating a print rich environment can feel a bit unnatural in some classrooms and especially at home. I don't have a sign next our clock that reads "clock" or a label by our couch that reads "couch." I do, however, use signs and labels strategically in our play area even though my boys are pre-literate. Can they read "Ice Skating" or "Shoe Locker" or "Popcorn Machine?" Not yet, but as I show them the different areas of our new play space, they come to associate the print with the object and learn that letters and words represent things around us. Books about ice skating, both non-fiction and fiction, that we borrowed from our library are set out in our lay area for reading together and gaining ideas. Cookbooks in our kitchen area offer recipes for baked treats. Snack menus and laminated order forms with a dry erase marker allow skating rink attendants to take their customers' orders once he or she decides from the menu what to purchase. Even our cash register area is stocked with a receipt pad and order form pad, pencils and pens. Our mailbox is stocked with laminated party invitations and envelopes that can be used (and reused) to invite guests to a skating party at the rink. Our play is rich in new vocabulary for the boys. Y learned to words "ice" and "skates" and "skating rink." And both boys now know what a Zamboni is!

Math & Number Concepts: Money concepts and counting are early math skills that older preschoolers can develop through playing at a cash register and selling tickets or snacks at the concession stand. Size and spacial awareness are developed as the boys select skates in their foot size. Each paper plate skate has a velcro dot in the middle and there are a set of laminated "skates" printed from the Pocket of Preschool dramatic play set onto colored paper each with a size and corresponding numeral. They can match the number to their age or simply work on matching and sorting by size and color. Even the cold beverages are separated into small, medium and large sized cups to encourage early measurement concepts and sorting skills.

Social & Emotional Development: When children engage in dramatic play, they are working on a variety of important social and emotional developmental skills. Narrating and leading a story line builds confidence and critical thinking skills. Children must problem solve as they navigate the play area and work together with peers or siblings. Role playing requires the ability to share space, materials and ideas. These are challenging concepts for young children! It takes a great deal of self control to share one Zamboni between two brothers! Even the art of conversation--listening, taking turns and waiting for a response--come into play when skating rink attendants communicate on walkie talkies...

Gross Motor Skills: I like to encourage an element of gross motor play as much as I can in our home. Both boys have low muscle tone and staying active is imperative to their continued development. Especially at this time of year when it is dark out by the time they are finished napping, getting creative with indoor gross motor opportunities is vital for my energetic and active sons. An ice skating rink pretty naturally lends itself to gross motor play as they skate (S mastered the skill, Y, not quite yet...) and push themselves on the riding toy (again, S has mastered this, Y is still working on walking and riding). The addition of some creative props and games in the weeks to come will expand on this as we play ice hockey with soft hockey sticks and balls, shovel "snowballs" (rolled up white socks) with child-sized shovels off the ice and perhaps engage in an indoor snowball "fight." Recycled shoeboxes or smaller cardboard boxes can be wrapped in white paper and used for building an igloo or ice sculpture. Stay tuned to see more gross motor play ideas as we expand on our play theme...

Fine Motor Skills: Many elements already mentioned in our play setup encourage fine motor development. Taking off shoes and putting on skates, dressing in warm winter gloves and mittens, writing and creating props and art all use those tiny little muscles in the hands. Scooping popcorn from the popcorn maker, separating and stacking cups and attaching lids to hot beverage cups also support this skill. I still like to sneak in a little bit more, so the hot cocoa department of our concession stand comes stocked with a container of cocoa pom poms (brown) and marshmallow pom poms (white) and a couple of fine motor tools and tongs for picking them up and transferring them to hot cups and then back to their proper receptacles.

Practical Life and Self-Care Skills: We all know that children need to learn how to dress and undress themselves. Never are we more reminded of this than when the cold weather strikes. And yet, every parent and early childhood educator knows the struggle that is getting any number of children into and out of winter weather gear for time spent outdoors. Honestly, it's faster to do it ourselves so we can at least spend an equivalent amount of time outside as we do getting dressed and undressed for it! Transition times just don't seem to be the ideal ones for teaching the important skills of zipping coats, wrapping scarves, putting on hats and gloves and mittens. A simple and inexpensive collection of scarves, hats, gloves and mittens set out in a basket are the perfect dress-up accessories for this dramatic play setup and a great opportunity for children to practice these practical life skills through play. Y especially loves to dress up and had such a grand time working on putting on and taking off hats and scarves and even mittens. We're not rushing to get out the door and we have all afternoon to play together. This is the perfect time and place to work on self-care skills like dressing and undressing!

Science & STEM Extension Opportunities: Stay tuned to see some fun theme relevant science and STEM expansions on the blog. In the meantime, you can check out some great play and learning activities using ice we have already done here.

