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#7-Creating Independent Readers

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The best way to teach a child how to read, is to make reading enjoyable! When you love reading with your child, your child will know it, and he or she will develop a love of reading alongside you. By creating an environment that encourages reading, filling this environment with quality books, and making reading special, it will make reading happen naturally, easily, and without force.

Creating a Reading Environment

These are the ways that I have created a reading environment in my home.

  • Baskets of Books – I love having baskets of books in every room in the house, and several baskets in our living room areas. I love these cloth lined wicker baskets.

    Organizing My Books

    Organizing My Books

  • Build a Home Library of Books – To get your library started, go to thrift stores and garage sales to build the bulk of your collection. Once you start reading with your child, you’ll learn what he or she is into and get more books to satisfy his or her interests. Once you have a base collection, you can start adding new books that are really high quality, like these books from Usborne.
  • Trips to the Library – The librarians always look at me funny when I ask what the maximum number of books I can check out is (it’s 35). I love letting our kids pick out as many books as they want until we reach our limit. It’s always fun to have a new collection of books to read.

    Ruby Reading at the Library

    Ruby Reading at the Library

  • Little Chairs and/or Couches – Making little reading stations with small chairs, bean bags, or little couches makes reading so much fun and encourages children to read independently.

    Ophelia in Her Reading Chair

    Ophelia in Her Reading Chair

  • Comfy Reading Spots to Read Together – I love pulling my little ones onto my lap while sitting in a comfy rocking chair or snuggling up next to them on the couch. Near these spots, I make sure to keep baskets of books, blankets to snuggle up in, and maybe some water too!

    My Reading Chair

    My Reading Chair

  • Make Reading Special – If you begrudgingly set a timer and say, you have to read for 15 minutes right now, it takes all of the fun out of reading. Do whatever you have to do to make this a special time. Maybe have milk and cookies while you’re reading or purchase some new books…whatever you have to do to get excited about it!

    Reading with Ophelia

    Reading with Ophelia

  • Books in Bed – Bedtime reading is a favorite part of our day. Each of our children have baskets of books next to their beds that are their personal favorites. We always read books at bedtime, and it is a special way to end the day. Also, since these books get read over and over and over, they are usually the first ones our little ones read since they have memorized all of the words. (Yes! Memorizing words is part of reading!!!)

    Bedtime Reading Routine

    Bedtime Reading Routine

How to Teach

When children are familiar and comfortable with reading, they will show more and more signs that they want to get involved. I believe that the gradual release of responsibility model of teaching is phenomenal because it slowly builds a child’s confidence until they are ready to do it on their own. First, they start out watching you as you read, then you start to get them involved in little ways, and finally they will be reading completely on their own! Here are some of the ways you can slowly get your child involved in reading.

  • Turn the Page – I like to lift up the next page just a bit until my little ones grab on and turn the page. It’s amazing how much they enjoy this!
  • Interactive Books – I love reading books that have flaps, sounds, and more so that my little ones can see that books are meant to be engaging.
  • Pointing to Words – I don’t do this every time I read because it would get tedious and boring, but on occasion, I like to point to each word as I’m reading. This shows children how reading works and helps them to memorize new words in the context of a book.
  • Leaving Out Words – I love reading the same books over and over and over again with my children until they are practically memorized. Then, I start pausing at the last word on the page for them to say. I find that if I pause in sort of a questiony way, they will say it on their own. When they do, I point to the word as they are saying it. Once they’ve mastered reading the last word, I also like to incorporate leaving out other words in the book.
  • Picture Reading – I like to show my little ones how to “read” a book without any words by just talking about whatever I see in the pictures, and then I like to encourage them to do the same.
  • Repeated Reading – Whenever a child shows special interest in a book, I like to read it over and over as much as possible. This repeated reading will help children to memorize words that will become part of their word bank that they use for speedy reading.
Elliot Reading in Bed

Elliot Reading in Bed

Usborne Books

I LOVE Usborne books! The pages are super durable, the stories are interesting, the vocabulary development is phenomenal, and the people and Usborne GET reading. They know that children should start young…I’m talking babies…and provide PLENTY of resources to get your little ones interested in reading.

Build Your Library with These Books

In the previous blogs in this series, I have linked to my favorite books and resources that matched each category, these books that I’m suggesting now are examples of QUALITY LITERATURE that you can use to reinforce all of the skills they have learned so far. I have geared my recommendations here for young children ages 4-6 who are ready to take off with reading!

  • *My First Reading Library – This is the best set of books you could ever buy! I have totally used all of these books to teach my children how to read from a young age. I love how each book has two layers of text. One page has minimal text for the child to read, often in the form of a word bubble, and the other page has more text for the parent to read.
  • Phonics Readers (20 Book Collection) – These phonics books blow anything I have ever seen out of this world! In some phonics readers, they focus so heavily on one certain sound that it overpowers the text. Not so with these! If you flip to the end of the book, there’s a section for parents that explains what the focus is and how to use the books which is great! Every book in this series is so well done. I mean, this is quality literature for sure that your little readers will learn how to decode with repeated reading. The rhyming text makes figuring out the last word very predictable. I like pausing to give my little ones a chance to say the last word as they are learning how to read.
  • Peek Inside Books – This boxed set includes six beautifully illustrated lift the flap books that children can interact with to discover what goes on at the zoo, in animal homes, on the farm, in the garden, at night, and inside the world of dinosaurs. You can get the box set here.
  • Pop Up Books – What better way to bring a book to life than with colorful pop up pages that move with these garden, dinosaurs, and jungle pop up books!
  • Look Inside Board Books – Children are so curious and love to learn how things work. In this series about castles, airports, food, computers, our world, space, the jungle, your body, and more, children will be engaged as they learn about their world while learning how to read.
  • Lift the Flap Questions and Answers – Inquisitive children will love the simple answers to their complex questions hidden behind interactive flaps. This is a great way for children to learn!
  • Picture Books – These picture books take classic old stories and retell them simply and from a childlike perspective. They would make a great addition to any developing library. You can get the box set here.
  • Books by Age – Browse Usborne for some AMAZING and HIGH QUALITY books!

Additional Resources

Building your library with quality books will ensure that not only will your child learn how to read, but he or she will ENJOY reading! These are the books that our children have loved through and through that helped them become readers. (*Note: These are affiliate links, which means that I will make a commission if you purchase them from these links. Your price, however, will stay the same.)

  • Elephant and Piggie Books – We love ALL of these books! Elliot was a bit of a “late reader” (reading at age 5, everyone else was reading by 3, but that’s another story…) in our family and he LOVED books like: We are in a Book, The Thank You Book, There’s a Bird on Your Head, and I Broke My Trunk! These books are the new and improved Dick and Jane books from the past revamped with engaging text that is simple, easy, and fun for new readers.
  • Book Box Sets – There’s something super fun about getting a set of books that fit into a cute little carrying case. If children have favorite characters and then can read multiple books about those same characters, they are bringing a lot of background knowledge to the table. These phonics boxed sets are a great place for children to start reading.
  • Ready to Read Books – I love the large print and simple text using characters and settings that children are familiar with for children who are beginning to read independently. Here are some sets of Ready to Read books.
  • Books About TV Shows – We LOVE connecting reading with our kids’ favorite TV programs because it gives them a HUGE wealth of background knowledge to read the books on their own. Often times, books about TV shows will have way too much text for a new reader, but our children have enjoyed picture reading or reading them repeatedly with us until they’re ready to read them on their own. We’ve enjoyed Dora, Backyardigans, Maisy, Daniel Tiger, and more.
  • Shel Silverstein – We love reading Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic as read alouds and our kids (once they’re about 3-4 years old) LOVE them. They are so funny!
  • Captain Underpants – These books are not what is typically considered “quality” because of the potty humor, but kids LOVE them, and I think that is most important. Our son Elliot was a bit reluctant to start reading, and these books gave him the final push and motivation to start really reading when he was 5. He LOVED reading the little cartoons and pictures, doing the flip-o-rama pages, and all of the potty humor.
  • Share Your Interests – I’m mostly a nonfiction reader, and I really enjoy learning about biology and how the body works, so I LOVE reading these Basher Books about chemistry, biology, the periodic table and more. My husband really likes reading illustrated classics like Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, and Swiss Family Robinson as well as anything by Neil Gaiman.
  • Follow Their Interests – Each of our children have expressed different interests at different ages, and we make it a point to purchase books for them that match their interest. Right now for example, our son Julian (2) is really into cars and trucks, our daughter Ophelia (4) loves Daniel Tiger, Elliot (6) is really into Pokemon, and Ruby (7) devours chapter books at an amazing rate and right now is learning about Manga.

