construction play with preschoolers

A Lovely Day of Construction Play

When we engage in sensory play, we build the small muscles in our hands as we grip and grasp toys, we experiment with cause and effect as we figure out what happens if we throw a handful of sand at our friend or dump it on the floor, and we practice communication skills as we tell about what we’re doing.

And sometimes, the sensory toys we explore are an opportunity to work on conflict resolution as we navigate peer interactions and work on sharing a limited space with friends. When this type of thing comes up, we get to develop problem solving techniques and build social skills too.

sensory play with preschoolers

Foreman builds a house for his trucks.

When a new item is added to a sensory table, a few things can happen. We could completely lose interest, having played as much as we wanted to play in that particular material. We could be totally engaged, losing all interest in doing other activities provided. We could be slightly intrigued and spend a few minutes checking it out and then move on. Ideally, there’s a middle ground where the new addition brings just enough but not too much excitement.

sensory play for preschoolers

Rocket Constructs a Garage for the Cars

Today, as we play in our sensory sand table full of construction trucks, we notice that there are new magnet blocks added to the sand and we ask questions like: “Where did you get these blocks from?” and “How do they stick together?” As we talk with our teacher in this way, we show what we know about the world and build conversation and vocabulary skills.

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art, collaboration, fine motor, peer communication, preschool, sensory play

When We Go With the Flow

I’m sitting for circle time, it’s going well. We’re doing our bell ringing and our greeting. We sing some songs and read a book. And then the children let me know they are ready to do something else. Before I can tell them what I had brought for them, they requested to use the playdough and asked for the little animals we’ve been using.

sensory play with preschoolers

Dr. Kitty uses a napkin ring to create a house for her rabbit and frog toys.

So we got out the playdough and had a fabulous time sitting together and building houses. Foreman cut pretend pizza pieces and offered them to all of his friends. Many stories were told and myriad conflicts navigated. Was this what I thought we’d do today? Nope. Was it valuable and full of great learning? Yep.

Sensory play with preschoolers

Totto makes footprints in purple playdough with a plastic hedgehog.

Even our toddler sibling friend was into it: he smashed dough and copied what the older children were doing. He spent longer at this activity than any of our other friends, in fact!

painting with preschoolers

Georgia works on her refrigerator painting.

I also had provided a big canvas board for us to paint on together, which is something we’ve been practicing for a few weeks. I thought this would last a short time and that then we’d move on to something else. Instead, what happened was that Georgia and Dr. Kitty decided to do their own paintings on separate paper after they worked on the collaborative piece. They explored the new watercolor pans that I brought and did some problem solving about how to fit both papers at the same table.

What I thought we would be doing today didn’t really happen. And what did happen was beautiful and full of wonderful wonderings, excellent fine motor control development, and great peer-to-peer conversations. This is something I’ve been toying with the last few months, and I am still finding my way to how best to follow some semblance of a plan and also go with the flow and provide materials that are engaging for the children. I’ll keep you posted on how it’s going.

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fall, fine motor, gross motor, meditation, painting, preschool, sensory play

A Day of Bell Meditation, Painting, Sensory Play and Tree Climbing

Listening closely to notice when we can no longer hear the bell ringing. This is how we start each morning together.

Listening closely to notice when we can no longer hear the bell ringing. We begin each day with this ritual.

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Painting is a great way to build fine motor control and practice making creative choices. As I paint, I talk with my teacher and my friends about what I am making.

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While at the sensory table, I practice scooping and pouring, which helps me build independence. When I show my friend my technique of scraping off the extra masa flour, I imitate adult roles and build communication skills.

Climbing trees at the end of the day gives me a chance to build gross motor control and confidence.

Climbing trees at the end of the day gives me a chance to build gross motor control and confidence.

