Making Faces, Five Ways

It can sometimes feel uncomfortable to talk with toddlers about emotions. In particular, I always worry that showing angry or sad faces will make my children mirror those “negative” feelings. But it’s also incredibly important to give toddlers the emotional vocabulary to understand their own feelings, and those of others.

Here are five fun ways to play around with faces and expressions – including those sad ones – to help demystify all those big toddler emotions.

Felt Faces:

For the first game, I relied on a felt set that we own to make round faces and pieces to mix and match as facial features. If you don’t own such a set, glue felt onto cardboard circles for each face, and cut additional pieces of felt into various shapes for eyes, noses, and mouths.

Ovals and circles were great for eyes or open-mouthed surprise. A crescent moon was a perfect smile, and then immediately became a frown once turned upside down!

After showing Veronika a few examples, I encouraged her to design her own faces. Of course hers weren’t always recognizable, but she had the idea. She said this one was wearing a hat:

Funny Faces:

For the next version, I cut eyes, noses, and mouths from a magazine until I had a varied collection. Ideally the images would have been larger, but even with small pieces, Veronika enjoyed starting to mix and match them.

I showed her how to combine the features into faces that sometimes showed multiple emotions, often with silly results. This one looked quite surprised!

She also enjoyed turning the game into sensory play, helping glue them down and then lifting them up again for lots of sticky mixing and matching.

Nature Masks:

For the next version, we first needed to head outside to gather some nature treasures. Once home, I cut two eye holes into a paper plate and then invited Veronika to arrange her treasures any which way.

We ended up with something vaguely human (and perhaps on the spectrum between happy and creepy!). Your child might also enjoy making an animal face for this craft, instead of a human one, thanks to all those fluffy furry nature bits.

Nature Mirror:

Mirrors are a fantastic way to let kids explore their emotions, so for the next round of face play we headed to the bathroom with our nature treasures. First, I invited Veronika to try out her expressions. Could she be happy and silly? Yes!

How about “slumpy” (her word for a mix of grumpy and sleepy)? Yup.

Now we made faces right over our reflections with shaving cream (you could also use washable paint). Now she could either play around with the shaving cream by hand or add a few more nature treasures to it, to alter the expressions.

Faces for the Trees:

Our final emotion game used nature, too, and this time we needed to make “forest putty” a.k.a. dirt mixed with water. We shoveled some dirt into a bucket and then Veronika watered it. Stir with a shovel or stick until your mixture looks a bit like brownie batter.

Now I asked Veronika if the trees had feelings, too! She decided yes, this tree was happy. We smeared on some of our forest putty, then gathered up treasures like dandelions and pine branches to give it a face. Our putty was a bit runny, so we had to make the face down low on the trunk, but if your mixture is more like clay, it might stick higher up on the trunk.

What expression will your favorite tree have? Please share in the comments!

Shopping List

Here’s a cute game to play with your kids if, like mine, they get antsy while at the supermarket. Incidentally, my kids both crack up for it while on the swing set, too, making it a pleasant way to pass some time.

To start, I name two or three items that are on my shopping list. “I’m going to buy… bananas and bread,” I might say. The kids have to guess what else belongs on the list, based on the starting letter of the foods.

Travis, as a big kid, gets the real idea and adds an item starting with the proper letter. You can definitely have fun with digraphs for this game, like ch-eese, ch-iles, and ch-ips.

Veronika absolutely loves to chime in, even though she fully knows her answers are “wrong” or silly. That seems to be precisely what’s fun about it!

She inevitably adds “loo loos” or “doo doos” to the list, and then bursts out laughing. Meanwhile, even though she’s not getting the answer right, she is hearing the alliteration and beginning to connect sounds and patterns.

You can keep up the game while you unpack groceries back home, too, keeping up the smiles and laughter instead of having kids poke into bags for an immediate snack. Meanwhile, all the shopping and unpacking gets done!

Pipe Cleaner Sprinkles

We have so many pipe cleaners in our craft bin right now that it seemed like a good time to put them to use. This activity was great for a toddler because it combined fine motor skills with a little imagination!

To start, I snipped a bunch of pipe cleaners into “sprinkles” i.e. one inch pieces. We had a nice assortment featuring with variety of colors, some sparkly and some not.

