Young Minds

Thoughts of an early childhood teacher…

Picnics and tea parties! (with maths and colour-mixing…)

I was chatting to someone recently about “kid-people” and how easy or difficult it is to “entertain” a 3 year old when you’re looking after them….

I had to look after my niece for an hour and she is a BUSY girl. She always must be doing something and it is hard to keep up with her. Well, because it was sunny and Aunty Jo wanted to lie in the sun, I tried to think of an idea that would allow this to happen….

Note: it was a particularly gorgeous January Perth morning when I did this with my niece – you might not be as lucky!

I got an old sheet, her tea set, a large transparent jug and some food colouring and I announced we were going to have a picnic! We took our bits and pieces out onto the grass and she started to set up the picnic. As she did this I took a moment to close my eyes and soak in the warmth!

I then asked her what colour we should make the water. She enthusiastically announced PURPLE! as if no other colours existed. So, because I didn’t have purple dye, we tried mixing some colours. I let her do this part and I counted the drops with her to make sure she didn’t put too much in. Of course, unintentionally, she did anyway.

We made one colour, then another, then another and then what seemed to be a dirty purplish kind of colour. But the colour we made wasn’t important – it was the discussions we had during this. We remarked on the colours we were making and decided what colour we could add and then commented on how that changed the water.

She spent the better part of an hour pouring this water amongst the cups and then using those cups to pour into other containers and then back again. At one point she poured from a teacup into a sugar bowl and I could see her brows furrowing as she realised that it wasn’t all going to fit. She kept right on pouring though!

This was a great mathematical activity for her to do without even intending on it being “learning”. But then again, a simple episode like this proves that play is indeed learning for these little ones. We used words like “too much”, “not enough” and “more” and “less”. All of this mathematical language is important to communicate at this age.

So as I was at my parent’s house on this day, they got home, came outside and laughed at the “mess” we had created and the fact that my niece still looked insanely busy (although sitting down) and that I was lying down getting a bit of a suntan!

And in answer to your question – yes, she did try to drink the water.

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Stimulating and fun educational activities that give Mummy & Daddy a little break!

“I’m bored!”

“Play with me, Mummy!”

“But I’ve done that already.”

….are just -some- of the phrases you might hear at home trying to ‘entertain’ your little ones. Apart from the fact that it is my personal opinion that it is not a parent’s job to “entertain” their children, it IS my personal (and professional) opinion that it is an adult’s job (whether kindy teacher or parent or nanny) to prepare activities or an environment that will encourage imagination, learning, communication and problem solving.

It is VERY easy to pick out the children in a kindergarten that have no imagination – constantly looking for “something” to do, following the adults around (not searching for affection or attention, just not knowing what to do) and playing with imaginary toys, such as dinosaurs or trucks, a little bit awkwardly. Poor things – it’s not their fault! And not your or my fault either! We just need to help these little people find a little bit of imagination in their day.

But anyway, that is not what this post is about! It’s about preparing a few little activities for your little ones when you as a Mummy or a Daddy just need a few moments to put your feet up!

The first thing you will need is an area that is safe for your child to access. You’ll need some drawers or tubs or shelves or something to hold different activities.

You will also need an area for them to do each activity where they are FREE TO MAKE A MESS. This is really important. There is a time for cleanliness (ie. going to Aunty Katherine’s wedding) but it is certainly not during a child’s play. I have a child in my kindy at the moment who has not once gone home with her socks on – every time she wears them to kindy they are filthy/wet by midday and they go straight in her bag! Your child needs an area where their clothes can get messy, the floor can get messy and the table (if you use one) can get messy. It will really allow your child to open up in terms of their creativity and exploration of different materials.

Then it is just a matter of filling each tub/drawer with different materials. I have listed below my favourite examples.

Tub #1: Goop! 

Small packets of cornflour (better to create your own small packets by putting into zip lock bags), 1 plastic cup, 2 medicine cups, 1 plastic spoon, 5 popsticks, 2 meat trays (or other). Your child can pour in the cornflour themselves, get all the other materials themselves and they just need you to help them fill the cup with water. And if they make it too runny? Who cares, they will love it anyway!

Tub #2: Water play! 

1 kitchen sieve, a funnel, a few different sized plastic containers, some plastic boats, mini bottles of food dye. You will also need a tub or bucket to fill with water. I watched my 3 year old niece not long ago playing with some purple water we had made together and she incorporated her tea set. It entertained her for ages!

