Tag Archives: preschoolers

7 Key Features in the Best Toys


By Laurie Winslow Sargent:

With the glut of toys on the market, how can you choose the best toys for your child? Look for these 7 key features.

This post contains excerpts from the book The Power of Parent-Child Play, © Laurie Winslow Sargent, Tyndale House Publishers. 

Measure Up Cups by Discovery Toys

Image: Measure Up Cups (Discovery Toys)

In my mind, the best toys or games are safe, plus have several or all of the following features related to play value:


  • Can be played with in a variety of ways and stimulate some imagination
  • Teach more than one skill
  • Appeal to several age groups
  • Encourage positive behavior and learning
  • Are fun (for the child—and hopefully for the parent, too)
  • Get frequent, long-term use and stimulate interest in independent play
  • Offer a window into what the child is thinking or feeling

Toys that don’t meet many of these qualifications can be a waste of money and do little but create clutter in your home.

I’m big on what toys teach, partly due to my previous experience working as a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) in public schools, including one Birth-to-Three program. But I’m also a huge fan of helping kids learn through toys because I did just that with my own three kids. (My middle daughter is now a teacher in early childhood education.)

I used to write toy reviews for the former Christian Parenting Today magazine. Toy manufacturers (including Fisher-Price® and PlaySkool) sent me boxes of play materials to evaluate. That made me think more deeply about what was worth occupying space in my own kids’ rooms and what I could justifiably recommend to my 250,000 readers.

Once when the UPS man delivered a huge box of toys for me to review, the neighbor kids were gathered in my yard. Reviewing the toys became a group project. One thumbs-down preschool toy was designed so poorly it made us all laugh. A catapult was supposed to launch plastic treats (with numbers on them) into a creature’s plastic mouth. Theoretically, it was designed to teach child recognition of the numbers one through five.  Realistically, correctly loading and launching the catapult required the motor skills of a child who could count to fifty. Of course my creative crowd found other things to launch with the toy until the catapult fell off.

A much better toy, one that all three of my children loved, was a set of Measure Up Cups, which can be used to “dump, fill, nest, stack and stamp. These volumetrically correct, sequentially numbered cups introduce important preschool concepts related to volume, size, time, color and measurement.”

The toy is described as appropriate for children from 12 months through primary school, but an infant can also play with the larger cups. That means the toy can be played with by the same child for four to five years–and my kids did.

The manufacturer’s site describes 16 different ways you can play with the Measure Up Cups. I’ve modified their list a bit to focus on games you can play with your baby, toddler or preschooler.

Games to Play with Measure Up Cups

  • Stack into a tower to knock down. (Toddlers love to do this, and don’t realize they’re learning cause and effect.)
  • Build a castle (the scalloped edges make great castle turrets). This can lead to some fun pretend play with preschoolers. This is a new feature my kids’ cups didn’t have. Neat!
  • Scoop, fill and pour water, sand, rice or small safe objects. At the same time your child learns mathematical concepts, since the contents of cup #1 plus cup #2 equals the contents of cup #3.
  • Nest the cups to learn about size and relationships. This also helps your toddler’s motor skills.
  • Practice number recognition with your toddler; the cups are numbered both on the outside and inside on the bottom. For fun, a child can put a corresponding number of small, safe objects in each cup.
  • Learn English, French and Spanish words for numbers as those words are stamped on the sides of the cups. This is also new, awesome feature to extend the fun even through early elementary school.
  • Practice color identification as your child sorts and stacks the cups.
  • Hide objects under the cups, then reveal them. This can teach a baby object permanence, but also can be fun for illusion tricks with preschoolers.
  • Touch and feel numbers with your eyes closed, inside the cup on the bottom.
  • Identify animals on the bottoms of the cups with your baby.
  • Stamp the animal designs into dough or wet sand with your preschooler.  Point out to your child that the designs grow progressively larger as the cups increase in size.
  • Trace around the cups and then match the cups to the right sized circles.
  • Practice telling time with your preschooler: the designs on the outside of the cups correspond to clock face positions–another new feature.

As a recap, to choose the best toys for your children, look for ones that can be played with in many ways, stimulate creativity and imagination, teach more than one skill to more than one age group, and make learning fun. The best toys will be used often and your child will enjoy playing with them by himself but also with you. Great toys can actually make parenting more exciting, when through parent-child play you see your child thinking, learning new skills and reaching new milestones.

Play on!


7 Fun Places to Go with Toddlers or Preschoolers


Photo by Karpati

Going stir-crazy? Cooped up? Need to get out of the house for a day with your small children?

Even in the smallest of towns, you can find things to do and people to meet through the following places. Here are 7 fun places to go with toddlers or preschoolers. Some of these places will seem ordinary to you, so may simply serve as reminders of places you haven’t been for awhile. But look too for tips within each place in the list.

1) Libraries often have story times for preschoolers (you can take your baby, too) as well as other,  more elaborate programs.  The library in one tiny town we lived in (2,000 residents) brought in jugglers and even live parrots! Many town libraries are connected to larger library systems that sponsor traveling programs. If you want to check out books, but find it too stressful perusing shelves while managing small children, visit the online catalog while your kids nap. You can pick up the books at the front desk when you go in for story time.

