Category Archives: Activities

The Knock-Down Mat

activities“This is the knock-down mat!” I cry. “Come over here if you want to get knocked down!”

You wouldn’t believe how many kids come running.

This is a good one for the gross-motor rough-housing category. You get the gist already, but I’ll elaborate.

A large-ish gymnastics mat is best, but in a pinch you can use a rug or a blanket, if there’s not concrete or anything underneath. You want it to be plenty big; there are a lot of mats these days that are 4’x6′, and that’s really only big enough for two kids at a time, unless they’re very small or you’re very good at this game.

You sit on the mat, and if a kid comes on the mat, you knock them down. It’s important that kids have an easy, clear exit strategy. If they don’t want to get knocked down, they just get off the mat. Some kids like to stand right at the edge and watch; that’s great! The activity is a learning experience about risk and boundaries; here they get to experience what’s safe and what’s not safe, in a way that the “not safe” option is still actually safe. So make sure the on-off rule is clear to the kids, and don’t break or even bend it.

Okay, so knocking them down. You probably don’t want to just give them a shove, because then you can’t control their fall, and often they’ll take a few steps backwards when shoved, and then they’ll fall off the mat and it’s no longer safe. I have a couple knock-down methods I use, depending on the size of the child and how rough they like their play. For all of these, I’m pretty much on my knees, to match the kids’ height. The roughest method is to put one forearm behind their knees and push their chest, so they fall on their butt right where they’re standing. Only do that one with kids who you’re sure can fall without hurting themselves. A more controlled way is to push their chest with one hand, but your other hand is on their back, so you can lightly hold them as they fall. Alternately, “push” them with both hands at the sides of their ribcage, but hold on as you push, so you can slow their fall. The gentlest way, for kids who want to play but don’t want to get rough, is to sweep one arm behind their knees and the other arm behind their shoulders, lifting their feet off the ground—you end up holding them for a moment almost like you’re rocking a baby. This one’s good, because you can make a big motion (fun drama!) but deposit them gently on the ground (feelings of safety!).

So how do you do this with a group of kids? It’s awesome when you’ve got about four kids at a time, and they keep getting up while the others are falling, so you’re just knocking down one after the other, and everyone’s laughing and in the rhythm. If anyone starts getting too wild, though—rolling around, or trying to knock down me or other kids—you’ve got to slow things down. Some kids need to be told, “That’s not safe; I’m the only one knocking people down.” But most respond naturally if you just lower your voice and knock kids down more slowly. If it starts getting too crowded you can impose a limit to the number of kids at a time, but that’s tough, and in my experience usually unnecessary. I find that most kids want to get knocked down just a few times, and then move on to other things. If you take care of those kids first, then you can focus on the die-hards for longer, and you’ll have more space to do it.

Of course, always make sure you let kids know when the end is coming. “Last knock-down for everyone, and then I’m going to be done.”

Most common injuries in this game are two kids bonking heads, which is preventable by the adult watching to make sure there’s a fall-zone before knocking someone down, and leg getting bent funny when falling, which is preventable by the adult paying attention to legs when you’re knocking someone down. When someone gets hurt, of course stop to comfort them. But usually after a momentary pause I ask, “Do you want to stop, or keep playing,” and usually they say, “Keep playing!”

Burrito Making

Hello dear readers! My wife and I just moved to our new house, and there’s no internet there yet, which is why no post this week until now. But! New house! Of the many exciting things about it: it’s about an 8-minute walk to Children’s Community School, where I’ll be teaching starting in a few weeks. Not only is that awesome for my quality-of-life, but I’m excited to have the kiddos on a field trip to my house. Picnic on the front porch! Story time in my living room! Meeting my dog! It’s gonna be awesome.

activitiesAnyway. It’s rainy here in Philadelphia today, so I thought a good rainy-day activity might come in handy. When you’re inside for long stretches of time, you need some activities that are physical and sensory, but also don’t take up too much space. You need to make a burrito.

Not an actual food burrito—though cooking projects, which are ALWAYS good for kids, are ESPECIALLY excellent on rainy days—but a full-body burrito!

