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The Best Way to Plan Activities for Toddlers and Preschoolers

Planning activities to keep toddlers and preschoolers busy can be exhausting. Here is an approach I use which has dramatically cut down on prep time. It requires no fancy toys. Using a theme based approach and 5 mins of prep work, I have a full day of enrichment that helps children explore the world around them, excites their curiosity and builds their skills. It is a great way to structure your preschool at home or just to add variety to everyday. #preschool #toddler #pursuetoday

I am always surprised by my child’s energy and curiosity. Besides wishing my coffee each morning could give me even half that amount of energy, I am always looking for more ways to engage her curiosity.

I wanted to set up her day in a way she can work on her skills and truly explore the world around her.

Instead, I was spending hours preparing a craft project that my child would be done with in 10 seconds. I had a million toys that she never played with and I felt like our days never varied no matter how hard I tried.

It wasn’t until I started using a theme method that I really saw a difference. It allowed my child to create and explore more. We relied less on toys and more on imagination. She was learning more each day and I saw a difference.

The best part is that it takes almost no prep, is inexpensive, and so simple. I spend about 30 minutes a week to set up the next week along with a trip to the library to grab some new books. Outside of that you need some basic arts and craft supplies and your imagination.  

Pick a theme

The foundation of this method is to pick a theme each day. It can be as simple as a single word like leaf or as complex as you want. You don’t have to follow a certain order and you don’t need to know a lot about that theme either.

When looking for ideas, think about what is going on in your life. If you have an upcoming outing to a zoo, park, etc. or an appointment or a specific errand you have to run, then use that as your theme of the day.

Where to look for inspiration for theme ideas:

  • Books
  • Chores
  • Errands
  • Items around the house
  • Nature
  • Appointments
  • Songs
  • Seasons
  • Life events
  • Holidays
  • Random words

Use your theme to have circle time each day

Each morning we have a circle time. I love to start our day off like this because it sets the day on what we plan on exploring throughout the day. We keep the same items during circle time and then change them based on the theme. 

We pick a letter of the day from our theme. Based on what our theme is, I pick a letter of the day. It will either be the first letter of a word in the theme or the first letter in a word that goes with the theme.

I then write the letter in capital and lower-case using dashes so she can trace them. I just use paper and markers to do this so it’s simple. Another easy way to do this is using a whiteboard and marker.

Another fun activity, that requires no set up, is to take five minutes and go on a house hunt for things that start with that letter.

Use your five senses to talk about the theme. We then spend some time talking about the theme. We go through the five senses (sight, smell, hear, touch, taste). You want to describe the experience in terms of the five senses. For instance, if your theme is parades, then ask questions like:

  • What does a parade look like?
  • What do you hear at a parade?
  • What can you eat at a parade?
  • What do you think a balloon (or another item at a parade) might feel like?

You can use a picture from the internet when discussing the theme or from the book you read during circle time (see point below). I usually pull up a picture on my iPad.

Say it in Spanish: I look up the main word in our theme and teach my kids how to say it in Spanish. I am not bilingual, but I want to expose my children to other languages while they are little. By looking up the word, I know I am saying it correctly. I am also teaching my kids there is more than one way to say something or do something, an important skill in flexible thinking.

Read a book: Next read a book together that could fit your theme or at least fits the letter of the day. We go to the library once a week, so I usually pick out our themes for the next week before I go. That way, I can check out a book for each theme. I also ask the librarian if they have any good books on the subjects that I can’t find. I have honestly found some of my favorite books this way.

Sing a song: We end with a song. If possible, we try to pick a song that goes with the theme or at least the letter of the day. For instance, if our letter is S, our song could be Mr. Sun. We also try to change up songs or creatively use songs like Wheels on the Bus or Old McDonald. We then put something on the farm or on the bus that goes with our theme. It can get quite silly, which is fun.

Other things you can include in your circle time

  • Pick a number as well as a letter of the day
  • Do the day of the week and the date
  • Check the weather

Use your theme to change up arts and crafts

I used to spend lots of time finding and preparing art projects. It would take me a lot of time to prep them. The art project would be mainly lots of instruction and never last long enough. While they were always cool, I felt the creativity aspect was lost.

Now, we use simple art materials but each time, it is different because of the theme component. For instance, we don’t play playdoh. Instead, one day we might use playdoh to create a flag or another day playdoh is our tool for creating a mountain.

We pick one type of material. Using your theme, pick a set of art materials that you think would fit best. You can either use the whole theme or a piece of the theme. You can also make items for your pretend play that comes next. For instance, one day we made tickets because our theme was ballet. We then used them during pretend play for our ballet recital.

