Toddler busy boxes

b and J using animal busy box IMG_8561

Toddler busy boxes are part of our flexible daily routine. They help me to homeschool  older children or get some chores done while my toddlers and preschoolers are well occupied on a worthwhile task.

busy box cupboard IMG_8556Our busy boxes (and ziploc bag activities, tot school, workjobs, shoebox tasks, preschool or Montessori style tray activities) are only available at certain times in the day to keep them fresh and interesting and to stop them getting spread throughout the house. We use them during school time in the morning and for table activities while I am getting dinner on the table in the evening. That way I do not need to change them too often because the children’s interest stays high and I can also keep some degree of supervision over the messier trays to avoid major pack up sessions afterwards.

They are also excellent to use for buddy time when an older child is assigned to play with a younger sibling. This is useful for example when the younger children have already finished playpen or room time and I just need an extra 20 minutes or so to finish working with one of the older children to complete their school activities. Turning toddlers loose to wander unattended throughout the house is bound to end in trouble, so some time with an older sister or brother gives the older children a break from their school work and builds good sibling relationships at the same time. The older children enjoy the responsibility because they do not get asked to do it all the time or for very long periods of time. It also gives them an excuse to play with all those attractive tubs as well!

This set of busy boxes is for my 3 year old twins, but many could be adapted to suit toddlers and older babies too. There are heaps of ideas on my other posts for the younger age group.blocks and animals IMG_8554Plastic animals and wooden blocks for building corals, zoos, farms and houses. Jenga blocks work well too.

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The 3 year olds have been learning how to recognise the numerals 1 to 5 and count small items. Combining building with Duplo as well makes this counting tray attractive, particularly to boys.geoboards IMG_8547Geoboards are a commercially produced mathematics tool. Great for exploring geometric shapes, perimeter, fractions or just for making pictures with elastic bands.dry erase board IMG_8546Personal dry erase boards (whiteboards) with pens and an eraser. sewing cards IMG_8543Sewing and lacing cards. These have a shape drawn for the children to copy. There are plenty of sewing and lacing shapes around to buy or make your own by punching holes around a cardboard picture using a hole punch.button sorting IMG_8542Sorting buttons into muffin trays is a hit with all ages. There is just something about handling all those different shapes and textures. The twins haven’t even gotten their hands on these yet – the 6, 8 and 10 year olds have been monopolizing them! cutting box IMG_8540Teaching toddlers to cut provides them with an absorbing activity that is great for their fine motor skills. The twins have had experience with all the materials in this box so this is just an assortment to chop up any old way they like. Paper streamers, card strips, beads, straws and other oddments such as tinsel or curling ribbon could be included. We let the bits fall back into the box and they can eventually be used for collage later on. The cutting box with free printable patterns I prepared a little while back was too advanced for them so I have put it away to use later on. wood puzzle IMG_8536A collection of good quality wooden puzzles is a good investment. This one came with a variety of patterns for the children to copy, making it much more  long-lasting.gluing IMG_8534Teaching toddlers to glue is another open-ended activity that they will love. Using a glue stick makes it a lot less messy to begin with. A selection of coloured card pieces and diecut shapes from a Kmart scrapbooking assortment pack made this very easy to prepare.rice box IMG_8531Sensory tubs have so many applications. Finding puzzles pieces hidden in rice is pictured above. See here for many more ideas.do a dot IMG_8530Do-a-dot pictures are great for fine motor skills. Bingo dot markers can be used to dot inside the circles or provide small stickers to peel and stick into the dots.  There are tonnes of free printable do-a-dot pictures around if you do a quick google search. teddies IMG_8528Imaginative cooking and doll/teddy play is always a hit. Small teddies, mini pillows, sheets and blankets, along with marbles, jewels and wooden button food makes an interesting selection. Bottle top plates and an old polly pocket toy as well as some screw-top jars finish it off.beads IMG_8526Pony beads and pipecleaners are great for threading and can be made into bracelets or tipped off and re-used next time. dinosaurs IMG_8523Our dinosaur tub includes play dough, plastic dinosaurs, popsicle sticks and popstick fences, a rolling-pin and plastic knife and some artificial leaves for plants and trees. The green bowl has been used to make a pond, cave and home for them as well.