Tub #3: Rice play! 

Again, it is easier to store the rice in ziplock bags so that your child can get to it him/herself, a large container to hold the rice (like a cat litter tray), various containers for pouring, maybe even some little characters (Lego or similar).

Tub #4: Collage!  

Various collage materials (think texture & colour – sandpaper, cotton wool, shiny paper, coloured matchsticks etc) , prepared glue (flour & water in small cup with lid, Clag or ‘cell mix’ from educational suppliers), glue brush, plain paper, old wrapping paper (and child-safe scissors) salt shaker with glitter inside.

Tub #5: ‘Whiteboard’ drawing!

A3 blank page (laminated), whiteboard markers, erasers. If you want to buy an actual whiteboard (though it won’t fit in the drawers or tubs unless it is a mini one from an educational store) try to find the magnetic ones, then you can add all sorts of magnets – letters, numbers, shapes, etc.

Tub #6: Painting with water!

Different sized paintbrushes, small bucket. Your child can ‘paint’ anything they can find in the backyard! It’s the simplest thing but you should see their face when they try this for the first time. They are amazed! I love it! The only they will need from you is an easily accessible hose (I leave the tap done up loosely so they can easily turn it on and off themselves to fill up their bucket)

These are just a few examples of some ways you can give your child some enjoyment, stimulation and incidental learning with minimal effort on your part. I am in no way encouraging you to spend less time with your children, nor am I endorsing any sort of “children should be seen and not heard” garbage.  I do think you deserve that (however short) frame of time to put your feet up and (somewhat) zone out!

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Gross Motor Skills

Gross motor skills, referred to in primary school as ‘fundamental movement skills’, are important to develop in young children. They are based on the movement of the body on a larger scale, for example movement and manipulation of the legs, feet, hands, arms, head or body as a whole. They help your child to develop knowledge of the left and right sides of their body, balance and which movements will affect equipment in various ways. Gross motor skills also help children to learn to control their bodies and assist with coordination.

Some common gross motor skills covered in a kindergarten programme are as follows, together with activities you can do together to nurture these skills.


Jumping involves using two feet together, like a kangaroo, as opposed to leaping with one foot and having the other foot follow. Most will master this skill by the end of kindergarten.

Tip #1: Invest in some hoops! Jump around like kangaroos in your backyard and have them hop into hoops or hop over other obstacles.

Tip #2: I find music games the best way to nurture jumping. Tumble Tots have some fantastic songs on iTunes.

Tip #3: Throw a little jumping into everyday life! As you go for a walk with your little one, have them jump over the cracks in the pavement. Or put on some wellies and have them jump over the puddles (they will love you for it!)

Hopping & Balancing

This is a two-part skill. The first thing they have to learn is how to balance on one foot; the second is having to jump on that foot without falling over. It is difficult for a child to do, but important to practise. About a third of kindergarteners I have seen can hop by the end of kindergarten.

Tip #1: As with jumping, I find music games the most effective way to help children practise the skill of hopping. I like the song “Skipping Time” by Tumble Tots which involves skipping, marching, jumping and hopping.

Tip #2: To help them balance on one foot, give them something to stare at on the wall or in the distance. This should be something specific and something at their eye level.

Tip #3: It is good practice to have them balance objects on parts of their body. I use a song by Tumble Tots called “Bean Bag Time” which is excellent at having children balance a bean bag on their head, arm, foot, hand, back, etc.

Throwing and Catching

Children should first be taught underarm throwing as opposed to overarm throwing, unless they are learning it as training for a particular sport.

Tip #1: Have them practise swinging their arm like a monkey to get to know the action of underarm throwing. Overarm is the action done by a lot of kindergarteners by default).

Tip #2: Start with beanbags! I love beanbags!

Tip #3: Invest in a couple of balls. If your child has difficulty gripping the ball, places like K-Mart and toy stores have balls that have bumps all over the ball to make it easier to grip. Obviously the bigger the ball, the easier it is to catch – children need to keep their eyes on the ball and have their hands ready to catch and both of these things are going to be easier if the ball is bigger. You can decrease the ball size as your child gets more adept at catching.

Tip #4: Have a washing basket or other large container and draw a line in chalk on your pavement. Have them throw the ball into the basket and see how many times they can get it in. As they get more skilful, you can decrease the size of the container they throw into, swapping the washing basket for a bucket for example.

