Toy shop shelves are laden with toys claiming to be educational. For toddlers and babies, this usually means something noisy, requiring batteries. I have always held that there is little educational value in such toys. In my experience children play with them for a short period of time before moving on to something else.
Alison Gopnik discusses the manner in which children experiment with toys in her book the Philosophical Baby. A toy that worked by moving levers was presented to a group of 4-year-olds. The adults demonstrated to the first group, how it worked, while the second group were left to work it out for themselves. The second group spent significantly more time playing with the toy than the first, who quickly abandoned it once they understood its function.
Another recent study led by Professor Anna Sosa of Northern Arizona University focused on children between the ages of 10 and 16 months old. She gave families three different kinds of toys to play with; books, traditional toys like stacking blocks and electronic toys. The toys that stimulated most conversation were books, closely followed by blocks. The families playing with the electronic toy shared very little conversation, allowing the toy to do the talking for them.
If you are considering which toys to buy for a young child, these points may help.
The most important resource we can give to babies and toddlers is ourselves. Spend time playing tickling games, singing to them, playing rhyming games, blowing bubbles or rolling a ball.
Other suitable toys for babies and early toddlers include small musical instruments for exploring sound ( saucepans, spoons and homemade shakers work equally well), a treasure basket or board and cloth books.
Think about toys that they will play with for a long time. The best toy investments for our family include magnatiles, wooden blocks, paper and pencil, a magnetic drawing board and play food.
Toys do not need to be expensive. Children can have hours of fun with a balloon, pot of bubbles, home-made play dough or a cardboard box.
The infographic below has many more developmentally appropriate ideas for play.
One of my favourite Hallowe’en activities as a teacher was creating spells and dancing around the cauldron. The children were transfixed by the iron cauldron that emerged from the kitchen and wondered if it might belong to a real witch. Dressed in witches hats and cloaks, we would imagine fantastical ingredients and create spells that would transform us into dragons, frogs or birds, that would make us fly, shrink or become invisible. It was a fun way to explore rhyme, share ideas and use our imaginations. We left ‘spell books’ in the mark making area and the home corner became a witches cave complete with potion bottles, spell books and jars of bugs, bats and frogs.
My girls love to make potions, so when I told them about it, they loved the idea but wanted to make a real witches brew.
To start, we made wands from tin foil and chose witches hats and capes. Tin foil wands are simple to make if you have limited time; wrap tin foil around a pencil or simply roll and scrunch the foil into your desired shape. If you are more ambitious, make wands from sticks by stripping off the bark, adding ribbons or painting them in special colours. I also like these Harry Potter wands from Red Ted Art
With wands in hand, they chose ingredients to go into the brew. They didn’t think witches and wizards used shaving foam or cornflour to make a spell, so they chose gruesome alternatives. Flour became giant’s dandruff, hair gel was ogre snot and fuzzy balls became warts.
The girls wrote down their ingredients so they could remember the order in which to add them .
It didn’t matter that my youngest is only just beginning to write, she found her own way.
Armed with spells, wands and witches hats, they made their way outside to the cauldron at our potion station. One by one, they tossed the ingredients into the cauldron, stirring it and modifying the quantities until they were satisfied. Then it was time for the spell.
Wibbly wobbly wibbly wog
See the little jumpy frog
Wibbly wobbly wibbly wagon
Turn the frog into a dragon
We looked for the dragon but decided it was hiding amongst the clouds.
The dance around the cauldron resumed with another spell.
Wibbly wobbly wibbly wog
See the little jumpy frog
Wibbly wobbly wibbly wat
Turn my mum into a bat
Thanks girls, I’m not sure I want to hang upside down from a tree.
The potion remained in the cauldron for sometime and became the central point of their witch and wizarding school.
Suggested ingredients for a witches brew
Jello/jelly powder (makes it smell great)
leaves and petals
Give the children collection bags and a card with ingredients for a spell, in picture and written format. Ask the children to find the objects they need and place them in the bag.
Give the children a group of objects and ask them one at a time to add a specific number into the brew.