Time Saving Tips & How to Begin: This probably seems like a huge investment in time and money. It definitely did take some time to collect, prepare and set up our Ice Skating Rink, but I did not do it all at once. I print and laminate things in advance as I have the time at home. Laminating props and storing themes together definitely helps me with the time investment in future years and themes. I also use and reuse props throughout the year in different activities. It is easier to add to an already existing play theme (as we did with the bakery) than it is to completely overhaul a play space. I also do not introduce all of the elements of a play theme at once. That would be overwhelming for me and for the children! So I did not set out all of the play props for gross motor play yesterday, nor did I set up a new sensory bin or the small world skating rink and winter play loose parts I intend to add in the weeks to come. In revealing and setting up just a few new activities and props at a time, I allow the kids a chance to experience the play area and work on the skills to be developed through each activity without the rush and overwhelm of having too much, too soon. In fact, when I have completely overdone it in the past and revamped the whole room, not only was I exhausted at the end and unavailable for play and interacting, but the kids often lost interest after just a few minutes of exploring. Yesterday, both boys spent a good long while using just the skates and dress up and Zamboni. Later, they spent some time in the concession stand fixing drinks and snacks. It was more than enough and will likely continue to engage them for several more days before I add in or introduce anything else. I will, of course, keep you all posted on expansion activities and add ins. Until then...

Happy Playing!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Three Tasty Play Activities That Are [Almost] Good Enough to Eat!

This time of year can find us busy in the kitchen and kids are eager to join in, whether it's tasting, playing or offering a hindering helping hand. Some of the time I do invite the kids into the kitchen to help with cooking and sometimes I join them in play activities about cooking or baking. And sometimes, I need a really great play activity that will keep them busy while I cook and bake in the kitchen... This post has you covered for all three scenarios and more!

Growing up, I honestly thought a cranberry was something cylindrical in shape, with jellied indentations on its outside that held a remarkable resemblance to the inside of a tin can. Cranberry sauce was served only with turkey and always sliced in even circles, gently laid upon the same white Pyrex dish every single time. Ah, the memories. My mom is a great cook, so heaven only knows why she never made cranberry sauce, but I loved the canned stuff. (Maybe that's why--there was now officially ONE thing I'd eat on the Thanksgiving table...)

Well fast forward to this year, and I kept seeing photos of cranberry and water sensory bins floating around the internet. I have mixed opinions about playing with food, but it is not something I am rigidly against in my home. Y in particular loves water play, and both boys have been enjoying our Bakery Shop Dramatic Play Center. So I picked up a couple of packs of cranberries, grabbed some of our cooking/baking props (actual bowls, colanders and utensils from Dollar Tree) and added water. It was a hit! The cranberries were so much fun to scoop, smoosh, transfer and stir. The water was a perfect medium for pouring and mixing. When the day was done, I drained the water and stored the cranberries in the refrigerator for more play the next day. Meanwhile, in the kitchen I discovered how easy making your own cranberry sauce from scratch actually is! Just a batch of cranberries, a cup of orange juice and a cup of sugar, simmered on the stovetop until those cranberries POP! About ten minutes later, I had cranberry sauce...who knew?

Well, speaking of our bakery theme... The boys have really been engaged in dramatic play! They have both loved setting up and selling items from our bakery shop, taking orders, making specialty drinks in our hot beverage cups (just hot cups with lids) and creating additional play props to add to the scene. We brought out the Model Magic clay again to create some play donuts (hand shaped) and cupcakes (shaped in cupcake tins). Once the clay air dried (it took a few days here for the thicker cupcakes) we got out some tempura paint and glitter glue for decorating.

These cupcakes look almost good enough to eat and the boys love playing with props they made themselves!

For another DIY play prop that even smells almost good enough to eat, I whipped up a batch of gingerbread salt dough to make play gingerbread cookies. Here's the recipe I concocted if you'd like to make your own. The dough is easy to work with, smells great and dries very well overnight (you may want to flip your "cookies" intermittently to ensure they dry on both sides and through the center). They can be painted and coated with a seal if you really want them to last or to use them decoratively. They are not immune to breaking when dropped, but they boys are having fun with them nonetheless, and if they end up tossed away after we close up the bakery shop this year, we definitely got good use out them. They can for sure be stored and saved if you wish.

Gingerbread Salt Dough Recipe
You will need:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 1/2 cup cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 3/4 cup warm water
Mix your ingredients well until you have a smooth dough. (The dough will be darker than the dried cookies pictured on the left.) To shape your "cookies," roll dough about 1/4 inch thick and cut in your favorite shapes with cookie cutters. Allow finished cookies to air dry until completely hardened. Paint, seal and decorate as you wish. To store leftover dough, seal in a plastic bag or container and refrigerate to prolong shelf-life.

