Category Archives: play and learn

Play and Learn: Let’s All Go to the Beach

Okay, I *love* play and learns, but man, they really are time-intensive. I’ve been trying to do one about every three months. That’s enough that it feels like we’re never too far away from one, but also not so frequently that I feel like I’m drowning. Since this play and learn was a featured summer program, I thought a beach theme would be great! Here’s the stations I set up – and sorry in advance for the blurry pictures. I’m pretty much the worst program photographer ever!


sandy play doughmore sandy play dough

Sensory Play:

I made up a batch of regular old play dough (salt, water, flour, oil). I found some sand that had been in my children’s closet for goodness knows how long (I can only assume it was there for three or four children’s librarians) and mixed it in, too. I also found some super cool flip-flop stampers from Lakeshore hiding in the depths of the closet, so I threw those out, too! I went ahead and put the play dough directly on the floor (well, on a splat mat on a floor), instead of on a table like I usually do. I think it worked out really well – it definitely felt less crowded than usual at this eternally popular station.

quiet reading area and gel boards

Fine Motor, Quiet Reading, and Story telling:

Using this awesome tutorial from Little Read Wagon, our early literacy outreach/ECRR specialists/all around magicians with materials, I made some gel writer boards. If you’ve never made them before, do it RIGHT NOW! These boards are so cool, and they were really popular with the storytime moms. I know I told at least five or six how to make the boards themselves. Anyhow, I put out the gel writers and lots of beach books some beach towels I borrowed from a staff member, and BOOM quiet reading area with awesome writing boards that promote fine motor skills and print recognition!


paleta stand

Playing, Pretending, and Narrative Play:

There’s nothing that feels like summer more than a cool treat! With the help of a more coordinated co-worker, I cut a hole from a cardboard box and made an awesome paleta stand! I made foam popsicle for them to pass back and forth, and also made lots of felt shapes for making their own paletas on the felt board. The magnet board on the back of the felt board became the menu/sign for the stand, and I pulled out all our magnet letters for more play. Kids really do love using the magnet letters – even putting them up, taking them down, and sorting them based on color and size can occupy kiddos for a surprisingly long time!

parachute and balls

Gross Motor:

I put out our very colorful parachute, and threw of our different sized balls. This was a HUGE hit. The preschoolers and toddlers pretty much put their caregivers to work for the entire hour and a half we were in the room, waving the parachute up and down and bouncing the balls. We sang a few songs, but I think the loved the parachute just because it’s so freaking cool.

Make and Take:

I like to have a crafty craft at Play and Learns, because I’m crazy. I threw out our construction paper, chalk, and lots of circle stickers, and invited kids and their adults to create their own paletas. I try to incorporate different kids of art materials into crafts, and lots of kids haven’t ever used chalk. It’s super fun to scribble with and smear, plus don’t we all know that pinching stickers off is great fine motor skills!

Wrap Up and Thoughts:

This was a super fun play and learn! I’m always scared when I’m planning play and learns from scratch that everyone will be bored or kids will yell at me or something (okay, I know they’re not going to really do that, but it’s an irrational fear!). This program had just the right number of people for everything to seem busy, but not crowded. I got lots of appreciative comments, which makes all the hard work worth it! Play and learns are a really cool way to show some Every Child Ready to Read principles in action at your branch!



Play and Learn: Things that Go!

This week’s play and learn was transportation themed, so we had lots of cool stuff happening.


We started out with Dinosaurs Behind Doors, which is pretty much just Ants in the Pants with, well, dinos and doors! I had picked out Toot Toot, Beep Beep by Emma Garcia and Trucks: Whizz, Zoom, Rumble by Patricia Hubbell to read. I noticed that our crowd today was younger than usual, with several babies joining us. So, I ditched Trucks and just read Toot Toot, Beep, Beep. They kids really enjoyed making the sounds with me and it was definitely a successful read aloud.

After we read our story, we sang a song one of the other children’s librarian taught me called “Twinkle Twinkle Little Traffic Light”. Here are the lyrics:

Twinkle, twinkle traffic light,
On the corner shining bright.
Red means stop,
Green means go,
Yellow means very, very slow.
Twinkle, twinkle traffic light,
On the corner shining bright.

Then we turned on the music and got down to playing!

Sensory Play

For sensory play, we put out a bin filled with sudsy water and let the kids wash our plastic cars and boats. Water is always a popular sensory choice, and it was definitely a win today!

One of our other children’s librarians also made a kid-sized car wash by taping strips of bubble wrap, quilt batting, and crepe paper under a table. We threw a tablecloth over it and *bam* super awesome kidwash. We made sure to label the stages of the car wash on top, so we just had a little more print in the room.

