Simple Block Learning: Shapes and Colors

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This idea was an extension on recent block puzzle play with Veronika. But this time, she had to puzzle out two variables at once: color and shape.

To start, I laid down a sheet of butcher paper and began to trace some of her soft foam blocks, making sure to use a corresponding crayon color for every block color.

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She immediately was naming shapes and colors as I worked and wanted to trace (i.e. scribble) alongside me! In retrospect, I would set this up while she was napping for a cleaner piece of paper.

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But eventually, I had enough shapes traced for the real puzzling to begin. It was neat to see her mind work through this activity. She immediately put a red triangle in place when I pointed out the red outline.

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Rectangles threw her off since we had both short ones and long ones, and she tended to either mix up the two or orient her rectangles in the wrong direction.

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Often, she proudly laid down a shape in the right outline (e.g. square in square), without any regard for the color.

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And all of that was perfectly fine! I loved that this was a challenge for her, and how gamely she rose to it.

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The activity also lends itself perfectly to extended play. Once all those shapes were in place, we could start connecting them like bridges into ever-bigger structures and towers.

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Without any prompting, she trotted away and then brought back a toy car. Now we had tunnels for cars to go through or garages to park them in!

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We eventually re-positioned the blocks into one long road for her to drive cars down, which she loved.

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She played solo so happily and I caught her driving cars up one side of a triangle block and down the other, almost like it was a mini mountain.

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And through all of this, she kept up the narrative of shapes and colors to herself. This activity was a true joy.

Chock-Full of Blocks

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Here’s a fun spin on block play if your toddler is growing tired of simply building towers up and knocking them down.

I gave Veronika a small box and challenged her to fill the bottom of it completely with blocks so that none of the bottom showed. She didn’t understand at first, but I modeled the behavior and she soon joined in the fun.

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She did also try to build up a little once our bottom was covered!

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The box was quite small so we decided that we needed a bigger space to work with. Mark out a square or rectangle on your floor with painter’s tape and show your toddler how to fill that space with the blocks.

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This was a great way for Veronika to see how some shapes fit together to form others, too! Two triangles made squares in some of our corners, and two squares could make a rectangle. Obviously she needed a lot of my help for this activity, but it was a fun project to tackle together.

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As a bonus, she also loved the clean-up, throwing all the blocks back into the bin one-by-one until the tape square was empty once more.

Paper Bag Blocks

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My original intent with this project was to make BIG blocks for Veronika from large grocery store paper bags. I decided the idea was rather impractical, since I would need lots of newspaper to stuff them all, and almost never buy a hard copy of the paper anymore.

Instead, armed with lots of paper lunch bags, I opted for this smaller-scale version.

To make each block, fold over the top third or so of the bag to create a mark; this is the line that you will fill up to. Crumple up pieces of an old magazine and stuff into the bags. Fold that top third edge over and tape shut.

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Okay, so these blocks don’t come out perfectly square and are almost more like little pillows or balls, perhaps, than blocks. But in short order we had a whole pile.

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Veronika first loved picking up big handfuls and tossing them.

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You can also enlist your toddler to be the decorator, using marker or crayon to color on the blocks.

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Because she knew I had stuffed them full of magazine pages, she occasionally decided it was more fun to rip one open and pull the pages out.

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Next we tried to build her a little “brick house”. You can expand on this idea and make garages for toy cars or little houses for dolls. If you have enough, line them up like the sides of a maze or tunnel and encourage your toddler to crawl through!

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But as mentioned, Veronika’s favorite thing to do with them was to scoop up huge armfuls and toss them. She nicknamed them “bikers” (she’s into bicycles lately!) and ran over to show them to me with pride.

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Over the weekend, I did put together one giant version for her. For this one, fold the top third of a grocery store bag over, then fill with crumpled newspaper to the line. Fold over that top third and secure with heavy tape like masking tape or packing tape.

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Your toddler will feel so strong carrying around his or her huge me-sized block! 

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Toddler Blocks

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Leftover juice boxes make perfectly-sized blocks for toddler hands. Really the only limit on how many of these you make depends on a) how many boxes of juice you’ve saved and b) your own patience!

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To make each block, cut a juice box in half. (Make sure the inside is clean and dry). Fit the top of the box over the bottom so they nest together, and then tape shut.

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Now cover with wrapping paper! The only paper I had on hand was leftover from last Christmas, which meant the finished blocks almost looked like presents.

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I had originally intended to make a dozen or so, but by the time we had five, Veronika just wanted to play!

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Of course these were great for stacking into wobbly towers.

