Photo: Liz England Handmade Thoughts

If you are like me you are always looking for fun and simple activities for your kiddos that do not break the bank. “Learning stores” are full of great toys focused on language, math, coordination, art, you name it, but they are each packaged separately with a price tag to match their appeal. This can be super intimidating for a budget conscious or just frugal person to handle, not to mention all the clutter that they bring with them. Maybe one day we can have an unlimited budget and 2000sqft bonus playroom to store it all in, but for now we must try a less is more approach.

I frequently fantasize that I am raising the next great world leader, scientist, or engineer so I want to be sure I am providing the most advantages for success. I want them to know their letters and numbers, reading and spelling, mathematical principles, colors and get the opportunity to create something original. So the question becomes, how can you give them the opportunities to learn important skills with a simpler set up? (and maybe less stuff everywhere)

The Supplies

Enter the Whiteboard

I highly recommend picking up a whiteboard from your local office supply store or online. We invested in a larger board because multiple children were using it simultaneously. When I was selecting a board I checked to be sure it was magnetic, had a sturdy frame, came with hardware for hanging, and a shelf for keeping markers up off the floor. If it comes with an eraser that is great too, but most likely one will be available with the writing utensils you choose, but I am getting ahead of myself.

The versatility is amazing: you can set up your white board as a calendar, message center, draw a scene for them to finish, create a timeline, post their other artwork for a gallery show, lay it on the floor for coloring time, use magnetic letters and numbers for spelling, reading, and math.

Writing Instruments

I know, groan, you are thinking about markers. Yes, a traditional wipe off marker is perfect for this application and available four for a buck at the dollar store, but have you heard about white board crayons?

No?? You may just fall in love with me now. There are several companies that have white board or dry erase crayons, I recommend Crayola as we were able to get them super on sale and they work great. Now, specialty crayons may seem like a total disconnect from my previous statement about budget and simplicity, but hear me out.

White board crayons are easy to remove from the board but they are also easy to remove from, wait for it, walls. We had a few little Picassos that felt moved to color on many a medium around our house. Wipe-able crayons came right off while their standard counterparts or, ahem, marker buddies, were stubborn and required the use of cleaning supplies.


There are lots of different magnets on the market, letters, numbers, words, pictures, and they come in wood, plastic, metal, and all things in between. We started out with a great wooden set from Mellisa and Doug with the larger magnets on the back that were recommended as they posed less of a choking/ingestion of magnets risk. These were, however, short lived as they were also the favorite chew toys of our sneaky dog. My parents have a whiteboard and beautiful set of wooden magnets at their home that they continue to use without issue and the kids still love those best.

We are currently using the plastic letters and numbers found in the dollar section at Target. Our set came with some math symbols as well, which we enjoy using from time to time. In addition, see what I did there, to these we have some magnets with pictures on them we can use for storytelling or in drawings.

That’s it, all you need, for 6 engaging activities:

1. Map the Alphabet Song

This one is great because it incorporates vocal expression with physical movement and problem solving. Start by layout your letter magnets on the floor next to the board; this is an activity in itself sometimes. Next sing through the entire alphabet song and finish with, “this time will you map with me.” For the younger ones you may need to prepare the board by placing lines to show how to line up the letters ( 4 in the first row, 3 in the second, 4 in the third, 5 in the fourth, 3 in the fifth, 3 in the sixth, 4 in seventh) whereas older kiddos should be able to put them in a line. This time as you sing try to put the letters in order and switch lines at the pauses in the song. Note: if you use a variation of the traditional alphabet song your letters per line will be different than listed above, so adjust for your song.

2. Finish this Picture

Your kiddo will enjoy flexing their creative muscles on this one. Start by either placing picture magnets around the board and ask your child to fill in the picture with their drawing. If you do not have picture magnets, you can start by drawing a few familiar objects on the board with crayons or markers. You will find that the more you do this one the sillier things get. While once a horse and a bale of hay led to a beautiful farm scene it may morph into a horse floating through space while the hay bale is captured by an alien spaceship. The sky is the limit.

3. Plan Your Day

This one is for your anxious offspring. If you have a child who is always concerned about what is going to happen and trying to keep track start doing this with them in the morning, or even at bedtime for the next day. Set up the board and write the day of the week on top, you could even do the date if they are old enough to understand. Next plan out your day, a simple list of activities is good for some, but others may want times for each entry. I also like to utilize symbols next to the words for the little ones who cannot yet read.

Start by asking them what day of the week it is, and the date if they know it. Next decide if you are making a wish list for the day or a set plan. A wish list is less strictly enforced and more of a guideline than a schedule. Starting with “wake up” go through the day adding the words and symbols, lunch, nap, whatever they feel needs to be on the list. If you are near the list most of the day the child can check things off as they go or you can use it as a tool to discuss how the day went in the evening.  This can be helpful if you have a child that has a difficult time transitioning between activities or frequently asks when something is going to occur.

4. Spelling Challenge

This one can be adjusted to suit children of differing abilities. Bring in those letter magnets again. Choose or have your child choose a book or object with words on it from around the house. Challenge them to spell the word on it using the letters on the whiteboard. You can use any words; it could be a nametag from school or a box of pasta from the pantry. The ability to see a word and recreate it will help with reading and writing later on and builds familiarity with the words around them. As children grow you can ask them to bring objects without words and spell them independently. As they are able you can ask them to spell the word with their own written letters. Encouraging engagement with written words is paramount to building a healthy relationship with learning.

5. Beginner Math

Understanding numbers using tangible objects can help form a good foundation for success in math. If you have number magnets you can choose a number and place it on the board. Ask your child to draw that number of circles around it, or another shape. Alternatively you can draw a number yourself as a hollow, bubble, number and ask them to draw the shapes inside it. As their counting improves you can switch and draw a number of objects or shapes and ask them to select the number magnet and place it next to the objects. If they are working on writing you can ask them to draw the number. Eventually you could write the words for the numbers, but that may be getting ahead of ourselves a bit.

6. Storytelling

Schools are all about encouraging storytelling as a tool for reading, writing, and general problem solving. The truth is, storytelling engages children on multiple levels by providing them space for exploring interpersonal relationships and feelings.   You can learn quite a bit about a child through the stories they choose to tell. The trusty whiteboard can come in handy here. Drawing out the parts of a story with characters, scenery, conflict, and resolution can take on several forms. You can choose to use picture magnets, writing utensils or both.  Starting with a simple timeline approach will suit simple stories while older children may choose to create a comic book st‌yle story. Some may add words for setting or dialogue. Other children may choose to use the board to hide behind for a puppet or stuffed animal show. If your child struggles to create an original story you can ask them to draw or act out their favorite book or song to get them started. This will allow them space to build their confidence and imagination.

I hope these activities inspire you to start a playtime revolution of your own and engage your little one in fun, yet meaningful playtime. Those pricy activity kits from the toy store have nothing on a parent armed with a simple set-up and creative spirit.

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