A Year of Pretend Play at the Library: Part One

Playing is learning. This probably isn’t news to the people who read this blog, but it bears repeating because it’s easy to forget. Kids play all the time at home, and it can become something that happens in the background that we don’t think about. At the library, we place a priority on play. We make it a point to invite kids and grownups to play together. If asked, I could go on and on about the ways that pretend play, in particular, helps kids develop early literacy skills, but my goal with this post is to show off some of the fun pretend play themes I’ve had at my library over the last year. So here goes! :)


Narrative Skills:

img_4257.jpgWe celebrated Picture Book Month with an Enchanted Forest theme. Kids could dress up as fairy tale characters or use the stuffed animals to tell their own version of familiar stories. The story cubes could spark a creative retelling that mixes up all sorts of fairy tale elements. I made these myself by covering some wooden blocks with construction paper and tape, but you can also buy story cubes or story sticks aimed at preschoolers to encourage storytelling.


Social Skills:

img_4985.jpgIn the grocery store, the ice cream shop, and other community based play spaces, kids can imagine themselves in various roles. They can take turns being proprietor or a customer, seeing the interactions from different roles and developing empathy for experiences outside of their own.



img_4905.jpgIn the Fix It Shop, we named the tools. In the Sense Lab, we encouraged the use of descriptive language as kids explored the world with their senses. Our Space Station offered various science words. Don’t underestimate kids’ willingness to learn complex vocabulary if they are interested in the topic!


Print Awareness:

img_5551.jpgIn the community based play spaces (World Café, Ice Cream Shop, etc), the menus and other signage are examples of the way that we interact with printed words as we life our lives. Understanding just how much we rely on printed language is an important part of learning to read.


Print Motivation:

img_5727.jpgKids and caregivers are always encouraged to learn more about the topics with books. Learning to read is hard work, and if kids are interested in the topics they are reading about, they be much more motivated.


Letter Knowledge:

img_4413.jpgExploring shapes and sorting objects based on likes and differences is a first step to letter knowledge. Our grocery store featured pictures of letters made out of food, and the Sense Lab encouraged sorting objects based on how they feel.


Phonological Awareness:

img_5842.jpgSinging songs and chanting rhymes help kids hear the sounds of words more clearly than in regular speech. We included the words to a rhyme in our Ice Cream Shop and our Space Station to add an opportunity to build phonological awareness while at play.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post about my library’s pretend play space relates to early science skills!

Early Science Skills (Picture Book Preschool)

I grew up with the idea that science was a collection of facts I needed to memorize to get a decent grade.  Since it seemed that science facts were always changing, I always gave myself permission to forget everything after the class was over.

Little did I know that all these years later, I would get super excited for Science Friday every week and eagerly read books like Head Start on Science to share my new interest with my daughter.  I don’t want her to see science as a process of memorizing and forgetting like I did.  I want her to really get the dynamic nature of scientific research at a much younger age than I did.

Of course I think the answer lies in books.  :)

There are many, many great books for kids that introduce science topics, but even before you start looking at specific ideas, you can start with skills.  Head Start on Science outlines these skills for preschoolers and primary graders: Observation, Comparison, Classification, and Communication.

There are about a million picture books that fall under Observation, but Who’s Hiding? stands out an unusual book that asks kids to look closely at the animals in the illustrations to answer the questions about them.  Where’s Walrus? follows a walrus who has escaped from the zoo as he tries to hide from the zookeeper.  Little kids love a good seek and find, and the ability to pick out details will serve them well in science.

Stars by Mary Lyn Ray is a beautiful picture book perfect for encouraging kids to wonder at the natural world, but it’s also an example of Comparison.  Look around, what do you see that might be star-like?  That’s Not a Daffodil is the story of a young boy watching a plant grow.  At first it looks like one thing, then another.  In the end, it is a flower.

Let’s Count to 100 is an interactive picture book that will have kids counting and classifying the 100 objects on each spread. Observation and Classification at their best!

