As a longtime preschool teacher and mom, Ms. Meyers wants parents to approach each season as a sensory experience to savor with their kids.
The Value of Downtime
Preschool teachers have long been vexed by parents who over-program their kids with too many structured activities. They’ve watched for years with dismay and displeasure as their young students get picked up from class after a busy morning of activities and are promptly rushed off to their next undertaking. Thirty years ago, this never would have happened. Instead, kids went home, ate lunch, built things with blocks, played in the sandbox, colored a picture, listened to a story, and took a nap. Now, they’re carted off to ballet class, piano lessons, Spanish instruction, soccer team, or swim practice. Another structured activity or two will often follow.
Today, as a result of the pandemic, preschool teachers are hoping that parents learned a thing or two about the value of downtime. After all, children of all ages reported being happier and less stressed when their extracurricular activities were put on hold during the early months of the shutdown. They were relieved to have more time at home with their families...more time to just be kids.
The Importance of Free Play
Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College, has devoted his career to studying free play. He writes and speaks about its critical role in fostering joyful, well-adjusted humans who get along with others and contribute to society. He defines it as those activities that children choose for themselves, not those chosen for them by their parents. It includes pursuits that kids do alone or with one another but not those led by an adult, whether it’s a teacher, coach, scout leader, or tutor. In Dr. Gray’s estimation, free play is the most powerful kind of learning because it’s self-directed and, therefore, makes a youngster feel confident and empowered.
Dr. Gray is the author of Free to Learn: Why Understanding the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Through his studies, he realized the dramatic decline of free play in the United States during the past 50-60 years corresponded with higher rates of depression, anxiety, narcissism, and suicide among children and teens. Moreover, during this same period, there was a marked decrease in “internal locus of control” among young people. They were less likely than previous generations to feel in control of their destinies. Their belief that life was random created intense feelings of hopelessness and despair in them.
The Significance of Child-Centered Activities
With preschoolers going back to their classrooms in fall, they now need more child-centered experiences and not more structured ones. They're already getting enough of that at school with teacher-directed lessons, workbooks, and circle times. Therefore, they should do things to use their imaginations, move their bodies, talk, socialize, explore, and be silly.
As the days grow shorter and the weather becomes colder, fall is the perfect time to get cozy indoors with the little ones. It offers opportunities to snuggle in bed while reading books, make comfort food that will warm bellies, and get creative with autumnal art projects. With this in mind, here are 32 fun activities for preschoolers to do this fall.
While some people choose to hibernate when fall arrives, others find it an invigorating season to grab their sweaters, get outdoors, breathe in the crisp air, behold the changing leaves, and enjoy festive community events. Studies show preschoolers benefit enormously—physically, mentally, and emotionally—from being in wide-open spaces. It provides them with unlimited opportunities to push their bodies to new limits, enhance their gross motor skills, and develop an appreciation for the natural world.
- Go on a scavenger hunt. Look for signs of fall while taking a walk in your neighborhood, at a nearby park, or on a local trail: orange, brown, red, and yellow leaves, birds migrating south, squirrels hiding nuts for the winter, fruit on trees, blackberries, mushrooms and other fungi, acorns and pinecones on the ground.
- Take a walk to study trees. Learn their parts: roots, trunk, bark, branches, leaves, needles, nuts, and fruit.
- Learn the difference between evergreen and deciduous trees. Take a hike and observe how evergreen trees keep their leaves/needles while deciduous trees lose theirs in the fall.
- Make a pinecone bird feeder. Tie a few feet of string or yarn around a large pinecone. Spread peanut butter all over it with a plastic knife. Roll it in bird seed. Hang it on a tree branch in front of a window so you can watch birds eat from it.
- Create window art with leaves. Walk around your block and collect fall leaves of various colors (avoid dry ones). Arrange them on a piece of waxed paper. Cover them with another piece of waxed paper. Have an adult iron it. Tape it to a window so it catches the light.
- Visit a corn maze.
- Go to a pumpkin patch.
- Walk through a Farmer’s Market. Feast your eyes on all the fruits and vegetables.
- Make an easy birdhouse with a milk carton (watch video below).