These are the art supplies we use:

  • Playdoh
  • Markers and paper
  • Paints

We also utilize:

  • Glue and scissors as needed
  • Pen with grip to ensure we practice correct grip and to write our name on each project
  • Things from nature to include in the art or use as a paint brush such as a leaf or stick
  • Things around the house such as egg cartons, straws, boxes etc.

After a quick theme reminder, I let them create

After getting the wheels turning by discussing the theme, I let them have complete autonomy over their art. If I tell them how to make their art, then I am removing the fun of them finding out for themselves what they can do.

When we would get a new toy, I would want to show them how it works. I thought this was teaching on my part and learning on the child’s part. I realized that by doing this I am stealing away the best part: discovering it on their own. I want them to use their innate curiosity instead of getting used to me showing them how to do it.

I want them to feel the amazement and wonderment of creating. I found that the art was more rewarding for both child and parent. It wasn’t full of insane prep work on my part. It didn’t become an exercise on following directions or instructions, instead it was truly a time to explore.

Sometimes I will sit and also create something. I do my artwork right alongside them. Sometimes, I will see my child watching me and then I will see her try out doing something similar. Other times, I let them create while I get some chores done or just take a break.

Ask them to tell you about it

At the end, I will ask my child to tell me about their artwork. I am always so surprised at how much she tells me about it. This is a much better method than trying to guess what they drew. Instead of getting it wrong half the time, it gives the child a chance to share and reflect on their work.

Another fun thing to do is to write the story they tell you about their artwork on the back so you two can revisit some of the artwork at a later time. And keep your favorite pieces as a keepsake.

Incorporate the theme into dramatic play:

Dramatic (or pretend) play is SO important for preschoolers. It is how they learn social skills and how they process their world. It allows them to practice. And you do not need to buy anything for dramatic play.

I try to do dramatic play in an area where there are no toys such as our living room or outside, because then my kids use their imagination more. They will grab a stick in the yard, and it will become a wand, or they will grab the pillow from the couch. After starting pretend play without toys, I realized how easy it was and how much more of their imagination they could use.

One aspect of pretend play I find challenging is changing it up. I find we stick to house, restaurant, doctor, and animals. While these are great staples in play, I like to use our theme to diversify our play. To do this, we will act out the theme or act out the book that we read at circle time. You can also read the book again and instead of acting completely out, act out one thing per a page. For instance, the book is about an alligator, then everyone can be alligators for page one. And maybe the alligator goes on a walk, so we all walk. Then it starts to rain, so we pretend to be rain or pretend to take shelter from the rain, etc. 

Aim for one social activity a day:

If it makes sense, then I try to tie the theme into the social activity. But no matter what, my goal is to try for one social activity a day.

Hanging out with peers is essential for social skills. I try to aim for a few outings a week that focus on group play such as a playground or story time and at least one play date a week.

Group play and play dates build on different skills. The reason playdates can be so beneficial at this age is that they allow kids to work on problem solving skills with each other. The type of play they can do just one on one also helps them grow. You give your child a chance to make a deeper connection with a kid.

Outside of peers, I find ways to incorporate my preschooler into everyday errands. I give her jobs such as checking out books at the library. I want her to ask and to hand the books or the library card over. I want her to start building confidence to know she can do things on her own.

Get outside at least once a day:

You can try to include your theme or not. My main goal here is fresh air and nature, and to work on their motor skills. I find that the way my child explores and plays in nature can not be replicated in any other setting.

And some days, the only outside play we do is getting the mail from the mailbox.

And some days, we spend more time putting on snow gear than actually being outside. And that’s okay too. The act of getting on all the gear is working on those self-sufficient skills.

Pursue a theme-based day with your preschooler Today

Planning out your day with your toddler or preschooler doesn’t need to be draining. It doesn’t have to require lots of prep work, fancy expensive toys or continuous entertainment.

By changing the way we approached our day by simply adding a theme and applying it to a basic routine has been amazing. So, try it out by picking 5 themes for next week and using a basic structure that involves:

  • Circle Time
  • Arts and crafts
  • Dramatic Play
  • Outdoor time
  • Social activity

Some days we get through everything and some days we don’t. I also change the order especially if the weather means we can only go outside in the morning, then that is what we do. But it is so much easier to me to be able to do the same activities every day and changing them up by a theme. 

Beside picking out the themes, grabbing a book for each, and having basic art supplies at home, you don’t need to do any prep work.

And remember, each activity doesn’t need to be long, you can spend as little or as much time on each but it gives you a routine. A routine that allows you to continually explore new things with your child.

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Planning activities to keep toddlers and preschoolers busy can be exhausting. Here is an approach I use which has dramatically cut down on prep time. It requires no fancy toys. Using a theme based approach and 5 mins of prep work, I have a full day of enrichment that helps children explore the world around them, excites their curiosity and builds their skills. It is a great way to structure your preschool at home or just to add variety to everyday. #preschool #toddler #pursuetoday

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