Get yourself a blanket—ideally one that’s about the same width as the children’s height. A big beach towell might work. The blanket’s your tortilla. Have one child lie down on the blanket, on their back or front, with their head just out the side (“Who wants to be my burrito?”). Ask the other kids to help you make a burrito. “What goes in a burrito?” Rice? Use your fingers to pitter-patter all over the child’s body. Beans? Maybe gentle pokes all over. Guacamole? Everyone smear their hands all over the child. You get the idea—use your imagination. When everyone decides there’s enough stuff in the burrito, it’s time to roll it up! Everyone can cooperate to roll the child up in the blanket, nice and tight. If it’s a long blanket, you can roll the child over a few times, which is fun. Everyone can help “pat it nice and tight!” Finally, everyone can gobble it up!

You can do this with just one adult and one child, of course, but it works really great as a group activity. There’s a lot of teamwork and cooperation and listening. Even better, kids really get a sense of caring for each other physically—what are okay and fun ways to touch each other, how to keep each other’s bodies safe, etc.

For the child in the middle, it’s usually fun to get tickled and poked and such, though of course you’ll want to help the other children adjust their touches based on what you know of each child’s preferences, and how each child reacts as you go. Some children REALLY love being wrapped up tight—it’s a very comforting sensation for some. Children who are especially physically active may find the sensation calming. If there’s a child you want to help calm down, you can get the other children to cooperate. “Keep patting it tight! This one really needs to be patted. Gentle, though! Okay, let’s eat this one quietly. Little nibbles! Keep eating!”

And of course, if you happen to follow this game with making actual Mexican food for lunch? Well, you could have a whole morning of curriculum right here.

Tickle Tree

activitiesThe weather (you may have noticed) is gorgeous. Weather like this makes young children go a little nuts with the need to run and climb and yell and spin and fall and goof around. Unfortunately, weather like this makes adults want to take a nice little nap. What we need is an activity that gets kids running around without adults having to get much above their resting heart rate. Enter the Tickle Tree.

Find yourself a likely spot, plant your “roots” firmly on the ground, and announce, “I am the Tickle Tree! If you come too close, I will tickle you! With my tickling branches, and my tickling leaves! Tickle Tree!” As kids come to investigate, keep your feet planted, but swing your arms towards them, so that they leap out of the way laughing.

If you choose your spot wisely, you can get kids running continuous giggling laps. I like to get, say, about 3 feet from the climbing structure, so that kids running between me and it feel like it’s a tight squeeze, but don’t actually have to slow down to run through. They’ll zoom by as I shout, “Tickle Tree!” and I barely have to bend towards them.

Some adventurous kids will get too close, whereupon of course you tickle them for a moment before giving them a little push in the direction of the flow of traffic. For a variation, get a few palm fronds or willow branches to extend your reach. With a little luck and a little skill, you can get the kids running for ten or fifteen minutes—and, incidentally, learning about self-regulation and risk-taking and courage and irony—all without having to move your feet. Not bad.

Go Away Come Back

activitiesThis isn’t so much an activity, per se, as just something fun to do with children. Sit cross-legged on the ground and have a child sit in your lap. “Okay, up you go,” you say. They stand up and start to walk away, but you cry, “No wait, come back!” and pull them back into your lap. “No, okay, you can go,” you say, and they get up, and say “No no no, don’t leave me!” and drag them back again. Repeat as long as you like. Usually accompanied by hysterical giggles.

Why? Well, first of all, it’s a nice version of roughhousing that doesn’t feel so much like a fight. And roughhousing is great for kids—it develops not only muscles, but also self-control and social skills. Social skills? Yeah! Roughhousing is great for developing (don’t laugh) a sense of irony. Your actions are saying “we’re in a fight” but your emotions say “we are friends!” There’s so much of social interaction like this, where literal meaning and actual meaning are different, and kids learn how to do that through play.

Okay, so some pro-tips. First of all, safety. As I said, this is pretty safe as roughhousing goes—falling in a lap is pretty gentle. Most likely injury is the kid’s head hits you in the chin. So… watch out for that. You don’t have to pull the child very hard to give them the feeling of being caught—feel free to reel them in slowly. I find the most reliable way to grab kids is by the hips—that way I can really control their descent into my lap. Also, if there are other children waiting for turns, make sure they give some space in front.