Chant around the caldron and make spells that require the children to make specific movements e.g make us slither like a snake, make us jump or stretch up tall.
This time of the year my garden is covered in a blanket of leaves. The girls enjoy helping to rake them up but it is a never-ending task. When leaves are plentiful there are many activities that you could take advantage of. Here are a few of our favourites.
Leaf Man by Lois Ehlert is illustrated with photocopies of leaves that have been arranged to make pictures. We studied the way Ehlert uses coloured paper to create a layered background and leaves and natural materials for the main body of the picture.
We created our own pictures, starting with the background and adding leaves. The leaves work better if they are pressed beforehand using a flower press or a heavy book. Preserve them by laminating before the leaves dry out.
Young children enjoy printing with leaves or painting on larger leaves. You could also try painting with different types of leaves or dipping the stalks into paint to make marks. Dried leaves crumbled into paint could also make an interesting texture.
Leaves are perfect for investigating colour mixing. Give each child a leaf and ask them to try to mix the matching colour. Younger children could paint the colour onto their leaf, print it on paper or paint around the outline, older children may like to try an observational painting of their leaf. Small square canvases or watercolour paper would make them extra special.
Sometimes young children find this difficult so experiment with different colours and materials, like crayon, pencil, chalk, pastels or charcoal to decide which makes the most effective rubbing.
Leaf Mosaics, Patterns and Sculptures
Use leaves to create mosaic patterns and pictures. These could be individual or large group projects.
The girls collected leaves on a camping trip and used them to thread onto sticks to create clothes for their stick people.
Leaves make interesting imprints in clay or they can be used as a template to cut around. Clay leaves make great bowls, tiles or mobiles.
Sensory Play and Loose Parts
Collect leaves and put them in a sensory bin – investigate what happens to them over time. Add interesting objects hidden amongst the leaves or toy woodland animals and bugs for small world play.
If you have leaves outside how do the children use them as loose parts?
My children built a bonfire……
Buried their feet….
and added them to a potion.
Use them as a Filler
Last Halloween we made spiders to hang on the bushes outside. The bodies were made from black bags stuffed full with leaves. You could also use leaves to stuff scarecrows or guys for bonfire night.
Over a period of time we collected interesting leaves and laminated them. They looked great on the window and I challenged the girls to find out which trees they belonged to. I think they would also make an eye-catching mobile. This year we are using the laminated leaves to see if they can find matching leaves in the neighbourhood. Laminated leaves could be used for all kind of things. We have used them as gift tags, to play matching pairs and they look great on the light table.
If you collect leaves gradually from the same tree or bush as they change colour you can make a leaf rainbow.
Before you decide to rake all the leaves away, take a look at this face, I think it says it all.
Regular readers will remember that when I moved to the US, I struggled to find a preschool that I was entirely happy with. I became so disillusioned that I decided to home preschool for a year. I’d lost faith of ever finding a preschool that valued play, independence and individuality above academics and rigid schedules until a friend told me of a preschool situated on a farm. The preschool shared my belief that children learn best by doing things that have relevance in their lives through exploring, discovering and creating.
The school is so popular that it was a whole year before I had a chance to visit and see the school for myself. Children were busy pulling apart sunflower heads on the covered deck area whist others moved freely between the different activities indoors and outdoors. The teacher’s enthusiasm and passion for both the children and the setting was evident immediately and a bubble of excitement rose up within me. Our name was put on the waiting list for Sept 2015 but before Christmas a place became available in the co-op class so finally my youngest daughter had the chance to attend. This was perfect as I also had the chance to be involved in this wonderful experience as a parent helper.
There was little doubt in my mind that this was the perfect preschool for my outdoor loving daughter. My expectations were high. I have been fortunate to teach at a highly acclaimed nursery in the UK and to visit the best preschools in my local authority as an advisory teacher. My experience of this school has surpassed all my expectations, I couldn’t have hoped for a more perfect preschool for my daughter and I am only sad that my older daughters didn’t have a chance to go there. After she started, it just seemed to get better. Regularly she would come home covered from head to toe in mud. To some parents this would be horrific but to me it meant she had the freedom to be herself and have fun.
