Play is important. It doesn't matter who you are or how old you are. Everyone likes to play and that looks different for everyone. Even though the kids are only in our room for about an hour and a half each week for just one day, it is important for them to spend a small portion of their time there just playing. It helps them learn how to share, develops their imagination, gets out their energy before lesson time, and is just plain fun. We try to have things in our room though that are both fun and functional/educational, meaning they serve some sort of purpose, hidden to the kids of course or they would never consider it fun! ;)
Dress-up clothes...one of history's oldest ways to have fun. Whether you put on your mom's high heels or tried on dad's suit jacket and tie, dressing up and playing make-believe that you were someone else for a time was fun and stoked your imagination. Our dress-up bin is in our storytime center so that, if we re-enact a Bible story, the kids can dress up as the characters to make it come to life for them. We have a knight's costume, a wig, some masks and glasses, a crown, and even a robe. Watch local thrift stores or discount stores after Halloween for these gems. Yard sales are great places to find often times once-worn costumes as well.
I wanted a light table in our room from the very beginning! They feed the senses and more than one child can sit around the table and play at the same time, creating with shapes and watching them come to life when the lights are turned on. But seriously, have you seen the prices on light tables? No matter where I looked, they were well out of our budget. Enter Pinterest! While there were many tutorials, I found the easiest one here. All you need is a clear under-the-bed storage box (Ikea's are the best), white tissue paper, clear tape, and lights. This post suggested I use holiday lights and run the cord via an extension cord if need be out from under the box lid or a previously drilled hole in the corner of the box. I went even simpler. I bought these lights, five of them to be exact, and used double-sided tape to stick them to the inside bottom of my box before putting the lid in place. No cords. And the lights are easy enough to pull up when the batteries need to be changed. You could probably use battery-operating Christmas strand lights as well, but then you would have to wind the strands evenly around the inside of the box and tack them in place to make sure the light is evenly distributed.
Once your box is assembled, you need the pieces for on top. I found these great colorful clear geometric shapes. There are also alphabet letters you can purchase as well.
This file folder storage pocket holds all of my file folder games. File folder games are file folders that, when opened contain an entire game board or activity inside. On the outside back, in a pocket made from an envelope, you store the game pieces. Once assembled, these make for easy transportable fun. Some of the games or activities are for one person and others are for two or more.
There are folder games for Noah's Ark, matching and puzzles, creation and the cross, the Beatitudes, and I am sure you could find more. They are fun and easy games that help solidify facts and characters from the Bible.
One tip with file folder games. Once made, either cover them in clear contact paper or have them laminated for durability.
The play kitchen. Another one of those toys that has stood the test of time. Love this! And I have boys who love playing in this kitchen as much as some of the girls do. A friend donated her daughter's kitchen to us, but you can usually find them at any children's consignment shop or garage sale. I bought the colorful plastic cups, plates, bowls, and utensils. While I originally bought a pack of plastic pretend food for our kitchen, I added to it with some softer, easier-to-clean, and way too cute felt food. If you have Facebook, you can message a sweet and crafty gal named Madeline Holland who lives in Peoria, AZ and she can hook you up with her handmade felt goodies. Here is a peek at her most recent price sheet so you have an idea of what she charges. Very reasonable for the quality.
These peg boards with colorful pegs are great for making a picture in kids' imaginations come to life without paper and crayons. Those little pegs are great for working those fine motor skills muscles too!
What is playtime without blocks? We provide a variety. We have wooden blocks, Legos (check yard sales for batches or moms who are tired of stepping on them for donations), and bristle blocks. I recently saw these ones called Bunchems that are round spiky colorful balls you can stick together to make shapes. Keeping a watchful eye out for those as well.
Plastic or wooden tangram pieces are fun with printed puzzles to match the colorful shape blocks too. The kids can use the pre-printed puzzle ideas or create their own patterns with the blocks. Many sites offer free tangram pattern printables to download and print for your use. Dig deep enough and you'll even find some Christian-themed ones. As with the file folder games, laminate these for durability.