Preschoolers don’t need phonics kits, workbooks, and computer games to acquire early literacy skills (in fact, these can turn them off to learning). What they do need are daily real-world experiences that involve talking, listening, and following directions. They need to know the printed word is essential to our daily lives, whether it’s a fictional story that entertains us or a factual piece that informs us. They need to be exposed to rhyming words, imagery, and vocabulary through poems, songs, and fingerplays.
10. Read Stellaluna by Janell Cannon. This is a marvelous book about a baby bat who’s adopted by a family of robins. While the story is fiction, it teaches children a lot of factual information about bats.
11. Create Sticker Stories. Buy some inexpensive sticker packs at Target or Michaels with fall, Halloween, and Thanksgiving themes. Have your child arrange them on a white piece of paper and create a scene around them with crayons and colored pencils. Then, have your youngster dictate a story to you about the picture they created. Write it on the back of the paper. Read it to the family at dinner.
12. Learn a fingerplay about Halloween.
Here is a pumpkin, plump and round (have your thumbs and pointers from a circle)
On a vine upon the ground.
Here is a bat (have your thumbs hook together, flutter fingers).
Here is a cat (put your pointer fingers on top of your head).
Here is the witch’s tall black hat (form a triangle with your thumbs and pointers).
13. Memorize a Thanksgiving song.
We Eat Turkey (Tune: Are You Sleeping, Brother John?)
We eat turkey.
We eat turkey.
Oh, so good!
Oh, so good!
Only on Thanksgiving
Only on Thanksgiving
Yum Yum Yum
Yum Yum Yum
*Have your child think of other items eaten on Thanksgiving (cranberries, mashed potatoes, corn, pumpkin pie) and sing about those as well. Replace turkey in the song with those food items.
14. Visit your library to get holiday books. Check out some about fall, Halloween, and Thanksgiving that include characters preschoolers love: Clifford, Little Critter, Arthur, and the Berenstain Bears.
15. Discuss gratitude. Focus on giving thanks during the month of November. Before your child goes to bed, ask them to name 5 things for which they are grateful. Write them down in a journal.
16. Listen to Raffi’s There’s a Spider on the Floor (see video below)
Learning to Cook
Little ones love to do cooking projects. Moms and dads, though, can dread them because most aren't suitable for preschoolers. They call for too many ingredients, require too many steps, take too much time, and create too much of a mess. The following recipes were specifically chosen because they’re simple and age-appropriate for the youngest chefs.
17. Make pizza mummies. Ingredients: English muffins, pizza sauce, black olives, green onion or red/green pepper, string cheese. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. For each mummy, spread a tablespoon of pizza sauce onto half of an English muffin. Set olives slices in place for eyes and add round slices of green onion or bits of red/green pepper for pupils. Lay strips of cheese across the muffin for the mummy’s wrappings. Bake for 10 minutes until the cheese is melted.
18. Make pumpkin pie play dough. Ingredients: 5-1/2 cups flour, 2 cups of salt, 8 teaspoons of cream of tartar, 3/4 cup oil, 1 (35gm) container of pumpkin pie spice, 4 cups of water, red and yellow food coloring. In a large saucepan, dump in your flour. Add the salt, cream of tartar, and pumpkin pie spice. Stir. Add oil, water, and a little food coloring to get a pumpkin tone. Warm the ingredients on the stove while stirring. Mix until all the lumps are out, about 5 minutes. Dump the dough onto a floured surface and knead it until it's no longer sticky. Store in an airtight container.
19. Make individual pumpkin pudding cups. Ingredients: canned pumpkin, milk, instant vanilla pudding mix, cinnamon. Put a large spoonful of pumpkin in a cup. Add some milk and vanilla pudding mix. Stir with a spoon. Sprinkle some cinnamon on top.
20. Blend up a raspberry blackberry smoothie. Ingredients: a small banana, ½ cup blackberries, 1 cup fresh raspberries, 1 (6 ounce) container of vanilla yogurt, 1 tablespoon honey, 4 ice cubes. Place all the ingredients into a blender and combine until smooth.