Make sure you choose activities that are age appropriate, can be used independently, include attractive materials, are easily accessible, and easy to pack away. Being able to throw everything back into a robust plastic tub makes it easy for children to keep the activities together and tidy up after themselves.

The key to using these kinds of activities with your young children successfully though is training. No amount of pretty materials will keep a fidgety toddler with the attention span of a flea sitting in one spot for any length of time on a day-to-day basis. As soon as the novelty wears off they will be up and off again.

Take the time to train your children to stay in a designated area. (See mat time/blanket time and highchair time.) Introducing young babies to playpen time that transitions to room time later on is an excellent way to begin (see starting late) and the highchair and table make excellent places to sit a child with an engaging activity while you are nearby. Some children will naturally sit still for longer than others, but all can be trained to do so for a reasonable length of time.

If you are too busy to train your children to sit and concentrate then you are too busy!! Give up some of those good things you do and take on the better thing of training your children. They will need these focussing and concentrating skills in later life, especially at school and your home and others will be blessed by a self-controlled toddler.

For a list of toddler table activities, see here. For preschool ideas see here. For many more ideas for children of all ages, have a look around! For some more sensory tubs, try here.

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Magnetic pompoms

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Magnetic pompoms are a great idea for table time, highchair time, mat time, while travelling with children or any other time you would like a quiet activity for your toddlers or preschoolers.

Simply buy your pompoms and hot glue gun magnets on the back. I used the free flexible strip fridge magnets that come in the mail on the back of advertising.kissing man on fridge IMG_8450

For a sit down activity, use a small magnetic whiteboard, biscuit or cookie tray or any other magnetic surface. They could easily be adapted for sorting by colours and/or counting or simply combined to make creative pictures on the fridge as my daughter is doing in these photos. counting IMG_8285

My original plan was to use them with the multitude of “do-a-dot” pictures that can be found on the internet, so I printed out a stack and laminated them for durability. (These pictures have circles all over them that you can dot with bingo markers or stick on small stickers for a fine motor activity.) The fridge magnets however are not strong enough to hold the pompom on to the surface through the laminate so I am going to make a second set with stronger magnets for that purpose and leave these for free creating. pompom heart IMG_8284

Dolls houses in a shoebox

G's shoebox dolls house IMG_8279

Dolls houses in a shoebox are a wonderful travel activity, take away toy for holidays, table activity, quiet time or room play idea or highchair activity for younger children. They are very portable,  simple to make (these examples were created by my 5 1/2 and 8-year-old daughters) and the possibilities for open-ended imaginative play are endless. We will be making them with a group of girls for our 8 year old’s birthday party next month and with a little bit of preparation, they will be an easy craft to engage a group of young ladies for a couple of hours.c's shoebox dolls house IMG_8272

I will be adding some miniature food (novelty erasers from a discount variety store) plus a couple of ceramic ornaments to use in their little houses and the girls will create the furniture, make wooden peg doll babies (instructions in my next post) and decorate their rooms.mini dolls house furniture IMG_8275

The furniture is made from balsa wood hot glued together with beads for legs and felt pieces for cushions. We cut up cheap plastic bead necklaces to decorate the top of the chairs. A jar lid glued to a plastic shot glass and covered with a circle of fabric and ribbon forms the table. The mirror is a piece of CD surrounded by beads and glued to two shells as the base. The lamp is a small craft stick with a large wooden bead on top and a circle of card cut to form the lamp shade. It stands in a wooden circle that came with the sticks.

A printed clock face glued to a plastic disk, plus some old tiles from a board game with miniature photos inside, decorate the walls. Photos and magazine pictures of outdoor scenes give our rooms a view.mini dolls house furniture bottoms IMG_8278The girls were able to wall-paper and “carpet” their boxes, plus put together all the contents in a couple of hours and with a little more preparation our party guests should be able to complete theirs in an hour and a half.

Lots of fun for all ages and a lovely gift for any little girl.

Other posts you may like:

Wooden clothes peg dolls house furniture

My next post (still to come) on simple peg dolls from pipecleaners and wooden beads.