Being a part of the co-op class means that I get to help out once a month. This is the most exciting part for me as I get to join in. I love the covered deck area which enables the children to play outdoors all year. The children explore the whole farm for the 2nd part of the session, mud, water, animals, climbing and balancing. They are actively encouraged to take risks.
What makes it so perfect?
1. Children are individuals
Small classes and the dedication and experience of the teacher, mean that she understands each child as an individual. My daughter who is uncomfortable speaking in a group or to unfamiliar adults is given time to think about what she wants to say, often being presented with a question at the start of a session and returning for a response later. The child who hates to get his hands dirty is offered alternative tools and all the materials are open-ended so that children can use them as they see fit.
2.Children are competent
Children are always encouraged to try things for themselves, even when they ask for help they are first encouraged to try. The children are trusted to use adult tools for woodworking and tinkering, peeling vegetables and cooking. The teacher shows them how to use the tools safely and responsibly and thereon in they are trusted with them. The children cook their own green eggs and ham on the tiny stove, they dig with metal shovels, they observe candle flames and peel carrots with a peeler. Outside they are permitted to climb trees, feed the animals, hold guinea pigs and dig in the mud. The children are trusted to handle precious materials like birds eggs, chicks and nests.
This tinker table is always available. I regularly see children sawing pieces of wood placed in the clamps, hammering nails or taking apart electronics with a screwdriver. In the nursery I taught at we had a tool bench with real tools but we weren’t confident enough to leave it out all of the time. I have never seen a child have an accident or do anything dangerous with the tools.
3. The Preschool fosters understanding and respect for nature.
Many of the activities involve the natural rhythms of the farm, collecting the produce, understanding the cycles of the plants and learning about the animals and creatures they find.
After the first few sessions, my daughter told me they had unicorns at preschool but that it was too small to have grown a horn yet. A preschool with unicorns? Could it get anymore magical?
4. Children’s thoughts and opinions are important
Each session the children are asked a question and the answers are recorded for parents to read on the wall outside. The children listen to each others responses and discuss them with respect. The children’s choices are respected as they are presented with a number of activities to choose from at leisure. They also have opportunities to choose the songs they will sing and are confident at asking for things. The children are offered a snack, they choose when and if they would like to eat it .
5. They have fun.
Best of all, I feel that my daughter experiences something here that she would never have the chance to experience elsewhere. I feel so fortunate to have found this preschool and that my daughter has one more year there. When our time is over I will be so sad but I hope I can remember her teacher’s words of wisdom.
Young children have an immense curiosity about the natural world – the challenge is to stop them from losing it! Nurture that precious sense of wonder …….. A little empathy and enthusiasm is all you need to encourage children to appreciate wild places.
( Nature’s Playground)
Natural environments offer opportunities for adventure, which build confidence and instill bravery.
Take time to stop and explore. Rushing children along to the next thing, denies children the opportunity to make their own discoveries.
Using natural materials creatively helps us to appreciate them in new ways.
Wild places provide opportunities for quiet reflection.
Finding creatures in their natural environment encourages respect and reduces fear.
Explore all types of weather. Rain, snow, wind and sunshine offer many different experiences.
Allow children time to be immersed in their experiences and they will adapt natural materials, weaving them into their own imaginative worlds.
Sometimes nature is cruel but when children come across these things in the wild, it promotes discussion and allows them to navigate difficult concepts in a meaningful way.
Being in a natural environment offers children opportunities to develop physical skills, through climbing , negotiating space, moving on different surfaces, reaching, touching and many more.
Explore with all of your senses.
If I need a little encouragement to go outside I only need to look at the joy, concentration and contemplation on my children’s faces.
If you need further inspiration I recommend reading Nature’s Playground.
This is not a sponsored post the book mentioned is a personal recommendation only.