21. Bake individual apple turnovers. Ingredients: 2 large apples, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 2 ounces whole milk, Pillsbury refrigerator quick crescent dinner rolls (1 triangle per turnover). Slice the apples but leave the skin on them. Mix the apple slices with sugar and cinnamon. Roll out the crescent triangle and put the apple mixture in the center. Roll up and seal with milk. Bake in a preheated oven at 400 degrees for 10-15 minutes.
22. Create monster toast. Ingredients: ¼ cup milk, food coloring, 1 slice bread, butter. Pour a small amount of milk into 4 containers. Add food coloring to each. Then paint a monster on your bread with a small paint brush. Toast. Butter lightly (see video below).
Gaining Math Readiness
Children acquire math skills by moving from the concrete (items they hold and manipulate) to the abstract (numerals). Preschoolers learn through everyday experiences: measuring flour while baking, counting books on their shelf, pairing up their socks, building with blocks, playing with a cash register, and creating art projects with shapes.
23. Measure with candy corn. Preschoolers should learn to measure long before they can use a ruler. Look for items around the house—a pencil, an eraser, a book, a cell phone—and use pieces of candy corn to see how long/tall/wide they are.
24. Practice making patterns. Cut out holiday shapes for your child (pumpkins and ghosts for Halloween, turkeys and pies for Thanksgiving.) Have them make patterns on long strips of paper (e.g. pumpkin, ghost, pumpkin, ghost/ pumpkin, pumpkin, pumpkin, ghost, pumpkin, pumpkin, pumpkin, ghost, etc).
25. Memorize a poem that teaches ordinal numbers. Ordinal numbers are first, second, third, fourth, and fifth.
Five little ghosts dressed all in white
Were scaring each other on Halloween night.
“Boo!” said the first one. “I’ll catch you!”
“Woooo,” said the second. “I don’t care if you do!”
The third ghost said, “You can’t run away from me!”
The fourth one said, “I’ll scare everyone I see.”
The fifth one said, “It’s time to disappear.
See you at Halloween time next year!”
26. Learn about shapes. Count out various shapes of different sizes from brown, red, yellow, and orange construction paper. Have your child glue them to a large rectangular piece of paper, making a collage. Use these as placemats for your Thanksgiving dinner.
27. Play Hi-Ho Cherry-O! This is the perfect board game to teach preschoolers basic math skills: counting, adding, and subtracting. It's also wonderful for enhancing fine motor skills as children pick up little cherries with their fingers.
Whether it’s painting at an easel, creating collages with shapes, or making prints with apples, preschoolers gain so much by doing art. It builds their self-confidence, their initiative, and their imaginations. Fall is the ideal time to use a new palette, experimenting with browns, oranges, yellows, and reds.
28. Make a card for Grandparent’s Day (September 11). Use the following poem:
Grandparents are nice.
Grandparents are fun.
They do nice things for everyone.
Grandparents are loved
A whole lot, too
Especially grandparents just like you!
29. Do sponge painting. Cut a kitchen sponge into squares. Pour blobs of Tempera paint on a paper plate. Use fall colors: brown, red, yellow, and orange. Dip a sponge into the paint and then gently dab onto a large piece of white paper.
30. Decorate a pumpkin. Instead of carving your pumpkin, make it last a good long time by decorating it with fabric, felt, yarn, and paints.
31. Make cards for Thanksgiving. Paint your child’s palm and fingers with Tempera paint, using red, orange, yellow, and brown. Have them press their hand down on white paper. Do it for as many cards as you wish to make. When the paint is dry, have your child add legs, and eyes with a black Sharpie. Include this poem on the card:
This isn’t just a turkey
As anyone can see.
I made it with my hand,
Which is a part of me.
It comes with lots of love
Especially to say,
I hope you have a very,
Happy Thanksgiving Day!
32. Make apple prints (see video below).
© 2021 McKenna Meyers
McKenna Meyers (author) on October 07, 2021:
Bill, you're a good guy for reading and commenting even though you don't need this information. Thanks!
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 06, 2021:
Thankfully, I don't have a pre-schooler. LOL Been there, done that, and I do love this list of activities. I just wish I had this list when I needed it. :)