The hardest part is setting limits. You’re already saying things that aren’t true (“Go away!”) so how is the child supposed to believe you when you say it’s time to be done, or they need to calm down a little? The magic tools are tone of voice and eye-contact. When it’s time to be done, I bring my voice way down from the silly “Come baaack!”, try to look the child in the eye, and softly say, “One more time, and then we’ll be done, okay?” When they nod, I switch back to the play voice and say, “Okay, go on get out of here! No come back come back come back!” And then when you’ve set that limit, you have to mean it! If you said you were done, be done (though consider transitioning to another game if the child still wants to interact).

But seriously, this is a great game, for kids as young as early toddlers and as old as… well, until they’re tall enough that you can’t play the game without getting head-butted. Enjoy.

Blue Hat, Green Hat: Anatomy of an Activity

activitiesUsually write up an idea for an activity to do with young children. This week I thought I’d do something a little extra, and focus on the process of creating an activity.

On Friday I had my final interview at Children’s Community School, where I’ll be working come August (hooray!), and as part of the interview they asked me to do an activity with some of the kids. It’d be for the 2½–4’s class; a circle-time thing that leads into some kind of table activity, they wanted. What kind of activity should I do, I wondered?

First of all, it’s unusual to plan an activity for kids you’ve never met before. It can be a challenge to create an activity that’s flexible enough to meet the various needs of children when you already know their needs; but not knowing the children adds a little twist of unpredictability. Also, I wanted the table activity to be (at least partially) an art project, and while on a normal class day I might sometimes just put out materials and have the kids explore, for a job interview I wanted to plan something with a little direction to it. At the same time, both the school and I value open-ended self-expression in art—who wants art projects that all look the same?—so I wanted my activity to have a lot of room for the kids to make it their own. A hard needle to thread, especially, again, with kids I don’t know.

So let’s start with the circle time, I thought, which might be a more productive way to think about it. The circle time should include music and movement, because all circle times should. We’ll start with a song that’s easy for everyone to participate in, “Who Can Do What I Can Do?”, which gives everyone a chance to show off a move for everyone to copy, and incidentally allows me to ask everyone’s names without putting them on the spot too much. It’s a good attention-getting song that I’ve used successfully with 2-year-olds and with college students, so I figured it’d be a dependable way to kick things off.

But then what? My first thought was to read Caps for Sale and have the kids act it out, because it’s the best book to act out EVER. And then maybe have the kids do some sort of hat-making art project? Paper plate hats? But Caps for Sale is a fairly long book, and it can take 10+ minutes to act it out even if the kids already know the story. And paper plate hats? Idunno… I could imagine them coloring on paper plates with markers, but that’s kind of boring, and I didn’t want the chance of anyone getting glue or paint in their hair while I’m on a job interview (though normally that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for me).

But I liked the idea of using a book to inspire an art activity. I looked through my book collection, and it came to me: Blue Hat, Green Hat, by Sandra Boynton. It’s a straightforward book about  clothes—different colors of clothes, how to wear them, how not to wear them—with simple language and humor. The structure is so understandable that even some 2½-year-olds can “read it” aloud after hearing it just once. Awesome. I’d read it to the kids, they’d laugh (there’d be potential for a “why is this funny?” conversation, if the mood seemed right), and then they’d read it to me. And then we’d move to the tables and do an art project imitating the book. It even offers a natural opportunity for a “who’s wearing what colors” kind of song! We’d do “Green Green is the Color I See,” (here’s a sideways child singing it) which gives everyone a chance to dance, as well as think about the colors of their clothing. Awesome.

So how to do the art activity? “Making our own version” of the book seemed natural—it’d be pretty easy for each kid to make people wearing clothes in normal or silly ways, and for us to put the pages together into a book for them to keep in the classroom. But… how exactly to set up the art activity? For a class of 2-year-olds I might set it up as a collage project—have xeroxed pages with little people on them (and don’t start with me about the evils of coloring books and xeroxing—I’m way ahead of you) with pre-cut-out clothes-shaped bits of paper that the kids could glue on however they wanted. For 3-year-olds I might do it as a drawing activity, since their representational art skills are starting to grow—ask them to draw people (or even use xeroxed people) and draw clothes on them. For 4’s I might make it a collage activity again, but have THEM cut out clothes to glue on—it’d be a stretch, but for the right group of kids it’d work. But how to cover the whole age range in this lesson?

