AT HOME PLAY AND LITERATURE BASED PRESCHOOL (Essentials For Any Parent's At-Home Preschool)

I started looking into preschool options pretty early with George. He’s a super “with-it” two year old that is basically smarter than me all ready…and he really likes to learn. So, in the ultimate homeschooler spirit, I researched all my favorite curriculums like Sonlight, My Father’s World, Timberdoodle, and Easy Peasy, and just drew on all my Kindergarten teacher knowledge and came up with this fun, more flexible preschool option for a younger preschooler. It’s my goal to GENTLY INTRODUCE George to academics…to keep it fun and active and interesting. When he’s not playing outside and we’re looking for something to fill some time, the activities I’ve compiled are meant to help him learn about letters and numbers and experiment with thinking through creative play. I’ve put together a play and literature based type of “busy box" preschool” that is grab and go, interchangeable, and super flexible and fun.

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Long story short, a “center,” at school, is an activity that is meant to be mostly or completely independent, mobile, easily cleaned, easily created, easily stored, and easily played with…but with a lot of opportunity for playing extensions/creativity. All of the following preschool activities are just that…and, whenever there’s time, can be used for so many different ELA, Math, Science, and Critical Thinking extensions. There are so many diy “busy box/preschool center “ ideas on Pinterest. Listed below are some of my favorite DIY busy boxes as well as books and toys/games that you can buy and use as learning tools/centers.

BUSY BOXES ARE EASY, FUN, EDUCATIONAL, and INEXPENSIVE

Easy learning toddler centers

So, I want this to be a really fun blog post. For the last few days, I’ve been researching busy boxes/centers, and I’ve compiled a list of my favorite ideas. I’ll list those below. Everything will be categorized into three categories: ELA (English Language arts and Writing/Fine Motor Skills), Math, and Creative Play. There are no mandatory items or purchases…just suggestions of things that I love and are of good quality. The idea is that, when you have a moment for at-home learning, a lesson/activity is ready to grab and be used. You don’t have to do everything every day…just follow your heart, cover your bases, and keep everyone happy. Young preschoolers just want to have fun, play, and interact with you, nature, and some really fun manipulatives/toys. So, don’t stress, have fun, get ready for kindergarten, and learn some things along the way :)

Reading (ELA)

My Favorite books for Toddlers and young preschoolers

*This is the foundation of everything that I do with George. We have the goal to read at least three books a day. Usually, this happens in his bed, right before going down. Here are a list of some of my favorites. I’ll keep it short…but know that there are so many great ones. I try and find books that have substance (high quality language, a meaningful story, and beautiful pictures)…a lot of the classics. Usually they provide really good opportunities to add in some math or science too (counting animals, finding colors and shapes, talking about feelings, etc. ) . I like to separate our books into bins (numbers, colors, animals, whatever you want). Then we can pull out a different box once a week, and they feel brand new.

Just click the pic for the Amazon link

  • These first 5 books are great for counting and numbers!

***Love these Montessori books. The numbers are lined in sand paper. George loves tracing them while we read***

  • There are literally COUNTLESS options! Here’s a link to some more of my favorites! (So far, George’s absolute favorites have been the classic Little Golden Books like Lilly Pig’s Book of Colors (above).

    • Best books 0-2

    • Best books 2-4

      • Finding GOOD books was kind of a mystery to me…there are just so many. Then I heard about AMBLESIDE ONLINE. Ambleside is a literature based curriculum that is, for lack of a better word, super posh about the books they recommend. They are HEAVILY/totally influenced by Charlotte Mason, which I love. For young children (6 and under) it is encouraged to let them play and explore the outdoors as much as possible.

        • "The consideration of out-of-door life, in developing a method of education, comes second in order; because my object is to show that the chief function of the child--his business in the world during the first six or seven years of his life--is to find out all he can, about whatever comes under his notice, by means of his five senses; that he has an insatiable appetite for knowledge got in this way; and that, therefore, the endeavour of his parents should be to put him in the way of making acquaintance freely with Nature and natural objects; that, in fact, the intellectual education of the young child should lie in the free exercise of perceptive power, because the first stages of mental effort are marked by the extreme activity of this power; and the wisdom of the educator is to follow the lead of Nature in the evolution of the complete human being."

          -Charlotte Mason

        • I love this quote…it helps me remember that, when I’m not formally teaching George, he’s still learning. Our first goal is always to go outside and play. Books come after that. This is where the Ambleside book lists come in handy.