Blue Sky and Green are concept books that explore the great variety that we can observe in just one thing–and the many ways to describe it.   After observation, after all, comes Communication, and we need the vocabulary to be able to do it.  These books are great places to start.

See all the Picture Book Preschool posts here.

Disclosure: Amazon.com links are affiliate links. A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog. You can also shop in the Picture Book Preschool Amazon Store. Thanks for your support!

Picture Book Preschool Link Round Up

For this month’s Picture Book Preschool post, I thought I’d highlight some of the cool activities I’ve seen around the web and the picture books I’d pair with them.

Here goes:

What are some of your favorite activities for preschoolers?  Have you found any books that complement the activity?

See more posts for Parents & Educators here or follow my Kids Activities & Education Board on Pinterest for more preschool fun.

Disclosure: Amazon.com links are affiliate links. A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog. Thanks for your support!

Playing Games (Ready for Kindergarten)

As promised, this month’s Ready for Kindergarten theme is “Games.”  What’s so great about games?

  • Board games and card games teach social skills like following rules and taking turns.
  • Guessing games and riddles help kids make connections and think creatively.
  • Many games reinforce concepts like color recognition, counting etc.
Playing hopscotch at the MN Children’s Museum’s Our World exhibit

I feel a tiny bit hypocritical writing this post because I… well, I’m probably never going to pull Candy Land (possibly the only kids’ game we own) out unless my daughter really wants to play.  Are there adults who really relish kids’ games the way I love kids’ books?  Perhaps.  But I will admit that my interest in child oriented entertainment does not really extend to board games.

I do, however, play lots of silly games as I ride the bus with my daughter or wait in lines.  I Spy and Rhyme Time are great ways to pass the time, teach skills, and sometimes amuse people sitting near us on the bus. :)

My favorite game to play with my preschooler is “What if?”  I usually start with a random question–say, What if we were tiny like the Littles?–and we speculate together on how our lives would be affected by the situation in the question.  I like the think that this game stimulates her creativity and helps her look at the world with different eyes.  Perhaps when she grows up to be an innovative thinker, she will point to the What if? game as her inspiration for her life’s work of inventing or creating.

And just because I can’t help bringing books into everything, I’ve started a list on my wiki for picture books that are guessing games or interactive in some way.  Feel free to leave any suggestions in the comments of this post.  I’ll be sure to add them to my list!

What kind of games do you play with your kids?  Do you play with skills or school readiness in mind? 

See more posts for Parents & Educators here or follow my Kids Activities & Education Board on Pinterest for more preschool fun.

Disclosure: Amazon.com links are affiliate links. A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog. Thanks for your support!

Number Fun (Ready for Kindergarten)

It’s only fair that numbers get their day since last month’s Ready for Kindergarten theme was Language Fun.  We have had numbers and math on the brain lately in our Picture Book Preschool activities:

  • Getting Past 10 – Counting books that go from 1 to 10 are everywhere, but finding books that go to 20 is a bit harder.
  • Simple Addition – Features a few books that introduce addition.
  • Exploring Relative Size – We counted all sorts of things as we compared sizes.

For more number fun for preschoolers, here are some things I found around Pinterest:

What are some of your favorite number related activities to do with preschoolers or kinders?

Next month’s theme is “Games,” so stay tuned!

See more posts for Parents & Educators here or follow my Kids Activities & Education Board on Pinterest for more preschool fun.

Disclosure: Amazon.com links are affiliate links. A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog. Thanks for your support!

Exploring Relative Size (Picture Book Preschool)

Whether you are a big kid or a little kid doesn’t really depend on your age or size.  It depends on who you compare yourself to.