The boys are so excited for Chanukah that I set out some Chanukah shaped cookie cutters along with our gingerbread men. And speaking of Chanukah, here's a shameless plug for my Chanukah Counting Soup available on Teachers Pay Teachers. This is a fun way to promote early math skills, great for ages 3-8 for use in your home and/or classroom. Take advantage of Cyber Monday (and Tuesday) and save 20% ! 

Whatever holidays or special events you're preparing for, I wish you a productive and playful time. Stay tuned for some exciting updates to our dramatic play theme here in the next couple of weeks and until then...

Happy playing!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Sneaky Writer: Creative Ways to Encourage Early Writers

Letter tracing doesn't always involve a
pencil and connecting dots. In this activity,
the boys use tape to trace the letter Tt. S tears/cuts
his own strips. I pre-cut strips for Y to pull off the
side of the table and S decided to help him, too!
If you've been a reader of my blog, you've seen my Sneaky Reader Tips to encourage early readers. You've probably also read up on ways I use non-writing play activities to support the healthy development of those small fine motor muscles to support pre-writers and early writers. But what do you do when your little ones are ready to begin writing? Whether they are still in the scribble stage, entering the world of basic pre-writing strokes or beginning to write their own names and form letters, there is a great deal we can do at home and in classrooms to support and encourage early writers!

Early writing is such an exciting phase. I can actually remember learning to write my own name. Like so many other aspects of my childhood, this was something I did on my own terms, in my own time, with the support and encouragement of my teachers and parents, but in my own way. I remember making "Es" with a bazillion extra lines, because if three are good, certainly 839 are better. I held my writing instrument my own way, and while I was given grips and cushions to support it, I never had this corrected. That is an area that as a teacher and now as I parent, I utilize the good ol' fashioned do as I say/demonstrate, not as I do. Long periods of handwriting are physically very painful for me in the way that I hold my pen or pencil.

I now have a son who is eager and motivated now to write, but does not yet hold his pencil correctly. Both boys have low muscle tone and motor activities can take some extra time and TLC to coordinate. S has always been quite strong in terms of fine motor skills. He was always drawn to activities like hammering, using screw drivers, stringing tiny beads onto beading twine, using scissors to cut, hole punches, squeezing glue from the bottle, working with doughs and clays and more. Drawing and writing were not activities he necessarily sought. We've done a lot of artwork and pre-writing activities here, for sure! He's had access and exposure to a variety of writing mediums. Yet, I've never pushed him to sit and write or work on letters or even his own name. With this, I did take a cue from my own parents and teachers, and let it be something that he came to naturally. Additionally, in times that I did offer to correct his hand position, he would often flee the scene altogether and I took his cue and backed off. I knew that when he was ready and more likely than not, it would be in his classroom, that he would approach the task with the same zeal and enthusiasm with which he approaches everything else in his life. And that time rolled around this school year for him.

Over the summer, S's pictures had transformed from scribbles to representative shapes that occurred on the page, taking him by surprise and morphing into story lines. From there, he discovered he could control the writing utensil (albeit with a significant level of challenge and difficulty) and create shapes and images to support his story rather than vise versa. From there, I happily passed the reigns to his very competent and supportive teachers to encourage and support him in correcting his hand position to use writing instruments and art supplies more efficiently. In the world of early childhood and occupational therapy, there are many pedagogues surrounding writing. Heated debates emerge about introducing uppercase versus lowercase letters. Arguments persist over whether children should be given crayons first or markers. Pencils that are wide or pencils that are standard size. Should children be given grips and supportive devices or be taught and made to hold their writing instruments correctly from the get go and refused the opportunity until they are able to do so?

As in so many areas, I am not an expert and I am eclectic in my approach. As a teacher and as a parent, for me personally it boils down to best supporting the individual. Children are going to write for the remainder of their lives. Given that fact, my opinion is that we must do whatever we can to encourage them early on and support them in the lifelong process. I certainly advocate for ruling out extenuating circumstances that may make writing difficult including motor challenges (like my own boys' low tone), muscle weakness in the hands, core and/or upper body, visual impairments that have an affect (my younger one would fall into this category), and other learning differences or difficulties. Adequate support in these instances is so helpful! And then, we get creative. We find ways at home and in the classroom to make writing accessible, exciting and maybe, just a little bit sneaky...

When S was quite a bit younger, I wrote a post on the Montessori approach to encouraging early writers in the home, and we continue to do a lot of these things at home for both boys now. In addition, last year we transformed the desk in the boys' room from a catch-all-the-junk-I-can't-get-around-to-putting-away location to an actual writing center for S. It was amazing. At first. And then Y became very mobile around the room and busy "redesigning" and, let's say, our beloved desk has returned to its sad original function. I hope to tackle this one over the weeks to come because S has actually requested to use his "Writing Desk" and although we tend not to spend so much time in the boys' room other than bedtimes, I think it would also be a source of encouragement for Y (who then might hopefully be less inclined to utterly trash the place during nap time...hey, a mommy can dream). But even if you do not have a designated desk or space for writing, a home or classroom Writing Center can be as simple and transportable as a plastic caddie, set of drawers or plastic storage box stocked with supplies.

