45 Great Free Choice Activities For Preschool { Use At Home Too }

free choice activities for preschoolWay back when my son was tiny and just starting preschool I was waiting to pick him up when another parent who wasn’t familiar with the class ( a co-op preschool ) was expressing their dismay about the amount of free choice time the 2 hour class had. ” They are just playing!” Well yes they are, but they are learning too. After spending some time in the class with the amazing teachers and parent volunteers he came to understand that learning through play at school isn’t the same as what they do at home although both are equally valuable.

In that class as well as my classroom { and many others) teachers carefully set up learning environments so that it’s fun, playful, and there are all different kinds of learning to try every time the children come to school. There are many great ways to parent and there are many great ways to teach but I thought today I would share with you some of my favorite free choice activities grouped in their areas of learning you can set up in your class or at home. I did many of these activities with my kids at home during my hiatus from teaching and they work wonderfully as activities at the kitchen table or family room floor.

I try hard to include all of these areas of learning every day. Some days we skip one area especially if their interest in another is high at the time, or we might have a science activity planned for outside and skip setting something out for free choice. Do what works for your class with the goal of hitting all areas most days. Above all else use your child’s or students’ interests and abilities to guide activities.

So what do teachers do during free play? I’ll tackle that question tomorrow!

 

Art

free choice activities for preschool

# 1 Cover a table with butcher paper and add one or more of the following :
crayons
markers
stamps and stamp pads
high lighters
stickers
band-aids

#2 Sticker mural like this Sticker Station

#3 Paint at the easel (if you are concerned about mess try watercolors)

#3 Chalk at the easel

#4 Chalk on black paper taped to a table

 

Fine Motor

cutting station

#5 Ripping paper ( cut scrap paper into strips and pop it in a bowl)

#6 Cutting Play dough with scissors ( play dough in general is great for fine motor and hand strength)

#7 Lacing Beads – big wooden ones for beginners, pipe cleaners and pony beads for older kids. Making cheerio or fruit loop towers is a wonderful option as well.

#8 Play dough with rolling pins they need to hold both sides to work.

#9 Buttons ( or other small treasures) hidden in play dough to find.

#10 Sorting with tongs or tweezers. We like to sort pom poms by color, and/or  size into egg cartons or other containers)

#11 Cutting station – my students loved cutting hay!

 

Gross Motor

homemade balance beam

#12 A small balance beam – you can make one like this.

#13 Sit and spin. This takes a lot of upper body strength.

#14 Tunnels to crawl through.

#15 Baby buggies, shopping carts, and strollers to push around the class.

 

Sensory

free choice activities for preschool

#16  Sensory Bin with contents that change with the theme or periodically. My favorites are dyed dried beans, corn meal, pom poms, ice, and kinetic sand. I love to use coffee scoops from the dollar store because they are perfect for little hands. We allow our students to add things to the sensory bin, the construction vehicles live in ours now.

#17  Play dough! It’s a bonus if your students can help you make it.  Add in things like :

  • cookie cutters
  • popscicle sticks
  • plastic knives
  • scissors
  • garlic press
  • stamps
  • big googly eyes
  • plastic animals to make tracks

#18  Texture Box – you can see how I made a simple one here.

#19 Musical instruments

Literacy

alphabet for starters

#20 Letter Magnets on magnetic board or cookie sheet. Children will sort them, find favorites, and count the letters.

#21 Letter fishing game.

#22 Letter matching tray activities like this leaf themed one.

#23 Play phones for children to “talk” to mom, dad, each other. My students order pizza for me a lot.

#24 Felt board with story pieces to encourage storytelling.

#25 Letter stamps/ letter cookie cutters with play dough. I always make sure to have my students initials available because they grab for those first.

#26 Paper / envelopes/ writing pads and writing utensils to write even if your students are years away from legible handwriting.

#27 Small chalkboards to write and draw with.

#28 Plexiglass document stands with dry erase markers.

 Math & Science

free choice activities

# 29 Shape, color, and size sorting trays like this one we made with butterflies or this matching activity with play dough.

#30 Discovery or sensory bottles to explore – these magnetic sensory bottles allowed for safe magnetic play during free choice in my class.