With Emily Jenkins’ Small, Medium, Large as a jumping off point, we explored relative sizes in a way that included a vocabulary lesson, math skills, and art.  First a bit about the book: Jenkins and Bogacki’s collaboration brings odd little creatures–Ladybug decided that they were dogs, but they might be mice–of various sizes together as they compare their sizes as they generally illustrate the concept of S, M, L, and XL.  We follow “small” down to “minuscule” and “large” to “colossal” to the delight of my little word girl.The one-upsmanship  makes the book fun for little listeners when it otherwise might be a bit too “educational.”  The gatefold with the little creatures stacked up to equal one very large creature is pretty cool too.

I thought it might be fun for my girl to see how she compares to various things, and what better way to do that than to make a life-size drawing of herself? :)

And measure it:

Then compare:

7 of her own feet, 10 of her hands, a bunch of cars, and 42 paperclips.

My only regret is that we didn’t manage to get to the Walker Art Center’s Lifelike exhibit before it ended.  If you happen to be in New Orleans, San Diego, or Austin, you might be able to make that happen.  It’s great for kids!  You could re-create the scenes to explore scale like little girl in this post on the Walker Education blog.

See my Parents & Educators page for more Picture Book Preschool posts.
Disclosure: Amazon.com links are affiliate links.   A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog.  Thanks for your support!  (Book Reviewed from library copy.)

Getting Past 10 (Picture Book Preschool)

Picture books that go from one to ten are everywhere, but we’ve been in search of eleven through twenty.  Here are a few of our favorites:

  • 1 is One by Tasha Tudor is a classic picture book perfect for introducing numbers and rhyme or to talk about spring.
  • So Many Bunnies by Rick Walton counts through the alphabet as the bunnies find a place to sleep.
  • Richard Scarry’s Best Counting Book Ever is easily Ladybug’s favorite, but she is biased to anything Busytown related. :)

But what better way to learn to count than through music?  The kid-friendly Minneapolis band, The Bazillions, has a new music video that tells the story of two friends with some counting along the way.

See more Picture Book Preschool posts here or follow my Kids Activities & Education Board on Pinterest for more preschool fun.

Disclosure: Amazon.com links are affiliate links.

Creating a Play Space for Preschoolers (Guest Post)

This is a guest post by Jennifer Zimmerman about how she set up a Montessori and Waldorf inspired space for her kids to learn and play.

When my son Owen was approaching preschool age, we moved into a new home. This motivated me to really think about his new bedroom and how I wanted him to use it. I also  thought a lot about his future schooling and which educational philosophies would be a good match for his personality and needs. I looked into both Montessori and Waldorf education. I liked different things about both philosophies. I liked how Montessori encouraged self-help skills, independence and allowed the child to choose learning materials that fit their abilities and advance at their own pace. Yet, I also felt myself attracted to how Waldorf focused on the arts, encouraged pretend play and immersed children into a magical fantasy world. I favored Montessori for Owen, but I still wanted to incorporate a few things from Waldorf. I set out to create a fun and playful environment that had many opportunities for self-directed learning and exploration.

I loved the Montessori reading nooks, and so I created one by using a short and wide bookshelf to partition off a small area of his room. I hung a reading lamp on the wall and placed cozy pillows and stuffed animals near his rocking chair inside the nook. I placed his books on the bookshelf in easy reach so he could choose which ones to pull out and read. In this photo you can see his partitioned off nook. Just behind the shelf is where his cozy reading spot was:


In another area of the room I hung a mirror close to the floor at my son’s level. The low hanging mirror is a common Montessori item, but this is also where some Waldorf influence came in. I hung some dress up clothes on hooks near the mirror, as well as some colorful play silks for pretend play. Play silks are an open ended toy which Waldorf really encourages.


