HELP! Activities and games for small children

by Mary Ann on March 14, 2012

18 year old playing picture

YIKES!! My three year old wants me to help him with everything!! I need some activities and games for small children!

The other day I read an email from a mom who wanted to give her eight year old a bit more attention during family learning time but her two small children made that challenging. The mom in question planned for them all to be in the same room. She planned to still give her little children attention but she also wanted them to be able to happily play without her. She wanted some suggestions for some activities and games for her small children that wouldn’t require her help.

The truth is that “little” kids want mom to be with them. It’s all about “being present” for them and frankly, their little hands just need more help to figure things out and keep going. So what is a mother to do when she has older children that also need some time with mom to accomplish their own learning projects? Mom’s who home school eventually seem to learn to work around small children or include them or let them sit on her lap while they work with other children.

Small children like mom or dad to "be present" with them. Keeping them happy alone can be a challenge.

However, I was amazed at the wonderful answers that were supplied by other seasoned mom’s about  learning activities for young children. Try some of these ideas with your little ones. They will have loads of fun and you may carve out a bit of time for your older ones.

Activities and games for small children

• Building blocks activity (wooden ones)
• Lego’s. Throw a sheet on the floor and dump the whole caboodle in the middle. They can swim in them if they want to so long as they keep them on the sheet. When it’s time to clean up fold the four corners together and dump the lot back into the container.
• A marble shoot game…attached tubes that create a tall tower. They drop the marble at the top and watch it go through the tubes down to the bottom.
• Play-doh activity Use an old rolling pin and have them play on the floor with a variety of cookie cutters.
• Geo-traks
• Try a shoe box for each day of the week. Sort of like a mini Closet. In each box there are a variety of toys to play with that day. When you are done, close the box…next day is a new box with new things to discover. (It could be anything…not just toys, but nesting Tupperware, spoons, rocks….anything new can be exciting.)
• A pile of stacking cups and a pile of math manipulatives (1×1 inch tiles in the same colors as the stacking cups) makes a great  Learning activity for young children. “This worked for my two year old as long as she could sit in the middle of the kitchen table with them. She did it every single day the whole school year pouring, sorting, and making piles of those little tiles.”
• Mr. Potato Head game
• Lacing cards and toys activities

small child lacing toy picture

Lacing toys can occupy a small child

• Large beads to string
• Painting! Before you run screaming, let me tell you they can paint quite happily with water. If you give your little ones some colored construction paper, a big paint brush, and a small cup of water, they can “paint” to their hearts’ content. If they spill anything, it’s just water. Put them at the table with a vinyl cover, and put a towel over that.
• Peg board and big plastic pegs (Lauri Products) 
• Buy a package of paper cups and let your children play with them. They can nest them, stack them, build with them, etc.
• Nesting cups
• An indoor sandbox? “When my children were small we had one of those turtle sandboxes, with the cover, in the house. We put some plain white rice in it, and some appropriate toys: scoops, shovels, containers, etc. They LOVED it! If you don’t want an entire sandbox, you can fill a smaller container with rice, and let them play in that. Place it on a sheet for easier clean up.”

indoor rice tub picture

Try an indoor "rice tub"

• If you have time to make some materials, you can make fun matching games from posters. Dollar stores often have education posters. Buy two posters, cut up one of them, attach velcro to the back of the pieces, attach the other part of the velcro to corresponding areas on the intact poster, and voilá! You have a lovely matching activity for them. Do this with colors, shapes, numbers, letters, anything that lends itself to matching. Hang the posters on the wall. This is a great  learning activity for young children.
• Board books. You can find books that have textures, which are nice for the little ones. You don’t have to buy them new. You’ll have to sanitize them, but that’s not too hard. Use grain alcohol (Everclear) and put it in a small spray bottle.
• A small folding dryer rack, some washcloths, and a few clothespins?
• A little spray bottle of water and a sponge, and a little table they can “clean”
• Plastic rubbing plates, plain paper, and crayons
• Plastic food is always a hit, especially if you also have plastic plates upon which to serve it.
• Stuffed animals are lovely friends, and they like to “go to school” too.
• A magnetic dry-erase board and a good fun set of magnets
• If you have room- a train table with bins underneath is great because they can do so much on top of it and everything stores beneath it.
• Audio books
• Simple art supplies: crayons, paper, pencils, clay, etc.
• “Deliberately leave things undone–kids at that age love to help with the right encouragement. Whenever you notice that attention fading, send your little one to go “do something”. Leave your shoes in a silly place for example. If approached with the right cheerfulness, a 4yo will certainly hunt 30 min or more for Mother’s sweater, not just because she’s cold but because it is so funny to discover silly mom left it in the soup pot again!”
•Make a game of chores: “folding laundry is one–sure you may have to RE-fold it but it does work. Feeding pets, setting the dinner table (does it matter if you won’t eat for a few hours?), cleaning baseboards (because no one really cares what they look like), making lunch or a snack–a 4yo is quite a gracious host if given the responsibility. They can do all kinds of things with fruit and veggies and dip and even make sandwiches.”

folding socks chore picture

Folding socks is a good chore to occupy a three or four year old

• Montessori websites have a great many suggestions for toys,  games and learning activities for young children. The best book on making your own Montessori materials is Teaching Montessori in the Home: The Pre-School Years by Elizabeth Hainstock.
• If your older child is working out of books and workbooks you may find a workbook for preschoolers fun too.
• Cutting and pasting and tracing.
• Mini trampoline
• Plastic balls (you can go cheap and fill up a kiddie pool with them if there is space)
• Made a fort with sheets or blankets

home made fort picture

To occupy a small child try a home made "fort".

• Big cardboard boxes from an appliance store will keep any young child busy for hours.
• There is no rule that says you have to school at any particular place–mixing up the rooms also mixes up the scenery a bit for everyone. Try math at the kitchen counter while the little ones are having a snack. Have a discussion on the back patio watching them play. Depending on your home, lesson and location the possibilities are endless.
• Middle/high school kids will come to your home for a nominal fee and play with your kids while you give your oldest individual attention. Keep this in mind if you really are feeling very overwhelmed or just want to relax a bit more with your oldest.

How do you keep your “littles” occupied and happy? Please share in the comment section below. We can ALL use the help. Happy learning time!

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