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Value, Not Cost for Preschool Playthings – Good Parenting

By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I’m a preschool teacher but also a mom of two little ones. My new classroom is sparsely furnished and supplied with the bare minimum of equipment and materials to start the year off with twelve three- and four-year-olds for a half-day program. I think we have more toys at home! The director gave me a budget which MIGHT cover some additional art supplies and learning materials, but it won’t go far.

What do you consider the essentials for my students’ successful development this school year? Maybe I can ask the parents for specific donations.

Shoestring Budget

Dear S.B.,

The most important piece of equipment in the room is you. Your students will be fortunate to have a teacher who is excited about their learning, is knowledgeable enough about many things but still curious enough to help them gain even more information, is understanding and supportive of their emotional needs, and is observant and ready to take advantage of teachable moments. The furniture, materials, and supplies are secondary.

Less is More

Many preschool classes are so jammed with stuff that it makes it hard for the children to know where to begin during free play time and the overabundance causes distractions during teacher-led activities. Also, with too many things to play with, clean-up time is an ordeal. The children need enough room to easily move around and play out their ideas.

The basic furnishings include a carpeted area for whole group activities which can also serve as dancing and music-making space during free play time. A nearby bookcase or book basket has enough books for every child, with new books periodically circulating between this “library” and the public library. (Some long-established preschools have fulsome libraries of their own with plenty to choose from to match your children’s everchanging interests.) Again, if there are too many books on display in your room, the children will value them less.

There should be a pretend home area with child-sized dining table and chairs, plus an oven and cupboard. These can be found second-hand since the well-made ones are quite durable. Or, you can help the children make what they need from sturdy cardboard boxes.

A set of wooden blocks is standard equipment for toddlers through kindergarten. Again, a well-made set will last for generations of builders. A block can also double as a pretend cell phone, a doll baby’s bottle, or a playdough tool.

Wide open space is also important for outdoor play. Views of wildlife and the sky add to learning about weather, seasons, and life cycles. Do the children have a sand, dirt, or gravel area for digging and toy truck driving? A few balls to kick around, and a couple of hula hoops to roll across the ground, might be all you need to encourage any reluctant children to expend energy and build muscles. Colored chalk is an inexpensive must-have if there’s a surface for outside drawing.

Make it Yourself

Empty egg cartons make excellent math materials. Plus, they are easily replace-able if they tear. You can cut the cups to demonstrate measurement, addition, and subtraction, just like with a set of (costly) Cuisenaire Rods. Cut several cartons into one-cup, two-cup, three-cup, up to ten-cup sections for the children to stack, line up, and make comparisons with. A bowl or small basket of buttons is great for set theory – to group by color, size, or shape, as well as for putting in order from darkest to lightest, smallest to biggest, etc. Both of these homemade math materials also provide experience with fine-motor skills and eye-hand coordination.

Instead of commercially produced posters, exhibit the children’s artwork on your classroom walls. This could be a group mural with the children practicing their scissor snipping skills to turn green paper into grass, and scrunching brown paper grocery bags to make tree trunks. Cut out some green handprints they’ve made with poster paint to add as leaves – the children do the printing on one large sheet of paper, and you or your assistant can cut out the “leaves” to add to the mural. Another wall could represent the children themselves with photos of their  faces as a school of fish, a field of wildflowers, or a night’s sky full of stars.

Save money with home-made playdough which is far superior to the store-bought version. This is an endlessly creative material that helps with fine motor coordination and vocabulary as the children make balls, snakes, bowls and other progressively detailed objects. (Note, if you refrain from giving the children cookie cutter shapes, ideas of what to make have to come from their imaginations!) The dough will last about a month with daily use if you seal it up in an airtight container between uses.

If you (or a parent – see below) are crafty, you can turn mate-less socks into hand puppets for little to no cost.

Make a puzzle from an empty cereal box. Carefully cut the front into five to 12 pieces (more for more skilled puzzlers) and use the rest of the box as the frame. Tape the lid to hold it in place. Recycle the puzzle when the time comes and make a new one!

Parent and Donations

Traditionally, preschool parents aren’t given long lists of required school supplies. Everything the children will use, including the teacher, is provided with support from tuition. However, most parents are happy to contribute items that actually don’t cost them anything. They can also help in collecting items from their workplaces or from businesses they frequent.

For example, ask for free paper for art activities (and envelopes to support learning how the postal system works). If a company changes its logo or address, there may be leftover refrigerator magnets the children can redesign with paint, or with snips from magazines and glue.

Cardboard tubes can be used for endless projects including constructing a pair of binoculars for nature viewing: staple two short tubes side-by-side; punch a hole at the top of each tube to tie on a piece of yarn as a neck strap.  Masking tape and adult help with the stapler (and some other odds and ends) can turn tubes into robots, vehicles, and animals.

Ask parents to check their wardrobes for suitable dress-ups for the children: clip-on neckties, costume jewelry, a work smock, a suit vest or an evening gown (cut it short enough to prevent tripping). They might be able to spare some small pots and pans, wooden spoons and ladles, to add realism to housekeeping play.

It’s easy to gather a few props to play restaurant: a small tablecloth, some real menus, a real notepad and pencil (or a suitably shaped wooden block) for taking orders. A local restaurant may be happy to donate their old menus when they are updated.

If your outdoor space lacks a climber, ask around for a few tires. Drill holes so rainwater can drain out. Add some pressure-treated lumber for “loose parts” play for your young engineers and mountain goats.

The best investment for a high-quality early childhood program is in a teacher who knows how to do more with what they already have.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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