Here are simple ideas and some helpful advice for how to support your young child with home learning, for those of you with kids still at home from school. The ideas here cover the Early Years Foundation Stage and just beyond, (so approximately ages 3-7, year groups nursery to Year 1.)
First let’s remember that the Early Years curriculum is entirely PLAY-BASED. This IS how young children learn. It isn’t an addition to “learning time, it is learning time. In many ways this should relieve most of the pressure, however for many this feels even more uncertain and anxiety-inducing as it can be hard to fill days with open-ended play time.
The ideal scenario is plenty of access to a good range of open-ended toys and materials eg Duplo, blocks, magnetic tiles, doll house figures, will animal toys, vehicles, creative materials and of course BOOKS.
If your child isn’t used to independent play or you aren’t really sure what that looks like exactly then a little play structure can really help to begin with.
The aim of this post is to take you step by step through the most beneficial way to encourage this learning through play, highlighting the different types of play and how they aid learning.
The end goal is always independent, open-ended play time. And when you DO have to teach and rehearse some new concepts, that those are done in a hands on and play-based method.
The best possible thing you could do each day would be to prepare a simple invitation to play for your child to find an engage with. It gets your child engaged early on and may give you some headspace as you get work emails answered or drink a coffee in peace at least (wishful thinking but also VERY possible as they learn the skill of independent play!)
This may very likely lead onto open learning possibilities which you could develop if your child shows an interest. Click here to read all about what an Invitation to Play is and many examples of them from my website.
An example of one I set up for my 5 year old last week is this frog pond small world sensory table. It involved water, fake plants rocks and wood slices. Into which I placed a frog life cycle toy set and next to which I added some information books on life cycles about the development of frogs. He loved this play set up and by the third time he played here he started to look through the books and ask a lot of questions. Following his interest, sparked first through play, he then drew a frog life cycle and labelled it. He was able to tell his sisters how frogs developed and understood the language of each stage of development. This is learning through play!
When choosing an activity to set up as an invitation to play/ learn or create you should ask yourself the following three questions to gauge if it is appropriate:
IS IT PLAYFUL?: does it involve action, imagination, and tactile, sensory-rich materials? If it involves a worksheet and a set learning outcome, the answer is no.
IS IT OPEN-ENDED?: could it be used as one thing and then interpreted in other ways too? Does it use materials that are possible to use in a number of ways such as loose parts (eg corks/ pine cones/ blocks/ wooden peg people/ containers etc) A cardboard box is the classic example of this!
IS IT CHILD LED?: can the activity be driven solely by your child or does it need an adult to be involved and overly directing the play? Will it bother you if the child “messes this up” or plays with it in a different way to how you expected?
If you only get one decent block of time each day to spend focused on your child then it should be dedicated to reading.
I suggest establishing a tradition of 5-a-Day Books (which you can read about in this post) and keep it going each week. This is an incredibly powerful early literacy tool that will lead to story telling and memorisation from a young age. My eldest could retell stories from age 3 using this method and her vocabulary was really enriched by it too.
Story Baskets: These are a great idea to create, maybe one per week, based on a current favourite story. This Goldilocks version is a great example of using a traditional tale to rehearse and retell a well loved story. They are easy to do and lead on to dramatic play and dressing up, possibly even to story writing and book making too.
Storytelling can also happen through playing together, gathering props and either retelling favourites or making up your own. Encouraging your child to make up their OWN story is also key.
Let them see YOU reading and writing OFTEN. So much of our modern life happens on a screen, so take time to deliberately write out a shopping or to-do list by hand, in front of them. Write them notes to find and read, let them see you reading a real book or newspaper.
Talk to them about it and give them the tools so that they too can write lists, letters and notes. Set up a busy basket with stationery, mark making materials, envelopes, old stamps, ink pads, note paper, diaries etc. Encourage use of these in a playful way eg “make invitations to teddy’s birthday party” and writing will happen naturally.
When you come to practise specific pre-writing skills, name learning, phonics and then sight words, use a sensory writing tray as your tool. Not only is it a LOT more fun, using a sensory material instead of paper and pencil actually INCREASES memory retention of the new concept.