Read the rest of this entry

Toddlers and Phonics: Stimulating Interest in Reading and Writing


My son loved playing with phonics sounds in words from the time he was about two and a half years old. In a previous post (the Ask Anne interview) I mentioned our phonics swing game, which he loved to play when he was three and four years old. In our swing game, when I said “What words start with B?” , he was able to say “bubbles” and “baby” because he understood the connection between the name of the letter B with the associated “buh” sound.

But you might wonder, how did he grasp that at his young age?

I remember wondering myself, Why does Tyler enjoy letters and words so much?  Is it because he’s seen me putting words to paper since the day he was born? Or maybe because we’ve read stories together, every single evening, since he was a baby? 

It all happened more naturally than you might think.

Tyler discovered early on that those strange marks could create colorful, active images in his  mind. He also associated our story times with warm snuggling.

When Tyler first began pointing in books and asking me to identify alphabet letters, I gave him a wooden puzzle with the letters in his name. He loved it, so quickly learned his first five letters:  T Y L E R.

Shortly thereafter, when he saw an EXIT sign at a store, he yelled out ecstatically, “Look! my E!”

Encouraged by his excitement, I bought a puzzle with all the alphabet letters. We sang the alphabet song while touching individual pieces. That way,  he didn’t just learn the song. He had a visual image of each letter in his mind as he sang it. To him, it was just a fun game and I had no agenda.

Still three years old, Tyler began to invent games with letters. He’d line puzzle letters up in order (using the song to remind himself). He’d ask me to remove one letter when he was not looking,  so he could guess which letter was missing.

Note: it’s normal and fine for kids to not be interested in this at such a young age. But if one is, why not play along?

Puzzle games were followed by my son’s determination to draw the letters himself.  At first I hesitated. Shouldn’t he learn all the letters and sounds before writing them–and from a qualified teacher? Did I know what I was doing?

Up to that point, I had not made any conscious decision about how and when I would teach my son to read or write. I simply loved language myself, so teaching him what an alphabet letter looked like–and eventually what it sounded like–seemed no different from showing him how to hold a spoon, or throw a ball, or put on his own socks.

Most of the time I simply responded to his own eager questions, which often came when I was preoccupied in the kitchen or office.

“Mom! What does Dad start with?”


Soon after, instead of saying “D” I’d say, “It makes the duh sound. What letter do you think the letter is?”

That led to other words starting with the “duh” sound, then the “buh” sound.  When my son played our swing game, he could think of words with those sounds faster than I could, and beat me!

Next, as my child sat in his “art chair” (a high chair with a very large tray) with crayons and paper, he demanded that I teach him to write. Yikes! I worried that his not yet fully developed  fine motor skills might frustrate him. But he was insistent.

“MOM! How do you make H?

These questions usually came when I was busy in the kitchen or office, so I might call out, “Two sticks with  line across them!”

He’d show me his handiwork and I’d encourage him without over-correcting him. After all, he was simply having fun. Why spoil it?

But then he not only want to write letters, he wanted to spell words too. This was problematic only because he didn’t know all the phonics sounds yet. And much as I loved playing with him, I had plenty of work to do!  However, he was insistent.

“Mom! Mom! How do you spell Trevor?”

To save my own sanity I bumped up the phonics instruction so he could figure it out himself. That way, I’d not have to constantly spell words for him, because then he wanted to make LISTS!  List of names of his friends. Lists of birthday presents he wanted. He may not have known the phonics sounds of all the letters in the alphabet. But he wanted to know the phonics sounds for the letters in the words he wanted to write.

I actually felt a little guilty at first, because this seemed backward, and I wasn’t sure I should encourage it.  I suspected that  his future preschool teachers would want him to learn letters and phonics sounds  in a specific order. I also knew that a child usually learns all the letters of the alphabet and how to write them before attempting to write whole words.

But Tyler was enjoying the thrill of discovery. He found it irresistible. So I shrugged, and figured when he got to preschool he could fill in the gaps.  (As for what happened when he actually entered preschool–that’s a story for another blog post!)

Your own toddler may have zero interest in the way letters and words work. My Child #2 was as interested as Tyler was. However, Child  #3, while equally intelligent, was more interested in physical movement, so learned phonics sounds, reading and writing at the same pace as most kids do, in preschool and public school. She, now a teen, is an excellent writer, and on the honor roll. But when she was three and four, instead of wanting to sit in a chair with crayon in hand, demanding I spell things, she dragged me out the door so she could swing somewhere on monkey bars with astonishing coordination. You may have a child who is equally disinterested in the alphabet and more interested in physical games.

However, if you DO have a child who expresses very early interest in the written word, try as I did. Let your child play with a wooden alphabet puzzles, play phonics games in the car or at the playground, (see my Animal Alphabet post) and have writing materials (crayons and paper) ever handy!

Play on, and learn together!


Laurie Winslow Sargent


Copyright 2003-2011, Laurie Winslow Sargent; All Rights Reserved. Portions of this article are excerpted from page 167, Chapter 12: ABC and Do-Re-Mi –Using Play to Teach, in the hardcover book  The Power of Parent-Child Play, previously published by Tyndale House Publishers. 

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