The girls often enjoy mirror play, I’ve tried a number of different types. I love this big one but it is very fragile and difficult to store. For small projects, I have an oval mirror in a tray but it isn’t big enough for more than 2 children to play with. Unframed circular mirrors work well, but I’m yet to find a suitable one. We also use Ikea mirror tiles, these are portable and I can change the arrangement to suit the project but the pointed edges bother me.
Suddenly it came to me – “why not stick the mirror tiles onto a table?” I sent out a plea for a table to my Buy Nothing group. I didn’t expect to find one that was the perfect size but within 30 minutes I had been offered a table that would fit the tiles perfectly. The mirror tiles come with sticky pads for mounting to a wall. These were perfect for attaching the mirrors to the table. I taped the sharp corners with duct tape and a vanity mirror was placed against the wall. In a preschool setting I would mount more tiles to the wall and put the table in front to allow for seamless reflections. The border around our mirror makes it difficult for small items to be reflected in the upright mirror.
A couple of small card mirrors and a few loose parts led to fun explorations.
I cut the insides of a roll of tape in half and placed them on the table with a few wooden rings.
“It looks like wheels. I’m going to make a car”
To keep the interest going, I changed the materials regularly. The loose parts, building bricks and mirrors maintained interest for only a short time. Knowing that my children love to draw and write, I decided to leave white board markers and a rubber on the table to see if this would engage them.
This arrangement was perfect and by far the most popular so far.
To add variety, I purchased a pack of glass markers. This was a very different experience. The girls discovered that the pens were difficult to erase. They liked that they no longer needed to avoid erasing part of the picture with their sleeve. It took more effort to erase and the girls experimented with the best ways to do this. Since they love to use cleaning sprays, I showed them how to use a small amount of glass cleaner to remove the pens quickly.
I noticed that the style of drawing changed when I introduced these pens. The girls drew intricate patterns using the colours and adapting their movements to light touch of the pens.
This one reminded me of Kandisky ( and a pattern in one of the earlier photographs is reminiscent of concentric circles).
“I like drawing random things that come into my head. Then they don’t have to be anything” said my 6-year-old.
I explained that this is called abstract art. I have an artist friend and we all visited her exhibition recently. I told them that this was the kind of art that she makes.
Later, I printed some Kandinsky paintings, placing them around the edge of the vanity mirror.
“Why did you name this one the traveller?” I asked.
“He looks like he has a bag on his back and the multi-coloured bits look like a map”
The mirror table is also the perfect surface for shaving foam.
On a flat, even surface their natural instinct was to cover all the space, smoothing it over like icing a cake.
They began to create a story.
How about we’re the servants and it is the queen’s birthday and she wants us to decorate everything?
Now we need it all smooth again. We are the servants.
Wait, she said decorate everything. How about our hands? Oh no there are some gaps.
Maybe the queen will be mad. Come on we’ve got to make it smooth.
I don’t think she’ll be mad. She is the nicest queen. Everyday for pudding she gives us cupcakes.
It’s all textury, move your hands around like this.
Or I could do an M – like this.
The scenario soon changed to one where they were at school.
There is lots and lots of art but you don’t like doing it, do you?
Of course I do, why wouldn’t I? I love it
No, but remember we’re playing a game where you don’t like being creative . You just like playing video games and stuff.
I know, this is creative and you don’t like it. Pretend when someone asks you to do something creative you just say ” but when can I watch tv?”
Do you know what I’m going to do next?
Neither do I but it will be something creative.
How about you make a snowball?
The girls abandoned a game of Minecraft when I put the foam out. It is interesting that they were exploring ideas about creativity in their play.
Most Pre-school teachers in the UK are experienced at teaching children aged 3-5. It is rare however, that graduates or teachers with Qualified Teacher Status are appointed to teach children of 2 or under. This may be set to change, as children from disadvantaged backgrounds are offered government-funded early education. There is lively debate as to the ‘best’ type of setting for these children but evidence shows that the quality of the setting is the most important factor. Graduate and teacher led settings have been shown to be the most effective at closing the achievement gap (Matters et al 2014).