In Conclusion

What is the point of teaching children how to read? I’ll tell you what it’s NOT…it’s not so that children can perform well on tests, it’s not so that children can read a certain amount of words in a minute, and it’s not to get 100% on worksheets. The point of teaching children how to read is so that they can learn about their world on their own terms. At first, we are the ones filling their brains with lessons about the world, but once they know how to read, they can access everything and anything in the world that they seek. By creating a fun reading atmosphere, making a reading a special priority, and filling your house with quality books, not only will children learn how to read easily, but they will be able to navigate the world through their own lens, on their own terms, and follow their individual passions along the way.

Check out all of the blogs in my reading series:

  1. How to Introduce Your Baby to Reading
  2. Learning the Alphabet Lays the Foundation for Reading
  3. Memorizing Words is What Good Readers Do
  4. Building Vocabulary with Colors, Numbers, and Shapes
  5. Phonemic Awareness Leads to Reading Success
  6. Teaching Phonics with Three Letter Words
  7. Encouraging Children to Read Independently
  8. Reinforcing Reading with Writing

#8 Reinforcing Reading with Writing

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Reinforcing Reading With Writing (Part 8 in a Teach Your Child to Read Series)

It is common practice to teach reading alongside writing, but the reality is that children are capable of learning to how read FAR before learning how to write. That being said, teaching writing AFTER children learn how to read is a great way to reinforce reading.

Ages and Stages

I have noticed that my children have been interested and capable of writing in very different ways and at very different ages. Learning how to hold a writing utensil requires special fine motor skills that take lots of time to develop. I think it’s good to introduce children to writing at a young age if they are interested, but I wouldn’t force it.

  • Toddlers – Use fat crayons and markers and encourage any kind of markings on a page. I love writing words and pictures, and my 2.5 year old son Julian LOVES coloring over them. My daughter Ophelia (now just 4), never really cared for crayons or markers, but she has always loved painting.
  • Preschool – Start introducing a pencil and model the correct way to hold it, but don’t push it. Start practicing lines, shapes, and letter formation. Let your child watch you as you draw and color. Provide lots of opportunities for coloring, and make it fun!
  • Kindergarten – Practice making letters and start writing words.
Julian Loves Coloring!

Julian Loves Coloring!

My Resources

These hand drawn resources are basically my ABC resources without the color. I created this font by hand then imported it into Gimp where I cleaned it up and digitized it. I wanted to make my own font because I wanted to teach children how to read letters the way we typically write letters. I also wanted to be able to color in my letters. Feel free to use these resources liberally for your own personal use.

If you are going to be making these, I highly recommend getting the following supplies:

  • Printer – A good basic printer like this will do the job, but if you’re going to be doing a lot of printing, I would recommend something like this.
  • Card Stock – I like to make sure I always have plenty of this around for all of my flashcards, posters, and other needs.
  • Three Hole Punch – This hole punch is really sturdy and can handle a whole stack of paper.
  • 1/4 Inch Rings – When making flashcards, I have found it’s best to use two rings on top to keep everything organized and easy to flip through, and this size is best.

To Make the Flashcards

  1. Print – Print on card stock.
  2. Cut – Use a paper cutter to cut the words apart.
  3. Hole Punch – Put the cards in order and then put two holes in the top. I like to angle each corner into the three hole punch and can do several cards at once with my heavy duty hole puncher.
  4. Rings – I like using the 1/4″ rings to attach the cards together.

To Make the Coloring Page

  1. Print – Print on card stock. *You can also bring a digital version into a print store like Kinkos and they can enlarge it to a poster size. 
  2. *Enlarge – You can bring a digital version into a print store like Kinkos and they can enlarge it to a poster size.

ABC Coloring Page

After children have learned their letter names and letter sounds, coloring them in will reinforce this skill. You can print out this coloring page, and have your child color over it or color it in using crayons, pencils, markers, or paint. When coloring with your child, it can be fun to color your own page while sitting next to him or her. This way, your child will be able to see how you do things like hold a writing utensil, stay in the lines, and choose what to color. Make sure you “think aloud” to tell your child what you’re thinking while you’re doing it.

ABC Coloring Page

ABC Coloring Page

Get a PDF of the poster here: ABC Black and White Coloring Page

ABC Coloring Flashcards

These one sided flashcards are a great way to reinforce letter names, letter sounds, and to introduce children to writing. You can print out one set and let your child scribble in it however he or she chooses, and then you can print out another set to color in yourself or color together. Your child will enjoy watching you color, and it’s fun to have a personalized set of flashcards. You could even laminate them when you’re done!

ABC Coloring Flashcards

ABC Coloring Flashcards

Inside View of ABC Coloring Flashcards

Inside View of ABC Coloring Flashcards

Get a PDF of the flashcards here: ABC Black and White Flashcards

Additional Resources

Being a teacher-mom, I have been exposed to a TON of resources. The ones I link to below are simply the best of the best and have been a HUGE help as I’ve been teaching my little ones about writing. (*Note: These are affiliate links, which means that I will make a commission if you purchase them from these links. Your price, however, will stay the same.)

Usborne Books

I LOVE Usborne books! The pages are super durable, the stories are interesting, the vocabulary development is phenomenal, and the people and Usborne GET reading. They know that children should start young…I’m talking babies…and provide PLENTY of resources to get your little ones interested in reading.

  • Wipe-Clean Resources – Usborne has a TON of wipe clean activity books that you can look through. Wipe clean books are a great way for child to reinforce skills in a repetitive and fun way.
  • Beginning Pen Control – Before children can learn to write they need lots of practice with pen control, and this book provides plenty of opportunities. They can complete the various activities again and again, using the special wipe-clean pen provided. Includes mazes, dot-to-dots, things to draw and more.
  • Wipe-Clean Alphabet – This fun book is perfect way for young children to reinforce what they’ve learned about letters while learning how to write.
  • Wipe Clean Alphabet Cards – These alphabet cards are another great way to reinforce letter names and sounds.
  • Wipe-Clean 123 – Learning to write numbers is right up there with learning to write letters, and this book provides great practice.
  • Get Ready for School Wipe-Clean Activity Pack – This pack covers writing letters, numbers, common words, and comes in a neat carrying case with a handle.
  • Wipe-Clean Dinosaur Activities – If your child is interested in dinosaurs, this would be a great resource to practice writing. There are lots of other interest-based resources as well.
  • Wipe-Clean Dot to Dot – Dot to dots are a great way to learn about drawing and writing because the lines are short and controlled.

In Conclusion

The idea that children should be learning how to read the ABCs while learning how to write the ABCs is just absurd. Children are capable of learning how to read at a very young age, but the fine motor skills required to master handwriting take quite some time to develop. If children learn about letter names and sounds, how to memorize words, vocabulary, how to sound out words, and more complex phonemic awareness before learning about writing, it makes learning about writing the singular focus which is far less overwhelming for children.

Check out all of the blogs in my reading series:

  1. How to Introduce Your Baby to Reading
  2. Learning the Alphabet Lays the Foundation for Reading
  3. Memorizing Words is What Good Readers Do
  4. Building Vocabulary with Colors, Numbers, and Shapes
  5. Phonemic Awareness Leads to Reading Success
  6. Teaching Phonics with Three Letter Words
  7. Encouraging Children to Read Independently
  8. Reinforcing Reading with Writing

26 Learning Centers for a Homeschool Preschool Environment

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26 Learning Centers for Play Based Preschool Learning

I love setting up an environment where my young preschool aged children (and older children as well) can be engaged in play based learning. I do this by setting up lots of little centers in every room that encourage creative and imaginative play with a little bit of skill based learning thrown in there as well. This is basically a Montessori approach to learning where children are given a lot of choice in a resource rich learning environment that incorporates plenty of opportunities for guided instruction.

While being a stay at home mom and raising our four children (after being an elementary school teacher for 7 years and getting my Master’s degree in Linguistics), these are the learning centers that have worked for me and have helped all of our children learn how to read at a young age, develop curious and imaginative minds, and get ready for school.

Before I dive into the learning centers, I wanted to set the scene with a few tips and tricks that have helped my learning centers to be successful.

