I am a summer girl 100%. If I had my way, I WOULD NOT live anywhere that experienced winter. I mean 60 degrees should be the absolute lowest temperature, EVER. I lived in Cancun for about 3 years and I what I wouldn’t give to get back to that tropical weather.
Even though I despise winter in Michigan, I must admit that fall isn’t a total loss–I enjoy the many cider mills (and especially the donuts), the color-changing leaves, and…that might be it.
But since I have to endure the fall, I should at least come up with a few REALLY fun activities to do with preschoolers during this time of the year. You’ll find that many of these activities include natural materials. There are many opportunities during the fall to incorporate elements of the natural and physical world into your preschooler’s learning experiences.
Here are ten of my favorite fall activities.
Collecting Acorns Learning Goals: Learning about the Natural World Head outside and collect acorns or other nature artifacts with your child. You can even talk about the life cycle of plants.
Making a Nature Collage Learning Goals: Learning about the Natural World, Creative Arts Collect all kinds of nature artifacts and use them to create a collage. It can be a name collage, a shape collage, or just a free-style collage.
Making Apple Prints Learning Goals: Creative Arts Cut apples in halves and quarters and create prints with paint and stamp pads.
Planting Apple Seeds Learning Goals: Learning about the Natural World, Understanding Charts and Graphs Harvest apple seeds and plant them in transparent cups. Chart the progress from planting to seedling.
Exploring a Pumpkin Learning Goals: Science Exploration, Sensory Experiences Cut open a pumpkin and allow your child to explore. What does it feel like? What does it smell like?
Baking Pumpkin Seeds Learning Goals: Understanding the Natural World, Sensory Experiences Save the pumpkin seeds from the exploration activity. Wash, season, and bake them for a fall treat. You can make them sweet or salty.
Making Fall-Scented Playdough Learning Goals: Sensory Experiences Use your favorite home-made playdough recipe and add cinnamon, pumpkin spice, or nutmeg to add a fragrance to the playdough. You can even add fall-scented essential oils to enhance the fragrance even more.
Decorating Fallen Branches Learning Goals: Understanding the Natural World, Creative Arts If you have fallen branches that resemble a mini-tree, you can collect these to decorate. Allow your child to use his/her imagination when decorating. You can suggest painting the tree or decorating with yellow, red and brown tissues paper.
Making a Leaf Crown Learning Goals: Fine Motor Skills, Pretend play Collect fallen leaves and glue them together to make a crown. What pretend play scenario can your child engage in with the crown?
Baking Together Learning Goals: Measuring, Classifying Encourage your child to help you in the kitchen. He/she can learn to measure, follow a recipe, or mix ingredients.
Here are five other really cool activities I came across on the internet.
I read an article the other day detailing the competitive nature of kindergarten admission among private schools in NYC. The article detailed the lengths that parents would go to to get their preschooler in the “perfect kindergarten”. Among the tactics were hiring private tutors and donating to the school.
As I read this article, I wondered if these children were able to immerse themselves in play before they were sent off to the world of modern-day kindergarten with computer-adaptive tests and walking in single-file lines.
I get it! Parents want to give their best to their children and most children will go to a kindergarten classroom (mine all have!) But we should all take advantage of the preschool years and give our children the freedom of play. Allowing for play doesn’t mean that we aren’t teaching our children, it just means that we allow play to dominate the way that they learn. And since we know that the minutes before they enter a traditional classroom are ticking closer and closer, we can find ways to let them immerse themselves in play.
The Benefits of Play
We don’t have to think of play and learning in an “either/or” way. Research shows us that play, especially child-led play, supports SO MUCH learning.
I tried to paraphrase this but the American Academy of Pediatrics says this so much better than I ever could.
“Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges.Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.”
