The battle against screen time is a constant struggle with my kindergartener so when I find an activity that he loves and keeps him engaged for a long time I feel like I’ve won the lottery. This build your own zoo pretend play hit all the right notes for him. I intended it to be for both kids but my daughter was not so excited about his vision for the zoo so we read zoo animal books while he crafted his very own zoo. I loved how involved he was from start to finish and that I could work in some writing practice ( every little bit helps) that didn’t feel like practice at all.
- Gather your materials. You will need some craft paper ( get it at the dollar store and save!) , blocks, animal toys/ puzzle pieces , crayons, some painters tape and scissors.
- Start by cutting a large piece of craft paper and taping it ( using the painter’s tape ) to the floor. Only do this on hard surfaces or the paper will rip and tear when you try to write and draw on it.
- Talk about the design for a zoo. My son and I have made up worlds we tell stories about all the time ( Mine is called Mommyland … original eh?) and we decided to base the layout on the zoo from his imagination. I drew the outline as he explained it to me but the rest was up to him.
- Next sort the animals and build their enclosures. He started with snakes. These stretchy snakes are adored in our house for some odd reason . He wrote the sign, the built the house and arranged the snakes. It took a lot of patience to arrange them just so.
- Arctic animals were next. Starting with the sign then building the structure and adding the animals.
- Africa and the petting zoo were next followed by the whales. No he didn’t write those words , after a few he asked if I could do it and I did to keep the momentum of the play going. The goal wasn’t to force him to write it was to play so I was happy to help.
- I think the most interesting observation for me watching my son do this was how he really wanted a specific design. I loved seeing him sit back like this to take it all in.
Check out our favorite books about the zoo here! I like to include books with activities to deepen the learning and extend the interest in the topic.
I love when I set up an activity with one child in mind and the other ends up completely into it. I love the addition of small items to playdough not just for the extra kick of fine motor development ( playdough all by itself is great for it) but also for the extra kick of creativity. My toddler took to this activity very literally decorating her butterfly but my son experimented with decorating as well as using the materials as tools. I love watching the gears turn in their heads!
- Gather your materials. You will need some playdough ( I love the commercial stuff but have some great recipes if you want to make your own) , animal shaped cookie cutters, googley eyes, beads/bits of straws/buttons and other embellishments.
- Start by choosing a color of playdough and pressing it down flat.
- Choose a cookie cutter and cut out.
- Start decorating. I love how a simple googly eye transforms the playdough. My daughter was totally into it but it was my son who surprised me. He was far more focused than I expected him to be. He quickly discovered that the beads made cool prints and that he could make it look like scales and fur.
- After she was done her butterfly my daughter found our plastic scissors and joined us at the table to do some playdough cutting.
- My son just kept creating. He couldn’t wait to show his dad what he made and his new techniques when he got home from work.
Sorting is a common preschool activity that you may notice your child doing all on their own. Sorting helps make sense of the world but it’s also a great way to talk about attributes and differences in the items you are sorting. In this case sorting pets vs. wild animals gave us a chance to talk about how we care for pets and observe local wildlife. It wasn’t super simple for a 2.5 year old but when we hit road bumps a few questions lead to the final decision. After sorting we played and played and played which is exactly what I’d hoped for.
- Gather your materials. You will need a doll house ( or a picture of a house ) , some animals and if you want a basket and container to represent the wild . We used a square vase and some pine cones it doesn’t have to be perfect just enough to be separate from the house pets. Make sure that you have some animals that are clearly pets and others that are clearly wild animals and if you think it won’t frustrate your child add in a few iffy ones. Our iffy ones were the budgie, lizard and turtle.
- Place the house, animals and “wild” on a table and invite your wee one to start sorting. Let them know that all the animals need to be put in their home either in the house or wild.
- Help them sort if need be. My daughter took great care in placing each pet in the right spot. When she got to the lizard she was not sure. Eventually she decided that it should be in the wild. You and I know that people have lizards as pets but I wasn’t going to go into that if she decided it shouldn’t. Don’t get hung up on these technicality on the less obvious animals if it breaks the flow of the game but if your child will understand explain exotic pets and let them decide if they think they should or should not be pets.
- After all the sorting is done you can count the animals, ask your child to pick which pet they would like to have in their own house and to pick out the wild animals that they have seen around their neighborhood/zoo/aquarium.