Tips and Tricks

  1. Little Learning Centers: Set up small tables, little chairs, small couches, and other areas that are easy to access for little ones.
  2. Organization: I love using baskets, bins, cardboard boxes (with the flaps cut off), and tubs to sort and organize my toys and supplies. I like to label things when I can as well.
  3. Children’s Choice: Introduce children to new learning centers, but after introductions are made, let them choose what they want to do. Follow them and provide guidance and support wherever they choose to be.
  4. The Way to Start Your Day: Start the day with the most learning intensive projects first. You’ve got maybe an hour or two after they wake up for optimal attention, so use your time wisely!
  5. When to Pack it Up: If I have a center set up (like a Play-doh or a water table center) that’s really messy, but doesn’t sustain their attention for very long, I will pack it up. I’m usually okay with cleaning up a big mess as long as it was really and truly worth it. *With a new baby on the way, I’m starting to pack away all centers that make a big mess, just to help me manage things a little better. 🙂
  6. Rotation: If a center isn’t getting used, I’ll pack it away. Then, when I take it out again later, it’s like a brand new toy all over again! (If they still don’t use it, I’ll just get rid of it.)
  7. Routines and Procedures: Having a good behavior management system in place will make the day run much more smoothly. I have found both as a teacher and now a parent, that most behaviors can be managed with consistent routines, procedures, and expectations.

Whether you are setting up an atmosphere for homeschool or just looking to create a stimulating learning environment for your little one(s), these learning centers are sure to engage, stimulate, and provide hours and hours of play based learning opportunities for your child(ren). Also, keep in mind that we have four children ranging in age from 21 months to 7 years, and they ALL enjoy using all of these centers to varying degrees. 🙂

Here is a little video of me showing most of the learning centers we have set up in our home.

1. ABC Magnet Letters

Learning the ABCs isn’t just about singing a song, it’s about learning BOTH the letter names AND letter sounds really really well. Doing so will lay a strong foundation for reading.

ABC Magnet Letters

ABC Magnet Letters

This ABC magnet letter center is a perfect way for little ones to explore what they are learning about letters in a fun and hands on way. *Watch a video of Ophelia using ABC magnet letters here

Using the ABC Magnet Center

Using the ABC Magnet Center

Materials Needed:

  • Magnet Letters: I like these foam ones the best (120 pieces, capitals and lowercase letters), but they are currently only available from third party sellers on Amazon. These would be pretty good too if you don’t mind the pastel colors. I do like the Melissa and Doug wooden letters (52 pieces, one capital and one lowercase for each letter), but the magnets separate from the wood after time. This set of 240 lowercase letters (blue consonants and red vowels) from Lakeshore Learning is also a really great teaching tool, but the letters just aren’t as fun for kids to use. I like using it more for a teaching tool or to set up a lot of words at once. If you look at my letter set up, you’ll notice that I like setting the magnet letters in a shallow box so that little fingers can easily dig through them. Don’t worry about sorting the letters out, they’ll just get mixed up again! 🙂 I also like having these Leapfrog ABC letters for the refrigerator.
  • Muffin Pans: I like using this 2 x 3 pan for learning three letter words, this 12 muffin pan for either three or four letter words, and this mini muffin pan for longer words (and counting practice).
  • Magnetic White Board: There are lots of different options here. You could get a larger white board to hang on the wall, mini white boards to fit on laps, a standing mini white board, or even an easel. It all depends on your space really.
  • Small Table: You don’t really have to have a table (the floor would be just fine), but it does make it more fun! I made this mini table (pictured above) using scraps of wood we had lying around, and I measured it specifically to fit this funny little place in our “homeschool room”. When I was a teacher, I liked taking the lower parts of the table legs off from my rectangular tables to make a lower work surface for kids, and they loved it!

*For more of my favorite ABC resources, check out my blog: 10 Best Resources for Teaching the ABCs.

2. Counting

Learning how to count lays the foundation for math like learning the letter names and sounds lays the foundation for reading. It can take young children a very long time to learn one-to-one-correspondence (meaning that each object represents one thing, so it is definitely a good idea to encourage children to count often.

In the picture below, you’ll see that I have a mason jar numbered and labeled. I used to have 20 or so different counting jars with different things in them from beans to legos to small cars, but these counting bears were always the favorite, so that’s all I use now. 🙂 *The Investigations math curriculum is great for teaching math concepts in a fun and exploratory way.

Counting Bears Center

Counting Bears Center

I like using anything that encourages counting like the game Connect 4. Not only is this good for counting, but it’s good fine motor skill practice for little hands too.

Counting with Connect 4

Counting with Connect 4

Materials Needed:

  • Counters: These are the counting bears that I like to use.
  • More Counters: Lakeshore Learning has TONS of great counting resources. Check them out here.
  • Mason Jars: These wide mouths jars are best for storing the counters.
  • Muffin Tin: I like using this mini muffin tin to practice counting and for my ABC Magnet Center too.
  • Connect 4: This Connect 4 game is a great way to practice counting (we usually go to 20).

3. Drawing

I really like having one table in the house set up just for drawing. This table is in our homeschool room, and I always have coloring books, workbooks, how to draw books, printouts of favorite things to draw, stencils, paper, crayons, markers, other office supplies like scissors and tape, and a little box for finished drawings laying out and ready to use.

Drawing Table

Drawing Table

Not pictured to the right is a tall bookshelf that I keep stocked with a variety of coloring and work books, mini books we have made, blank mini books ready to be filled, extra markers, and more supplies. The pencils here in the picture below belong to our 7 year old daughter Ruby. She LOVES drawing and can be found doing one project or another here at this table every single day.

Ruby's Drawings

Ruby’s Drawings

Materials Needed:

  • Coloring Books: I like collecting coloring books and workbooks from garage sales, thrift stores, and trips to the grocery store based on whatever our children are interested in.
  • Crayons, Markers, Pencils: These are the pencils my older daughter loves. They are kind of expensive, but really good quality. I really like having this pencil sharpener too.
  • Paper: I get paper scraps from my parents’ business and cut it up for drawing paper, but blank computer paper like this works well too.
  • Printouts: I like going to Google and typing in “free coloring pages” and then whatever my kids are into like monsters, princesses, Dora, or the ABCs. I have a cool storage rack like this that I hang on the wall to hold available printouts for children to grab.

*Check out more of my arts and crafts blogs here

4. Painting

Yes, painting is messy, but soooooooooooo much fun for kids! Having a bunch of painting supplies on hand and ready to go makes for a really fun project.

My Painting Supplies

My Painting Supplies

I like letting kids draw whatever they want when we paint, but sometimes I’ll paint with them and we’ll talk about different things to paint like the sky, flowers, trees, cats, or whatever! If I’m feeling really artsy, maybe we’ll look up some famous artists someday and try to mimic their work.

Painting Over Masking Tape Letters

Painting Over Masking Tape Letters

Ruby Painting

Ruby Painting

Materials Needed:

5. Arts and Crafts Box

I love collecting things from garage sales, thrift stores, or the crafting aisles at Walmart to fill my craft box. (*I must also thank local artist Kelly Allen for giving me a bunch of crafty things when Wisemaker shut down.) I like to put most things in plastic bags and label them. It’s really fun to just take out the whole box, and get crafty!

My Craft Box

My Craft Box

Materials Needed:

  • Craft Box Items: Pom poms, little googly eyes, artificial flowers, buttons, sequins, glitter, pine cones, headbands, cotton balls, shells, pipe cleaners, paper scraps, yarn, and ribbons are some of the things I have in my craft box. Or you can just buy a random assortment of things here or here for example.
  • Glue: Glue sticks are nice for paper things, but you’ll want Elmer’s glue for bigger things, and maybe even a glue gun if you want things to be really permanent.
  • Paper: Sometimes it’s nice to make things on paper, so I like to have an assortment of large and small blank paper as well as construction paper.
  • Craft Ideas: I like letting the kids make whatever they want, but sometimes you need some inspiration or a pre-made kit like this headband kit or this bracelet kit.

6. Cutting and Gluing

Cutting is a really hard skill for little hands to master, and so any opportunities for young children to cut and glue will help prepare them for kindergarten. Sometimes it’s fun to just cut shapes out of colored paper and glue them onto large pieces of white paper. Other times, it’s fun to just cut and cut and cut! 🙂 One thing I’ve noticed though is that if a child isn’t ready to cut, don’t push it.

Fancy Cutting Scissors and Construction Paper

Fancy Cutting Scissors and Construction Paper

Materials Needed:

7. Stickers and Stamps

Stickers and stamps are a really fun way for kids to be creative, work on vocabulary and language skills, and develop their fine motor skills. I like to let the kids have complete freedom and do whatever they want with stickers and stamps, but sometimes they need a little help getting started. When this happens, I just get out my own piece of paper and think aloud as I choose what stamps to use and how to arrange my stickers. For extra vocabulary practice, I like to write descriptive words underneath the stickers or add word bubbles to the characters.

Stickers and Stamps

Stickers and Stamps

Materials Needed:

8. Write On/Wipe Off

Write on/wipe off boards are such a novel thing that it makes writing really different and fun. It’s a good way to give your child guided practice as they start to learn how to make lines, shapes, letters, numbers, and more.