Supplies? What supplies? Well, I take an approach similar to stocking any other area of our home. Less is more, and rotation is key. Perhaps you offer pencils and lined paper or notepads. Perhaps sticky notes and skinny markers. Letter stamps and stickers are fabulous. Dry erase markers and a cloth are a great writing tool for little hands and you can provide a white board or tablet or make your own dry erase sheets using laminated paper or sheet protectors. Lined paper, white paper and notebooks are certainly standards in the world of writing and age specific options with wider lines and spaces are available. That said, sometimes these are overwhelming or unappealing to more "reluctant" writers. Colored paper or paper without lines (that can be both intimidating and restricting to early writers struggling with size and spacing) are a great addition. Paper in smaller sizes (like index cards or even standard size letter paper cut in half) can also feel more approachable. Beyond the obvious things to write with and things to write on, I also encourage you to stock your writing center and living space with printed language. Naturally print rich environments include books, labels, signs and plenty of opportunity to see written language. You might also consider writing or printing off words children frequently want to write/spell, including their names, family members' names, theme or season relevant language, etc.

Pencils are also a writing standard. I love golf size pencils for little hands and Ticonderoga even makes them with erasers (a huge benefit to early writers who may get frustrated by mistakes). You can also break a standard pencil and sharpen it and add your own pencil top erasers. Speaking of sharpening pencils--this is a great (and sneaky) fine motor activity for developing hands! So grab an old fashioned sharpener, a small container to collect the shavings and let them have at it! I've had students more interested in sharpening all the colored pencils than using them, and I go with it. When it comes to choosing whether to use a standard pencil, a fat pencil, a triangular pencil or only offering markers/crayons until grip with those are mastered, I still feel it's most important to do what supports the individual. If a child is drawn toward pencils, allow them. If she wants to use a marker, allow that. Markers are infinitely easier to get a bold and clear stroke from than most crayons or pencils and pens for that matter. If you want to work toward efficient grip, choose a skinny marker as opposed to the larger Crayola standards.

To Grip or Not to Grip? That is the question. I'm sure I will please some OTs and offend others, but I am going to go ahead and say that if a child is helped by the use of a pencil grip and wants to use it, go for it! S just recently got a set of grips in his classroom and came home eager to use one that we had on his pencil. I saw how encouraged he felt and how much more confident it made him and ordered more. He needed a quick correction in holding the pencil in the write direction and not turning his hand upside down, but then he took off! I would never force him to use it all of the time nor would I refuse him the option of using one if he wants to.

Now what? Tracing, name writing, letter formation and all of those skills emerge from the very early days of scribbling. It's most important to meet a child where he/she is at and to try to remain in that sweet zone of a child feeling motivated but not bored and not frustrated. This might mean that as a parent or classroom teacher, you have children in varying stages of pre-writing and writing and you can definitely accommodate them all without driving yourself nuts! The same materials and even similar activities can support writers in all stages. We use journals here for both boys and although S and Y are at very different stages of writing, they both love the activities. I offer the same setup to both boys with tools and expectations that are custom fit to their developmental level. S might have a squeeze bottle of glue in his caddie and a pair of scissors with a pre-traced shape on some paper to cut and glue. Y might have a pre-cut shape and a glue stick or a jar of glue with a paintbrush. The aim is for both of them to feel supported and not frustrated by expectations out of their range on either end of the spectrum.

Letter tracing definitely looks different for S than for Y. S can connect the dots and "accurately" trace the letters. Y can take caps off of markers and is working toward snapping them back on. He can also make lines, scribbles and swirls--sometimes even on the paper only! I offer tracing activities both in paper/pencil (or marker/crayon/pen/etc.) form and in dry erase/marker form. I especially like dry erase markers for their ease of strokes and re-usability. Chalk and chalkboard/chalkboard slates are another great alternative.
Gingerbread Letter Tracing and other amazing reading and writing resources available at Letters of Literacy

Sneaky Writing Practice: When writing and tracing letters is not so appealing for children, I sneak in the motion itself. A squiggly line drawn from a treat to the table helps S practice his first letter without the typical activity of tracing and copying it that he sometimes feels averse to. Practicing those curvy, boxy and zig zaggy strokes are so vital to correctly and efficiently forming letters later on. Drawing their own mazes, lines and playful strokes in pictures are great ways to sneak that in.

