Kids are always learning through play, especially open-ended play. Jaime Herndon shares how she created her own customized summer camp with creative preschool activities for learning at home.
Updated January 2022
Life at home looks different for many families right now. Kids might be home right now who would normally be in preschool. Parents are finding new, creative solutions to balance work and family life, along with creative learning activities for kids.
Today you’ll hear from Jaime, mom and freelance medical writer, who ditched Zoom instruction for her 4 year old son. She replaced it with open-ended play, creative learning activities and simple projects.
We hope that no matter what school looks like this year for your kids, your family may benefit from these ideas.
Summer Camp at Home
While my son’s preschool was closed for the pandemic, I got to see, maybe for the first time, just how creative my 4-year-old is.
After his summer camp was canceled for the summer, we figured out pretty quickly that the Zoom-based instruction his preschool offered wasn’t going to work for us.
My son has childhood apraxia of speech (CAS), which is a life-long motor speech disorder. People with CAS know what they want to say, but have trouble with the sequential motor movements of the mouth/jaw/tongue that are necessary for intelligible speech.
My son didn’t even say “mama” until nearly 3 years old. At 4, he does have a bunch of words, but can’t always tell me what he did that day at preschool. He also has some fine and gross motor issues because of difficulties with motor planning––an integral part of apraxia.
*There is no cure for CAS, but treatment includes intensive speech therapy, often with a tactile component that shows the child the muscle movements involved in speaking, so they can build muscle memory.
So while Zoom is probably not the best modality for any preschooler, it definitely wasn’t working for us.
Open-Ended Play for Kids
We quickly ditched the school stuff for our own loose parts play, tracing, coloring, and other activities.
Loose parts play is basically what it sounds like: loose parts, like bottle tops, little wooden pieces (we like the mandala parts from Grapat), buttons, acorns (almost anything you like) to encourage free play and exploration.
It is an open-ended type of play that encourages imagination and creativity, and can be combined with almost any other toy or activity.
My son loved the tray of wooden loose parts I set out for him. I sat at one end of our dining room table working while he sat at the other end, happily stacking rainbow arches, setting up his people and stacking rings, and narrating what he was doing.
He created whole scenes, and I admit that I was pleasantly surprised. I had never seen this aspect of his creativity, and decided to lean into it.
Creative Preschool Activities
When it looked like my son’s regular summer camp wouldn’t happen, I started to think about alternative plans for camp, too. I never considered myself a particularly creative mom (Pinterest makes me break out into hives).
I thought about what his day camp did last year, and decided to start with a list of possible weekly themes, including: space, National Parks/camping, ocean life, circus, dinosaurs, Disney, and colors.
As a single mom who works full-time, I knew I needed him to have lots of fun and educational activities that would also help strengthen language and fine and gross motor skills.
For each theme, I made a list of books to read, easy crafts to make, or shows/movies on the topic. Then I added in our daily activities such as bike rides, nature walks, and pre-writing activities.
I also bought one or two themed loose parts kits (construction, dinosaur, circus) for each week. I like ones from Mulberry Toes and BusyMindsShop, as well as some larger sensory kits from Young, Wild, and Friedman.
As time went on, I switched out his loose parts trays and scoured Instagram for craft and project ideas. We also spent time outside drawing with sidewalk chalk, riding his balance bike, and taking walks.
DAILY SET UP FOR OUR DIY CAMP
Every night, I set up my son’s area of the dining room table with:
- the main loose parts box
- a stack of rainbow-colored felt squares
- either his tracing workbooks for the morning, or some coloring sheets
Some days I also put out an art caddy (I got one of these from Lakeshore for $7). The caddy holds:
I work in the morning while my son does his own work of creating, building, drawing, and playing. He still needs guidance to get started. But I find having it available helps jump start the creative process and piques his interest.
Below are some loose parts that we love that you might enjoy too.
Loose Parts to Try
- Grapat honeycombs, raindrops, and flowers (these seem to be sold out everywhere right now, let us know if you find a US source!)
- Grimms wooden buttons and small colored rings
- felted balls and stars
- wooden rounds
- mason jar lid rings
- Other loose parts ideas: buttons (use with caution for small kids), beads, fabric scraps, empty spools and nuts & bolts
- Found parts such as pinecones, acorns, scrap wood, sticks
Ideas for Loose Parts Play
- Set out a basket of loose parts and see what your child does with it. Do they add the materials to their existing play? Or do they make something totally new?
- I usually set the environment up the night before. Sometimes I arrange the parts into a scene or lay some out. Other times I just leave them in the tray for my son to discover. Find what works for your child, and occasionally switch it up to surprise them!
- If the child loses interest, extend the play and set up a prepared environment. Or create a story to go with the loose parts. Sometimes all children need is a new way of looking at the scene or materials.
- After a few weeks to a month, change up the loose parts trays. I switch out the small-themed loose parts kits every week because of our camp themes. And the large loose parts tray I try to switch out every month or two.
How about you? What has learning and playing looked like in your home these past few months?
More Creative Play Ideas for Kids
- The Best Open-Ended Toys for Kids
- Craft Ideas for Kids that are Perfect for Pretend Play
- Make Your Own Play Mat for Kids Pretend Play
- Small World Playdough Play for Kids
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