Homeschooling with toddlers and preschoolers

Twin's tot school activities

Whether you like to call them Montessori tray activities, tot school, preschool, workboxes, workjobs, shoebox tasks or Ziploc bag activities, providing younger siblings with engaging, educational and worthwhile tasks to do while you homeschool older siblings is vital for a smooth day with well occupied children.

While you can get some schooling done while little ones are napping, I prefer to get the bulk of our formal schooling completed as early in the day as possible when the children (and I) are freshest. Last year we had around an hour while the younger ones were in room time (playpen time for littlies) and we could also use mat time (or blanket time.) Now that we have older children though, this is not long enough to complete all of their workload and the twins are turning 3 so a new era has dawned!

The twins will be “starting school” with the big kids. They will now be included in our morning circle time, followed by table activities before they go off to room time. The list of possible table activity ideas is almost endless but our “school” trays will be more Montessori in style.

As I have done in the past, I have chosen a list of categories for each tray and put one example of each category out on the shelf. When it comes time to update the trays in a couple of weeks as interest declines, I will simply swap out the materials but keep the type of activity the same. (See starting out.) This term our trays are gluing, cutting, stickers and drawing, tong transfer, spooning/teddy play, scooping/teddy play, threading. Duplo copying and water pouring. 

The best thing about this year’s preparation is that in the past I have taken photographs of all our tray activities along the way. This meant that I could simply hand the older children a couple each and ask them to go and get everything in the photo and assemble the activity. I pointed out that this was an opportunity to bless their little brother and sister. They quite enjoyed doing it, especially as I gave them latitude to change the activities a little with different pretty pots and equipment to suit their own tastes. In about an hour we had a whole term worth of trays set up and ready to go. (Plus the extra half hour to put away all the mess that the children created as they were collecting the gear but I wont mention that!)

Teaching toddlers to count: 1 to 5 workjobs and Montessori style tray activities

Here are some more counting activities for toddlers and preschoolers who are learning to count from 1 to 5. If your child has learnt the number order by rote (ie. can count out loud to 5) and is beginning to develop one-to-one correspondence (matching one verbal number to each object being counted) then they are ready to start simple hands-on counting activities like these. You may even like to set out only the numbers 1 to 3 to begin with. If you are new to teaching toddlers how to count, it might be helpful to read this post first.

I ask the children to order the pie tins from 1 to 5 and sort out the golf tees by colour before counting each group and placing them into the correct pie tin. Use a number strip for young children to follow until they know the number order without help.

Kinesthetic learners (and all young children) love the hands-on style of these activities and despite the fact that  this group is far from my favourite set of tray activities, I included them to show you how a quick search around the house will furnish you with plenty of materials to set up your own.

This is one of the first counting activities I introduce. The shapes are sorted by type, matched to the example at the start of the row and counted into the bottle tops. Beginners will often just fill up the bottle tops without having any idea of the numbers, but I simply have them read the number and count the objects as we take them out and pack them away.

Unfortunately this workjob doesn’t photograph well but the shiny silver contact paper and blue jewels are very attractive to little ones. The box comes from a packet of plastic food wrap. The jewels are placed into plastic shot glasses which are numbered from 1 to 5.

I bought these secondhand metal goblets for our pretend play home corner because they are unbreakable. Pegs of many varieties slide nicely over the thin sides. Placing dots under the numerals means that children who do not recognise their numbers can count how many dots there are until they can recall the numeral name.

All my young ones have enjoyed hammering golf tees and other items into these polystyrene foam blocks covered with loose weave hessian-like fabric. The red washers come from a set of many shapes and sizes raided from Grandad’s shed with the numerals marked on them in permanent marker.

Chip and dip trays are handy for many different activities.These wooden numbers came from a baby puzzle toy and the items are an eclectic assortment from my Montessori materials drawers.

Pegging is good for fine motor development. The child counts the number of feathers on each peg and matches the peg to the correct number of dots on the card circles left from used sticky tape rolls. The box is just the storage for the feathers and rolls.

These beads and frame are a commercially produced toy that I picked up secondhand for a couple of dollars. Keep an eye out for this kind of material at op shops and swap-meets. The tiles are from an old game I bought for $2 at a secondhand store. I threw out the game and just kept the tiles.

Another commercially produced toy picked up for a couple of dollars with baby food jar lids for the numbers.