Write On/Wipe Off Books and Whiteboard Center

Write On/Wipe Off Books and Whiteboard Center

Materials Needed:

9. Water Play

I usually save my water play centers for the dead of winter when we really need something to liven things up. It can get very messy, but kids LOVE it, and hey, it’s just water. When my water centers are in motion, I pretty much constantly have a load of towels in the dryer. 🙂

Water Pouring Center

Water Pouring Center

Ruby and Ophelia Pouring Water

Ruby and Ophelia Pouring Water

A less messy option is to just do water play in the sink, or better yet, in the bathtub! There have been many long winter days where we take a bath in the afternoon just for fun!

Elliot Doing Water Play in the Sink

Elliot Doing Water Play in the Sink

Materials Needed:

  • Cups and Saucers: There are many different types of tea sets that are really fun to pour with, but sometimes larger cups are fun too.
  • Tubs and Buckets: It’s nice to have a tub or bucket for collecting the water and another for pouring into. I like these rectangular dishpans a lot.
  • Water Table: I did buy this water table last winter, and it was a lot of fun, but not really as fun as the tables with cups and saucers. In the summer we keep it outside, and that has been fun, although a bit of work to keep clean.
  • Towels: I like keeping a stash of old towels hanging near the water centers.

10. Cars and Trains

Our youngest son Julian (21 months) is absolutely OBSESSED with anything that has wheels. All day long he loves pushing his cars and trucks. At the end of the day, there are little areas of cars and trucks everywhere. It’s adorable!

Toy Cars

Toy Cars

Julian Loves Pushing His Big Truck Throughout the House

Julian Loves Pushing His Big Truck Throughout the House

Even though we have an official “Car Center”, there are cars and trucks stashed in just about every room in the house!

Julian's Bedroom

Julian’s Bedroom

Materials Needed:

  • Cars and Trucks: Like with just about everything else in our home, I like finding cars and trucks at thrift stores and garage sales for $0.25 – $0.50/piece. This 20-pack Matchbox set would be a nice way to get started though, and these bulldozers and trucks would make a nice addition. I try to stay away from things that require batteries and make noise because a) they can be really annoying and b) I think that they stifle the imagination. We like using a large truck like this to store all of our cars in.
  • Ramps: We have this ramp, and it’s amazing, but apparently, they’re not making it anymore. Bummer. Something like this or this would be really fun too.
  • Train Tracks: Our kids have a lot of fun with these wooden train tracks. Smaller cars fit on them perfectly too.
  • Road Rug: The kids love our road rugs and play many imagination games using them. You can get a small one like this, or a large one like this. We got our large rug from a thrift store, but you can find some great ones on Amazon like this.

11. Building Toys

Toys that require building are my absolute favorite. They engage the children for extended periods of time, and they really help to get their creative juices flowing. When they’re first learning about how to use the building tools, my husband and I spend a lot of time building with them to model the possibilities. But once they get going, they really start learning from each other, and it’s incredible.

Many Different Kinds of Blocks

Many Different Kinds of Blocks

Big Legos, Kinex, and Unifix Cubes

Big Legos, K’nex, and Unifix Cubes

I love having this table set up just for Legos. The big kids play here as a part of their nightly bedtime routine every night while we put the little ones to bed first. We enjoy buying and making Lego kits from time to time, but mostly they just enjoy building whatever they’d like.

Lego Table

Lego Table

Ophelia and Ruby Building with K'nex

Ophelia and Ruby Building with K’nex

Materials Needed:

  • Big Legos: I like using two bags of these big legos at once. I have a large cardboard box that I cut the flaps off from, cut the front down so that little hands can reach in, and reinforced it with duct tape.
  • Small Legos: We inherited my husband’s old lego set from when he was a kid, but you can buy some basic legos like these. We have also enjoyed making many kits together, but when we’re done, the pieces just get thrown into the collection. I love using large shallow Amazon boxes with the flaps cut off, or a storage tub like this to store the legos in so that kids can find the pieces they’re looking for more easily.
  • Mathlink Cubes: These cubes are great for learning about patterns, counting, or just using to make swords and towers.
  • K’nex: There are so many different ways kids can play with these K’nex building toys. While there may be many different kits available, we have never tried any out.
  • Wooden Blocks: These large wooden blocks are something you must have! We also like these small colored blocks, these ABC blocks, and while we don’t have these large cardboard bricks, I always thought they would be fun to have.
  • Other Fun Building Toys: We don’t have the following building toys, but they are on my wish list!

12. Reading Nooks

I like having little reading spaces all over the house. By making the books easy to see and easy to reach, children are more likely to become engaged with them.

Little Chair and Boxes with Books

Little Chair and Boxes with Books

I like rotating my books based on who is reading them and where. The older children are able to go to the bookshelves to select books, and they each have huge assortments of books in their rooms, so I kind of like to keep my baskets of books and little chairs geared for the little ones.

Little Reading Chairs with a Basket of Books Inbetween

Little Reading Chairs with a Basket of Books Inbetween

Materials Needed:

  • Little Furniture: We bought our mini chairs at our local Walmart, but if I were to buy some online, these mini bean bag chairs look great and have great reviews, and this sturdy wooden framed chair would be the dream! I highly recommend getting something that has a removable cover that can be washed! We inherited a mini couch like this from my parents who bought it for my twin sisters (who are now grown). I think it really pays to buy quality when it’s an item that will get used a lot, but this foam mini couch would be really fun too.
  • Book Baskets: I started collecting wicker baskets like these when Ruby was born to hold diapers and such, and the size and shape is just perfect for storing books! I think this lined wicker basket would be even better, but it’s twice as much. I think it’s really important to fan the books out so that as many can be seen as possible (so big ones in the back), and so they are really easy to grab.
  • Bookshelves: I like storing chapter books and books waiting to be rotated in, as well as our adult books, on bookshelves. We have picked up small ones like thisbig ones like this, and square ones like this over the years at garage sales and thrift stores that have worked really well. I never bought one, but I always thought this book rack storage shelf would be really cool too.
  • Best Books: I have a blog about my favorite books for babies and an Amazon astore with my favorite books for children of all ages, but mainly, I just try to find really good garage sales where the books are like $0.10/each and stock up on ones that cover content, have interesting pictures, and contain text that is on the larger side. I’m always looking for really good sturdy board books especially.

*Read more of my blogs about teaching reading here.

13. Favorite Things Books

I believe in giving children a foundation of learning by helping them master the basic skills, but after that, I like to let them choose to engage in whatever they are interested in. These favorite things books are a great way for me to encourage each child to follow his or her own learning path. Basically, I just do Google image searches and print out pictures of their favorite things.

Ruby’s Favorite Things book is filled with her favorite Miyazaki films, My Little Pony characters, Digimon characters, and pictures of special memories that we printed out. Elliot is really into monsters, superheroes, Godzilla, octopuses, and anything gross. Ophelia loves learning about the ABCs, counting, Dora, seasons, weather, maps, and more, so her book is more educationally themed.

Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot's Favorite Things Books

Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot’s Favorite Things Books

Inside Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot's Favorite Things Books

Inside Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot’s Favorite Things Books

Ophelia Reading Her Favorite Things Book

Ophelia Reading Her Favorite Things Book

Materials Needed:

  • Paper: I like using laminated covers and card stock like this for the pages. Sometimes I just print the images right on the page, and sometimes I cut and glue them. This paper cutter has been very handy.
  • Printer: Finding a good printer is tough, and I am not too happy with the printer choices we have made in the past. But my dad owns a small business where he does a lot of printing and highly recommends the Epson WorkForce ET-4550. He says it prints great and the replacement ink is VERY affordable because it uses liquid refills. Once we’re out of ink for our current printer, we will be purchasing this one!
  • Laminator: This is the laminator I have. It is really basic, has a good price, and works great! This one is about the same price and has even better reviews though.
  • Binder: I have tried the comb binding (with binding spines) and it is affordable and easy to use, but not super durable (yet simple enough to fix). I have also tried the cinch binding (with binding wires) that is much more durable but the binding wires are quite expensive.

14. Little Figures and Houses

Creative and imaginative play is one of THE MOST IMPORTANT aspects of childhood. When I was a third grade teacher, I was always amazed when kids had no idea what to do with themselves during recess. When I was growing up, my brother and I always played intricate imagination games that would take us to other worlds and keep us engaged for hours.

Playing with little figures and houses is an excellent way for young children to use play to make sense of the world around them. Sometimes their play is about real things (going to bed, taking a bath, getting dressed) and sometimes it’s a completely made up fantasy.