I decided to put out markers AND collage materials, and let the kids choose for themselves. For some groups of kids lots of choice can be freeing; for other groups, too much choice means no one ever really delves into anything. I asked the director what she thought, and she said it could go either way with this particular group, so I decided to err on the side of more freedom for the kids. And the people… what to do there? I could xerox pages of people, but I didn’t know how my prospective employers felt about activities that look like coloring books… I could just ask the kids to draw people, but that might be too much, especially for the younger ones. Ultimately I decided to cut out a bunch of people-shapes myself from different colored paper, and have some glue around. If everything went to plan, the kids would glue people down and then either color or collage clothes onto them. But even if it didn’t go to plan, it would still probably be a pretty neat collage activity. The worst outcome would be a disastrous combination of markers and glue, but I would risk it.

Okay.

  1. Sing “Who Can Do What I Can Do?” to warm up and get everyone’s attention.
  2. Sing “Green Green is the Color I See” to do a little more moving and introduce the topic of clothing.
  3. Read them “Blue Hat Green Hat,” and maybe talk about why it’s funny.
  4. Ask them to read “Blue Hat Green Hat” to me.
  5. Ask them if they’d like to make their own version of the book.
  6. Lead them to the table where I’d have pre-set paper, people, glue, collage materials, scissors, and markers. Make art.
  7. Fin.

It went way better than I expected. Or at least, I thought it’d go well, but I was prepping myself to adapt on the fly, re-focus their attention some of the time, wing it a little bit, and none of that turned out to be necessary. They loved the first song. They loved the second song. They got a little rowdy with the dancing, but brought their attention back to me the first time I asked. They liked the book. They read me the book mostly successfully (a couple of the older kids were out in front there). They were excited to make their own art.

And oh, the art they made! I wish I had photos. No two children’s work looked anything alike. I really can’t describe the variation the kids made with the simple materials, but it was fabulous. They took my idea and ran with it. The pages won’t make a book—many kids transcended the bounds of the edges of the paper, or the bounds of 2-dimensional space. But they’ll look AMAZING up on the wall.

And that’s how I made an activity.

Get a Rope!

activitiesOkay, this isn’t an activity per se, but a recommendation. Get yourself some rope, and use it with kids. There are so many possibilities for gross motor play! Some ideas first, and some notes on safety and stuff at the end.

First: tug! I have spent lots of fun time playing tug-o-war with me on one end and 15 2-year-olds on the other end. They have a tough time staying organized, so it helps to give clear goals: “Oh no! The kids are gonna pull me to the fence! But not if I can pull them to the sand box!” Kids who are 4+ are stronger and more organized, so one teacher probably can’t take on a whole classroom of them. Make sure you have enough space for moving around, and decent surfaces to fall on.

A variation, though, is to tie one end of the rope to something solid, like the climbing structure. You hold the other end, and kids can pull every which way and not worry about direction. I like to shake the rope and say, “You kids give me back my rope!” and they tug and scream back, “It’s MY rope!” With one end anchored it’s also easier to hold it up high and let kids hang on it (though keep safety in mind—see below).

Also try tying the rope tightly between two fixed points a few feet off the ground, so that kids can hang underneath. Don’t put it too low to the ground, or they’ll try to tightrope walk, which is a sure recipe for falling down…

Swings are a great thing for kids to play on, and not a lot of preschools have them any more. You can make your own easily by tying the rope to the monkey bars or anything else convenient and tying a loop at the bottom where they can put their foot. Alternately, tie both ends of the rope to the monkey bars, and have them sit in the middle—you’ll be surprised at how well even quite young children can keep their balance. Either way, I like to take a piece of chalk and draw a “safety circle” on the ground—only the child on the swing can be inside the safety circle, so that no one gets knocked over.

There are a lot of great ways for ropes to help children exercise their muscles and work on balance and coordination! If you’ve seen good uses of rope with children, let us know in the comments!