Next I gave Veronika a jar that she could fill. A washed and dried nutritional yeast jar was perfect since one side of the lid featured a large opening, and one side featured a small hole. Large spice jars would work well, too. Veronika was quite intrigued and tried out both openings. Sometimes she tried to add a whole handful at a time, but soon realize she needed to use more care.

When the jar is full, the pipe cleaners make a nice, soft shaking sound. Your toddler will no doubt enjoy dumping it out and starting over several times.


Then Veronika began adding “sprinkles” to her hair so proudly!

It was time to add a little twist and use our imaginations. We formed a few playdough “cupcakes” and she became a baker decorating her cakes. She loved placing pipe cleaner pieces just so for this.

In sum, this activity was a neat way to keep her occupied on a rainy morning.

Little Fingers Finger Plays

I love when we can add new finger plays to our repertoire, because let’s face it: Where is Thumbkin? can grow old after a while! These two new ones are fun any time, but especially on long car rides or waiting rooms since all you need are… your fingers! Depending which rhyme you choose, your fingers become four kitty cats or ten gentlemen.

For Little Pussycats, Veronika loves to have her stuffed cat act out out the game alongside my fingers! Simply say the following:

One, two, three, four, (hold up four fingers)

These little pussycats came to my door.

They just stood there and said “good day” (bow your fingers)

and then they tiptoed right away!

End that last line with a tickle over your toddler’s shoulder as the cats run away!

Now you’ll need to recruit all ten fingers and turn them into Ten Little Gentlemen:

Ten little gentlemen, standing in a row. (Hold ten fingers up).

Bow, little gentlemen, bow down low. (Bend your fingers in a bow).

Walk, little gentlemen, right across the floor, (Walk your fingers around).

And don’t forget, gentlemen, to please close the door. (Give a clap!).

Veronika especially gets the giggles for this last clap every time, asking me to open and close the “door” over and over.

Cedar Shaving Indoor Sandbox

I love finding new materials for toddlers to use as an indoor sandbox, and today we tried something totally different: cedar shavings. Veronika took right to the material, and I quickly discovered there were three things to love about it.

First, it smells incredible. That meant the play doubled not only as tactile sensory play, but olfactory sensory play, too. Veronika would pick up handfuls and declare, “It smells really good!”

Second, there was a down-on-the-farm vibe to how the cedar shavings looked in a bin (they made me think of hay in a hayloft), so we set up a little pretend farm play. We added a funnel to be her “silo”, and Veronika loved filling it up with a pitchfork (er, beach shovel).

Then we added toy animals who could play on the farm. Veronika loved sprinkling the cedar down on them, or burying them underneath the shavings.

Finally, the cedar is a dream when it comes time to clean-up. Unlike tiny materials (rice!), this sweeps up cleanly and easily. A win for parents and kids both.

Picture Sort

Veronika and I are working on the concept of making a “match”, so here was a new way to turn the idea into a game!

To start, I cut images from magazines that could be sorted into pairs. These weren’t exact copies of each other, although you could make them so if you have a double copy of one magazine. Our pictures included: 2 shoes, 2 houses, 2 chairs, 2 images of flowers, and so forth.

Glue all these images onto index cards. For a more durable version of this game, you can try a few suggestions from The Toddler’s Busy Book. One option is to cover the cards with contact paper. To take it a step further, glue each image to a round metal lid, as from a frozen juice can, before covering with contact paper.

I kept things simple with the index cards, though, and set them out in a scrambled pile in front of Veronika. Her job was to make each match! When she picked up one shoe picture, I asked, “Can you find it’s match?” She quickly did so, showing that she’s grasped the concept.

Once the cards were all sorted, she had fun simply playing with them and looking at the images for a while. Next time, I might add magnetic strips to the back of the index cards so she can move them around like magnets on the fridge.

Rain Catcher

With two days of rain in the forecast, we took advantage and decided to make a rain catcher. This version is especially fun for toddlers since it involves a little “person” standing guard in the rain.

To set up, cut an empty plastic water bottle apart about two-thirds of the way up with a craft knife. Turn the top portion upside down so it forms a funnel down into the bottom portion, and then add masking tape along the rim to cover any sharp edges.