Little House and Mini Figures

Little House and Mini Figures

When Ruby and Elliot were first starting to show interest in little house and mini figures, we would get on the floor and play with them as we modeled different scenarios with heroes and villains as well as other story lines that they could play along with. Now, Ophelia and Julian are learning from their older siblings how to do the same thing.

Doll House with Toy Baskets

Doll House with Toy Baskets

We have little houses and figures in just about every room in the house, and they always keep our children engaged in imaginative play for extended periods of time.

Ruby and Elliot Playing with Little Houses and Figures

Ruby and Elliot Playing with Little Houses and Figures

Materials Needed:

  • Little Houses: Just like with everything else, we look for all sorts of houses, castles, barns, tree house, and any other structures at garage sales and thrift stores. These things are so expensive to buy new, but just look on Craigslist or find a way to buy them used. Otherwise, Fisher Price Little People houses like this small one or this larger one are great too.
  • Figures: We are always buying these My Busy Books at the grocery store, not so much for the book and play mat, but for the mini figures inside. I am always on the lookout for small figures like these superheroes and these Peanuts characters. I try to stay away from Barbies and anything else that objectifies women.
  • Baskets: I like using wide shallow baskets like this because children only like to play with what they can see. This toy rack has also been very nice for organizing toys (although I just dump anything anywhere, it at least looks organized).

15. Dress Up

Playing dress up is another really great way for children to use their imaginations. By getting dressed up, they can become a different person with new characteristics. This imaginative play is a very important aspect of their development and actually a key piece of the highly successful Tools of the Mind Preschool Curriculum.

Dress Up Clothes and Hats

Dress Up Clothes and Hats

Sometimes when children get dressed up, they don’t know what to do. I like to provide scenarios and props to help spin them into action (usually some kind of problem and solution involving a hero and villain works well). Being able to engage in extended imaginative play (without adult interaction) is a very important skill for little ones to develop. It teaches them how to sustain their attention on something for an extended period of time and fosters all sorts of creativity that is a much more important aspect of an optimal learning environment than some would think.

Dress Up Dresses

Dress Up Dresses

Ophelia is a Cowgirl!

Ophelia is a Cowgirl!

I like looking for dress up clothes at garages year round, but my favorite thing to do is to hit up thrift stores right before Halloween to pick up more outfits, hats, and props to add to my collection.

Materials Needed:

16. Music

My husband is very musical, and so we have him to thank for filling our house with such wonderful instruments. He is talented at playing just about everything and has a very good ear for music. The kids love sitting on his lap while he plays the drums and we all enjoy making family music together.

Drums, Keyboard, Bass Guitar, Electric Guitar, and Amp

Drums, Keyboard, Bass Guitar, Electric Guitar, and Amp

I have placed colored stickers on the keyboard with letters on them to teach kids the names of the keys. We like printing out simple song sheets (look for ones that have the notes and letters for each note) and color coding them so that the children can learn how to read music.

Keyboard with Labeled Keys

Keyboard with Labeled Keys

Materials Needed:

17. Puzzles

Puzzles are an excellent way for children to practice their dexterity while also learning about the vocabulary and content of the puzzle. Yes, there are times when I have to hide my puzzles when the little ones want to just dump all of the pieces out in one big jumble, but when they’re ready to actually sit down and attend to one (or maybe two) puzzles at a time, then I leave them out!

Puzzle Rack

Puzzle Rack

Playing with Puzzles

Playing with Puzzles

Materials Needed:

18. Pocket Charts

There are many different pocket charts that you can get for a variety of purposes. I like having my pocket chart as an interactive wall center. Sometimes I use pre-made cards, sometimes I use my own flashcards, and sometimes I use flashcards that the kids have colored. There are so many different options for pocket charts and the best thing is that they don’t take up any floor space!

Pocket Chart with Beginning Word Sounds

Pocket Chart with Beginning Word Sounds

Materials Needed:

19. Play-Doh

Play-Doh is a fun moldable adventure for children. Little fingers love squishing and squashing it, and there are so many different options for creativity.

Ophelia and Elliot Playing with Play-Doh

Ophelia and Elliot Playing with Play-Doh

I like keeping my Play-Doh supplies stored in cardboard boxes (from Amazon) with the flaps cut off and labeled with mailing labels. It’s nice to have a table or space on the floor to play with the Play-Doh so that it doesn’t get ground into the carpet. Right now, my Ophelia is obsessed with this

Materials Needed:

20. Puppets

Puppets are a wonderful way to teach children new things or entertain them using funny voices and silly dialogue. I enjoy using puppets to talk to my children or read them books and we all like putting on puppet shows.

Puppet Stand

Puppet Stand

Materials Needed:

  • Puppet Stand: I made this puppet stand using spare scraps of wood we had lying around. It’s a good thing it’s covered up with fabric, because it’s a very crude job! I even had to screw it into the wall just so it would stay standing. 🙂 If you don’t feel like making your own, you could certainly just buy one like this.
  • Hand Puppets: These animal hand puppets are great (and a good price), but I really like the puppets with mouths that open, and my kids LOVE our Ernie and Kermit the Frog puppets because they recognize the characters. You can get this Sesame Street Puppet Collection here, but it is pretty pricey. This set of 8 multi-ethnic puppets is a better value.
  • Finger Puppets: This is a great 16 piece finger puppet set.

21. Games

I love, love, LOVE these big cupboards with shelves that we inherited when we bought our house, and I have one entire cupboard where we keep most of our board games. Many games I have found at garage sales and thrift stores, and many others have been on wish lists for Christmas and Birthdays. The frustrating thing about the popular games these days is that they seem to be made cheaper and cheaper with each generation. I like finding older versions of classic games like Connect 4 and Guess Who that are of obviously superior quality.

Our Board Game Cupboard

Our Board Game Cupboard

When little ones are first learning about board games, I find that it is very important to let them play however they want. When they are ready, they’ll want to play by the rules, so in the meantime, don’t make everyone frustrated by forcing it.

We try to make it common practice to just take out one game at a time, and we try to not make TOO big of a mess. Also, I’m sure there are a ton more great games (especially educational ones) out there, but we usually look for ours second hand, so we just get what we can find! 🙂

Materials Needed:

22. Science

When I think of teaching little ones science, I think about teaching them how to see the world up close and giving them opportunities to explore it. I want them to get magnifying glasses and look at bugs…how they move, where they’re going, they’re characteristics, I want them to catch frogs and learn how to gently handle them, I want them to observe the colors of the sky and to see the patterns in the clouds, I want them to get messy as they compare the texture of dirt to mud, and most of all, I want them to play, explore, wonder, question, and see…really see the world.

Ruby and Elliot in the Garden

Ruby and Elliot in the Garden

Ruby and Elliot Doing a Vinegar and Baking Soda Experiment

Ruby and Elliot Doing a Vinegar and Baking Soda Experiment

Materials Needed:

23. Social Studies

Learning about where we are in place in time should be a gradual infiltration of knowledge instead of a sudden mind dump. As a third grade teacher introducing concepts such as “we live in a city that is part of a state that is part of a country that is part of a continent” and “before we lived here other people lived here with fewer advancements in technology” are all really big ideas that can be hard to grasp when introduced too quickly.

The more children can be exposed to these concepts at a young age, the more receptive they will be to learn about them more in depth at a later age.

State, World, and Universe Maps

State, World, and Universe Maps

Materials Needed:

24. My Favorite Workbooks

During the summer (and weekends, holidays, etc.), I have a pretty nice routine that involves all of us adopting a homeschool framework that helps all of us to be productive and accountable. First thing in the morning, I like to have my older ones do about 2-4 pages from any workbook of their choosing. Sometimes the little ones like to do workbooks too, sometimes they just color, and sometimes they’re playing elsewhere. 🙂

My Favorite Workbooks

My Favorite Workbooks

Some kids really really like sitting down and doing workbooks, and some just don’t. I think you have to find what works for your child. Try to expose them to some pencil paper activities where you can and let their interests lead the way.

Materials Needed:

  • Kumon Books: Every single Kumon book is simple, fun, direct, to the point, and a very effective teaching too. I love everything they make from tracing and mazes, to addition and subtraction, to upper and lowercase letters, to rhyming words, and much much more.
  • Brain Quest: I love everything Brain Quest makes! Their workbooks are high quality with full color, simple graphics, age appropriate content, and fun for kids. You might like starting with the Pre-K or K workbook for your little one.
  • Star Wars: When I was doing homeschool preschool with my son Elliot, he was pretty reluctant to sit down and do any sort of workbooks, but he loved these Star Wars workbooks! We enjoyed the Kindergarten Phonics and ABCs and Kindergarten Math Skills. There’s also some really great Preschool ABC and Preschool Number workbooks.
  • Investigations Math: This curriculum does an amazing job of making learning math fun! There are lots of different games that help to build math concepts. You can buy individual student books by grade level on Amazon like this K workbook. If you go to the Investigations ordering page, you’ll see that it’s not super easy to order from them unless you’re buying the whole kit and kaboodle.
  • Grocery Store Books: If you go to the book section at any grocery store or Walmart, there’s always a selection of different workbooks. I have enjoyed using these as well. If you live near any teacher stores, I highly recommend going there and just looking through the resources in person.