#31 Scoops and containers in the sensory table to prompt natural play with measurement.

#32 Shape puzzles like this easy DIY one.

#33 Number magnets & puzzles

#34 Nature table or tray with a magnifying glass to investigate. This nature table from Imagination Tree is wonderful.

Pretend Play & Practical Life

theme dress up

#35 Kitchen area ( I really think this is a must for all classrooms) with food and a table.

#36 Baby care area.

#37  Tool box / Tool bench

#38 Cash register to turn the play table into any kind of store.

#39 Puppets or plush toys.

#40 Dress up – No room for full costumes? Get a box for hats and accessories like gloves, necklaces, glasses, and goggles.

Block Play

free choice activities preschool

#41 Interlocking blocks with  simple pattern cards available like these.

#42 Wooden Blocks

#43 Trains ( love to combine these with blocks).

#44  Famous Buildings Book ( I am in the process of making this for my class! )

#45  Big Cardboard Blocks

 

The other thing that I haven’t included in this list but is paramount is the making sure that your students feel like they belong. Having students’ photo somewhere in the class where they can see it, having their art work displayed, and making sure that you have welcomed each child into the class helps the children feel more engaged and comfortable which benefits their play and learning.

What is YOUR favorite free choice activity?

 

Simple Play Stations For Busy Days

simple play stations for busy daysEvery parent has those days at home when you HAVE to get stuff done. Maybe it’s work , homeschooling older children, or maybe you are fighting a bad cold and just don’t have the time to plan and play like you like to. Before you reach for the remote try simple themed play stations instead. This may look like a lot of work to set up but trust me it took 5 minutes. If construction isn’t your child’s thing don’t worry I have ideas below for 6 more themes. You may need to look through the toys in your house to see what you can use but once you write a list it will be a snap to put it together when you need it. What a set up like this does is gives your child stations to move to and from and gives you a little extra time to get things done. The day we did this I was sicker than a dog and this kept my almost 3 year old happy while I tried to get work I normally do after her bedtime done early so I could have a good sleep that night. She did end up watching some PBS Kids but much less than she would have if I had not set this all up.

  1. Choose the theme. Your best bet is to choose something that your child is really interested in. A new theme is best introduced when you can act as a guide.
  2. Choose what stations to set up. Again this isn’t a time for too much novelty . Old favorites, things they can do independently and toys that they love . Toys they love but have been put away for a while work great. My stations were :playdoughdress up , puzzles ,and books. Gather your toys and materials for the stations. Keep it simple you don’t need to make huge sensory bins or elaborate block areas. I had a puzzle, some playdough with a little people construction worker and some Duplo, a few pretend play props and some books on the theme.theme days
  3. Play . theme puzzleShow your child the stations ( space them out to your child’s liking) and ask them which they want to start with. theme playdoughMost kids will go to each briefly and then go back to each for a second look to really play. theme dress upWhen my daughter went to the book station I asked her to please read the books first by herself and then I would come and read them to her. This gave me enough time to pause what I was doing and join her.theme books

Other Theme Ideas

The links go to posts featuring these simple ideas and to products through affiliate links.

Princess Books  , pink playdough with sequins or beads, princess costume or crown for dress up, build a castle with blocks, make a princess bracelet with a pipe cleaner and pony beads.

Ocean : Books about fish , Tub of water with sea animals, swimming goggles for simple pretend play, under the sea pictures ( blue paper and fish stickers) , fish puzzles.

Bugs : Books about bugs, playdough bugs (add some straws and googly eyes)  , egg carton and pipe cleaner caterpillar, draw your own bug ( crayons and paper) ,bug puzzles.

ABCs : Alphabet books, playdough with alphabet cookie cutters, alphabet stickers on paper, letter rainbowing, alphabet puzzle.

Cars and Trucks : Car books, make tracks in playdough with cars, make a city with blocks and cars, simple car wash, draw a road on paper and fill it with car and truck stickers.

Cooking : Books about food, cook in the sink, paint with a potato masher, simple grocery store play in the kitchen.