Open ended toys are toys that are gender neutral and do not have a specific purpose. Their purpose is up to the child to imagine. Play silks are square or rectangular pieces of real silk that usually have been dyed different colors. A play silk can be tied on the body as a skirt, a hat, a cape, wings, or a doll sling. They can be used as water, land, or sky with small toys, as a doll blanket, or simply waved around in the air during active play. Another example of an open ended toy is a push cart. The cart can be used by babies learning to walk, by toddlers transporting toys, as a stroller for dolls or stuffed animals, as a dump truck, or many other things according to what the child wants to imagine that day. Waldorf toys are quite spendy, so if you are on a budget like me then you must get creative about obtaining them. Waldorf-like toys can be purchased at thrift stores or homemade. There are many websites that give directions on how to make Waldorf toys if you are crafty. I bought the play silks as blanks for around five dollars each and then dyed them myself. I bought a push cart at Ikea for just under twenty dollars. This multipurpose toy, which can be used for many years, was well worth the price.

Next, I placed some Montessori-inspired educational materials on low shelves. These shelves should be short enough for children to reach, and wide enough to hold quite a few materials. The materials are objects and toys that allow children to practice life skills. Things like stringing beads and shape puzzles are placed in bowls or on trays on the shelves. There are many websites that show how to create these materials yourself. This concept melded very well with Waldorf’s idea of having natural objects around to be used as open ended play things. I found many real wood bowls and plates at thrift stores, some even shaped like tree leaves, and filled them with objects from nature such as pine cones, rocks, and nuts. Owen had a small table and chair that he could bring his materials over to play with them.

One area where Waldorf and Montessori are in complete agreement is the play kitchen. A play kitchen is a place that is ripe for pretend play for any preschooler, and also teaches important life skills to satisfy the Montessori side of things. Along with Owen’s play kitchen, we also found him a small play hutch made out of real wood at a thrift store. The hutch has real glass doors and contains real ceramic dishes, real metal pots and panscookware and silverware from Ikea. Learning to handle fragile items at a young age is an important aspect of Montessori education, and Waldorf stresses using natural materials for everything that comes into contact with the child. If a dish breaks, cleaning it up also becomes a learning experience that the child can be engaged in. They can use their child sized broom and dust pan to help clean it up.  Owen not only plays with real glass and ceramic kitchen items, he also eats and drinks from them. As a result, he learned about these materials early in life and is very careful with them. In fact, I accidentally break more dishes then he does.


In Owen’s closet I placed a large shelf that holds his folded clothing. There is also a bar at his height with some of his clothes hung on it. This is another Montessori philosophy. Children are encouraged to choose their own clothing from a young age. Having the clothes out on shelves instead of stuffed into drawers makes it much easier for little hands to find what they need without making a big mess. Dressing oneself is another life skill that Montessori teaches. Waldorf encourages that clothing be made out of natural materials such as cotton or wool, and they discourage any commercial or fictional characters on clothing. This is one of those somewhat odd things about Waldorf (there are many!) but one that I personally try to live by.

ImageWhat we didn’t have room for in Owen’s room was an art station. Art, music and dancing are a very important part of a Waldorf education. We stored Owen’s art and music supplies in a tall shelf with bins. The art bin could easily be taken out and carried to the kitchen where Owen was encouraged to paint, color and draw. Owen preferred abstract paintings and I learned that if I gave him three complementary colors he would produce some pretty cool looking art work.

Owen is six years old now, and he has been joined by his little sister Isla who just turned 16 months. We just recently moved again and I now face the task of setting up a bedroom for each of them, and a small play area that they can play in together. Thanks to their  Montessori and Waldorf inspired toys, it is not hard to create a play room that a six-year old boy and 16-month old girl can play in together. They both love their play kitchen. While Owen ties play silks around his neck as capes, Isla uses them to wrap up her dolls. They both push their dolls and stuffed animals around in their cart, and Owen even gives Isla a ride in it every so often. They do art work together and Owen reads books to his little sister. Owen ended up attending a traditional school as he didn’t make it through the lottery system to gain entrance to the Montessori public school in our city. Waldorf was never an option for him, mostly because it is private and very expensive, but also because some aspects of their philosophy do not mesh with his personality or our personal beliefs. However, I think what we did take from both systems was very beneficial for him, and will also be beneficial for Isla as she grows.