25. Technology

We have always enjoyed using technology as a teaching tool with our little ones. Read more about why we don’t ban screen time for our little ones under two here, and also read more about how we set limits with technology here. If you are the type of parent who has trouble setting limits, leaves the TV on all day even if no one is watching it, or is struggling with young ones who want to spend all day in front of a screen, then you might want to skip this section. But if you’re okay with using technology in a structured and supervised way, then you might love the following blogs:

Our Favorite Preschool Apps

Our Favorite Preschool Apps

In Conclusion

By setting up a stimulating environment filled with many different learning centers, your little ones will not only be engaged, they will be growing and developing so fast that you might find it hard to keep up, and that is definitely not something to complain about!

You don’t have to be a teacher in order to provide your child with a stimulating learning environment, and you don’t need to wait until you send them off to school before you can expect them to learn anything. Babies and young children crave stimulation and learning. and you’re not going to find all that you need in workbooks and paper/pencil activities. Kids need opportunities to learn through play, and play based learning centers are a great way to get started!

For Further Reading

  • Zone of Proximal Development: Children of all ages, babies included, love to be challenged. By providing learning opportunities that are at the right level for your child and by scaffolding them to new learning, they will be engaged, happy, and continuously making advancements.
  • Learning Goals: Now, I’m not talking about state standards, lesson plan books, and goal sheets, I’m talking about knowing where your children are developmentally and thinking about where they could go next based on their ages, abilities, personalities, etc. Knowing this will help you to design your learning environment with each child’s needs in mine. See examples of the learning goals I set for my children here.
  • How Children Learn: When you look at brain development and see that the neurons in a child’s brain peak at about 2-3 years of age, you will understand why I believe that this is the most crucial window of opportunity there is.
  • Oral Language Development: Learning how to speak is what represents the background knowledge that children will bring to every new learning experience that they encounter.

How to Create an Environment that Encourages Independence, Creativity, and Learning

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Embracing Motherhood How to Create an Environment that Encourages Independence, Creativity, and Learning

When I was an elementary school teacher and now as a parent of four young children, I have always believed that creating an environment conducive to learning was one of the most important things I could do (after making my students and children feel loved that is.)

quote-i-never-teach-my-pupils-i-only-attempt-to-provide-the-conditions-in-which-they-can-learn-albert-einstein-282667

Before I became a stay at home mom, I taught at an I.B. school that focused on backwards design and the inquiry model of instruction. These are two things that I believe in strongly and have carried over into my parenting philosophy. In my classroom, I worked very hard to create an environment and a system that could almost run itself. We would spend the beginning of the year going over rules and expectations, and then I would gradually release responsibility and encourage them to become independent learners as I guided them to find their individual intrinsic motivators. In the pictures below, notice the cooperative learning modules, the comfortable little nooks and learning areas, the use of the wall space, the vibrant colors, the plants, and the clean, organized, and warm environment.

third grade classroom

Front of the Room Teacher Station

third grade classroom

Looking Out the Windows in My Classroom

third grade classroom

Looking Towards the Back of My Classroom

third grade classroom

The Back Corner of My Classroom

third grade classroom

Chalkboard Area in My Classroom

third grade classroom

Learning Wall

IMG_0506

Vocabulary Wall and Plants

third grade classroom

My Students Learning with Laptops

third grade classroom

Kids Working with Pattern Blocks

third grade classroom

My Mom Dissecting Hearts with My Students

third grade classroom

Dressing Up for a Reader’s Theater Play

In my home, I have tried to create the same warm, nurturing, organized, creative, and stimulating environment that will promote independent learning at every turn. Don’t get me wrong, I love cuddling with my kids and finding teachable moments to help guide them towards new understandings, it’s just that I don’t see them as empty vessels that need to be filled with whatever wisdom I can pour into them. I believe that they are embarking on a journey of self discovery and I see myself as their guide; the one who will shepherd them along and help them to find the right path. Listed below are the things I like to do in my home that help to create and facilitate an environment that promotes and encourages independent learning.

1. Organization Behind the Scenes

As the facilitator of my children’s learning, I need to have everything ready to go at a moment’s notice. Whenever one of them is inspired to paint, I want to be able to pull out all of the painting supplies lickety split. Or whenever I see the need to improvise a new learning station, I want to be able to quickly pull out materials and create something. I don’t have the luxury of lunch breaks and planning time anymore, I need to be able to guide, create, build, facilitate, and enjoy at a moment’s notice.

kids playing with creative manipulatives at a moments notice

Creative Play at a Moment’s Notice

That is why I love, love, love my cupboards that came with this house. I have my flashcards, construction paper, extra crayons and markers, board games, teaching tubs, craft supplies, and more neatly boxed, labeled, and organized so that I can get to what I need at a moment’s notice. (See my Amazon Store for my recommended Best Teaching Items.) The other day my parents spent the night so that my husband and I could have a Valentine’s date, and the next day my Mom and I spent the entire day reorganizing my cupboards. In doing so, it gave me the ability to continue creating at a moment’s notice in the future. I need times like that to completely reorganize everything. It feels so good!

Organized Cupboards Filled with Learning Supplies

Organized Cupboards Filled with Learning Supplies

2. Decide Which Supplies to Make Accessible

Depending on the age and “mess propensity” of my children, I keep different materials accessible at different levels. Our toddler has just discovered markers and loves coloring on the walls, refrigerator, tables, etc., so I’ve decided to keep those materials out of her reach. My oldest daughter and son, on the other hand, love being able to have the freedom to color and create on their own, so I have set up a table in my “homeschool room” that has coloring books, blank books, blank paper, colored paper, markers, colored pencils, crayons, scissors, tape and other odds and ends to allow them to have the freedom to create and design on their own.

organized table with craft supplies

Organized Homeschool Table

In my cupboards I keep the things that I want my older children to be able to access I keep on the lower shelves. That way, when inspiration strikes, they can take out what they need. I also have a bookshelf with book making supplies, reusable stickers, stamps, and more coloring books for them to use.

computer table and shelves organized with learning supplies for kids

Shelves Organized with Learning Supplies

Everything within reach of my toddler are things specifically designed for her. She can do the things that the older kids can do with guidance, but the things at her level are things that she can do independently.

3. Create Learning Stations at Tables

My “homeschool” table is the most versatile station that I have. It can be used for just about any project that we have in mind. We used to only have one table in our home, but I LOVE having this table set up just for arts and crafts. We have another table in our kitchen (it only seats three) that we use for eating and activities. On this table, I have a few coloring books, some crayons, markers, books, and some dry erase boards, books, and markers that the kids can do while I’m cooking or cleaning in the kitchen. In the kitchen we also have a little table with three little chairs. Sometimes my kids eat here, sometimes they do projects here, and sometimes I use it to set out some food for them to graze on. We do have a family dining table in the dining room that we keep cleared off and use just for family meal time.

kitchen table with learning placements and activity bins

Our Kitchen Table

kids using dry erase boards at the kitchen table

Kids Working at Our Kitchen Table

little kid table in the kitchen with learning strips and a cardboard bin of books

Little Kid Table in the Kitchen

I have a few others shorter coffee tables set up around the house as well. In our multipurpose room I have a coffee table set up that I rotate with different books and activities. Right now it has ABC blocks, a box with Basher books, a box with homemade books and cards, and a place for sheets that I’m working on with our toddler. I also made a short table by our homeschool table to house different activities. Right now it is winter, and our water pouring station has been an absolute favorite for our toddler. I have another table in our quiet room that has puzzles and ABC game boards. Even the coffee tables in our living room are learning stations. With posters on top, books underneath, and little chairs or a little couch to sit in, they are great for eating or doing projects.

kids using ABC learning tablets at a coffee table sitting on little stools

Coffee Table Learning Station

using little cutout figures for learning activities at a coffee table learning station

Coffee Table Learning Station

homemade table magnet learning station

Magnet Station at the Little Homemade Table

Play-Doh Station at a Little Homemade Table

Play-Doh Station at the Little Homemade Table

Write On Wipe Off Station at the Little Table

Write On Wipe Off Station at the Little Table

toddler pouring water using little fancy cups

Indoor Water Pouring Station

toddler stacking at a coffee table learning station

Ophelia Stacking Letters at a Coffee Table Learning Station

4. Tips for Creating Learning Stations

When I create learning stations around the house, I want them to be interactive, fun, engaging, and have some element of learning. The simplest learning station might be some ABC games on a coffee table, and a more complex learning station might be a box with dry beans, cups, and shovels for some fine motor skill work. I like to place small chairs or stools next to the table so that the children can sit if they’d like. I find that my older children like to sit and the younger one likes to stand. When she stands, it’s just the right height!

toddler standing and Coloring at a Little Coffee Table Learning Station

Ophelia is Standing and Coloring at this Little Coffee Table Learning Station

child Sitting and Writing at a Little Coffee Table Learning Station

Ruby is Sitting and Writing at this Little Coffee Table Learning Station

Some other things the kids have enjoyed as a learning station are puzzles, stacking cups, markers and coloring books, dry erase boards and markers, board games, themed books, and more. To help me organize materials for these stations, I save our Amazon boxes and label them with white stickers. Basically, anything I have a lot of can become a station. For example, we collect all birthday, Christmas, and any other type of cards we get in the mail and save them in a little box called “Cards”. The kids love reading through them all.