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We could also make a tunnel just big enough for her smallest toy cars to drive through.

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This was a big hit, and she requested I repair the tunnel each time it tumbled over.

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She could also load them into her larger trucks as cargo!

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In sum, these were fun little blocks for not too much parental effort.

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Building Bin

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On the heels of a Book Box, today I kept Veronika busy during big brother’s school Zoom with a building bin! I kept this one very simple, initially filling a basket with three types of blocks: Duplo, alphabet blocks, and foam shape blocks.

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Although she frequently plays with all of these, she hasn’t ever combined them. I was curious to see how she might mix and match.

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Of course there were standard towers to build…

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…but I also helped her form her name from the alphabet blocks. We could do this in two ways, either finding a block for each letter, or making a big version of her nickname.

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She was most interested in discovering that block towers easily toppled, but not so her Duplo towers, because she could link the pieces.

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She loved waving her big stack of Duplo around, almost marveling at how it didn’t break like other block towers do.

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“Look what I made,” she proudly ran to tell me a few times. Of course she also just loved making little block castles in a more classic manner, and I gave her a “king” and “queen” to play with in her creations.

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Later in the day, I did a quick rearrangement, this time filling the bin with a creative interpretation of “blocks”: individual toilet paper rolls and cans of cat food. Both of these make great toddler blocks because they’re small enough and/or soft enough not to hurt little toes.

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At first she just stacked the toilet paper rolls. I showed her how to do this standing instead of sitting, so the tower grew taller than her head.

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What a reach!

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Then I demonstrated how she could alternate cat food tins with toilet paper.

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She loved decorating the tops of her towers with cat food, almost like little castle decorations.

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This version of the Building Bin kept her busy solo for quite some time.

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Mission accomplished!

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People Blocks

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Veronika hasn’t shown much interest in her building blocks lately. But you can add novelty to any set of blocks by adding family pictures. Suddenly each block has a name and a face!

I cut up old calendar pictures for this game, but you could also have a set printed cheaply at the drugstore. Cut out faces until they fit on your child’s blocks. I think classic rectangular wooden blocks would have worked best, but the game was fine on our foam blocks.

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I attached one relative’s face per block, using clear contact paper to stick them on, while Veronika was napping. She woke up to discover her family!

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This game was great for building of course, encouraging her to use the blocks for quite some time.

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It was also great for putting names to faces, especially for family members we haven’t seen recently due to coronavirus.

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All that aside, there was a definite silly factor. “It’s the daddy block!” she said, stacking the block with her dad’s face. “It’s the Travis block!”

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Her favorite was of a baby cousin, and she almost lovingly carried around the block for a while, cradling it and giving it the best spot in her creations.

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“Let’s but the baby right here,” she narrated as she played.

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This activity was a great way to make an old toy new again. We might have to try it on something other than blocks soon.

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Domino Towers

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Veronika has been having fun building towers up lately, sometimes with unconventional materials, so today we focused on the opposite: knocking down! I got this idea after some recent family fun playing with dominoes. The small dominoes are tricky for toddler fingers to build very high, but she loves the sound they make as they fall!

I showed Veronika how she could stack the dominoes into little towers. To throw in a little learning, I used only one color per stucture, asking her if we should make a purple tower, for example. She thought they looked like little houses and loved peering through! “Window!” she said.

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And then of course the temptation was too much and it was time to knock it down. We repeated this with all the different colored dominoes in our set.

She can also build her own domino “towers” if they are lying flat on their sides, and we talked about their rectangular shape as she built them this way.

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So yes, dominoes can be a great toy even for young toddlers.

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But enlist older siblings if you want to make more sophisticated designs. You can even count the pips as you build for a little math!

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Pillow Towers

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Stacking blocks is great for a toddler’s fine motor skills, but some materials can lead to the occasional owie. Here’s a way to make the biggest, softest towers ever: pillow “blocks”!

After cleaning the living room this morning, all the couch pillows were on the ground, which immediately had me thinking we needed to play with them before restoring the room to order. We added a few extra pillows from the bedroom and I showed Veronika how to stack them one atop the other.

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She proudly added the final pieces.

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And then couldn’t resist jumping atop the pile…which is exactly what I was hoping for. “Cozy!” she said.

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Then we stacked them up and did it again.

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This tower never got very tall, because either she was tempted to knock those pillows down…

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…or wanted to throw her whole body into the mix.

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All of which confirmed my hunch that pillows make the perfect stacking blocks for toddlers.