Jennifer lives with her family in St. Paul, MN.  You can read more about Owen and Isla on her blog, Kinder Tales.

Seasons Go ‘Round (Picture Book Preschool)

Leaves are falling from the trees outside my window as I type.  We have been watching summer turn to fall, and now fall will be winter soon.  It seems like a good time to talk about seasons with my little one.

It’s a great opportunity to share one of my favorite picture books: Red Sings From the Treetops by Joyce Sidman.  It was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog. I said,

“I loved the way this book pulled me into the details.  It reminded me to notice the things that I am often too busy to see.  It was a lovely invitation to see each season as something new to explore.  I can’t recommend it enough.”

We read it along with the sorting activity you see in the photograph and talked about the things we like to do in each season.  We focused on fall since that’s what we can see now.  Sidman’s fall gives way to spring like this,


Green is tired,


crisp around the edges.

Green sighs with relief:

I’ve ruled for so long.

Time for Brown to take over.”

Perhaps more important, to me, than exploring seasons is the opportunity to introduce my daughter to poetry and wonder.  The book Playful Learning is a great resource for parents who want simple activities and crafts to explore the wonder around them–including an activity that has kids observing a tree throughout the seasons.

There are, of course, many many good books about the seasons for kids, and I have a few of my favorites listed here.

Since it’s a favorite of Ladybug’s, I’m also including a video of Caillou’s seasons song.  Enjoy!

See my Parents & Educators page for more Picture Book Preschool posts.

Stories come alive at the MN Children’s Museum

When we walked into the Storyland exhibit at the MN Children’s Museum last Friday evening, my kiddo’s eyes went wide with delight.  The room–which, in all honesty, was smaller than I was expecting–was full of familiar scenes from the pages of children’s books, several of which we have read over and over again.  There, though, it was real.  And it was big.

The first scene to catch her attention was from Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.  Not only is this one of our favorite books to read at home, but also, the huge letters and giant coconut tree are probably the most eye-catching part of the room.

That wasn’t the favorite, though.  She spent the most time in Peter Rabbit’s burrow, which surprised me since I don’t think she has read the story.  Ladybug could have spent the entire time just in that one place.

I can’t imagine she was thinking about sound awareness as she played with letters or about narrative as she put Peter Rabbit to sleep in his bed or made him a tasty pretend dinner.    To her, it was play.  To me, it was early literacy in action.

I am currently reading Mind in the Making: Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs by Ellen Galinsky.  One of those skills is communicating, which includes a lot of information about early literacy, but what has really interested me as I read the book (and I am only about half-way through) is how often storytelling and pretend play have come up as suggestions for cultivating other valuable skills.

The pretend play that Ladybug did in the Peter Rabbit part of the exhibit, for example, is a way to promote cognitive flexibility.  She had her thing going on as she pretended to be Peter’s mom, but other kids and parents were also at the exhibit.  They interrupted her narrative or changed it, and it was up to her to deal with these changes.  This skill isn’t necessarily one we think about often as we watch our kids play together, but when our children are adults a high level of cognitive flexibility will help them to adapt to change and understand other people’s perspectives.

Storyland is a great opportunity for both parents and children to see how books are more than just words on paper and literacy is more than just knowing how to read.  It is an opportunity for what Mind in the Making calls “extended discourse,” or taking the conversation beyond the obvious to ask questions about stories or connect stories to our own experiences.

We will definitely be going back to Storyland, since we are members of the MN Children’s Museum, and I think that reading the featured books that we hadn’t yet read will enhance the exhibit even more.

Disclosure: I was not in any way compensated for this post. We received a family membership to the Minnesota Children’s Museum as a gift from my mom.  Books referenced in this post are either personal or library copies.  Amazon links are affiliate links, which means I earn a percentage of any purchases made from the links.