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Snippets of a Fall Day

When we spend time together at the sensory table using new scissor scoops, we work on building the small muscles in our hands, practice communication and social/emotional skills as we imagine and direct play and we develop problem solving skills. Today, our table was full of pieces of yarn and we pretended to make cupcakes with the yarn. Each of us made creative choices as we decided which colors would be the cake and which would be the icing. Dr. Kitty wanted to make a purple cupcake with pink sparkle icing. Professor Worm wanted an all color cupcake (that involved plunging hands deep into the yarn and lifting as much as possible out of the table at once). And Rocket chose to imitate his friend’s cupcake by piling the yarn high in the silicone cupcake cup, which shows that he is observing his peers’ play and applying it to his own interactions with materials.
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Continuing our exploration of ways to use hammers, we explored making plant imprints today. We demonstrated that we knew how to safely use the hammers (recall), asked for the goggles before beginning our work (imitating adult roles) and discovered that it was more interesting for us to pound the leaves without the paper towels on top of the leaves (cause and effect). As we worked, we talked about smashing, we called out to our friends to “watch this” and we hypothesized about which kinds of leaves would be the most fun to smash. Once we found that the fresh leaves from the herb garden were making the best marks on our paper, some of us decided it was more fun to eat the leaves than to smash them!IMG_3017

Once we moved on to the free play portion of our morning together, one friend found an oyster shell and began to use it as a cell phone. Our teacher found it very funny that we called it a “shell phone”. We incorporated the shell phone play into the dramatic play game: Dr. Kitty (the kid in the game) used the phone to call Lightening (the mom in the game) and said, “I am ON THE PHONE, I am on a call. Come here right now, I need to talk to you, find another shell phone so we can talk for real.” While Badger walked and babbled to her grandma about what she was doing today.

IMG_3059All of the things our teacher thought we would be talking about today did not come up, and what we did talk about was infinitely more interesting and insightful. I think I hear my shell phone ringing, catch you later!

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This Lovely Week

The new playdough tools are still a hit, Super D likes to make bacon by creating a grid of lines with what the children call the “bumpy roller”. Working with dough allows the children to build fine motor control and while we play side by side, we practice telling about what we know and develop conversational skills.
IMG_2909Sometimes, an idea gleaned from Pinterest or a book seems like it will be great fun and ends up not being anything like I thought it would be. In this nature spray activity, I thought that the leaves and natural objects on the paper would leave white outlines when we sprayed liquid watercolors over them. It didn’t happen that way. What DID happen was that the children got some good practice using a spray bottle, they showed me that they know they can change the way the spray comes out if they turn the end of the nozzle and they had a great time spraying me and each other with the paint!IMG_2920 IMG_2924 As we played outside, Professor Worm and Dr. Kitty decided that they were circus performers and so were testing out what was possible with the hula hoops. This kind of open-ended play is a great way to help children develop problem solving and communication skills.IMG_2953The polka-dot slime made a reappearance on Wednesday. While my friend was reluctant to touch it, he enthusiastically named the color of each pompom as it slowly dripped from my hand.

IMG_2974 A pirate ship playhouse is a powerful thing, my friends. Even the toddlers got into the game and shouts of “ahoy” resounded in the yard on Wednesday.IMG_2991 We tried something new this week and experimented with pounding nails and using a hand drill. This was a very popular activity and helped the children to strengthen the small muscles in their hands and practice following verbal instructions.IMG_2993

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Dough Dee Dough, What’s Up with Play Dough

If you look over the photographs of my last ten or so weeks of teaching, you’ll notice a lot of different kinds of dough showing up. We’ve been exploring what is possible with play dough and deciding which kinds of dough we prefer for which tasks. Some days, the dough holds the children’s attention for over thirty minutes. Other days it is interesting for ten minutes and then a dramatic play game erupts under the table. Still other times, I don’t put it out and the children ask for it. We’ve used all sorts of accessories with our dough this Spring/Summer session and I thought you all might like to see what we’ve been up to.

Poking items into dough builds fine motor control.

Poking items into dough builds fine motor control.

We’d been using beads and skewers stuck into sheets of Styrofoam as small muscle skills practice and the foam was getting too messy to have in a house with a newly mobile infant. So, we switched to sticking the skewers into a lump of play dough. This quickly turned into pushing the beads into the dough itself. Picking up beads and poking them into soft dough was a great way to build control over our finger muscles and to work on talking about what we notice.