Crossing the Midline

Another important skill to foster in your young child is the bilateral skill, or crossing the midline. This means that your child learns to use their right hand on their left side of the body, and their left hand on their right side of the body. The same goes for their feet. It is a crucial skill for several everyday life skills, such as reading and getting dressed.

Tip #1: I used to use a lot of streamers in kindergarten and have the children draw circles on one side and then on the other side of their body using the same hand. They would then swap over.

Tip #2:  I used to also have them lie on the ground, belly facing up, and lift up their right leg and left arm simultaneously and vice versa (this will be effective regardless of whether or not they know their left from right).

Tip #3: Anything that involves your child reaching over one side of the body to reach the other side will be practising crossing their midline. For example, offering them a piece of fruit on one side of the body and asking that they take it with the opposite hand. Or having them use only one hand whilst painting and requesting that they use the whole page. This will force them to go over the left side if painting with their right hand and the right side if painting with their left.

I came across a fantastic website that not only describes the bilateral skill, but also how it affects every day life skills and activities you can do to develop it in children:


Definitely worth a look!

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How much is too much and how much is not enough?

I hear mums all the time ask how much help to give your child. Do you teach them to read as soon as they reach for a book? Or do you let the school take care of that? How much do you need to help them and how much do you let go and let them control the learning?

So many three and four year old kindergartens out there these days have the same philosophy – child-centred, child-led and child-oriented learning. Let the children guide the learning, let the children set the standard, let the children be the controller of their education and you, the parent, or I, the teacher, merely facilitate that learning.

I have to say I disagree with the way education in the state of Victoria is headed…I don’t know if it is taking the same path in other states. I see myself as a teacher and that is what I am there to do. I see you as the parent and the most important influence in your child’s life. Together, without this opinion that we “let the children lead the way”, we could do so much more for them and with them.

I believe that as children grow older, we should facilitate their learning of concepts more and expose them to more. A toddler will not know what a piano is if they are not shown one, shown what it is used for and shown how to use it. A three year old will not know the correct way to hold or treat a book if they have never been shown. A four year old will be completely overwhelmed if the first letter they learn about is in school.  We need to teach children, not just let them show us what they know, which is the most recent early childhood belief gaining increasing popularity.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe in a previous life I was a tough-as-nails headmistress from 1912?

But let’s face it; the most rapid phase of a child’s development occurs in their first five years of life. We have such a short time to expose children to so much of the world. I’m not saying they need to learn everything by the time they are five. I’m saying that if this is when this child is developing the most, why not take advantage of that and show them how a calculator works? If they pick up what you’re “teaching” them, they pick it up. If not, fine! Why can’t I teach my kindergarteners the names of the planets instead of waiting for them to ask me and “lead” the learning? Is that not my job?

All that said, I don’t believe in pushing a child to learn and I don’t believe in forcing them to learn something they have no interest in. You might’ve been netball champion for seven years running but it doesn’t mean your child will be. I certainly don’t think I’m alone in that viewpoint.

So I guess what I’m saying is exposure and facilitation of learning is paramount if you are to teach your little ones and prepare them for life. A lot of this happens incidentally so don’t stress! But there are so many other things you can do along the way. Here are a few ideas:

  1. If you play an instrument, show it to them, sit with them when you play it, show them how to use it and what happens when you push this button or pluck that string or hit that cymbal. Let them try it on their own as they are able.
  2. Have books around the house. In the age of computers, iPads and Kindles we want children to still grow up surrounded by pages. Read to them often and sit with them when they want to ‘read’ to you – even if they get every word wrong or if they’re reading so slowly it gets painful! Encourage trips to the library where they can choose their own books and let them have a little ‘library’ in their own space.
  3. Point out numbers – on the microwave, on the clock, on licence plates, on tv. As they grow older, start to talk about what the numbers mean and begin to ask them questions that involve a bit of problem solving. What number comes next? What number comes before it? Add on two more…etc etc. If they don’t know the answer, that’s fine! Count with them and find out together!
  4. Go on outings with your child – to the zoo, the aquarium, the farm, the city – and point out various things and ask lots of questions. Let your child explore, discover and spend time at the areas they are interested in.

For other ideas, or for suggestions on blog topics, please email me at

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