‘Early Education’ have published an excellent briefing for school leaders considering offering provision to 2-year-olds. It also offers valuable advice to anyone considering teaching 2-year-olds. In the search for graduate teachers for this age group, it is possible that experienced and well qualified teachers will be asked to take on a new role of leading this provision. This may be daunting. It certainly was for me the first time I encountered this age group.
When I began working in a mixed age nursery environment for 2-5 year olds, I was used to teaching children who could sit on a carpet in a large group and listen, who could draw representational figures, talk and share ideas, were toilet trained and who played for the most part, cooperatively with their peers. Planning for the 2-year-olds terrified me at first but I soon learned that creating an environment in which they could freely explore and move around was the most important consideration.
Our mixed age setting was split into 3 rooms. Sometimes the 2-year-olds were in their own group (and always at small group time) but for a large chunk of time, they were mixed with 3 and 4-year-olds. Teaching in a mixed age setting comes with its own challenges.
Common Concerns About Teaching in Mixed Age Settings
If you are a parent of more than one child, begin by thinking about how you manage the challenges below at home. In a mixed age family unit, compromises have to be made but the youngest children’s experiences are enriched by the older siblings and the older children learn to nurture, guide and understand different needs.
How do you find activities that are appropriate for 2 year olds but also challenging enough for the older children?
Choose activities that are open-ended. Building blocks, small world play, painting, drawing, clay, water, sand and other sensory activities, imaginative play and recycled materials are perfect for all ages. Make sure there are times during the day when children are in a smaller group with same age peers. Build an engaging outdoor learning environment and allow the children to move freely between indoor and outdoors.
How can you ensure safety without denying the older children valuable experiences?
Tools can be kept out of reach of toddlers inquisitive hands but in a place where older children can reach or ask an adult to get it. It is important to me that my children have ready access to mark making materials but when my youngest was at the drawing on walls stage, these were pushed back on the shelf where she could not reach but her sisters could.
If younger children want to use scissors, clay tools or small loose parts don’t deny them the opportunity; simply ensure an adult is sat with them to support them. Keep the materials to one area which has adult supervision.
How do you stop the younger ones spoiling older children’s games by knocking down things they have built or taking toys they are playing with?
Learning to negotiate with younger children is important, learning that children of different ages have different needs and they do not mean to spoil things for the older children. Encourage older children to play at building and knocking things down with the younger children and allow the older children to place their completed models out of the younger children’s reach. Have special places for ongoing projects and ensure that there is some time with their own age group. Projects requiring a finished product or advanced skills are best for small group time.
Additional things I learned about teaching 2-year-olds
They like to move around and explore. Often, they will not stay at one activity for long and prefer activities with lots of space rather than at a table top.
They find large groups distracting. Do not expect them to sit for a story session with 3 and 4-year-olds as they will more than likely lose interest before the end. They would much prefer to be read a short book in a small group, or better still 1:1 on an adult’s lap.
They like songs that are simple and short with actions, puppets, props or simple instruments to maintain interest . Again this is best in a small group
They love messy, tactile or sensory play and are interested in exploring materials. They are fascinated by processes and how things work. This may mean they will use materials in unexpected ways – tipping, throwing or splashing, for example. Try to channel these investigations in positive ways. Do not expect them to create a finished art product.
Some are not yet talking, others may be difficult to understand. It takes time to build relationships with these children and understand their needs. Play alongside them and observe. Build positive relationships with parents and help the children to build a secure relationship with you
They are still learning to use tools and will need adult supervision when using scissors, small items and books.
They learn by repetition, so don’t be worried that your planning isn’t varied. Try to spot schemas and re-occurring fascinations and plan a variety of experiences to support them.
‘Art’ projects work best on a large-scale. Rolls and large sheets of paper, chunky crayons, blocks of clay, pavement chalk and large brushes are all perfect for this age group.
They will assert their independence. Give them plenty of choices – I need you to come and have a drink, would you like a blue or a red cup?
Below are a selection of activities for 2-year-olds or in mixed age settings.
Do not limit this to a home corner, use your imagination to create familiar experiences like shopping, new ones such as a vets or pure fantasy with pirates or fairies.