Using tools allows us to practice imitating adult roles and to show what we know about the world.

Using tools allows us to practice imitating adult roles and to show what we know about the world.

The following class, I put out the dough and some tools and the children ask for the beads. Super D cuts a grid into his dough with a “pizza cutter” tool and says, “I made a grid”. He then pushes beads into the grid and describes that he’s making a garden and planting food. He spends twenty minutes exploring what is possible in combining the cutter tool, the grid lines and the beads. As he works, he tells his friends what he is doing.

I say that this is so much more than sensory play or fine motor development. These children are imitating adult roles, using real tools and developing vocabulary and communication skills. As they play with this dough, they’re working on asking for what they want, developing problem solving skills and learning how to engage with peers in a group setting. This is valuable opportunity ripe with possibilities for all kinds of learning!

Different dough provides a different set of problems to solve and explore.

Different dough provides a different set of problems to solve and explore.

Another day, we explore making connections between sticks with yarn. The play dough acts as an anchor for our sticks. We notice that this dough is sticky and hard to use. We notice that the sticks eventually lean over to the side if we pull too hard on the yarn. Some of us choose to make radial patterns in the dough using the sticks. Others engage in lengthy storytelling involving dough clams that clamp to the yarn power lines.

Coming back to an activity many times gives us a chance to explore ideas from many perspectives.

Coming back to an activity many times gives us a chance to explore ideas from many perspectives.

We return to the dough and sticks and yarn invitation for several weeks in a row and the storytelling continues. Even the infant siblings get involved and try out the dough. A little brother just learning to stand pulls up next to Dr. Kitty and watches her carefully wind yarn around a group of sticks for fifteen minutes! One child makes set of stick limbs with dough joints and asks his mom to show the homeschool reviewer the photo I email to her.

Observing cause and effect is a happy side effect of dough play.

Observing cause and effect is a happy side effect of dough play.

There is so much problem solving happening in this kind of play, and it isn’t just the creative decision making kind of problem solving. This is science we are doing as we notice that pulling thread tightly around the tops of sticks draws the sticks closer together. This is math we’re doing as we select sticks that are all the same size. This is communication skill that we practice as we describe what happens when the dough sticks to the mat and slides off the table.

Pinching pieces of dough builds the small muscles in our hands.

Pinching pieces of dough builds the small muscles in our hands.

A fresh batch of ten colors arrives and we get to practice making choices. As we sit and talk together about which color is our favorite, we have a chance to practice listening to our friends and telling what we know about colors. Pinching off little pieces of the dough helps us to build the muscles that we will need to be able to learn to write.

Once we begin to show interest in letters, we can use dough to practice making the shapes that form letters.

Once we begin to show interest in letters, we can use dough to practice making the shapes that form letters.

One of the great things about play dough in a multi-age classroom is that it is something that children can sit together and work on even if their interests and abilities are very different. In draws the teachers and assistants to the table too, gets them playing and making instead of only watching and describing. In the image above, Dr. Kitty explores how to “write” her friend’s name with dough. When she finishes, she says, “I made your name cause I love you!”.

We aren’t just having a simple sensory exploration, we’re building relationships and learning how to live together, side by side, loving each other in as many ways as there are play dough recipes.

 

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The Point of Paint

Rocket paints a car

Rocket paints a car

Painting may seem like a messy and inconvenient activity for many folks, local politicians certainly don’t value it for what it provides the brain or spirit and I think it’s important to make clear just exactly what your child gets out of using paint even if the finished product goes straight to the trash.

Rocket navigates a tippy paint cup while he adds details to the car painting.

Rocket navigates a tippy paint cup while he adds details to the car painting.

As a trained art teacher, it seems obvious to me that painting is one of the best possible ways to support a child’s muscle and brain development while touching on almost every category of learning (math, language, science, etc.). Nine years into my formal teaching career, I still find a simple painting provocation to be the most compelling to children of any age.