Additionally, I sneak writing and pre-writing opportunities into our play areas. Whether it's laminated party invitations, order forms and dry erase markers in our Birthday Bakery Shop, or graph paper and colored pencils for making blueprints in our block area, writing opportunities are at the ready in every room. I even keep a memo pad and pen inside a zipper pouch in my purse so that an item can be added by print or picture to my preschooler's ever growing wish-list. This has helped us simultaneously dodge a tantrum and practice writing!

What's In a Name? A child's name is often one of the first words he learns to recognize and write. I have always encouraged my students to write their own names on their work in whatever way they know how. I've had students come through my pre-K classes at all levels and stages of writing their name and leave at varying levels and stages as well. I always aim to meet the children where they are at and support them in reaching that next step. With more reluctant writers (and my own preschooler is in this category), it can be a little daunting. The tendency to plateau at having an adult write their name for them (and the ease and time saving factor with which we often jump to the rescue) can cause the process to seemingly stall. And yet, every child I've worked with has someday, somehow, written his/her name independently. I, for one, sat with a pocket sized memo pad writing again and again and again in my babysitter's basement. One student I had sat in his cubby one afternoon for a good long while and emerged writing his whole name. Another sat next to a few friends who taught him how and was so proud!

My own son is most encouraged by having help from his teacher. He came home eager to show me a worksheet she'd sent home with his name to trace. He held it in the car and put it in a safe spot for after his nap and couldn't wait to trace it! I, being the neurotic mommy-teacher I am, sneaked a peek at the website on the corner of the page and printed off a dozen more with his name and Y's as well (because all younger brothers must have what older brothers do). I laminated one for each of them to use and reuse with dry erase markers and set out a stack of both boys' names printed on colored paper. S decided to trace Y's name this morning! You can create and print your own name practice sheets at You can also take a peek at some of our other favorite writing and pre-writing activities for more ideas.

There are many ways beyond what fits in this post to support and encourage early writers through all stages of development. My very favorite and most forgotten one is to let them see you do it. Whether it's writing a shopping list, keeping a journal, handwriting a birthday greeting or holiday card, it's so important for children to see adults writing and to intuit the importance of printed language. I realized that one reason S was likely more drawn to scissors and needles with thread than pencils and pens was that he sees me use them. He was likely drawn to hammers and nails and screw drivers seeing his Tatty use them. Most often, however, both his Tatty and I accomplish our written tasks over the phone or computer. He has not seen us writing. So if you can't beat 'em, join 'em! Get out a pen and some paper and start writing yourself. You might be surprised to see your little ones join right in the fun.

Happy Writing!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

More Bakery Themed Fun with Art & Sensory Play

Our Bakery Dramatic Play setup has been loads of fun so far. Both boys have been busy baking, boxing, delivering and serving sweet treats around the house. And the fun has extended beyond our kitchen set and playroom to the art table and our sensory bin! These sweet activities are sure to please the little bakers-in-training in your home or classroom...

When school ended last Spring, S really missed "Morning Work" each day, so I started setting up a simple Table Time activity each morning at home. Y immediately took to it as well, and even once school started up again in the Fall, I knew there was no turning back. Every morning, the boys are eager to see what's set up at the table for "Morning Work." Sometimes it is related to a play theme or the season or an upcoming holiday or family event. Sometimes it's a journal activity or related to letters numbers, writing/coloring practice or even process art. Playdough and clay are always popular ones and I try to make the activity developmentally appropriate and enjoyable for each of the boys at his own level.

This week, it has been natural that we would include a bakery theme to our Morning Work set-ups. We are in need of some new artwork to hang up around the house after a recent swap out, so I set out an invitation to create cookies using colorful card stock, oil pastels, glue, glitter and tiny circle stickers for decorating. For S, I traced a circle (using a roll of masking tape) onto some squares of card stock that he could cut. For Y (and S if he wanted as well, though he loves cutting and chose to cut his own) I set out some pre-cut circle shapes. You can choose other shapes to add or have children trace/draw and cut their own. I set out a bottle of glue that S can squeeze and use independently but also a plastic container of glue with some brushes for Y to be able to work more independently. I always allow for both boys to try any of the materials that are out. That means Y may need some support to squeeze from a bottle and be safe with scissors and that S can use the more "challenging" options intended for his level or use the alternatives. I also filled a couple of salt and pepper shakers from the Dollar Tree with glitter. You have to really love glitter to do this--especially before 9AM! Admittedly, I closed up shop at 8:35 once the boys and surrounding areas were sufficiently covered in sparkle. Alternatively you can forego the glitter altogether or use/make glitter glue. To help minimize the sparkle factor, I used a pre-cut portion of a plastic tablecloth so I could take it off and toss it at the end. Instead of our usual art mats or work trays, I set down some leftover party plates to work on. This was festive, fun and functional for collecting extra glue and glitter spills and tossing out at the end. The boys loved this activity and each of them made a few cookies to decorate our play space. You could also use the finished work in your kitchen set for play.