Summer Boredom Bucket List: Day 6

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Welcome to the final installment of boredom busting ideas for your summer. I’d love to hear how any of these suggestions have gone for your family. Or, you can share additional ideas in the comments, because uh oh… there’s a full month of no-camp summer left.

Idea 22: Make a Mini Sundae on a Spoon. Want the best way in the world to cheer up kids who are complaining that they are hot and bored and tired? Tell them you’re going to make sundaes. But not just any sundaes. The smallest sundae in the world. Travis was gleeful as we pulled out tablespoons to use as the “bowls”.

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We scooped a tiny portion of ice cream onto each spoon. Top with sprinkles of course, or cherries or any other favorite sundae toppings. Then repeat, because these are so small you can tell the kids they get to have three sundaes. Seriously, the trick will work every time. Cue up the cooled off and happy kids.

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Idea 23: Play with Dominoes. If I had to pick one activity from all 26 of these suggestions to occupy my kids, this one would be it.

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A set of domino blocks in all the colors of the rainbow was so worth the purchase. The kids can literally play with them for hours!

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Veronika is in her own world when I set them out. “Let’s build!” she says. “Rectangle!” She’ll build up a stack of them, then knock them down and scrabble them across the floor, and then start over.

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Travis, meanwhile, loves the challenge of copying designs from the box, as well as seeing how long a line he can make.

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By the end of his first night trying, he could line up 20 or more before an errant fingertip made the line come tumbling down.

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Idea 24: Make a Mini Town for Trains and Cars. This was another Highlights prompt that went from simple suggestion to loads of play. First we pulled out the toy trains and a box of blocks. Both kids were immediately building.

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Travis designed a “farm” as little sister set to work on a tall tower. Then we added a few construction vehicles to the farm site, so now it was a construction site! Travis moved the blocks like rubble and began making his design more sophisticated.

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We needed a residential neighborhood down the road. Magna-tile houses soon followed!

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Then we needed a train station for the train to pull up to.

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Then all the toy cars came out, so we needed roads! Masking tape did the trick.

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Pretty soon it was a thriving city.

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It’s a good thing I got pictures when I did because you can guess what happened next to a 6-year-old boy’s city. It was destroyed by evil Lego snakes of course.

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Idea 25: Make a Time Capsule. This was a suggestion we worked on over the course of a few days. First, you may need to explain the concept of a time capsule to your kids, something you’ll create now and then seal up to open at a later date. Travis was in charge of taking pix with our instant camera!

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The Instax was half the fun, though I had to direct him towards photos of things that exemplified our summer, not just silly shots of his toys.

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When we had enough photos, we decorated a shoebox. Travis proudly wrote Summer 2020, and drew flowers and bugs, and then we tucked all the photos inside.

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I asked him if he wanted to add other summer mementos, but his answer was no. Your kids might consider tucking in newspaper clippings, tickets from museums, or anything else that reminds them of this time period. Now the shoebox is tucked on a closet shelf to open in Summer 2021!

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Idea 26: Make Up Your Own Boredom Buster. Well after all that, it was now up to Travis to think of an idea! His answer? He wanted to chew bubble gum, a rare treat around here. If you have proper bubble gum, you could even turn this into a bubble blowing contest! Unfortunately, I’ve never found a vegan brand that works well for this. But wouldn’t you know it, just chewing gum kept him happy long enough for me to have a little moment of summer peace and quiet.

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Canned Food Blocks for Toddlers

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I had a rather ridiculous number of food cans after this week’s grocery shop, and when Veronika spotted them on the ground, she trotted right over. An instant toy! She immediately wanted to build with them.

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At first it was simply a matter of building towers up and I loved watching her carefully balance the cans. There were two single-serve oatmeal containers as well, along with a smaller tomato paste can, and she zeroed in on these as perfect for the top of the tower.

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Her expression was so intent and serious as she worked.

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Then she took everything apart and started over.

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This kept her busy for a while, until one of the towers fell over and she realized that the cans could…roll!

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Well then of course we needed to go “bowling”. I grabbed a few empty plastic bottles from the recycle bin to be our pins, and our cans went rolling towards them.

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Honestly though, she was less interested in knocking pins down and more interested in just chasing around a rolling can or two.

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Soon this involved throwing. She was very proud of herself, so I didn’t stop her right away. Definitely only allow this part of the game over a padded surface, if you don’t want heavy cans thrown on your floor.

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One note of caution: From the moment she started building, I was worried about her little toes, and yes, one can did fall on her. In retrospect, I would have put shoes on at the beginning!

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Luckily we only had a brief moment of tears before Veronika was up and building again.

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