        • Check out the Ambleside YEAR 0 book list and criteria for choosing good books. (I don’t think I’m as hard core as they are…it’s fun to have fun books:)…but, they are a great resource for really great children’s literature that you may not have heard of before. Keep in mind though that these are books recommended for kids who are up to 6. There is a board book section, but a lot of the books are better geared for a 4 year old (if you want to do more than look at pictures). All of the books Ambleside recommends are SO BEAUTIFUL (I want them all!)

Letter Play

THe Best Websites/apps for toddlers

George loves to play outside and read…but more than that he likes TV. It’s just who he is…I wish with all my heart…on the daily…that he had a deep passion for experiencing nature…or at least deeper than his passion for PJ Masks…but he doesn’t (and that’s probably my fault), but that’s OK. Here are a few of my favorite websites, Youtube channels, and Apps for kids and toddlers.

  • STARFALL - This is my favorite website. Available as an app as well, Starfall has so, so many free resources and games. For $30.00 a year, you get access to the entire Starfall library (read alouds, numbers to 100, sight words, grammar rules, letter names and sounds, rhyming, songs…EVERYTHING). I love to give this to George while I shower, make dinner, or if we’re at a restaurant that isn’t kid friendly. It’s great for me, and it teaches him so much. (Click on the big pic below to check it out!)

  • KIDSTV 123 - This is a YOUTUBE channel. I would use it all the time in Kinder to supplement lesson plans. George likes to watch this at lunch sometimes, or while I’m cleaning up the house. The linked Phonics song below is how he knew letter names and sounds before age 2. (Click on the big pic below to check it out!)

  • The Phonics Song (Kidstv123) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BELlZKpi1Zs&t=22s

  • They have GREAT counting songs too! - https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9bsPVRSg1sn_Op6yAQ54Rr1fniByD8UI

  • Kinder Kove - If you’d like some great printables for free check out —> KINDER KOVE

    • I used this all the time in kindergarten for homework and centers. Some of the things might be a little bit higher level, but explore the site. The link will take you to the Language Arts home page. You’ll see a lot of numbers (K.1.1 - means Kinder unit 1 week 1). Those are links to the six different units, broken up into 6 week long segments (essentially a weeks worth of material each). Math activities are also available (and they’re really fun).

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  • Easy Peasy - Easy Peasy is an all-in-one curriculum. It goes all the way through highschool. The link will take you to their “Getting Ready” curriculum. Scroll down and you’ll start seeing lesson plans for each day of preschool. I love all the fun links! Everything is free and printable as well!

  • ABC JESUS LOVES ME - Here’s another fun and free homeschool preschool curriculum( also available bound and printed). ABCJLM is awesome because it starts at age 1. If you’re looking to start early this is your curriculum. It is Christian-based, but you can modify as you go, if needed. We did this really slowly with George starting at one and a half and he learned so much. Also they’re toddler booklists are AWESOME!

Click on the “INDEX OF WEEKLY LESSON PLANS” for free online access to each weekly lesson plan and supply list.

Click on the “INDEX OF WEEKLY LESSON PLANS” for free online access to each weekly lesson plan and supply list.

  • Busy Toddler is awaesome! George and I are going to start this program next week. I love the play based approach SO MUCH! The ebook and curriculum plan does cost money. But there are tons of free a activities to look at here! Busy Toddler is also on INSTA, so check them out.

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(The following Links are some of my favorite learning centers/Busy Boxes for early letter learners)

Such a good book!!! All the science you could ever hope for. Books are the greatest tools! Read and have fun, look for letters that you’re learning, count out little objects or characters in the pictures, and talk. As a kindergarten teacher, parents would always ask what more they could be doing to help their child learn to read, and I would ALWAYS say, “just read to them more.” They soak up so much more than you think. Make sure to do what I would call “thinking aloud.” Point out words or details in the pictures that you notice. Literally use the phrases, “I’m wondering about…” or, “I see….,” or “I’m noticing that…,” “I wonder why….” Voice questions or wonderings that you have about what is happening or what might be happening next. Show what it looks like to be a good reader and to interact with print. It’s so important to learn to read…but it’s just as important to learn WHY we read. So, before I get into fun toys and activities…if you are looking to keep it minimal and get the most bang for your buck…just invest in high quality children’s literature and read aloud as much as your child wants you to.

Learning can be fun

  • These puzzles are self correcting and super great for letter recognition. Definitely store them in their own little container…puzzle pieces have a way of getting lost forever.

