Themed Play vs. Free Play

When it comes to planning activities for children, one thing that parents, teachers, and children seem to enjoy is a fun theme. Whether we are deciding nursery decor, planning a birthday party, or just a simple craft on a Saturday afternoon, many of us like to utilize a good theme. Right now, Pinterest is full of Valentine’s day themed projects and learning activities for children. Next week, we will start seeing a lot of green art projects and flowered crafts for St. Patty’s Day and spring. I’m no exception. In fact, I’m working on an idea for an activity planner for young children, and how is it organized? By themes!

Themes can make playtime more exciting. Having a theme is a good way to explore one subject in many different ways. That’s especially beneficial for families with more than one young child, or for a group setting like a preschool or child care center. One child may not be too fond of journaling about the weather, but making her own tornado sensory bottles might be most fun she’s had all week! And when your son loves to put together his own mini-pizza for a snack on Little Chef day, your daughter might prefer to create her own restaurant menu with a piece of paper and crayons.

And yet sometimes, our children want nothing to do with a theme. We may have spent a lot of time and effort putting together a Pirate theme day, filled with homemade pirate hats and eyepatches, decorating our own paper towel tube spyglass, following a treasure map using our directional skills, and count and sort our treasure after we’ve found it. We just knew it was going to be the best day ever! After all, little Betty Boop from the Super Happy Blogging sure loved it! Instead, our little ones complain that the felt eyepatch is itchy. They slop a little paint on a paper towel tube and announce, “I’m done!” after a record time of 10.8 seconds. They whine that they’re too tired to follow the treasure map, and they’re disappointed when they finally find the treasure and realize that it’s only card stock with gold glitter and not real treasure!

So what can we do?

Here’s my best plan:

-Have a plan. I’ve found that if I don’t have a plan and the materials for the activities ready to go, interest on the children’s behalf fades fast. From a child’s perspective, nothing is more boring than waiting!

-Start the activity as planned, but then hand over the reins to the children whenever possible. If you offer your child the opportunity to draw their own treasure map, but they prefer to draw a football field instead, let him! I recently borrowed an idea from Arlee at Small PotatoesΒ to make homemade play dough and add some animals and trees for a fun winter animal play scene that I was sure my six-year-old would play with for hours! (Yes, I can be a bit delusional at times.) He was completely uninterested. He wanted to go back to playing floor hockey in the living room, which I reminded him was a bad idea since his dad and little brother were taking a nap. In an attempt to keep him at the table longer spark his interest, I started shaping a cave out of the play dough. “Great idea!” my son said. “Can you make another net on this end so I can play soccer with the animals?” For a moment, I was disappointed that he didn’t enjoy the activity in the way I had imagined. But I realized that he was enjoying the way he imagined instead, and that it was a much more memorable and valuable play experience for him. He played for quite a long time, whereas he would have whined and complained and shut down in about two minutes had I insisted on him playing my way.


-Be adaptable. That’s one of the best qualities that a parent or teacher can have. Children are so unpredictable. From the time they are first born until who-knows-when, just when we think we have them figured out, they change. It’s the ebb and flow of growing up, of a child’s discovery of who they are going to become. Our job as parents and teachers is not to determine WHO they will be, but to help them learn HOW they will get there. If our child wants to be a ballerina, but we are pushing them to be a soccer player instead, we’re not doing anyone a favor. If we’re trying to teach them to kick, pass, and shoot when they just want to twirl, bend, and leap, there is going to be a constant struggle. And they will probably still end up being a ballerina.

Now this isn’t to say that children should just have free rein of their world. Certainly, some limits need to be in place–for their benefit and ours. I certainly don’t mean that if a child isn’t interested in practicing math at home that we should ban math from our routine. It just means that if they want to make up a subtraction story about a basketball team rather than about spring chickens, let them! Another option is to let them know that as soon as they have completed the planned learning activity, they may have free play to explore the items any way they choose. They might just end up surprising you by how much they learn through their own free play.

Which do you prefer, themed play or free play? Which do your children prefer?


Homemade Halloween Card for Kids

Although giving children the tools to express themselves creatively–with no specific end result in mind–is important, it is also fun to occasionally create a project. I also love making homemade gifts for my boys’ grandparents. They are a huge part of our lives, and we love to make them feel special and to thank them for all they do for us whenever we can.

In the spirit of Halloween, we made a homemade ghost Halloween card that is super easy, and it cost us nothing, because we used materials that we already had around the house!

What you need:

  • cardstock (one piece of black + a couple of any fun fall colors/patterns)
  • blank card
  • white paint
  • black paint or black stamp pad
  • glue
  • pencil

How to make it:

  • Paint your child’s foot (or let older children paint their own!) with white paint.

  • Place the painted foot upside-down on the black cardstock.
  • Cut down the black cardstock to make a rectangle around the ghost.

  • Cut a couple more pieces of the fall-colored cardstock, so that they will fit into layers on the front of the blank card.
  • Glue all of the layers together.