9 Activities For Your 1 year old {and older kids too.}

They don’t want to be rocked , cuddled or nursed all day long anymore. They try to jump out of your arms in stores and you are amazed by how much mess such a wee person can make! Your baby is exploring the world in whole new ways, on two feet, with more gusto and you aren’t so sure all those prayers for the newborn stage to end were well thought out.  Activities with this age are short, but having a bunch of fun quick ones on hand will help keep your little one busy and having fun.

1. Pour some pasta.( or rice, or lentils, or quinoa.)

2. We love our water table , my daughter got this Step2 Sand & Water Table for her birthday and it’s been a huge hit not only with her but 2, 3 and even almost 5 year olds! We add bubbles, extra toys and have a blast. You can make your own too.

3. Sing silly songs!  I video taped her reaction to show you how much this age responds to music. She has been sticking out her tongue and grunting for a week as a way of asking for me to sing it again.

Um um! Went the little green frog one day,
Um um , went the little green frog.
Um um went the little green frog one day,
and they all went um um ahhh!

But we all know frogs go ,
la di da di da,
la di da di da
la di da di da
We all know frogs go la di da di da,
They don’t go um um ah!!!

3. We love our water table , my daughter got this Step2 Water Table for her birthday and it’s been a huge hit not only with her but 2, 3 and even almost 5 year olds! We add bubbles, extra toys and have a blast.  You can make your own too.

4. Dig in the dirt.


5. Turn bath time into a pretend day at the beach by adding swim suits, sun glasses , pails and shovels.

6. Read. Gather a pile of books and let your toddler choose which books to read.

7. Make a Firetruck ( or other vehicle) for them out of a diaper box and play pretend.

8. Paint with bugs.

9.Make a drum and beat it!

Make Your Own Museum

If you are a regular reader you may remember that my son stopped napping and we started doing quiet time instead. Most days we still use the 1-2-3 approach but some days we mix it up to keep things fresh. One of his favorite things to do is to turn his bedroom into a museum. What I love about it is he is coloring on a vertical surface which is important for wrist development all the while he is also developing a love of museums without ever leaving our house!  Here is what we do.

  1. Gather your materials. You will need some color wonder coloring pages. I use both blank and coloring book ones. You will also need some painters tape and color wonder markers. Now feel free to use regular paper , markers and / or crayons but I am not that brave when I am not supervising. Remember this is for quiet aka “Mama is downstairs working out and watching How I Met Your Mother reruns” time.
  2. Tape the pages up around their room. You want it all over the room because after they are finished they are going to give you a tour of the gallery.
  3. Let em’ go.
  4. Workout, read, go to the bathroom in peace .
  5. Time for a tour.  He cracked his dad and I up with the names he gave his paintings. My favorite was ” Splish Dot Squash” .
  6. After the tour we add the new creations to a permanent collection. 

Books


Touch the Art: Brush Mona Lisa’s Hair by Julie Appel and Amy Guglielmo is the inspiration for this post and my son’s new found love of Renaissance Art. The book is a board book with touch and feel aspects to it. The text is cute but not a story, each page asks the reader to do something with the touch and feel item . The real gem is bringing the art to young eyes. The book includes wonderful masterpieces : Girl with A Pearl Earring , Birth of Venus, The Arnolfini Portrait and more!


Action Jackson by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan is a great book not only about Jackson Pollock but also about how an artist goes through the artistic process, their influences and what their life is like. This book is perfect for older children but my son loved looking at pictures and Jackson Pollock’s dog! I would suggested this for anyone with budding artists!

Hugo and Miles In I’ve Painted Everything by Scott Magoon is going on my Christmas list. I have renewed this book for months from my local library. I finally have to return this book and I just don’t want to! The book is all about Hugo a painter who has painter’s block. He goes to Paris with his best friend Miles for inspiration, and among the sites, the masterpieces and thanks to the Eiffel tower he finds it! I love this book and my son just eats it up. He wants to go to Paris to the “Moosay Dor-see” to see Van Gogh and climb the Eiffel tower thanks to Hugo!