Super D paints a portrait of his baby sister.

Super D paints a portrait of his baby sister.

When a child sits with peers and paints, s/he practices:

* creative problem solving skills (How do I show the magic of this butterfly even though magic is invisible? How do I show that my sister is sleeping?)

* communicating ideas in visual form (I want to tell the story of this car that plays basketball, I want to explore what happens when I mix every color together on my paper, I want to express what I’m thinking about after watching soccer with my daddy on TV).

* color identification (one of the most often shouts heard from the painting table is-“look, I made [insert color name here]”, this is important scientific observation that many adults take for granted and many art students end up unlearning in color theory class!)

* fine motor control (different sized brushes offer varied grip practice, this is imperative for building the ability to write letters)

* sensory exploration (the texture of different paints on my hands, the sound of various brushes on paper, all of this builds the brain in valuable ways).

Lightening tells about the machine she is working on.

Lightening tells about the machine she is working on.

One of the most rewarding things I like to do while my students paint is to sit with them and copy their marks using my non-dominant hand. Inevitably, they will notice that I’m making the same kinds of marks that they are and they often offer helpful tips to help me be more successful, “that’s not how you do it, move the brush like this” or “the circle connects to the line at the bottom”. In this way, I communicate to the children that their work is valuable and that they are my teachers in how to remain open to the process of making. I use my left hand so that my marks are not well formed and my shapes a little wonky in case a child is comparing the quality of their marks to mine.

Shine demonstrates that she learned from a friend how to scoop the last of her paint onto her paper.

Shine demonstrates that she learned from a friend how to scoop the last of her paint onto her paper.

There are some less obvious ways that painting supports a child’s learning, and these are also important and deserve mention in this conversation about the point of paint.

When painting with peers, a child works on:

* communicating with peers (“don’t use MY paint, yours is over there”, “look what I made, it’s a beautiful butterfly”, “I’m painting this for mommy, that’s why it’s purple”)

* showing what they know about the world (“that looks like a house!”, “these are the wheels”, “a rainbow is curved like this”)

* learning by observation and then applying what s/he sees to her/his own practice

* experimenting with new tools (basting brushes, homemade brushes, bottle caps, all of these are tools that will create problems for children to solve while they are painting and allow for a scientific process of observation and experimentation to happen naturally)

* documenting the evolution of a thought process (one child’s painting may start as one thing and change as it goes, this can be disturbing for adults, while children do it very fluidly)

* asking for what they want (this relates to conversational skills and making requests instead of demands but also supports a child in finding ways to negotiate with peers/adults and recognizing/respecting limits)

* storytelling (this may happen as a child works on a picture or as s/he tells about it later)

* crossing the midline of the body (watch for this developmental milestone that is crucial to the ability to write letters like x, k and y)

Dr. Kitty experiments with what will happen when she rolls the paint brush through the paint on her paper. She says, "this is a car" as she describes the motion of the brush.

Dr. Kitty experiments with what will happen when she rolls the paint brush through the paint on her paper. She says, “this is a car” as she describes the motion of the brush.

A surefire way to be disappointed as a teacher of young children is to have an inflexible idea of what the children will do while they are painting. In my opinion, the best possible way to support the children’s creative thinking and problem solving is to provide a few tools and a color or two and to watch and listen (and take tons of photographs). What they talk about while they do their work is infinitely more interesting than what I could have planned for them and points very strongly to what they are thinking about and interested in.

While they work side by side painting, their personalities show so clearly and they show me what is important to them and what they have been doing with their families. Brushes in hand, they point to who they are and what they love and leave little painty fingerprints on my life and my heart.

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Doughn’t Worry, Be Happy

Professor Worm mixes a satisfying green color.

Professor Worm mixes a satisfying green color.