* * *

Okay, first, a word about rope selection. If possible, get several ropes of different lengths. I’ve seen a lot of 6-foot ropes kicking around various preschools, and you can’t do anything with a 6-foot rope. I’d say a 10, a 15, and a 30 will do you pretty good. Second, spend some money to buy high-quality rope—say, from a climbing store. Otherwise, you’ll spend a lot of time frustrated. All-cotton rope from the hardware store is okay, but it’s often too thin to really wrap your hands around, and knots can be hard to untie. Hemp rope has a great natural texture, but it’s hard to KEEP knots tied in them. Cheap plastic rope is a hazard—it can really tear up your hands. No, you want a nice, thick, high-quality climbing rope, usually made of nylon—they’re nice on the hands, tie into knots well, untie easily, and are very durable.

Second, a word about safety. The first thing on a lot of people’s minds is choking, but it shouldn’t be. That’ll only be a problem if you leave the ropes out unsupervised with children who haven’t been taught much about safety—and even then it’s unlikely. The much bigger safety concerns are falling and tripping. Falling’s most likely when kids get higher than they meant to—for instance, if they’re holding onto the rope low to the ground, and then an adult pulls the rope upwards. So don’t do that. Tripping’s most likely when kids aren’t aware there’s a rope to watch out for, so make sure you play with it in an area with good visibility, and with kids who can watch where they’re going.

Third, a word about knots. Most adults don’t know much about tying knots, and just assume that square knot will do the job for almost anything. May I strongly recommend that you learn some knots for particular jobs. There are some good instructions at Animate Knots (they also have a great iPhone app!), and heaven knows you’ll find all the tutorials you’ll ever need on YouTube. The knot you really need to know is the bowline, which you use when you want a loop in the rope that won’t slip or tighten. (For a swing, use a bowline both to hold up the rope at the top and to make a loop at the bottom.) I use a bowline for 90% of my knot tying, at preschool and in life, and it’s not a difficult knot to learn. If you want to get fancy, a trucker’s hitch comes in handy at school a lot. If you want to stretch a rope taught between to points—say, for kids to hang off of—a trucker’s hitch allows you to essentially ratchet it tight before you tie it off. A little tricky, but easy with practice.

Newspaper Crash

activitiesThis is an activity I learned about, I think, from the incomparable Bev Bos. You know in action movies how super heroes smash right through walls? You can give children that incredible feeling of power in a safe way with newspaper—and you won’t have to hire anyone to hang drywall after.

Basically, the idea is that two adults open up a sheet of newspaper and hold it on either side so that it’s like a wall, and kids run straight through it, smashing it to bits. Cool, right? (I’ve tried it with just one adult—it’s tricky.)

Two and three year olds probably can’t run fast enough to actually break the paper; you may need to just hold it loosely so they knock it out of your hands. Older children will probably run tentatively the first few times, because it’s scary to run straight into something. But once they get warmed up they’ll run full speed ahead, often releasing a yell as they burst through. It feels AMAZING.

If you’re doing this with a group of kids, you’ll probably want them to line up, and you can call them one at a time. It can move REALLY quickly, so it helps to have opened up all the newspaper and laid it flat in advance. Also, you’ll go through newspaper faster than you think is possible—even if you keep re-using the sheets that only tear at the edges. A Sunday New York Times will last you about two minutes. Start with a pile of paper that strikes you as absurdly large.

“But what about the clean-up?” you cry. “There’ll be tatters of newspaper all over the playground!” Ah, but this is not a challenge—this is an opportunity! When you’ve used all the newspaper you have, tell the kids they have one minute to make as many newspaper balls as they can, and then you can all throw them at each other! If you don’t want to call it a “newspaper fight,” you can call it, I don’t know, a “newspaper explosion” or something. And when the energy starts to wind down, pull out a big trash can and announce “newspaper basketball” until it’s all cleaned up. Boom.

But the crashing is the good part. Young children benefit enormously from opportunities to feel a true sense of POWER. They’re on the cusp of real physical strength and ability and toughness, but they’re also still incredibly vulnerable. Getting to smash through a wall allows them to really feel what their bodies are telling them they ought to—but without getting hurt. (It’s the same way they’re teetering between competence and helplessness, and giving them opportunities to be helpful and able lets them negotiate that balance.)

Anyway: try it out, and thank me later.