- Then play! Can you tell she is potty training right now? We played and played mostly potty training each of the house pets. If only it were that easy!
Books About Pets
Not Norman: A Goldfish Story by Kelly Bennet is a story about a little boy and his disappointing pet fish Norman. All great children’s books slip a lesson between the pages and this one is about how our first impressions aren’t always right. Friendships can take a while to grow but once they do they are solid, even with a pet fish named Norman.
My Penguin Osbert by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel is a perfect book for this activity. In this story a little boy writes to Santa and asks for a very specific gift, a real live penguin! It’s not long before he realizes that a real live penguin is not as much fun as he thought it would be. He is very responsible though and sacrifices a lot for Osbert. He is thankful to Santa for getting his gift exactly right but writes a follow up letter explaining how it would be ok if Santa sent a replacement. Very cute story, it’s not short though but my 3 year old listened to it happily for a bedtime story. Laughing at the funny parts and pointing out that he wrote a letter to Santa too, but he didn’t ask for a penguin… thank goodness!
McDuff Moves In by Rosemary Wells will pull at your heart strings and make your child beg for a dog! McDuff escapes from a dog catcher’s truck and tried to brave the world alone only to be met with unfriendly animals until he meets Fred and Lucy! They take him in initially just for one night … but who can resist this Westie? My son loves this series of books and I do too. They are calm, sweet and I love the illustrations by Susan Jeffers.This post contains affiliate links
I ordered these Arctic Animals a few weeks ago and we’ve been playing with them in playdough snow and with our other animal figurines but this arctic ice sensory tub was by far our favorite way to play. My daughter was absolutely in love with this and it’s so easy and cheap to make. The one big word of caution is that this much ice is heavy so please be careful that it’s on a stable surface and not somewhere that it could fall and hurt someone.
- Gather your materials. You will need a plastic tub that will fit in your freezer( dollar store !) , a smaller plastic container, something heavy to place in the container ( I used frozen chicken sausage), a freezer and some arctic animals.
- Start by filling your tub part way with water. Do not fill it all the way it will be so heavy and possibly dangerous. Place the smaller container in and weigh it down. This will create a open area for water inside the icy terrain. Freeze.
- Remove the smaller container and fill the open area with water. I filled mine with lukewarm water.
- Add animals and play. We kept ours low to the ground on a stool in the bathroom so spills and splashes could be no biggie ( and also because the light it way better for pictures than in my kitchen). The next few times we played we played in the kitchen on a towel on the floor.
- Talk about which animals stay on land , which live only in the water and which can swim and walk on land. We talked a bit about predators and prey as well ( especially when her brother joined in the next day). We noticed how the water was so cold even though it was warm-ish when we poured it in and why that was. And most importantly we played and played and played.
My daughter adores playdough and cooking so last week we made some simple white playdough and added snowflakes ( that promptly melted of course – duh! Add after it cools…) and then had fun playing pretend with some forest animals. This is about as simple as it gets but there are so many wonderful lesson possibilities packed in this simple play.
First we made the playdough. The recipe we used is my favorite .
Something I do with my daughter ( or the toddlers I taught when my own kids were only imaginary) is to play Simon Says before doing someting where I may have to say ” Don’t touch!” a lot. Instead of turning this activity into a negative one when I need her to not touch I simply say ” Simon says touch your nose!” As it turned out I didn’t even have to use this but we still had fun with our pre playdough making game.
She helped me mix the dry ingredients, I kneaded the dough while it was too hot for her to touch and gave her some extra flour to explore on the counter. I slipped in some glitter too.
This playdough is best after it’s chilled so we made it before nap time. Then after nap time it was ready to be played with.
I love these animal toys. They leave real footprints. We sat across the playroom table from each other and just started making prints. We looked at them, at which were bigger than the others and how many we could make from one side of the playdough to the other. Soon a storyline emerged the raccoon was saving the other animals from a “Snow bump” <– which is 2 year old speak for a snow bank. It was hilarious to watch her narrate a whole complex story line including some negotiation during the various rescues.
At this time of year with so much sparkle and wow and rush it’s a blessing to sit and be and take things slow and easy with a toddler . We’ve played this exact activity over and over and each time felt calm and connected after. Something I know most all of us can use right now.This post contains an affiliate link.