Speaking of art that can be used in play, both of the boys have loved creating play food from Model Magic air drying clay by Crayola. Model Magic can be a bit pricey, so I waited for a lightening deal on Amazon recently and bought a bulk set intended for classroom use. Coupons from craft supply chains are also helpful. You can also make salt dough at home and use this instead. This week, the boys made clay donuts from Model Magic. S made the world's biggest donut and Y had fun working with my help to make a couple of his own to contribute. We are waiting for those and some clay cupcakes to dry now so we can add puffy paint and glitter decorations and then add them to our bakery shop setup. 

Meanwhile, in the sensory table... 

I tried out a recipe for Birthday Cake Dough  that I found at Frogs and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails
You can click on the link for the full recipe. 
You'll need:
  • a box of cake mix (I used yellow cake mix)
  • a box of baking soda (I actually added a little extra at the end because the dough was a bit wetter than I wanted it)
  • a cup of vegetable oil
  • a bit of vanilla extract 
  • sprinkles

This dough smells heavenly and I would definitely classify it as "taste safe" being that the ingredients are all food ingredients. Nonetheless, it will not taste good, so I'd refrain from calling it edible

It mixes into a sticky and rather moist but malleable playdough and is super soft and fun! We added it into the sensory bin along with some baking tools, ice cream scoops and birthday candles for making cakes and cupcakes. You could definitely do this tabletop style instead, but I like our sensory bin for dough activities sometimes, especially some of the messier ones. Little ones can definitely help with making the dough as well and no cooking is involved. To store between play sessions, I would recommend using a ziploc bag or airtight container and refrigerating for longer shelf life. This recipe would also be a great one for Ice Cream themed sensory play and you could use other flavors of cake mix as well.
And nothing goes to waste (even and especially when we are using food products in play) here. I saved and sealed the empty ingredient boxes in clear packing tape so the boys can use them in play at their bakery shop. Nowadays, toy companies market all kinds of great play food and accessories. Nonetheless, these can be pricey and using/creating your own play props is a great alternative. As an added bonus, recycling real food containers and boxes promotes a naturally print rich environment and also feels more "realistic" to young children at play. 
Hope you will enjoy some of these sweet little activities. Dramatic play themes can extend well beyond the playroom and incorporate so many areas of play and development. We will be back soon with more and until then...

Happy Playing!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

A Peek Inside Our Playroom: Welcome to the Bakery!

Great things are worth repeating! Last year around Chanukah time, we set up our dramatic play area as a Holiday Bakery, and I'm pretty sure that's how we survived winter break from school! There's about a month until Chanukah now, but a month beforehand of birthdays in our family, Thanksgiving, and pending Chanukah excitement made me eager to get a jump start on our Bakery play theme this year.

Both boys are a whole year older now and dramatic play is something they are beginning to share in together, each at his own level. Y is mobile now, walking all around and navigating our play space. S is making huge strides in writing and math skills. Both boys love to play pretend, especially in our kitchen set and both boys love art and sensory play. Have I mentioned that both boys also love sweets and treats? Well, that's pretty much a given--so I knew they both would love this bakery theme.

When setting up a play theme in your home (or classroom), I'm a big fan of using what you have on hand. There's no need to spend a fortune or reinvent the wheel. I reused a lot of our bakery themed props from last year, including laminated printables, chefs hats we'd made, toys and props we already had, etc. Many of our kitchen set accessories were purchased secondhand, at the Dollar Tree or are homemade. This year I did get a lot of ideas and resources from Pocket of Preschool, including her great Bakery Dramatic Play set from TeachersPayTeachers.

I'm also enlisting the boys' help in making props out of Model Magic clay. This is such a fun art activity to do and it's so nice for them to see their own artwork being used at play! So far, they loved rolling and cutting out clay cookies. We allowed them to dry before "frosting" them with homemade puffy paints (shaving cream, white glue and food coloring), decorating with store-bought puffy paints (S did this) and adding rainbow rice "sprinkles" (both boys did this). Once dry, they were a great addition to our bakery! The boys will also be making clay donuts, cupcakes and perhaps even some gingerbread men!

Our bakery theme is set up to encompass a variety of areas of play and learning. A print rich environment supports my pre-reader through the incusion of signs, labels and natural print on recycled food containers. Plenty of opportunities for writing are set around the room, including laminated party invitations, bakery order forms, a receipt book and customer order book (Dollar Tree). Our bookshelf is stocked with some of our favorite baking and party themed books and a trip to the library will fill out the rest. Some actual baking cookbooks with beautiful photos are set out next to the play oven (which I made using a recycled box covered in tin foil with some recycled bottle caps glued on and a dollar store digital timer).