Fine Motor, Gross Motor, and Print Identification

Our make and take for the day was a decorate your own steering wheel station. We punched holes around the edges of paper plates before we started, and we set them out with crayons, yarn, and tape. After the kiddos decorated with the crayons, they could make their own threading boards. They were surprisingly popular!

One part of early learning is telling stories back, which is why flannels are really nice to have hanging around. We managed to snag a Wheels on the Bus flannel set from our children’s outreach department, and they kids really loved taking the people in and out of the bus.

Playing, Pretending, and Narrative Play

We had a ton of cool cars and trucks for this one! Hard plastic trucks went in the truckwash, and soft baby-gnawable trucks were put out, too. I demonstrated to parents that they can make their own cars by having some Crystal Light containers reborn as cars out, too. Always nice to incorporate home-made, cheap things that parents can do on their own! The cars and trucks got driven over crazy roads made with tape on poster boards, over roads shaped like the word GO, and between the towers of blocks that we put out.

We also brought out some really cool cardboard boats (also made by our children’s outreach department) that were kid-sized, so they could sit in them and, if their parents were feeling perky, be pushed around.-

Wrap Up and Thoughts

There was no doubt in my mind that this would be a popular play and learn! After all, almost every kid goes through a truck or train or car or boat phase! We had a larger-than-usual turnout for us, with around 18 kids and 15 parents showing up.

What I think we can improve on for future play and learns is just making sure that we’re including lots of print in the room and lots of opportunity to develop fine motor skills. I think it’s so tempting to just throw out a bunch of cool stuff, but hopefully we can continue to be even more focused on making sure each station is really adding something to the experience.


Play and Learn: Put a Bird On It Edition

Okay, welp, apparently blogging about programming during a programming pause is pretty hard. But I’m back now with regularly scheduled posts! Woooohooo!

Last week, for our first full week of the winter session, we planned a bird-themed play and learn extravaganza. Here’s how it broke down.


We started out with Ants in the Pants, which is, as always, a great way to begin. Starting with an interactive game gives everyone a chance to get settled in, and makes sure that late arrivers have time to sit down before we start.

Then I read In My Nest by Sara Gillingham. This is a sweet little board book that includes a built-in finger puppet. It only took me a couple of minutes to read, but it has some really great words in it, and the illustrations have excellent texture and color. Because we usually have a small group, I can pull off reading a board book if I lean waaaaaay down, almost to the floor.

Next, we did a quick action rhyme that I had found online by frantically googling “bird action rhymes” (PROFESSIONAL AT WORK, y’all!). Despite forgetting the words and going off-script halfway through, it was a lot of fun. Here it is:

I saw a little bird go hop, hop, hop (hop up and down)
I told that little bird to stop, stop, stop (make a stop sign with your hand)
I said to the bird hey, hey, hey (wave your hand)
And he shook his little tail and flew away (shake your tail and then flap away!)

This was a good one for our group because the actions are really large and easy to do, even for toddlers who don’t have the fine motor skills for intricate finger plays.

We finished up our storytime portion with Bring on the Birds by Susan Stockade. I really like books that are essentially lists with illustrations, and this book has great spreads of all kinds of birds. I totally messed up and called a non-peacock a peacock, and then got called out by the book when I got to the real peacock, but what can you do?

Sensory Play

We always try to have some form of sensory play, both because it’s so popular for toddler and babies, and because it’s so great for their development. For this play and learn, we had two sensory bins. One was filled with birdseed, and just had some fun measuring scoops and cups in it. The other was filled with black beans, and had some pipe cleaner “worms” in it that the kids could catch with our bird fishing rods (with magnets attached, of course). There was lots of fun color identifying going on, too.

Fine Motor, Gross Motor, and Print Identification

We had some great early literacy stuff happening, mostly via ideas found on Pintrest (I can’t stop pinning!) We borrowed some really cool shaker eggs that had different stuff in each color egg (recognizing different sounds is important for phonological awareness!). I shredded up some colored paper, and kids had lots of fun sorting the eggs in to the matching colored paper nest.

We also had a matching activity we made so that kids could match birds to the cold, hot, night, or daytime environments they lived in. It’s hard  sometimes to make sure there’s a lot of print hanging out, but it is important that toddlers realize there are letters and words everywhere.

We put out a basket of ribbon bracelets, so that kids could pretend to be birds and flap around. Gross motor skills for the win!

Playing, Pretending, and Narrative Play

We made sure to pull out lots of different bird puppets and stuffed animals, and included more shaker eggs in shredded paper nests. The kiddos always do interesting and unexpected stuff with what we put out, so it’s great to give them the opportunity for play. Telling stories is important to early literacy, too!