Harvard University has completed research that co-signs this same idea: play supports intellectual development, social development, emotional development, and physical development. Yep, playing supports all domains of learning. When you preschooler plays he/she is:
Noticing social cues
Seeing things from other people’s perspective
Practicing being a leader and a follower
Developing muscle control and coordination
Five Ways to Encourage your Preschooler to Learn Through Play
1. Play with Your Child
There is no better way to encourage your child to make choices and follow his/her interests than playing with him/her. Join in games, pretend play, or draw pictures. Play second fiddle to your child. Let him/her guide you. Follow his/her rules and play a role. Allow the play (plus your interaction) to be the teacher.
2. Figure Out What Your Preschooler Likes
If you want to become a pro at helping your preschooler learn through play, figure out what interests your child the most. Lucas LOVES dinosaurs! If I sit down and play with Lucas with dinosaurs I can teach him counting, colors, patterns, whatever. All because I have tapped into his interests.
3. Use Manipulation to Your Advantage
Sitting down to write on lined paper or being drilled with flashcards does not conjure images of fun for anyone. Most kids aren’t going to consider those activities their favorites. Children often engage more when they are able to manipulate materials and interact with another person (that’s you, mom and dad). When you allow preschoolers to make and build and create they are able to learn and engage at the same time. You can even use common objects that you have at home instead of buying new toys; boxes, kitchen utensils, paper clips, post-it notes, or coins.
4. Plan for Play
Set aside time for your child to play. It often works best when you make play a regular part of your daily routine. Even if it’s just 20 or 30 minutes per day, encourage your preschooler to participate in child-led play with some of his/her favorite materials. Stay nearby and be ready to join in if your child asks or take on any pretend role your child suggests.
5. Allow Your Child to Take Risks
Play supports physical development. Children strengthen their muscles and develop coordination and body awareness when they run, jump, and climb. Parents can sometimes short-circuit these benefits by being concerned about cuts, scraps, and bruises. No parent wants their preschooler to get injured while playing, but if we stay close and monitor, our children can gain all the benefits of play and still stay safe.
Two Ideas for Playing with Your Preschooler RIGHT NOW!
1. Go on a scavenger hunt! Grab baskets or bags and look for items that are the same color or shape or incorporate a letter. Collect the items, line them up, and count them with your child.
2. Role Play with Your Preschooler! Lucas’ favorite super-hero is the Black Panther. He often asks me to play Black Panther with him (he always gets to be King T’Challa). I follow directions and play the role he suggests. We also do the same thing when he wants to play dinosaurs (and I never get to be the T-Rex). You might be surprised at the complexity of language your child exhibits during pretend play.
If you liked those activities and you want more quick and easy ways to play with your child, download The Ultimate Kindergarten Readiness Starter Kit. You’ll get 25 activities you can do in 20 minutes or less. You’ll teach your child important skills and your child will have fun learning.
Last week, I had the opportunity to connect with a mom for the first time. And it was a good time. We discussed teaching preschoolers at home, working full time, and the craziness of the pandemic. It was so nice to be able to connect with another preschool mom who is trying to balance it all while stuck in the house for months on end.
During the conversation, this mom shared that she was struggling with getting her preschooler to join into “learning activities”. She said, “he can smell a learning activity coming from a mile away”. She went on to explain that at the start of the pandemic she would drag him into activities kicking and screaming. But the fact of it was, when she did this, she never got the desired result. Her son was angry and tantruming, she was frustrated and felt like she didn’t know what she was doing, and NOBODY WAS LEARNING ANYTHING…well at least not what she had set out to teach.
She proceeded to tell me that she had abandoned the kicking and screaming strategy and instead was now focused on “accidental learning”. She had coined this term to explain that she didn’t try to engage her son in “learning activities”. She let him find something engaging and tried to embed the learning activity into what he was already doing.
I KNEW SHE WAS ON THE RIGHT TRACK!
She had stumbled upon my secret weapon…a secret weapon that worked in the classroom and at home with my preschooler (and my big kids, too). Here it is….
Craft “learning activities” around your child’s interest.
Now let me hop up on my soap box really quick:
Preschoolers are ALWAYS learning! No matter what they are engaged in, they are learning. So we don’t have to craft activities for them to learn. When a preschooler interacts with others or manipulates materials he is learning. When she plays catch or explores water, she is learning.
