I get this question all the time. It goes something like this:
Hey Leanne, we have young children who are super active and into everything all the time. What can they do at home to stay busy?
Sure, there’s toys, going to the park, and coloring, but with a little planning you can offer SO much more! Let's aim higher than keeping your child just “busy” and “quiet”. Here's a secret: if you offer activities that have real purpose to your child, she will remain busy and quiet longer than you thought possible. Go visit a Montessori classroom if you don't believe me.
A purposeful activity is anything that your child is keenly interested in doing AND has some greater goal behind it. For example, learning to tie your shoes is fascinating around age 4 ½, and so is screaming at the top of your lungs. One of those has a greater purpose.
In your home, the most purposeful activities you can provide are opportunities to participate in daily family life, skills that build independence, and activities that teach life skills.
Here are ideas for purposeful activities while making a meal together:
Preparing Family Meals
Any age child can participate in making a family meal. This might take a lot longer at first, as you'll need to demonstrate skills, re-wash or cut items, and monitor these activities. But in time, your children can take on responsibilities and begin to actually help in the process.
Begin at the most basic, simple part of a task, and then add complexity as your child is able to master steps. For example, watering the flowers outside might begin with just dumping the water out, and then more slowly pouring the water out, then filling the can and carrying it over.
- Wash root vegetables and hard produce.
- Set their own place
- Wipe their place when finished.
- Tear lettuce and wash in a salad spinner
- Chop fruits and vegetables with a crinkle knife
- Mix ingredients in a bowl.
- Read and follow a simple picture recipe (link to books)
- Knead and roll dough
- Measure wet and dry ingredients
How to set it up
Think through everything your child will need for helping with an activity (like a scrub brush, bowl, towel, second clean bowl), including clean-up. It may help if you go through the activity yourself like your child would and make note of what you reach for. Can she easily reach or access these items? Are they arranged in a logical fashion?
Make sure you have quality child-sized tools. You wouldn't use a sledgehammer to build a birdhouse. You'd want a hammer that fit well in your hand so you could carefully pound in the smaller nails. Hand your child an adult-sized tool, and you're asking for a smashed birdhouse. She needs tools that fit her smaller hands. Because children are learning the muscle movements needed for these activities, having poor tools is more than frustrating, it's teaching the wrong motions. Start with real tools that your child can safely handle, like a whisk, a wooden spoon, and a crinkle knife. With practice and care, she'll be able to handle sharper tools!
The company For Small Hands is my favorite resource for quality child-sized tools. You can also sometimes find smaller real tools in kitchen shops, IKEA, or big box stores. I picked these items up at a thrift store except for the glass which is from IKEA.
Most importantly, make sure you allow enough time for your child to really get into her chosen activity, whatever it is. Remember, the goal of these activities is PRACTICE, not “to get the floor clean” or “say goodbye when leaving.” Our adult end goals are what the child is working towards, but our goal for her in the moment needs to be simply practice, independence, and joy!
Leanne Gray, M.Ed is the owner of The Prepared Environment, which supports families in creating an ideal environment for their children at home. She has over fifteen years experience working with children in both public, private, and Montessori schools, and is AMI primary trained. She particularly loves to hear from you! You can always contact her for personalized support and answers to your questions.