5. Create Stations on the Floor That Facilitate Imaginative Play

Right now, all of our children are five and under, so they all pretty much can enjoy the same toys. One of their favorite things to do is to play with little houses and figurines. These are things I have picked up at garage sales and thrift stores over the years. They love using their imaginations to bring their characters to life and have them interact in these different scenarios. At times, I play with them to give them some ideas for what their characters could do, but this is something where their imaginations take over and they could play alone or with each other for hours. I like to organize the different baskets of characters that we have a lot of and keep them in different rooms. So for example, you’ll find baskets of dinosaurs, My Little Ponies, and big robots separate from the rest.

Little Bins of Toys Neatly Organized in Every Room

Little Bins of Toys Neatly Organized in Every Room

child playing with little figures and a batman house

Imaginative Play with a Housing Type Structure

Play Area with a Dollhouse and Little Figures

Play Area with a Dollhouse and Little Figures

road rug defines play space with bin of cars, train tracks, and little reading chair and books

A Road Rug Defines this Play Space

Our Living Room has a Little Toy Area in Front of the Fireplace

Our Living Room has a Little Toy Area in Front of the Fireplace

treehouse used for imaginative play

This Type of Housing Structure is Perfect for Imaginative Play

little toy figures used in imaginative play

A Bin of Little Figure Toys Perfect for Imaginative Play

6. Create a Dress Up Station for Role Playing

I also like to use closet spaces for stations as well. The kids LOVE our dress up station. I am always hitting up thrift stores around Halloween to get the best costumes for our collection. I’ve also found some pretty good garage sales that were getting rid of a lot of costumes for $1 each. The kids especially love this little nook in this closest where I’ve hung all of our hats. Being able to display things attractively makes them that much more fun to play with!

hats hanging on a wall in the corner of a closet for dress up

Little Hat Station Tucked in the Corner of a Closet

dress up costumes for a boy

Superhero Dress Up Clothes

7. Tips for Organizing Toys

Rather than having one big room for all of the toys, I like to spread them around the house. In doing so, part of each room is designated for both adults and children, and we can all enjoy ourselves no matter where we are! This also really helps with cleaning because I can get the kids distracted by a project in another room while I clean up the mess from the room they were just in! I very rarely buy anything new. I’m always looking for good baskets at thrift stores and garage sales to organize things and many things simply get housed in old Amazon boxes! When getting baskets for toys, make sure they are low. Kids only like to play with the toys they can see.

If things are buried, they will not get played with. Every toy has a home. I arrange all of the little houses and figurines in sets and keep them together. This requires a little sorting from time to time as things tend to migrate from room to room, but it is worth it.

little bin to organize little figure toys

Little Figures Organized in a Bin

baby toys organized in a box

Baby Toys Organized in a Box

8. Create Comfortable Reading Stations

Yes, we have a bookshelf, but it’s basically a storehouse for books. The baskets of books that I strategically place around the house are what actually gets used on a regular basis. I like to set up little chairs and baskets of books around the house to encourage reading at any given moment. I also like to put books by any beds in the house and near any couches. Whenever you sit down and get comfortable, it would just be the worst if you didn’t have something to read! I like to go through all of our books on a semi regular basis. This is a time when I can repair damaged books, re-shelf books that aren’t being read, arrange the books so they all neatly fit in the baskets with the covers facing out, and organize the books based on where the baskets are and who is reading them. (Check out my blogs How to Raise Children Who WANT to Read and How Children Really Learn to Read for more information about teaching children how to read. Also, check out my blog Oral Language Development…More Important Than You Think for some ideas about helping your child with one of the biggest precursors to reading.)

books being sorted into different baskets for kids to read

Reorganizing Kid Books into Various Baskets

little couch and table with map placemats in the living room with basket of books nearby

This Little Couch Gets a Lot of Use

toddler sitting in a chair and independently reading from a basket of books

Accessible Books get Read Independently

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Reading Before Bed is a Special Nightly Routine

These little chairs and basket of books make an instant reading station anywhere.

Little Chairs and a Basket of Books

9. Use Your Walls

It’s more than just slapping a poster on the wall, it’s about creating a space on the wall where kids can interact and learn. I am constantly rearranging my wall space based on what they kids are interested in and what they interact with. If I have an ABC poster on the wall, and I never see anyone using it to say the ABCs, I will move it to a better location or change it out with something else. Sometimes, kids need to see what it looks like to interact with the walls and so I’ll sit down with them from time to time and we’ll look at things together.

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Letter Magnets on the Fridge get Used all the Time

Flashcards Taped on the Dresser and the Wall

Flashcards Taped on the Dresser and the Wall

hand made alphabet poster on the refrigerator

Using Chart Paper to Make My Own Posters

10. Rearrange As Needed

It’s not about getting the perfect set up and leaving it that way indefinitely, it’s about keeping things fresh, new, and engaging. When I see that an area or a station isn’t getting used anymore, I’ll rearrange it with something new. Sometimes just seeing things in a new configuration can be exciting. Especially during these long winter months, I know that I need to keep this indoor environment as exciting as possible. Every few weeks or so I like to find something to rearrange. It could be something simple like changing a learning station or moving some toys around, or it could be something drastic like moving the furniture from one room to another.

11. Why I Don’t Believe in “Playrooms”

I know that it can seem tempting to designate one room in the house as a “play room”, a place to keep all of the children’s things, a place where the door can be shut on the mess and hidden out of sight from company, and a place where the kids can go to create a mess. But there are several reasons why I disagree with this concept. First of all, part of creating an environment that stimulates learning is that I don’t need to be right there by my children’s sides as they play, learn, discover, and grow. But even though I don’t need to interact with them every single second, I like to be close by so that I can be there to give a gentle nudge when needed. I may need to solve a disagreement between siblings, help a child who is frustrated with a certain activity, be there at an opportune teachable moment to provide guidance, or assess what they are capable of doing independently as I think of new learning stations.

All Together in One Room

All Together in One Room

Having a playroom that is segregated from the other areas of the house may encourage you to be separated from your children more than you’d think. As much as it would be nice to just stay in the playroom and be with your children giving them your complete and undivided attention, I’m sure you’ve got stuff to do! As a busy momma with clothes to fold, dishes to do, a blog to write, and more stations to organize and create, I like to be near my children as they play, learn and discover while also tending to the things that I need to do. I love it when I can multitask by folding clothes while checking in on my toddler at her water station, putting the dishes away while helping my four year old with his Starfall game, and spelling words for my five year old as she writes a mini book while I prepare dinner. In addition, it’s not good for kids to hover over them constantly while they play. In order to learn how to be independent, they need to have independence in a guided situation.

In Conclusion

By creating an environment that stimulates learning and creative play, you will always have things to do at the drop of a hat. The other day, my oldest daughter’s school was suddenly canceled due to the weather. She had a blast staying at home going from one learning station to the next. It was so easy for me to keep her, my four year old, and my toddler all busy and engaged with different activities while I tended to the baby, prepared food, cleaned up, and guided each child along with their activities. To be honest, I was surprised at how much I got done and how engaged they were throughout the day. Putting in the time to create all of these learning and play stations really makes everything very manageable. With a little planning, a keen eye at garage sales and thrift stores, and some time set aside for organization, you’ll have your own independent learning and play stations ready to go, and you’ll be so glad you did!

Click here to read my blog about the importance of creative and imaginative play, and here to read my blog about Tools of the Mind, which is a preschool and kindergarten program that centers on play.

*Click here to see a video tour of our house. I’m always rearranging and changing things around, but you’ll notice all of the little play areas set up throughout the house.