To make the person, mark off 1/2-inch increments on a wooden spoon with permanent marker. Add character with wiggle eyes and additional features in permanent marker. Travis decided our fellow should be called Dave.

We set the handle of “Dave” into the bottle, then placed him out in the rain. And just in time! Within a few hours, there was already half an inch of water in the bottom. Then, this happened:

Yup, snow in mid April! It was a wonderful and unexpected chance to show Veronika how several inches of snow melted down into only about 1/2 an inch of water, once the temperature warmed back up.

By the end of the evening, the water was nearing Dave’s two inch mark. But oh no, then the wind picked up… and knocked Dave and all our hard work over!

How much rain can you collect in your rain catcher? Please share in the comments!

Color Cube

This giant color “dice” is a fun way to play with toddlers or preschoolers for a variety of color games. Even better, all you need to make it is two upcycled cartons (I used soy milk).

Clean and dry the cartons completely, then cut each one in half. You can now nest them together so they form a perfect cube.

Cut squares of construction paper in a different color for each side, and glue onto the cube. Let dry overnight. The next morning, Veronika couldn’t wait to give the dice a few rolls the moment she spotted it.

Then we started adding in some color challenges. Depending what color landed face up on the cube, I had her run to fetch an object of that color.

Her favorite was a version where we matched the cube to crayons. After each roll, she selected a crayon from our set, and then of course wanted to color on the corresponding side of the cube. Pretty soon we had a decorated dice!

You can play lots of variations on these games, whether having your child hunt for a color object, race to see who can bring back the correct color fasted, have your child hand you a corresponding color of construction paper, and more! Next time we might try a shape cube for a shape hunt instead.

Decorate a Castle

This might not have been the most intricate castle we’ve ever put together, but a few large boxes are all any child needs to be king or queen of the realm for the day!

I recommend starting this project the night before, unless you want very impatient kids waiting for paint to dry. We used a big bristle brush to slather the sides of 4 cardboard boxes with paint. Because it was a lot of surface area to cover, this quickly needed to become a multi-colored castle, but the kids loved the result.

In the morning, it was time to assemble. I cut a few holes in some of the boxes for various purposes; some were small holes to be windows; some were large for Veronika to be able to crawl from box to box; and one was cut out on three sides but still attached at the bottom, to be the drawbridge of course! Be prepared for kids already crawling through and playing while you work. Chances are you won’t be able to keep them away.

You can leave the tops of the boxes straight, or cut out a few crenelations.

To make a working drawbridge, just attach a string or rope to the drawbridge flap that your child can pull on. Now Veronika could safely guard against intruders (like a certain big brother).

For window curtains, I hot-glued a few fabric scraps to a wooden dowel, then hot-glued the dowel over the smallest cut-out.

The queen was ready to rule! Having recently discovered that chalk works great for coloring big boxes, this proved to be a much cleaner method for her to decorate than painting. Veronika loved scribbling, and wanted me to add rainbows and sunshine, too.

I loved watching her take charge of the decorations!

I recommend leaving up big creations like this for at least a week, so your child can revisit it, continue to decorate, and play in new ways. What will your child’s castle look like? Please share in the comments!

Sorting and Comparing, Two Ways

With Veronika a little under the weather, we were looking for low-key activities that would keep her engaged without much physical effort. Here are two fun ways to play with early toddler math concepts: comparing two or more things; and sorting things according to some characteristic.

First, we played a classic game of Large and Small. I gave her a set of objects from around the house, with one item big and one smaller, including: spoons, crayons, socks, and toy bunnies.

For each, she was always able to select which was bigger…

and which was smaller, with no problem.

Sometimes I mixed it up and used words like “longer” or “shorter”, to throw her a curve ball! This made her pause and think a bit longer before picking which item fit the bill.

You can then encourage your child to sort the objects into two piles, with all the big items to one side and the small items to the other. This led us right into the next game: Sticker Sorting!

This time, I taped up sheets of colored construction paper to the wall that matched a set of dot label stickers. She simply had to decide where each sticker should go.

Sometimes she wanted to cover a piece of paper with every dot in that color, as for favorites like red and purple.

Other colors she was content to put only one or two stickers.

But whether a few stickers or lots, she sorted them correctly by color each time.