Write in shaving cream, paint, salt or flour. Kinaesthetic learning is the fundamental key to learning and remembering new skills more effectively. You can theme these and even add scents too! Here is our entire collection of SENSORY WRITING TRAYS to browse through.
You can find my full PHONICS ACTIVITIES archives here too. Plenty of PLAYFUL ways to learn those phonemes, digraphs and trigraphs and tricky words. NONE involving a pencil so your child will not complain! 🙂
Encourage further writing, beyond play-based and role play writing, by making blank books and also by printing images of things they are most interested in currently.
They can stick these and label them or write captions, depending on the subject matter. You could do a whole project like this, based on Minecraft, Paw Patrol, Outer Space, Dragons..whatever catches their interest!
In exactly the same manner, all early maths concepts can be introduced and practised through play. Involve them in baking and ask them to read the measurements, check the scales and find the temperature needed for the oven. Can they then set the timer and count down the minutes? Once the cookies are ready they need to be shared out, how many would everyone get if shared equally?
Real life gives ample opportunities for maths rich learning.
What is your door number? Which bus do you get? Who is the oldest in the family and by how many years? Can you set the table for everyone- how many knives, forks and spoons is that in total? etc
Talk about times of the day, measure everyone’s shoes, put items in order of length, measure using duplo blocks, go on a missing number hunt, count toys, skip count on the trampoline, pair socks and count in 2s!
You can use play dough for learning about quantities, lengths, shapes, calculations and more!
Use sensory materials as a much more fun and engaging way to practise everyday number facts, recognise numerals and work on counting using 1:1 correspondence, such as this hidden numbers game! The possibilities with this are endless and you can find many here in my maths archives.
Role Play for Maths and Literacy Learning
Role play is absolutely the BEST way to include some playful maths and literacy learning opportunities. You do NOT need to use worksheets (please don’t use worksheets- they are totally inappropriate developmentally at this stage!)
Role Play set ups help your child to read and write in a natural and context-rich way, not abstract and unrelated to everyday life. For eg, add labels to your toy kitchen so that they begin to notice them during play and ask you what the words say.
Make a play cafe and add a menu. set out a clipboard and pen for them to take orders using “play writing.” Add real take-away menus and cook books to enrich literacy learning through play possibilities further.
Consider setting up a role-play area with a different theme each week. Once you begin to set up role play spaces or games for your child you will actually find it very easy and natural to think of ways to incorporate some literacy and maths.
I have a whole host of role play and imaginative play ideas here on this website so browse some of those here to get started! You do not need lots of space or special resources. In fact, using real items from everyday life enhances the quality of role play and makes it much more relatable for your child. Eg using real seed packets, pots, soil, gardening tools and plants in a garden centre role play game, is MUCH more meaningful as a learning experience than any toy versions could offer!
Some more examples you could start creating. Link these to a current interest or learning theme and BAM, you’ve got yourself a fabulous week of playful learning ideas ready to go!
and also consider…
Garden centre with seed packets, shopping till, money and signs to read.
Doctor’s Surgery with waiting room signs, check in desk and a prescription note pad.
Garage with car parts signs, clipboard and parts order forms etc!
Small World Play
Another wonderful invitation to play set up is the humble yet incredibly powerful SMALL WORLD PLAY
You can link these to a favourite story eg We’re Going on a Bear Hunt or The Very Hungry Caterpillar, to a favourite animal to create a habitat eg frog pond, rainforest, polar animals, under the sea, or to a real life scenario in miniature eg dolls house, hospital, school, sweet shop!
Add in information books and there is a whole topic waiting to be discovered!
Fantasy worlds are particularly fun to create and often link well to stories, such as dinosaurs and volcanoes, fairy land, knights and dragons, outer space and aliens etc.
These set ups encourage VOCABULARY and language development and dramatically increase STORYTELLING SKILLS. Both of which are VITAL building blocks for early literacy development, before reading and writing become fluent.
One of the best things you can do to encourage plenty of free play and “busyness” time is to prepare an independent making and creating area. This needs no fancy tools or set up, simply the space to create and access to plenty of making materials.