  • Let it all dry, and then paint your child’s thumb with black paint or help them dip it in the black stamp pad. (Tip: Use a big toe with a baby. Since they like to clinch their little fists, it can be hard to get the thumb!)
  • Press the thumb/toe onto the top of the ghost to make two eyes and a big open mouth! I also dipped a pencil in the white paint to write the “Boo!” Again, older children can do this part themselves.

  • Once everything is dry, you can add your own personal touch to the inside by either writing a message like I did, “Have a SPOOKTACULAR Halloween!” or let older children practice their writing and spelling skills by writing their own message!

The finished product! Sure to make grandparents say, “Awww!”

He liked playing with the scrap paper while Mama put it all together! πŸ˜‰


What do you think about this homemade Halloween card? Do you like to make your own cards, buy a card, or skip the cards for holiday gifts?

Getting Sticky! Sensory and Creative Art

I love a good, fun mess. I may not love the aftermath, but the process of creating the mess is worth the trouble of cleaning it up afterwards. With that in mind, you need to be a brave soul to try the simple but oh-so-messy sensory and creative art activity that I am sharing today!

When children are very young, creative art is as much about the sensory aspect of it as it is the creativity. For older children who already know how to manipulate a wide variety of materials, art can take on a much deeper level of creativity. They can really focus on what they are creating, because they already know how to create. For that reason, it is vital to a child’s creative expression that they are allowed to experience frequent, simple, and variable creative opportunities when they are small. So far my little guy has used washable markers, crayons, a paintbrush, finger-paints, watercolors, paper, tissue paper and glue during art activities. Today, I wanted to let him explore something really tactile and different. So I made a simple, sticky solution of corn syrup, food coloring, and just a splash of water (to thin it out a bit and make it easier to manipulate) for him to explore.

Stir in just a dash of water with the corn syrup and food coloring. You don’t want it to be too runny.

Then I got my little guy into just a diaper (you could also use a paint smock or old shirt for older children) and put him in his “art” chair. A highchair would work just as well for babies, and older children can sit on a drop cloth on the floor or at a table that is easily cleaned. Keep in mind that the easier the work surface is to clean, the better for you post-activity!

I put some of the corn syrup mixture onto a piece of card stock (you can also use construction paper) and let him spread it around to his little heart’s content!

“Okay, Mom, I’m done. Enough with the pictures.”

A quick scrub in the sink with warm water and soap, and we were sticky-free! When the corn syrup mixture dries on the paper, it’s a really shiny, 3D sort of effect, which is pretty neat to hang on the wall or fridge for them to look at their own artwork later.

**What kinds of creative activities do you and your children enjoy? I’m linking up with the Weekly Kid’s Co-Op, so be sure to check out some of the wonderful activities shared here as well!**

Underwater Adventures… From the Kitchen Floor

Our school district only goes to school Tuesday through Friday, so I am blessed to have both of my boys home with me every Monday. There is something about Mondays that I am growing to love. Our weekends are usually pretty full. It seems that there is always somewhere we need to go, whether it’s a soccer game, a birthday party, or visiting with friends and family. I love the weekends, because my husband is home, and it’s generally just an all-around good time, no matter what we are doing. But then Mondays come, and the pace is much more relaxed than the rest of the week. I don’t feel such a push to get things done around the house, because I’d rather spend the time enjoying being with my big boy. Another reason I’m loving Mondays is because I’m using that day to find something special (but inexpensive!) for us to do. Last Monday, we went to a local state park where we enjoyed the beautiful weather with a picnic lunch, read books while lying on a blanket in the grass, and went for a short walk on a hiking trail.

This week, we had another fun adventure, but this time it was in our own kitchen. My parents and sister came back from a beach vacation in Mississippi this past weekend, and they brought the boys two windup submarine toys. Two very simple toys, but the newness of them had my oldest son very excited. As soon as we opened them, he wanted to test them out.

Even the baby boy was giggling and watching with awe.

He had so much fun playing with them, that when Monday came, we took a trip to the local dollar store in search of some fun treasures we could add to our submarine play. Here is what we came up with:

Some rocks and treasure coins.

A couple of different textured sponges and a scrub brush.

Stacking cups.

All of these items can easily be repurposed to do other sensory or art activities, so it was totally worth the few dollars that I spent.

I put a beach towel down on our kitchen floor and filled a large mixing bowl with water. Any large bin would work, and a sensory or water table would probably be better. I think I know what my baby boy is getting for his first birthday already…

Anyway, then we started adding things to the bowl. We took turns winding up our submarines and watching them spin and dive and race.

We sorted the stacking cups from smallest to biggest. We did a science experiment to guess how many rocks each cup would need in order for it to sink. (And I learned that my son is pretty good at making and testing a hypothesis.)

We also purchased a pair of swim googles that were on end-of-the-summer clearance, and my son loved those! He loved diving into the “ocean” face-first like a regular underwater explorer.

He also liked putting every, single item available into the bowl to make a “traffic jam” and using the sponges to create a “secret hideout” for the submarines.


Can you see why I’m loving Mondays? πŸ™‚

**I’m linking today’s post with The Kid’s Co-Op! There are some awesome family friendly activities linked here every week. Please click to browse around or link up an activity of your own! Lots of wonderful inspiration here.**