Scooping tray activities for toddlers and preschoolers

Scooping is one of the easiest Montessori style tray activities for toddlers and can be introduced at the same time as they are perfecting their spooning skills during meal times – giving them a little extra practise when spills are not so difficult to clean up!

Start with large, non-slippery objects that fit easily into a scoop (see mega marbles) and move to more fiddly materials like the popcorn or rice examples below. All you need is two containers (one to  to scoop from and one to scoop into), something to scoop with (spoon, scoop, ladle, etc.) and something to scoop (pompoms, noodles, rice, jewels, marbles, beads, dried beans, pasta etc.)

Have a look through your art and craft supplies, kitchen cupboards and junk drawers and you will be surprised at what you can put together in just a few minutes.

These pompoms are scooped into a plastic chocolate container insert with depressions in it. The scoop comes from a washing powder container.

This is a piece of packing foam that has indentations all over it; perfect for filling with marbles. The scoop is a pasta spoon from a child’s cooking set.

Dry popcorn kernels in espresso coffee cups with a 1/2 teaspoon measuring spoon.

Montessori trays are traditionally presented with the material to be scooped on the left hand side to help with left to right directionality for later reading and writing skills.

Green split peas are scooped from bowl to bowl.

Coloured rice is a very attractive scooping material.

When my toddlers were older and no longer finding simple scooping activities very interesting, I gave them this tray with a variety of containers to scoop, pour and tip with. They loved it.

Activities to make for babies and young toddlers

Trying to find interesting activities to keep older babies and young toddlers interested and focussed for any length of time can be a battle, but it is one that is worth persevering with. If you spend the time training your young children to sit, focus and concentrate and extend this time as they grow, you will be teaching them the self-control that is vital for all learning later. Not to mention the fact that you can go out to a friend’s house, to a restaurant, a school assembly or any other public event and take your child along, with the peace of mind of knowing that you will be able to enjoy some uninterrupted time in an adult situation. Toddlers need to be taught hand, voice and body control and this can begin at a very young age.

Here are a few ideas for home-made or readily available activities you can give to an older baby or young toddler during times where they are required to stay in a set boundary and play with the toys you have supplied (e.g. mat time (blanket time), room time, playpen time, highchair time and table time.)

Even quite young babies will enjoy pulling these dolly pegs out of the holes in the tissue box and carefully inserting them back in again. If they are pushed all the way in, the hole on the bottom of the box allows the child to pull the peg out from underneath. Posting and small spaces activities are great for developing fine motor control.

Stacking and unstacking objects is fascinating for toddlers. I was given these melamine plates for Christmas and my twins used them over and over again.

Cooking like Mummy is always popular. Go through your play food and cooking equipment and make up little sets. Don’t forget your kitchen junk drawer, pots and pans and any other smaller kitchen equipment that toddlers can safely use. Add small dolls and teddies for toddlers to feed.

My plastics are stored in a crate which I can plop out on the floor for little ones to unload and sort through. Stacking and unstacking, trying on lids and just exploring it’s contents is very absorbing. Perhaps you have a suitable cupboard that you can designate for young children to access while you are working in the kitchen.

I had trouble finding reasonably priced magnets that very young children could easily grasp. The flat, flexible style of magnet are not good for babies because they have trouble getting them off and end up peeling the edges back. I went to a $2 shop and bought 4 wooden jigsaw puzzles and a packet of strong round magnets. I glued the magnets on the back of the puzzle pieces and got a great, economical set of animals for the fridge, whiteboard, or metal biscuit try.

This very large bottle is a great posting container. Pegs, popsticks or any other thin object can be pushed through the lid hole and pulled back out through the open slot in the front. The edges are taped where they were cut to cover the sharp edges. I originally saw this used as a water pouring activity with a funnel in the spout and a large flat tray underneath to catch spills. The children were scooping the water out from the large front hole and tipping it back into the funnel at the top.

These oversized popsticks are placed into slots in the lid of the icecream container and can be pulled out and pushed back in.

A set of plastic chopsticks has been used in many different ways over the years in my house. Another small spaces activity; poking them into the holes in the side of this tissue box

I glued a bunch of cardboard tubes together for the little ones to put the chopsticks in and out of.

This quoits set amused the babies for quite a while as they took the rings on and off.

