Guest post by Faith Watson
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” – Fred Rogers
Let me introduce my two very energetic and busy children: Aiden (4) and Brynn (2-1/2).
Sometimes I wonder if the energy they possess was transferred from my body to their bodies during birth. I’ve been struggling to keep up with them ever since!
Don’t get me wrong: I’m amazed at their creative and quick minds, adore their sweet and energetic spirits, and cherish the special, tender moments of their childhoods.
Their excessive busyness means I have to stay on my toes to keep them from either destroying the house, whining and fighting, or defaulting to technology. I’ve compiled a list of seven of my favorite creative learning activities that don’t involve a lot of prep work and are not overly messy! These activities can help set the stage for creativity to flourish, in the freedom of play.
1. Homemade Aromatherapy Play Dough
– teaches following instructions, problem solving, sensory stimulating, endless creative opportunities
This recipe for homemade play dough is not only simple, but by including your preschooler in making the play dough, it’s also a great way to teach following instructions.
Since flour, salt, and water don’t exactly smell lovely, I add essential oils for the pleasant aroma. My favorites are: Lavender, Peppermint, Cinnamon, and Lemon.
What usually happens is the beautifully colored and individually scented balls of dough become, “Look, Mommy, a rainbow!” And soon after, it’s one big glob of purplish-brown Lavender-Cinna-Le-Mint.
I’ve decided that if they don’t really mind the colors being mixed, then neither do I.
What I’ve loved watching most is the creativity of their minds at work—crafting, building, pretending, and shaping the dough into whatever they imagine, with a smile on their faces or the focused concentration of a child hard at work, playing.
2. Domino free play
– teaches cause and effect, counting and matching skills, fine motor skills
Aiden’s interest in dominoes started when he watched an old episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and saw a roomful of dominoes set up and knocked down.
In addition to lining them up to be knocked over, he also counts and matches the number of dots, makes outlines of houses or roads for his cars, sees how high he can stack them, and sorts them into various containers.
3. Sensory Balloon “Bugs”
– teaches textures, various motor skills, imagination and wonder
Sensory balloons are fun, but making them into bugs creates even more fun! We tried this Pinterest idea and loved it.
I even repurposed a small box with handles to give the bugs a little home (which worked great for storage when not in use). I filled my balloons with rice, dried beans, popcorn kernels, uncooked elbow noodles! Other options are things like coffee beans or grounds, hair gel, flour, baby powder, rice, water, or sugar.
4. Wash the dishes
– teaches pouring skills, volume, sink/float
Once you introduce your young toddler to this fun activity, beware: anytime you try to do the dishes, you will have a little helper begging to wash the dishes too. This one is a bit more messy due to inevitable splashing.
Since it’s just water (and soap bubbles), I usually just put a towel under their chairs, remind them to keep the water in the sink, and make sure anything sharp or breakable is out of reach. I’m hoping it also instills a love for helping with chores!
5. Paint Anything (with water)
– teaches fine motor control, wet/dry comparison, cause and effect
I had no idea that a randomly purchased bag of sponge paintbrushes for $1.99 would thrill my children as much as it has!
With simply a paintbrush and water, my kids have painted the bathtub, outside toys and sidewalks, the outside of our house, and even each other…and it’s just water, so there’s no real mess!
6. Couch Cushion Adventures
– teaches free thinking, problem-solving, gross motor skills, and imaginative development
Full credit for this idea goes to my mother, who gave us the freedom to use basically anything in the house in order to create forts and absolutely destroy order in our living room for the sake of hours of creative free play.
My preschoolers prefer to jump on and destroy the forts immediately upon completion, but they’re learning things as I help and then set them free to play in their own ways.
In the short time of creating this kind of play, I have seen their little minds grasp proper reinforcement of cushions to make walls, pretend play inside caves or tents, and honing of gross motor skills of jumping and balancing as they joyfully leap from couch to pillows.
Usually, I find myself laughing and taking (blurry) pictures of their antics instead of getting something done while they play, but that probably has a lot to do with nostalgia for the joy of my own childhood’s endless couch cushion adventures.
A great alternative instead of furniture is to utilize the empty boxes from appliances, Amazon deliveries, or diapers.
7. Big Backyard Sandbox (or pile of sand)
– teaches creative thinking and building, whole body motor skills, sensory development
Kids are magnetically drawn to sand and dirt. We had no idea there was a large sandy area hidden under some overgrown ivy in our new home. As we ripped out the vines, the kids found the sand and started digging.
Sand can get messy and tracked into the house, but when I hear my kids talking and working together on a project or forming a road with their cars, I see the mess as simply part of the freedom of exploration and discovery.
There really are endless ways to create opportunities for creativity. Sometimes, all it takes is setting the stage and setting your child free to play!
Related: Using Montessori Methods at Home: 15+ Resources to Get You Started
What are your favorite simple and creative activities with little ones?
Faith Watson’s dreams have always been to pursue adventure and make a difference. Her “list” as a 20-something included traveling, writing, and dreaming of the future. While her adventures abroad were thrilling as a single adult, she has come to value and pursue a new kind of adventure: motherhood! With two busy preschoolers and a husband in the military, Faith’s life as a 30-something continues to be quite adventurous! Her new “list” involves fermenting foods, exploring natural remedies for health, and making a difference in the lives of two adorable little people who know how to press all of Mommy’s buttons (while also trying to stay sane)!
Hi, I am Jessica! I read your article, This is awesome, I also write about the preschool learning activities. Please have a look at Art Activities for Preschoolers too.
hi nice article
I bought a roll of butcher paper as a family gift last Christmas, and that has taken crayons to a whole new level… My toddlers draw scenery, tool shops, road maps, and all sorts of things on the giant pieces of paper that I lay out on the floor.
Yes! I’ve let my kids use markers and crayons on the large boxes they play in, and they create buttons and steering wheels and scenery for their “rocketships” or “boats.” It is so fun to watch them turn everyday items into canvases for their imaginations. 🙂
We love playing outside, in the rain or just in general. It sounds simple, but my boys always find so many interesting things to do and explore. I wrote about some of our rain adventures here: http://everydaymindfulliving.com/get-moving-play-in-the-rain/
My kids love being outside too. When the snow was melting this spring, we put on rainboots and explored the icey “rivers” alongside the snowbanks and driveways on our street, floating sticks or leaves and of course splashing in the puddles!