Math skills come into play as the boys count out cookies and cupcakes and fill customer orders. Even Y develops early one-to-one correspondence by placing one cupcake in each space of the cupcake tins or one egg in each space of the recycled egg carton. Our cash register and play money also support early math skills. Sequencing skills through following recipes come into play and action in this theme (and we will likely be doing some actual baking in the coming month as well). Fine motor skills are busy at work for both boys. They both are still loving the DIY Pumpkin Pie Set (pictured on bottom right in the photo above) made from felt and orange pom poms that the boys pick up using a variety of fine motor tongs, tweezers and tools.

Both of the boys are still loving our Counting Cupcakes Sensory Bin. Y learned how to sing "Happy Birthday to You" over there (he sings it all the time, now) and S loves picking number candles and counting out birthday candles to go with them. I'm planning to do a flour bin later in the week outside (where cleanup will be a little less scary). Even here, the boys are developing fine motor coordination, spacial awareness, transferring and pouring skills, a bit of math and plenty of practical life-skills when it comes to sweeping up spills!

Dramatic Play is something that has seemingly faded almost into extinction in many early learning centers and homes alike. The push toward early academics has replaced kitchen sets with worksheets and playtime with "work time." More and more, children are struggling with the ability to engage in abstract and symbolic play and the result is not an increase in academic success, but rather an increase in behavioral, social and developmental challenges. While all things require balance, a well set up dramatic play theme encompasses opportunities to develop academic skills in a language children best understand: play! In addition to the skills noted above, children engaging in dramatic play also develop social skills like problem solving, role playing, conflict resolution and emotional awareness. They gain language and critical thinking skills. They work large and small muscles. And they do all of this in a natural environment. 

So now that I've got my soap box statement in praise of play out of the way, here's a peek inside our playroom and what you might add to your own Bakery:

Toy Food: We had some bakery themed toy food and ingredients, but you can also make your own from clay, cardboard, felt or craft foam. Our gingerbread men are actually just foam shapes from Dollar Tree's holiday crafts last year. Both my boys love using pom poms as play food. They have been everything from cupcakes to ice cream to pumpkins, apples and even coffee or tea.

Dishes, Tools and Utensils: Again, some are toys, but many are "the real thing" purchased from the Dollar Tree or secondhand shops. The nice thing about the bake ware from Dollar Tree is that it is a little smaller and perfect for small hands. We use and reuse it in dramatic play, sensory play and when preparing recipes for non-food doughs and slimes.

We just celebrated my husband's birthday over Shabbos and since this is a month of birthday celebrations for my husband and myself, I added a birthday party sub-theme to our bakery. In lieu of toy plates and cups, I added paper party plates, cups, hot cups with lids for hot beverages, plastic forks and spoons and even party tablecloth (cut to the size of our kids' table). All of these were purchased from the Dollar Tree and/or leftover from previous celebrations. S especially loves setting the table, so it's nice rather than setting up a table for the kids to let them do it themselves as part of their play.

Costumes: Every baker needs an apron and a chef's hat. We made our own chef's hats last year and had one in our dress up clothes as well. The boys decorated child sized aprons earlier this year as well that are perfect for work in our play kitchen or our actual kitchen. Child sized aprons and chef's hats are frequently available at Dollar Tree stores as well. You can also print and make role necklaces. I like the ones in the Bakery Dramatic Play kit I linked above or you and your children can create your own. You might also talk about different roles in a bakery like bakers, cashiers, customers, delivery personnel, etc. We have a "delivery truck" as well (our toy shopping cart, but you can also use a wagon or riding toy).

 Props and Accessories: You can include any of the following:

  • cleaning supplies and tools
  • potholders
  • open/closed signs
  • boxes (I used recycled produce containers and boxes with labels I printed last year)
  • bags (I used leftover recycled gift bags with labels I printed last year)
  • laminated party invitations and envelopes
  • toy mailbox for mailing invitations
  • DIY punch cards 
  • hole punch or stamp for punch cards
  • pens, pencils
  • dry erase markers and rag/eraser
  • printed menus and order forms (you can laminate them if you wish)
  • sales signs or labels/stickers
  • receipt books, customer order books (available in Dollar Tree stores)
  • bentchers and/or laminated food blessings cards if you happen to be running a Kosher play bakery
  • cash register if you have one, or you can use a calculator or computer keyboard
  • play money (you can make your own as well)
  • small clipboards and writing pads for taking orders

You can keep it is simple as you wish or get as detailed as your children inspire you to. If you're just starting out, less is often more. You can always add to the play scene later on as you get more ideas (or as your little ones do). Perhaps you'll visit a real bakery and have a look around! As we get closer to Chanukah, I'll be adding in some holiday props and activities and perhaps phasing out some of the birthday themed stuff. And while engaging in play with the boys will be both fun (hey, I like to play, too!) and helpful in learning about some of the novel aspects of baking and running a shop, I like to let them take the lead. I'll be in The Bakery if you need me...