This Velcro fruit makes a great ripping sound as you pull it apart and stick it back together. Include the wooden knife for older toddlers to practise their early cutting skills.

I used some polystyrene foam covered in wide weaved fabric (burlap I think?) for this early hammering activity. (The foam has a tendency to crumble with use and I didn’t want any of the young children being able to get it into their mouths.) Golf tees and a selection of washers to bang into the foam have been well used by all of our children.

Developing Fine-Motor Skills in Toddlers and Young Children

Self-control, concentration, following instructions and fine motor skills are very important foundational skills for all children. Teaching your young child to sit and focus on an activity and see it through until completion will go a long way towards preparing them for later learning – whether that be in the homeschool or traditional school environment. Some children seem to be naturally better able to do this, others need training and practise to do it. Children who do not develop these skills early will find it much harder to learn and you will find it more difficult to teach them!

Here are several Montessori style tray activities for toddlers and preschoolers that will help to develop their fine motor skills. Many parents of young children say that their children will not sit still long enough to attempt, let alone complete an activity like these and that may be the case right now. It is however most certainly possible to train them in this skill so that sitting and focussing becomes something they readily cope with, both at home and when out.

Putting a flexible routine into place and teaching your child to stay where you want them to stay will be an important first step. Introducing playpen or room time, highchair time or table time, mat time and other periods of planned activity to your child’s day will reap the rewards of a child who is able to sit and focus and learn from the materials available to them. Self-control will begin to grow and the benefit will spill over into all parts of their lives. Time for some free play with age-appropriate choice making is also important, however if a toddler’s whole day is unstructured and contains many choices you will be seeing many “sticky patches” as Mel Hayde terms them in her book “Terrific Toddlers.”

Start with very basic activities like the first couple below that do not take very long to do and are not too challenging to complete. Help the child to learn the process first: take the tray out, sit in the designated place, complete the activity in the same way you have demonstrated it, place everything in the same place on the tray as it was found before returning the tray to where it belongs.

You may like to attempt only one tray to begin with so as to finish on a positive note. Praise your child for their attentiveness, perseverance etc. Five minutes for a toddler who is not used to this kind of task is a beginning. Work up from there until they can sit for an extended block of time. My twins at 2 1/2 years can sit for 20-30 minutes with activities that change every 5 to 10 minutes, depending on what it is. My other three children would have spent 30 to 45 minutes working on these at the same age and even up to an hour at times.

Threading and removing large wooden beads from these giant pipecleaners can be extended to pattern making for an older child. (Yes they are giant {about 40cms long} you just can’t tell from the photo!)

The chopstick is placed into the neck of the spice jar and large beads threaded onto the end.

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Toothpick flags are stabbed into the oasis. (Florist’s foam.)
Small beads are threaded onto the pipecleaners which are then put into the holes in the lid of the spice bottle. (These smaller beads require a higher level of fine motor control and accuracy to thread.)
It takes quite a bit of coordination to operate an eyedropper. Transferring liquid from one small container to another is a challenge for many toddlers. Perhaps use uncoloured water to begin with and provide a sponge for spills.
Yes, they will probably taste the angel hair pasta as they feed it into the small holes in this spice bottle but it’s only pasta after all!
This is a piece of polystyrene packaging with a loose weave hessian cover. You could include a set of numbers and have an older child set out the correct number of birthday candles.
Another spice jar with toothpicks – don’t throw out those old spice shakers!
Stretching hair elastics over a jar is surprisingly difficult for young children but they enjoy it anyway.

Teaching toddlers and preschoolers to glue


There is a lot to be said for a beautifully organised and sorted collage tray. All those colourful pieces just waiting to be used in so many creative ways are so attractive to toddlers and preschoolers; in fact children of all ages.
One of the easiest ways to keep collage materials sorted and ready for gluing  is a party dip platter like the one in the photo above. The compartments hold a number of different materials for children to choose from and the lid slots on over the top and seals with a turn to stop all those bits and pieces ending up on the floor.