This I Spy game was inspired by this Pin. I used an empty glass Voss water bottle, soaked the label off, and filled it with birdseed and tiny objects, like the kind you might find in bubble gum machines. We actually have a vendor who sells these 10 for $1 twice a month at our local flea market. That's where and when I stock up. I took a picture of each item before putting it in the bottle and then added them to a Word document I printed in color and laminated.
We have a few Magna Doodle boards for the kids to draw on. We actually have one little girl who loves to play doctor and she uses these as her x-ray machines. Seriously. She pretends you have a broken hand or foot, places it on the board, and then draws around it with the pen to make the x-ray. She adds lines to show breaks or fractures! Imagination crazy!
These magnetic gears are very cool. They interlock and then all rotate in different directions when the one with the handle is turned. I currently have these on the freezer in our room, but if I did not have the freezer would have a designated magnet board just for them.
These magnetic faces are cool too. They come in many different skin tones and with different shaped eyes, noses, mouths, glasses, hair, facial hair, etc... You can make dozens of different combinations. It promotes acceptance of all of God's children and is a great social skill builder with the different facial expressions that can be made - angry, happy, sad, excited, etc...
I found this wooden castle on a marketplace site, gently used and with a few of the people still intact. It is the Melissa & Doug castle. I bought a tube of knights and dragons to go with it. For the boys, it is the equivalency of the play kitchen and they love it. And we encourage them to re-enact some of our Bible stories that involve kingdoms and towers, and fortress walls.
This finger puppet theater is in place of a real puppet theater I would love to have in our room, but lack the space for. I got these great Bible character finger puppets to go along with it. Again, great for re-telling our Bible stories.
I bought these aluminum pans at the Dollar Tree. Using craft foam shapes and self-adhesive magnets, I made magnet boards for the kids. The foam shapes come in every style, even animal shapes. I superglued a soda can tab to the backs so they could hang on the wall, but they can easily be taken down for the kids to play with them in their laps. One of them I made using a # from washi tape and then five foam footballs and five foam soccer balls to make the game pieces to tic tac toe. I got the idea for these cookie sheet magnetic boards here.
Ahhh, the pop-up tent. These never grow old with the kids. Some play pretend in them. Some seek to block out sensory overload inside them. When not in use, we store them between the wall and the supply cabinet because they fold completely flat.
This LED hula hoop is fun for the senses and for the wiggle bottoms we have in our room who need to be constantly moving.
I got this idea from a Pin on Pinterest as well. It is a sheet of vinyl siding cut to 6 feet. I used a few cans of black outdoor spray paint to paint both sides. Then I put a strip of road tape down the center of each "lane" and covered that with clear packaging tape for durability. Because it is vinyl, the edges are smooth and not sharp so no risk of a child cutting themselves. I bought some generic Matchbox-style cars from Dollar Tree and a bin to keep them in. I even got a few of those friction cars that wind up when you pull them back first and then take off when you let them go. The kids love racing the cars side-by-side on the track. They lay it flat on the floor or sometimes use a chair or one of the tables to prop it up on to make a ramp.
Last but not least, we have our quiet or busy bags. What are they? Quiet or busy bags are Ziploc bags or even pencil bags that have any variety of objects in them to keep little hands busy and to themselves and little bottoms in chairs when you need them to sit still. It could simply be a bag of yarn and straws cut to various lengths to thread. We have one that is a paper plate with hole punched around the edges and shoelaces to lace around the plate. We have a bag of popsicle sticks and plastic Dollar Tree farm animals so a pen could be built to house the animals. Silly straws and washers and beads with holes big enough to thread onto them, craft pom poms and Dixie cups, a magnet wand and colorful paper clips...seriously, the ideas for quiet or busy bags are only as limited as your imagination, but there are some excellent pins on Pinterest that can help you out if you are drawing a blank. Try this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, or even this one.
Once I assembled all of the bags, I labeled what was inside of each with a black Sharpie on the outside of the bags. Then I bought a collapsible cloth bin from Dollar Tree and put them all inside of it for storage.
And there you have it! That is a pretty comprehensive list of what we have in our ESE ministry classroom to play with.
I am a Christian. I am a wife. I am a mom. I am an author. In that order.