Happy Playing!

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Pumpkin Patch Playtime!

It's November 1st, and allow me to be the first to wish you a Happy Buy Your Purim Costumes and Dress-up Clothes at 50% Off Day! We don't happen to celebrate Halloween, but Autumn just isn't Autumn without pumpkins here. We [I] even [toiled and slaved and cursed and cried] in the garden to grown our own mini pumpkin and gourd. Yes. Only one. Of each. Costing me roughly a total of $54 when all was said and done, but worth every penny. I think. We also purchased some mini pumpkins and gourds, painted white pumpkins with acrylic paints, picked our own pumpkins at S's school field trip and needed an indoor way to have some playful and active fun yesterday while handing out [and eating] candy.
Introducing Pumpkin Patch Playtime! Whether you're looking to give those pumpkins one last hurrah today or trying to burn off some of the post-Halloween calories and energy, these simple activities are sure to please and simple to set up and execute at home or in the classroom.

Our Pumpkin Patch hosted a small selection of gross motor and dramatic play activities. You could include them all, add your own, or choose your favorites. You could do this outside if your weather permits, but it works just as well indoors given enough space.

The boys were invited as they came downstairs from their nap to take a hayride to the Pumpkin Patch. I used a small riding toy, but you can also use a cardboard box, bike/tricycle, scooter, skates or your own two feet! I used masking tape to make a path toward the pumpkin patch that would later double as our corn maze. If you have carpeting and are worried about tape, carpet safe tape options are available. I've never had a problem with masking tape as along as you remove it the same day. You can implement labels and sentence strips if you want to support a print rich environment.

Once they arrived at the Pumpkin Patch, the boys were greeted by the sight of artificial leaves strewn about the rug (you can also cut your own from paper or use the real thing outside). A couple of child sized rakes and a recycled brown paper bag were at the ready for raking leaves. If you have reservations about using rakes indoors, you could probably substitute in child sized brooms or children could use their hands or even tongs or tweezers to pick up leaves. If you have a larger group, this would be a really fun activity to do with a parachute and to use the leaves on the parachute to toss into the air before having the children rake and collect them.

The Pumpkin Patch itself was set up using artificial floral/foliage garlands I bought from the Dollar Tree earlier this year to use in our play sukkah as vines and our collection of pumpkins and gourds starring as themselves. You could use artificial/toy pumpkins, or even make your own by painting and stuffing brown paper lunch bags (as I did for our basketball game). At the Pumpkin Patch, the boys could "pick" pumpkins and gourds, fill up their shopping cart and bring them to The Pumpkin Patch Store (their kitchen set and cash register) to pay. You can get as detailed as you want here and make price tags, signs, etc. You can also keep it simple (as we did) and just go with the flow. S had the idea to use the pumpkins in the kitchen and make pumpkin cakes, pies and something he called "pumpkin juice" that I'm willing to try at least once to find out if I like it! He also wanted to use some brown paper shopping bags for carrying pumpkins and gourds, which became its own lesson in measurement, weight and structural integrity...

Both of the boys loved Pumpkin Basketball. S was quite inspired to try a real pumpkin in the game, but since we were inside, I put a damper on that one. Instead, I prepped some simple brown paper lunch bag pumpkin basketballs. I colored the bags with orange and green marker, stuffed them with tissue paper and taped them shut before smooshing them into a round shape. Alternatively, you could use actual balls and permanent markers to make them look like pumpkins. Everyone (yes, me, too) took turns having three tosses to try and make a basket.

These activities are meant to get everyone up and moving and active. When excitement and festivity are in the air (even and especially the day after), movement is a necessity. If you're needing a less active and quieter option or station, these DIY peg board geo-pumpkins are the way to go. They still encourage active engagement of muscles, strength and energy, but they are a bit more stationary in nature. This has been a favorite activity for S the last few years now, and this year Y got in on the fun as well. They hammered golf tees into a couple of our mini pumpkins last week for Table Time one morning. Yesterday, I set out the trays of rubber-bands and our pumpkin geo-boards. Y was able to loosely drape larger rubber bands over the pegs and S was able to make intricate shapes and designs.

We will likely give these gourds and pumpkins one last hurrah here as we explore the inside and maybe even do a little baking per S's request. But honestly, I'm pumpkin-spiced out and ready for what's next...Chanukah!

If you're gearing up for Chanukah as well and looking for a playful and educational way to bring some early math and literacy skills into your home or classroom, check out my Chanukah Counting Soup game on TeachersPayTeachers. It's a fabulous way to bring fun, festivity and a little bit of learning into your home or classroom this season.

And until then...happy playing!