Keeping the House Clean with Four Young Children…Is it Possible?

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Embracing Motherhood Keeping the House Clean with Four Young Children...Is it Possible?

Keeping the house clean with one or two kids can be a little extra work, but when you have four children five and under and one of them is a new baby, it can be especially challenging! After our fourth child was born, I wasn’t even sure if it would be possible to keep the house tidy enough for my type A personality, but lo and behold, I found a way! This is how I do it.

1. Have an Organized System

I am very mindful about where I put certain toys and how I organize the children’s playthings. I love using baskets and boxes to sort and organize things so that similar toys stay together. I have baskets for the little figures used with the castles and treehouses for imaginative play, bins for cars, blocks, and train tracks, tables with trays of paper and pencil boxes of markers for arts and crafts, baskets with books in every room, and places for all of the stuffed animals. Everything is strategically set up to encourage play and in a way that’s easy to manage and clean. If I notice that a particular set of toys is creating a huge mess but not utilizing a lot of play time, I’ll either reorganize it or pack it away for another time. Rather than having one “play room”, I have found it beneficial to have out just enough toys in each room. I only keep out what gets used.

Our Living Room

Our Living Room

Organized Toys and Books

Organized Toys and Books

Play Space in Our Homeschool Room

Play Space in Our Homeschool Room

Organized Bins of Toys

Organized Bins of Toys

2. Make Sure Everything has a Home

I know that it’s the little things that add up and make my house feel cluttered. Every single toy, book, and marker needs to have a home or it will end up as clutter somewhere. So when I see some dolls, cars, or magazines laying on the floor, I ask myself, “Do they have a home?” If not, it’s time I found them one! I like to keep a TINY bowl on the counter for little things that need to be put away. That way I’m not running around every time I find a little hair tie on the floor. But once that little bowl is full, it’s time to put the contents away.

3. Spend Time Organizing

The key to keeping everything looking neat and tidy on the surface is to keep everything neat and tidy behind the scenes. This means that when I open up the cupboards, I can easily find my canned beans, AA batteries, and a light bulb for the night light. This also means that when I open up a drawer, I’m not searching through a pile of junk before I can find a paperclip, a pad of paper, and a working pen. To accomplish this, I know that I may need to devote an entire afternoon or even a whole day to reorganizing things. Whenever I have a hard time finding something, I know that it’s time to do some serious organizing! The bonus is being able to get rid of some of the clutter in the process. I am always throwing out things that are too junky or not being used anymore. I will save a few things if I KNOW that they will get used in the future (like hand me down clothes and baby toys from the older kids), but I am very careful not to pack things away “just in case”. Things that get packed away and forgotten just add clutter.

Organized Cabinets

IMG_3382 Organized Cabinets

4. Every Time You Move, Move Something with You

I try not to leave a room, pass by a mess, or stoop down without picking something up in the process. For example, if I’m sitting in the living room and I need to go to the bathroom, I’ll pick up all of the cups and drop them off in the kitchen. On my way back, I’ll pick up the random toys on the floor and put them on the counter. The next time I walk by the counter, I’ll pick up the toys and drop them where they go. If I don’t have time for that, I’ll at least put them in my pocket to put away later. I love working in layers and cleaning little bits here and there until the job is done.

5. Clean Every Room You Are In

Instead of having a designated cleaning time, I like to just clean as I go. At the end of the day, there is always a mass pick up and put away time, but I like to minimize that as much as I can throughout the day. When I wake up (or more like when my baby wakes up), I make my bed. It doesn’t have to look perfect, I just make it look decent. When I get the toddler up, I make sure her crib is tidied up. When I’m playing with the kids on the floor in the living room, I’ll pick up the stray toys and arrange the pillows on the couch. It only takes me a few minutes here and there, but by the end of the day the house is in fairly decent shape.

6. Distract the Kids

I love waiting until the kids have moved on to another project before sweeping in to clean up a messy room, because there is nothing more frustrating than cleaning a room that continues to get messy. I also don’t really like the kids to see me clean. I like them to think that things just magically go back to their spots! But seriously, I think that if they see me cleaning, they expect me to clean up their messes, but if it’s just done, they don’t really think about it. It’s also a bit frustrating to clean one room to perfection only to find that the next room is completely destroyed. To ensure that this doesn’t happen, I like to make sure that the kids are engaged in a non-messy activity in another room (even if it means parking them in front of a TV or ipad) while I get everything cleaned. I know that it can seem like a good idea to leave their toys out “in case they want to come back to play with them”, but from my experience, they have way more fun making a new mess rather than delving into an old one!

7. Keep a Mental List of Things To Do

Time is precious, especially with four little ones, and I try to make the most of every minute. One thing that helps me is keeping a mental checklist of the things that I want to get done. When I’m sitting there nursing my baby, contemplating the moments of freedom that I’ll have when he (hopefully) naps for anywhere between 30 minutes to 3 hours, I start to think about all of the things that I want to get done. Even if I know that I’ll only realistically get to one or two items on my list, I still like to think about items three through five that I might be able to get done if I have the time. That way, when the time comes, I don’t waste any time on hesitation.

8. Prioritize the Messes

Once I accept the fact that not everything will not get done on my to do list, I reduce my stress level by at least half of one percent. 🙂 When I’m faced with messes and chores of gargantuan proportion, I know that at any minute the baby will start to cry or someone will want to cuddle, and so I have to choose what things are the most important and what things I can let go of. If the living room is completely trashed and the kids are playing quietly in the next room, then the living room might take top priority. But if lunch time is approaching and the kids are starting to get a little cranky, I know that cleaning the kitchen and preparing lunch must take top priority.

9. Keep a Visible Checklist of Big Projects

I love keeping a white board and dry erase marker on the fridge and keeping a running checklist going of the big and little projects that need to get done around the house. This is especially helpful for my husband on the weekends so that he can see what things need to get done without me telling him what to do. It’s also nice for anyone who visits too. When people come over, I put them to work! 🙂

10. Let Some Things Go

When my husband and I were a couple of DINKS (dual income no kids), we would do all of our major cleaning on the weekends. We would scrub the toilets, wipe down baseboards, vacuum the house, wash the sheets, clean the windows, dust the furniture and a whole list of other ridiculous things. But now we have learned what things are important and what things we can let go of. Our number one priority is keeping the kitchen clean and the house tidy. Everything after that is a bonus. Sure, we may clean our sheets, it just might only happen four times per year. 🙂

11. Spread out the Big Cleaning Projects

Now, just because I don’t clean my toilets every day doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate a clean bowl! It’s just that instead of cleaning them every Saturday, I just clean them when they are getting so disgusting I can’t stand it anymore or if I know that company will be coming over soon. 🙂 I do the same thing with vacuuming, dusting, windows, and any other cleaning project that I don’t tackle on a regular basis.

12. Kids and Cleaning

My four kids are five and under, so at this point, I don’t have any huge requirements for them to clean. From time to time when the mess is small and manageable, and I am there to support them, I will enlist their help. For example, if we’re not in a rush to go anywhere and there’s a basket of dinosaurs on the floor, I will say, “Can you help me put these dinosaurs away?” Then I’ll make it fun by making them talk and say things like, “Please put me with all of my friends, I’m so tired and I want to take a rest! Oh thank you!” But for the most part, I believe that it is their job to play and my job to clean and organize. Gasp! Can it be true??? I believe that if I were to make my little children clean up every single mess that they made that it would a) Take forever and never be done to my specific liking b) Discourage them from making a mess in the first place which is part of the learning process, and c) Encourage them to become mini adults instead of curious, imaginative, and playful children. Because I keep things so organized and tidy, my children are accustomed to everything having a place and I see that they prefer it that way. They don’t usually make a mess just for the sake of making a mess, and if they do, I hold them accountable. The cutest thing was seeing my four year old put away his new toys after his fourth birthday. He had received a big dragon and some robots and he said excitedly, “I know where these will go!” and he proceeded to put them in the big bin with all of the other robots and dragons. This is exactly what I had hoped to encourage! And I didn’t have to beg, cajole, threaten, or punish in order to get it done. 🙂

Elliot's Dinosaurs, Dragons, and Robots

Elliot’s Dinosaurs, Dragons, and Robots

In Conclusion

Having children has changed my standard of clean, and I couldn’t be any happier! I love the messes and I love my job as master organizer. In order for my mind to be able to function and think about bigger things, I need to keep my home neat and tidy. I know that some people may have a higher mess tolerance than me, but in the end, it’s about what’s best for the kids. When my kids see neat tubs of organized toys, they are way more purposeful and engaged than if there was a big messy pile of chaos. And in the end, that’s what it’s all about…being purposeful and engaged in all that we do.