A Pinterest find for Cloud Dough inspires an activity for this week. Anticipating that some of my group may just want to play with the dough and not mix it themselves, I prep some at home. I find that the blogger was right, the consistency of the conditioner dictated a need for more corn starch than she said (one part conditioner to two parts corn starch in her recipe). What I make is a sticky, drippy mess, difficult to get off my hands and something that I think my students will love for the most part, but also something that will be super messy and not easy to clean up quickly. In the world of preschoolers, quick transitions are a necessary thing so a sticky mess isn’t ideal (I know you’re shocked to hear me say this, and, it’s true, sometimes.) So, I add more corn flour and I knead and knead and knead. When we revisit the dough I made on the day of this activity, the dough is crumbly, too dry and not satisfying to play with because unless it is warmed in the hand, it won’t stay together.

I chalk this up as another notch in the collection of failed dough recipes that I have been collecting for years. Every single one has its issues. I’ve never found a dough I was ecstatic about and it’s not for lack of trying. On this particular day, the children explored the dough I had brought. They crumbled it, stirred it in a bowl and talked all the while about what they noticed, what they thought and all of the other lovely, random preschool thoughts that came up.

Shine says, "we LIKE messes, don't we!?"

Shine says, “we LIKE messes, don’t we!?”

The children and I decide to make some new dough. I tell them they can choose one color for their dough because I was thinking that we would end up with three or four lumps of different colors in the end. I tell them it will be messy and that it might not work. “That’s okay, we wanna see it and make some ourselves, right guys?” Shine says as the three friends watch me set the ingredients on the table in front of them.

Lightening choose purple, then decides she actually wanted pink so called the purple dough pink and all was right.

Lightening choose purple, then decides she actually wanted pink so called the purple dough pink and all was right.

We mix and stir and then add color. Once it’s a sticky mess in the bowls, we turn it out onto our mats and begin to knead in more corn starch. Shine’s dough comes out perfect-the ideal play dough. Her friends are making gooey messes and loving it. The children start to want to add more colors to their dough and begin negotiating trades of lumps of their color with their friends.

Dr. Kitty's was the first to turn out like actual play dough. It didn't last.

Dr. Kitty’s was the first to turn out like actual play dough. It didn’t last.

This is when the seriously excellent though potentially easy to miss work begins. Each child has a different consistency of dough/goo, along with different interests, different goals, and different thoughts or preferences about color mixing. One friend prefers for her colors not to mix. Another friend wants all the colors even though I tell her that will make it turn brown or gray so it won’t be pink like she wanted at first. As they play side by side, the children talk together and watch each other and begin asking for what their friends have. Rocket’s dough is very dry so I squirt more conditioner on it and tell him to mix it in to a chorus of other friends saying, “I want some of that white stuff too!” Professor Worm decides he wants his to be more green so asks for some yellow to be added to it. When Dr. Kitty’s dough gets too gooey, I sprinkle corn starch on her hands and it puffs into her face making her cough and another friend says, “are you okay?” It looks like a sensory activity, it is so much more than that!

This kind of activity is not for the faint of heart my friends, Rocket tends to flick his hands when he has gooey stuff on them so there are strings of dough goo flying into our eyes and onto the china cabinet behind him (we’re in a home, not a classroom, remember) and bits of dough fall on the floor daring us to track them into the carpet. Some children don’t care for the stickiness on their fingers so as a group we talk about ways to keep that from happening–this is problem solving at work!

While they push and knead at the dough, these kids build control over the small muscles in their hands. When they ask for a new color or for more of one of the materials, they practice conversational skills and social rules of speaking. Doing an open-ended activity like this helps children work on learning new vocabulary. As the children sit and talk about what they are doing, they practice the very basic skill of listening to each other. Observing the ways that the colors change as they are mixed build scientific understanding and creative problem solving. The ability to watch peers and apply what we see to our own play is a skill that shows up big time in an activity such as this. Measuring our own ingredients and using real spoons and bowls teaches children to use tools properly, builds pre-math understanding and helps them know that their work is important and valuable.

No matter the kind of dough or what the children do with it or whether the teacher feels it was a successful activity, learning is happening. No matter the size of the mess, the worth of dough play is great. Let my students be your teachers…doughn’t worry, be happy now!

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