Watercolour wheels, paper, cardboard, paint sticks, oil pastels, markers, chalk, recycling, washi tape, model magic clay and yarns. Model sitting and creating in the area yourself and they will join in.
You don’t need to suggest anything particular thing to make, instead freely experiment with mark making, patterns and designs on the media and teach them the complete joy of PROCESS BASED ART (ie focused on the DOING, not on the END RESULT.)
Three dimensional structures and “junk modelling” could be as simple as making a special box filled with current favourites, such as this Minecraft box from my reluctant creator and writer! He was totally absorbed in this project because it involved images that he was able to select, print and cut out, rather than draw himself. He then used it as a base for further play. Huge win!
On the days that you have the energy and enthusiasm, sensory play will turn out to be your best friend and will actually give your child the longest stretches of independent play time.
Now, more than ever, sensory play is needed desperately for reducing anxiety and aiding relaxation and focus. It is a great equaliser, meaning all ages enjoy it and can play with it at the same time.
Most sensory bases also offer plenty of learning opportunities, through filling and emptying, pouring and raking, estimating and problem solving. It is also the best way to work on fine motor skills, which are needed before holding a pencil for writing is actually possible.
If you’d like to order my Sensory Invitations to Play Cards, there are 52 recipes and ideas in there to keep you busy for a whole year! They’ve just had their second print run as they’re proving VERY popular world wide.
My favourite, as you can guess, is PLAY DOUGH. I have 50+ variations and activity ideas for play dough on this site as well as the most searched for play dough recipe in the world! It takes 4 months, is no-cook and lasts for months. And encourages incredibly long periods of play. Try it and see!
Water is one of the best, and of course the simplest to set up, so don’t feel you have to overthink it. Daytime baths are epic, as is sink play. Freeze items and you have a science exploration on your hands too.
If nothing else, I recommend making one set of dyed sensory rice (here’s my easy how to method.) It is pure therapy and offers a myriad of opportunities for play, as well as lasting forever which is a definite win.
Many sensory can be made with natural materials and essential oils too, increasing calm down possibilities and soothing irritability.
Getting them OUTSIDE as much as possible, for tree climbing, running, hill rolling and river splashing is fundamental. Taking the play outside is hugely beneficial for everyone, including you.
Your child actually needs to develop upper body strength and control BEFORE being able to sit and write with control, so focus on gross motor games and co-ordination as much as possible, using equipment and crossing the midline activities too.
Try scavenger hunts, nature trails, identifying mini beasts and plants and large scale nature art like this.
Collect items from nature to make a loose parts collection for play.
Here are 60 nature play ideas using materials you can find freely outside!
Take your sensory play outside and the clean up is then no longer an issue either!
Almost all sensory play set ups also encourage the development of FINE MOTOR SKILLS, so this is another important reason to include them in your weekly plans.
Simply add tools to the play tray and the possibilities will increase. Scissors, straws, matchsticks and gems to play dough. Scoops, cups and tubes to a tray of rice. Jugs and funnels to a water tub. Shells and pebbles to damp sand etc.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, I truly could have written a whole book on this topic!
I just want to get you started with ideas to help you see that PLAYING IS LEARNING and that by spending a little time preparing resources and spaces, you can facilitate this effectively for your young child.
Choose one or two things to try this week by focusing on their current favourite topic and sticking with that. A week based on pirates? Brilliant! Focus everything around Jack and the Beanstalk? amazing!
Remember the key areas, use ideas from school to weave into it too, but mostly focus on what you know interests and works for your OWN CHILD and their current interests.
I aim to create a PROJECT BASED LEARNING post next, to help take that focus to the next level with older children, thus keeping the creativity alive as they learn in a playful way.
Let me know if this has helped you support your young child with home learning and PLEASE SHARE IT by passing on the link to your friends and fellow parents. I hope it will be a really useful resource for now during this pandemic, but also for early years play time at home in the future too.
Don’t forget to search the extensive archives of ideas I have written here over the past decade, for more inspiration!