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Photography by Stoffer Photography

When early literacy expert Beth Gaskill was a kid, she hated going to her reading tutor. Like, really hated it. By the time she was in second grade, she decided she would create a better kind of after-school program for kids when she grew up. Today, she runs Big City Readers, an educational center that offers classes and tutoring to children of all ages in the Chicago area. The program hosts over 400 families a week and offers something for everyone, from baby sign language to high school tutoring to book clubs and even parent parties.

“Miss Beth”—as she’s lovingly referred to by her young students—creates hands-on curriculums based on multisensory experiences. Her main focus? The building blocks of literacy—playing, touching, talking, reading, and singing—which are all developed within the first five years of a child’s life. These days, though, her classes are taking place entirely on Zoom (as well as storytelling on Instagram Live). With stay-at-home orders in effect due to the COVID-19 crisis, her loyal following of parents all have the same question: How do we continue our toddler’s education from home? Luckily for us, she’s giving Domino a taste of the fun activities you can do with your kids while stuck inside. The best part? You already have everything you need. It’s time to put those nonperishables and crafting supplies to good use.

Something to note: These activities are appropriate for children ages 2 and up, and they’re meant to be used as inspiration. You can substitute most supplies for what you have lying around the house. The important part is to engage with your kids in whatever way you can. As Miss Beth says, “Less is more. Most of all, your kids are going to remember the really silly little details that you think don’t matter. Having fun is the best thing you can do for them.” 

A Scavenger Hunt With Beans

Photography by Stoffer Photography

What You Need: A large container, a bag of black beans (or beads, sand, or plain old water), and whatever funnels, cups, spoons, and digging toys you have on hand. You’ll also need paper letters or shapes—you can make them yourself or use puzzle pieces.

Activity: Encourage your child to go on a letter, shape, or object hunt inside the container. Start with just a few items and hide them in the beans (or whatever you have on hand). Then ask questions like, “Can you find a small, pink heart?”, “Can you find a shape that is not green?”, or for an older child, “Can you find something that starts with the letter F?” Make sure there are items hidden in the bins that match these descriptions, as well as items that don’t. Give them plenty of time to answer, and as long as they’re enjoying the game, keep challenging them to try again. If they hand you an incorrect object, always find room to praise them before having them return to their search. For instance, “You found something small! Great job! Now, what about something that is also pink?”

Developmental Value: Helps your child develop phonemic awareness (noticing and hearing sounds inside words), which begins with listening.

A Bottle Puzzle

Photography by Stoffer Photography

What You Need: Any kind of bottle and some dried pasta (or art supplies like straws, pom-poms or pipe cleaners that you can cut up into smaller pieces).

Activity: Have your child practice dropping the materials in the bottle while asking them questions like, “Which of these fits inside the bottle?” Think of it like a puzzle and have your toddler explore different ways to drop the objects inside. If you’re using pipe cleaners, some may have to bend to fit inside, while some pasta pieces may be too large, and some may drop in easily. For an older child, you can add a counting exercise to practice basic math skills.

Developmental Value: Helps your child develop fine motor skills, understand cause and effect, and develop spatial awareness and hand-eye coordination. 

Old-School Pasta Necklaces With a Challenge

Photography by Stoffer Photography

What You Need: Dried pasta (or beads/cereal/anything with a shape) and string (or pipe cleaners).

Activity: Knot one end of the string and help your child add shapes to make a necklace, bracelet, or any creation of their choice. For toddlers, start with sturdier pipe cleaners and let them lead the show. If your child is older, practice counting by picking a number and then adding that number of objects to the string. For an added challenge, you can also ask them to string objects based on color, shape, or size.

Developmental Value: Early lacing skills help children understand how to develop patterns, sequencing, problem-solving, counting, color and shape sorting, and hand-eye coordination.

A Popsicle-Stick Reading Game

Photography by Stoffer Photography

What You Need: Popsicle sticks (or straws), markers (if they want to get creative), and paper.

Activity: For toddlers, help them use popsicle sticks to make different shapes. All uppercase letters come from shapes and lines, so creating designs will help them eventually master their letters. For 3 and 4 year olds, start by encouraging them to notice the letters in their name. Write their name big on a piece of paper and let them use the popsicle sticks to trace it. If your child can already read, have them practice sight words: Write the word on a piece of paper, tell them the word, and then have them write it with popsicle sticks. You can also make this a fine-motor challenge by having them trace the letters with beans afterward.

Developmental Value: Builds hand-eye coordination, early writing skills, and fine motor movements.  

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