Okay, I’ve got that out of the way. Back to the secret weapon!
The secret to getting your child engaged and excited about learning is to capitalize on his interest.
In education circles this is referred to as interest-based learning. There has been a lot of research done around this idea; the National Institute of Health, US Department of Education, etc. The bottom line of it all is that children learn best when they are engaged and interested.
What’s funny about this is that I don’t really think there needed to be massive research studies to come to the idea that children learn best when they are engaged and interested. Isn’t that how we, as parents, learn best, too? If we don’t enjoy languishing on in a meeting or conference or summit that is boring, why do we think that our preschooler will?
What’s In it for Me?
I was just in a meeting like this and after an hour, I checked out. I was done. I didn’t care what else the speaker was sharing. I completely stopped listening. Why should I give my full attention to a seven-hour meeting that wasn’t even related to my work? What’s in it for me???
There wasn’t anything in it for me, which led to me to completely disconnect. If I could have thrown a tantrum to get out of it, I might have. Parents, we can all relate to the feeling that our child has when she is not cooperating with learning–because we have felt it ourselves. Using your child’s interest as the starting point allows him to see that there is something in it for him. If he joins in with you, he gets to play with dinosaurs. If she joins in with you, she gets to build with blocks. If he joins in with you, he gets to blow bubbles outside.
Interest-based learning is the foundation for a successful preschool at home. And successful here means fun and engaging. We don’t want anything less. We don’t want to carve time out of our already busy schedules to invest in our children and then spend that time feeling miserable, frustrated, or ready to throw in the towel. If we are going to carve out this time, make a routine, and be consistent, we want a fun and engaging preschool experience that both, we and our children, want to return to day after day. And that is where we will have success, that is where we will see gains–in that day after day consistency.
You may be saying, how do I get started with interest-based learning? You’ve got to pinpoint your child’s interest. This may take some reflection, but it shouldn’t be hard. You already know so much about your child. In fact, you probably already know where her interest lies. You just need to drill down a little bit to get a clear focus.
4 Steps to Capitalize on Your Preschooler’s Interest
I suggest using a pen and paper to work through this process. If you are a journaler, this would be a great topic to journal.
Step 1: Take an Interest Inventory
What gets my child excited?
If I gave my child a choice, what kinds of activities would he choose?
What makes my child laugh or smile?
What actions/movements does my child enjoy?
Who are the people my child prefers to hang out with?
Step 2: Reflect on Your Daily Routine
Now that you’ve taken an interest inventory, it’s time to reflect on your daily routine. Consider the following:
What are the activities in your daily routine that your child enjoys?
What are the times of the day that your child asks to be involved in–dressing, cooking, laundry, etc.
When do you have extra time in your daily routine?
Step 3: Plan for Your Sweet Spot
The best activities are the ones that provide your preschooler with the opportunity to engage in his interest while also learning something new. That’s the sweet spot.
When you plan for the sweet spot you are considering your routine for the day and based off of that routine, asking yourself, “when will my child have opportunities to engage in things that she is interested in.” You will literally get out a calendar or planner and plan these times.
Here is an example:
I know I have to do laundry today. Lucas likes helping me with laundry. I’m not going to be rushed, so this is a great time for him to help me.
Step 4: Map Out New Concepts to Teach Your Child
Once you’ve planned out when the sweet spot can take place, you have to figure out what to teach your child. Remember, the best activities allow for your child to engage in her interest while also learning something new. We’ll continue on with the laundry example.
What does Lucas get to do?
Put clothes in and out of the machines
What can I teach Lucas?
Measuring–He can pour detergent from a measuring cup. We can talk about different measurement terms.
Sorting by color or item–He can sort clothes by color or item type.
Introduce new vocabulary: clean, dirty, wet, dry, wash, detergent, laundry.
Practice back-and-forth conversation.
In these four steps, I have pinpointed my child’s interest and mapped out real-life, doable ways to teach him new things while he gets to engage in his favorite activities. This method worked when I was teaching other people’s children in a classroom and it works with my preschooler at home. It will work for you, too.