Quiet Time 1, 2, 3 ! Quiet time tips for parents to end the power struggles.

quiet time tip for parents

When I wrote this post for Muffin Tin Mom it got such a huge response from her readers and my own that I am doing a follow up post with ideas for what I call Quiet Time 1, 2, 3!  If you haven’t read the post where I expressed my exasperation with trying to get my son to nap when I have an infant who also needs my attention I encourage you to pop over to Muffin Tin Mom and read it. This is my post of ideas for what we do now that nap time has been put to rest. Ovee the years I have heard from countless parents how this post stopped their quiet time power struggles. I am thrilled to know these quiet time tips helped bring a little peace to your home.

Quiet Time 1, 2, 3!

Kids need predictability and some children like my son really, really need it.  For quiet time we always use his bedroom. I encourage you to use the same place every day. Also as you can probably guess I would suggest doing it at the same time every day too. At the very least always do it after the same activity, whether it’s as they come off the school bus, after lunch or after another daily activity.  Then there is no argument , everyone knows that after this it’s quiet time. Also something that I have noticed is that if I randomly say ” Hey in 5 minutes it’s quiet time.” My sons feel like it’s a punishment . That is so far from my goal . I have to remind myself to make it fun and interesting not an exile from the family. I am sure it can feel like an exile if I am not careful, which must be hard with a new sibling.

OK enough about that… you aren’t reading this to hear about my adjustment , you are here to read about ideas for your own child’s quiet time!

We have 3 small rugs in my son’s room and I usually lay the activities out on there so he sees, I also use his bed. My main prop though are cards with the numbers 1, 2, 3 on them. I lay them down with 3 activities my son must do before he can have free choice. I use MUST loosely. If he doesn’t do them I don’t worry too much, they are more like offerings . However if he opens the door and says ” Can I come out yet?”  before 45 minutes I will require him to show me he has finished all three activities. The point isn’t to force him to do anything. The magic of  1, 2, 3, is that it gets him focused on play and not on the door and trying to be “done”. So far it’s been magical for us.

Here are some of the activities I have laid out for him that have been helpful and fun for us.

quiet time 1 2 3

Puzzles

These are favorites. I rotate about 10 different ones and am always on the lookout for more. Make sure they are able to complete them without your help or you will hear “I need heeellllp!” before you even get down your stairs.

Toys and Books

It’s amazing how if you focus on one toy all of a sudden something forgotten is met with renewed enthusiasm. Our favorite toys are Mr. Potato head, plain old blocks, Little People and LEGO. Books are usually offered in themes or I will ask him to choose 5 , and provide his Woody doll with them asking him to “read” them to Woody.quiet time 123

Art and Writing

We have done a few art projects that have worked great. Stickers and sticky back foam have been great quiet time art tools. I have cut a container full of different color shapes from the sticky back foam and given them to him to simply create, match the shapes or colors with paper. With stickers I gave him paper with a basic scene  on paper for example- a volcano and palm tree for dino stickers, igloo and water for penguin stickers etc.. quiet time 123

Writing projects like this one have been well received too. I give him fun cards to write to people he chooses . The goal for us isn’t perfect letters, but rather simple practice with pencils, adjust the goal and expectations. Remember make it too tough and you will have a frustrated child seeking help , too simple they will be board and looking for you too.  We also use magna doodles for name writing practice, and drawing whatever he chooses. Provide a mirror and you can make a self portrait station too!

Color Wonder coloring pages have been great as well. I give him 2 pages to choose from with a stiff file folder to use as a desk

Conventional coloring pages with crayons were risky and a wall did get some extra decoration, so it’s on the shelf for now but it might work for you. Again I would give a few ripped out pages not the whole book which can be overwhelming. If they are not the type to be overwhelmed , by all means give then the book!

Pretend Play

quiet time 1,2, 3

This is last because it’s been our saving grace. He loves it. Some days I just lay out his dress up box. Often I set up scenes like this Home Depot . We use an old lap top as a cash register, a name tag and phone for most our set ups, then use his toys and books for the other props. So far we have done a post office, library, grocery store, coffee shop, home depot, a doctor’s office and veterinarians.

Not all children need so much structure, but some like my son are simply overwhelmed by the options available when told to go into their room and “play”.  If you want more details about any of these feel free to ask in comments, as well as leave your own suggestions!

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