This tray was $4 at a recycled boutique  (Good Sammy’s) so keep your eye out in second-hand stores and swap-meets or perhaps even Grandma’s plastics cupboard. I use the centre space for a jar that is filled with glue and re-sealed with it’s own lid once the activity is finished. If you include items like pasta, fabric and shells, make sure you include white glue (PVA) or children will be continually frustrated with pieces falling off their craft. Glue sticks are less messy but really only useful with paper and cardboard.
I personally am attracted to the organised collage style, however after an activity day at our local park a couple of years ago I had my eyes opened to the world of what I like to think of as “bargain bin” style gluing. You know the clearance bins they have in the shopping centres with a jumble of odds and ends for bargain basement prices? The ones that scream at you to have a search through because you just might find the bargain of the century lurking underneath the pile. The collage they put out at the park day worked just like this for the children. It was simply a box of assorted stuff in one giant jumble. You should have seen them hunting through it like treasure seekers. They scrabbled happily through, exclaiming with delight when something new and sparkly was discovered.

They seemed to have a bizzare attraction to the jumbled assortment of goodies and enjoyed the gluing just as much as when presented with my neatly sorted dip tray. Consequently, we now have both. When the dip tray gets jumbled and messy, I simply tip it all into a small crate with a lid and re-fill the compartments in the dip tray with new materials. That way both collections are continually changing.

For toddlers who are just beginning to learn how to glue (see cutting, gluing and stickers here), try adding a small drop of paint to the glue to colour it and make it easier for them to see where they have spread the glue. Focus on training them how to use the materials, as well as how to:

  • put a plastic tablecloth, gluing mat, placemat or newspaper on the table before they begin.
  • wear a painting shirt, smock or apron.
  • wash the brushes after use and return to their place to dry.
  • sort unused materials back into the correct compartments (a skill in itself.)
  • place wet pictures and crafts in an appropriate place to dry.
  • return the tray to the cupboard or shelf.
  • spray and wipe their workspace (Provide a spray bottle and cloth or sponge for this purpose.)
  • wash themselves up before removing their painting shirt.
  • hang their painting shirt up to dry.

Montessori style toddler activities: transferring and one to one correspondence

Egg cartons are a cheap and readily accessible option with clear depressions for each object. A large object to transfer such as these stones or wooden eggs will keep a toddler well occupied.

One-to-one correspondence is an important foundational maths skill. Here are some ideas I have used with my older babies, toddlers and into preschool years.

What is it?

  • Saying one number to one object as you count (therefore the “one to one” correspondence.)
  • Children often begin learning to count by saying numbers out loud while pointing or touching objects, without those numbers actually matching up with the objects being counted.
  • Children also count the same object more than once or skip objects entirely.

    These super sized marbles are a favourite material in our house, even for the older children. They fit perfectly into this mini-muffin tray.

    Making activities:
  • One to one correspondence activities should be self-correcting; there are exactly the correct number of objects for the receptacle. Any left over or running out before all the spaces are filled signals to the child that there has been an error.
  • Start with large, non-slippery objects that fit easily into a scoop or are transferred by hand and move on to activities that require greater fine motor control.
  • Even older babies can experiment with one-to-one correspondence. Babies love to put things in containers and tip them out again. A freezer popsicle tray is fabulously enthralling for a child at this stage. They work especially well if no more than one object can fit in each segment, but this is not essential.

Popsicle tray and wooden dolly pegs. It’s surprising how something this simple can hold a young child’s attention.

A basic activity for babies.

Extending activities:

  • Keep interest by changing the way objects are transferred; by hand, with  spoons, scoops, tongs then tweezers.
  • Change the material to be transferred; stones, pompoms, pegs, jewels, plastic animals or anything else you can think of. Keep in mind the age of the child and be wary of choking hazards.
  • Change the receptacle used; bowls, baskets, tins, containers, iceblock trays, egg cartons, jars or any other container with a definite number of depressions.

Pompoms come in many different shapes and sizes and are a safe material for little ones. The worst mine have ever done is suck on them or pull them apart.

Using their hands to transfer large, easily grasped objects is a great beginning for babies.

This tray came out of our fridge. It is meant to hold eggs but to my knowledge has never actually done so!

Be careful with jewels. They are very attractive but also feel nice to suck and babies and toddlers do tend to out them in their mouths.

For older children using small objects that require greater fine motor control adds a little more challenge. Combining one-to-one practice with beginning counting is the next step.