Hands-On Play Gives Preschoolers an Early Education Grasp

Hands-on learning and toddlers go together – you could say they’re hand in glove. Babies and small kids ages 0-5 naturally explore their world by getting their little mitts (and, sometimes, mouths!) on stuff in the playroom, backyard, kitchen and more. During the winter months, you can turn simple, everyday experiences into a bit of education, too.

To get some ideas on specific fun, affordable activities, Education Detroit spoke with three young-child learning centers in the city. They include:

  • Wayne State University College of Education Early Childhood Center, in the University Cultural Center, Midtown: The COE-ECC offers high-quality preschool programs for ages 2 1/2 to 5 and is a regarded teacher-prep site, too. We spoke to lead teacher Lisa Schrader.
  • Maybury Elementary School, in Soutwest Detroit/Mexicantown: From this high-performing school’s pre-K classroom, two teachers, Martha Piesko (her daughter, Julia, is 3) and Rick Rodriguez, shared their insights.
  • Jude Family Childcare Center, east side of Detroit, north of I-94: Offers infant, toddler and preschool programs for 6 weeks-12 years. We gathered tips from director Choyce Harris and leader teacher Zena Turner.

Snow is Swell

Bundle up your tykes and transform the fluffy stuff into a chilly classroom.

Rainbow snow

Fill spray bottles with water and food coloring, Schrader suggests, and have kids practice simple drawings or letters. It works motion and fine motor skills – and, “When you start mixing primarily colors together,” i.e., red, yellow and blue, “you’ve got additional colors.” Plus it’s non-toxic and safe on lawns.

Word play

Buying a few cheap plastic letter molds is another fun trick, Piesko says: Have kids sculpt their ABCs in the snow. “It incorporates reading and planning and thinking.” Also, before heading out to build a snowman, write a little list of materials you’ll need – scarf, buttons, broom, etc. “They’re thinking sequentially,” Piesko explains, and learning the art of “thinking through stuff ahead of time.”


Not all snow is the same. “Some snow is just dry; it won’t compress,” Turner says. “I call it non-snowman snow.” Bring a bucket-full of snow inside. Ask, “How does it feel?” Let it set; then watch how the cold matter turns soupy in the warm house. How did it happen? “How do you think we could make it a solid again?”


One more fun thing to test? Outerwear! If kids have nylon mittens, have them watch what happens when they get wet, Piesko says. Does it repel water? Inside, test a bit of water on a cotton shirt. What happens to that material?

Active Action

Get moving this winter, whether outdoors or inside, to spark creativity and health.

Great outdoors

It’s cold, but toddling outside for even five to 10 minutes means motion and brain movement in fresh air (after all, indoors, germs tend to circulate in one small area!). Jude has a small hill outside, Harris says; when it snows, kids slide down it with pieces of vinyl they’ve bought from Arts & Scraps in Detroit. Or go on a mini scavenger hunt. Find a fallen tree twig; bring it inside to create winter art. Or spot a squirrel. Where do kids think it goes to stay warm?

Winter Olympics

The big 2014 games are in Russia Feb. 7-23. Watching ice skating, sledding and tobogganing on TV? “Definitely talk about it,” Turner says. “It’s really a conversation about how they do that” (some speed skaters hit 30 mph – a bit faster than the typical car speed limit in neighborhoods!). See what sparks kids’ interest, too.

Indoor exercise

Stuck inside? Simple aerobics work wonders, Turner adds – running in place, jumping jacks, even marching with bells or shakers. Check out YouTube for simple yoga kids’ moves, like a big “hug the world” reach or a squatting “frog,” that also teaches about animals – and “incorporates calm, stillness and stretching.”

Bake or Make

The kitchen is the ultimate laboratory, even for small fries. Get them in the mix.

Dough time

Whether you DIY or buy (visit your grocer’s freezer section), making bread is an awesome investigation. “The dough starts out cold,” Schrader says; as kids work it, “it becomes softer and stickier.” What happens when you add more flour? Water? Put it in a plastic zip bag and leave in a warm place, like the kitchen counter, to watch it grow. Give kids small, safe plastic knives too: “They’re great at chopping veggies to put on a mini pizza.”

Kitchen aids

Cooking? Have kids watch the ingredient process. Show them how to measure out a half, whole or quarter cup, Turner says, and mix simple things like eggs. Setting the table? It’s math: Count the number of spoons, chairs at the dining room table or even clocks in the room for an irresistible “eye spy” game.


Simple and basic, they’re the ultimate open-ended building toy, teachers agree, that boosts math and innovation. A basic wood set will do!

Surprise crafts

“Paint with toothbrushes or sponges,” Piesko adds. Or set kids up to make a collage with dry pasta, beans (great for counting/math), natural items like acorns or twigs or other scraps. “Don’t make a model for them,” says Piesko; instead, say, Let’s see what you can do to make a puppet – or whatever. “You want the process; you don’t want the product!” One final nugget: “Keep it fun. Lay off the pressure. If they get tired, stop.” You can always revisit it later.

Books and Tablets

Favorite stories and smart apps can nurture kids’ hands and minds.


When reading aloud, try a few theatrics, says Rodriguez. During his story times at Maybury, “Everybody gets a voice. I act out the thing. I go crazy with them!” Kids are drawn by the energy and, with repeat readings, notice new details each time. Silly stories also develop humor. “You have to know the right answer” – like, Hey, an elephant can’t ride a skateboard! – “before you can see something as funny.”

Point and probe

Dig deeper into books with two tips from Turner: “Drag your finger on the words” as you read. It helps kids cement the natural left-right progression of reading. Then, spot clues. “Look at that boy in that picture. How do you think he’s feeling? ‘David was furious.’ What do you think ‘furious’ means?” That builds vocabulary and critical thinking.

Tech with care

Around age 3*, try a few interactive tablet apps – but be choosy, says Schrader: “It’s a great way for parents to get involved and be part of that process.” Cookie Doodle ($1 for iPhone and iPad), for instance, gives kids a taste of baking, measuring and shaking up ingredients. Another, ShowMe (free for iPad) is an interactive whiteboard that lets kids draw and tell/record stories, fostering language and conversation chops. Limit time, perhaps 45 minutes max, and remember: “Use it more as a tool,” Schrader says, “and not just setting it over in the corner.”

*Note: The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages screen time for kids under age 2; for other kids, it suggests limiting it to less than one or two hours per day.


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