  • ABC books are a great to put in a busy box. Here’s one of our favorites

  • If the foam beads stress you out…these cards work great with play-doh too. Try to work on letters in between making foam snow men and snakes :)

  • Here’s a play doh version. If you don’t want to buy…you can definitely just use a Sharpie to write down bubble letters on the plastic Dixie plates (This is what I did as a teacher).

  • These have been some of our favorite toys. They are special coloring books that use a water pen. Fill the little pen-brush with water, paint over the coloring page and colors and hidden pictures appear. We keep them all in a little bin and pull them out a few times a week. Great for early writing skills too (holding the pen)…and there’s even an ABC edition.

  • We bought George an easel for his 2nd birthday and it has been on of our very best toys EVER. Every kid is different, but ours have spent literal hours drawing with it. This is my dream easel…I don’t have this one, it’s a little pricey…but if you have a budding artist or are planning on homeschooling long term, I would just go with it. I love the storage, the supply trays (instead of cups) and that both sides are dry-erase boards. Here’s the one we have…

  • Great classroom quality, just not as great as I had hoped. The screws that allow the legs to be adjustable loosen over time and have to be retightened. The chalk board is never used…because chalk is the worst! Finally, the little storage cups seem like a great idea, but we eventually lost all of them and now all our markers and crayons fall through the holes. Oh yeah, the paper roll is nice, but we ran out of paper and have never replaced it. That’s just us being lazy though. On the plus side, I love that the alphabet and numbers 1-10 are printed directly on the board. George and I have spent a lot of time playing “guess my number/letter.”

All in all, the easel is so great for writing practice (letters and numbers), creative drawing, and fine motor. GET ONE.

MATh: Colors, Shapes, and Number Sense

  • Just a quick reminder that BOOKS are best, in my opinion, for starting out with counting and numbers. Check out the 5 books I started with at the top of this page. They’ve taught George everything he knows.

toddler busy box build a bug

Really cute and fun, and you could totally do this with a snow man, dinosaurs, faces, monsters, and people. Oh, and I forgot to mention this earlier, but BUSY BOXES are not meant to always be available. If you leave this box out all day everyday, they will get bored of it (like basically all toys). Busy boxes are cool because they’re self contained and easily pulled out when you need a minute and want your toddler to do something other than watch tv or follow you around sad. So pull them out when you need them, rotate the ones you pull out, and then clean up and put away when you’re done. This bug one, would be great to rotate in and out of your baby bag. If you don’t want to make the felt shapes, you can always buy them. Here’s a link to one I like (just click the pic).

2. A HUGE BUCKET OF POM-POMS (Awesome for colors and counting)

busy box toddler educational learning center

Ok remember with this one…these can absolutely be a choking hazard (just know your child and maybe monitor this one a little more closely).

The sky is the limit with pom poms! Here are some fun ideas from https://happytoddlerplaytime.com (check out the link for more detailed instructions)

pom pom toddler play center busy box
toddler learning with pom poms colors busy box educational center
toddler learning with pom poms colors busy box educational center
  • These toddler tweezers are great to use with pom poms! Amazing fine motor practice.

  • If you’re not into pom poms, WaterBeads are so fun! I only do them outside at my house, but they come in dozens of colors and sizes, so great for counting, math vocab practice, fine motor skills, and seriously just a sensory overload of fun. Here are some fun water bead accessories.

Teaching Toddlers Math

  • Mighty Mind is great for critical thinking and shape recognition and just all types of early foundational geometric concepts. In kindergarten, we would work on seeing the basic shapes that make up a big shape, or vice-a-versa, so this is great practice. George is able to play with this alone…he gets farther if I help him, but it is definitely a toy that will grow with him.

  • Just the cutest game. It’s a basic matching game, but the teddy bear pieces are so, so cute and a really good quality. We love this one! It’s a game we can play with as a family too.

Some more favorites-Early math skills and critical thinking

  • Number Express

  • Peek-a-boo bunny! Great for critical thinking, shapes and colors

  • Day and Night

  • Wedgits

  • This is a great activity book. We started George on it a few months ago when he was 2.5. I think that was a little early for him. We’ll probably try again when he’s three.

Montessori manipulatives can be a little pricey, but this one just speaks to my teacher heart and I want it so bad. Haven’t tried it yet, but it’s a great center! I would have it out all the time in kindergarten (especially because I could totally see kids playing with the little pegs after completing the sort. Lots of possible extensions FOR SURE.

There are so many great toys for babies and toddlers!

***Hope this is helpful :) Let me know in the comments if you have any other great free resources, and I’ll add them.

Ashley