Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Discovering the Alphabet: Letter Activities for Toddlers


Today's focus for our Toddler Series is Discovering the Alphabet! We introduced letters from the start. By reading books together, pointing out letters on walls or shop windows, labeling objects around the house and by simply having letters set up around the house available to them anytime they have interest in playing with them. In their bedroom they have a big wicker basket full of wooden blocks that have colours, letters, numbers, patterns and shapes on them. In our living room, which is where we do most of our activities, are baskets full of magnetic letters with magnetic trays underneath them (seperated by lowercase and uppercase), our LeapFrog letters (we have one set for the fridge and another that is non-magnetic and sits on their bookcase next to their other LeapFrog learning products), along with stamps, posters, puzzles, and all sorts of other letter goodies that I have gathered over the years.


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First up is the classic "Can you spot the letter __" activity! This one is so simple and really only requires some letters. They can be cut out of magazines and glued to a piece of paper (or not), magnetic letters, puzzle pieces or you can just write them down in a scattered fashion on scrap paper. Munchkin really likes magnets, so we usually use our magnetic letters on a tray. We literally have about 10 different sets of magnetic letters of various colours, fonts and sizes and include uppercase and lowercase. You can make the game as simple or complicated as you like. You can ask, "Can you find the B?" or "Can you find the uppercase L?" or "Can you find a red vowel?" or "Can you find the first letter of the word 'cat'?" This is also a great way to introduce phonics, as you can focus on introducing the letter sounds while showing them the letter. For instance, you can ask, "Can you find the letter that says 'ah'?" We really like this Melissa & Doug Magnetic Wooden Alphabet set because it comes with both uppercase and lowercase letters.


You can also use letters in sensory bins, like in our Letters and Oatmeal Sensory Bin or our Foam Letter Sensory Bin.

Next up are Melissa & Doug Self-Correcting Letter Puzzles. We made our own paper version of these months ago (that the kids still use today!), because when we first bought these we were not impressed by how easily the wood splinters. But now that the kids are older and the puzzle pieces are more broken-in, they are much easier to use! I definitely suggest taking these puzzles apart and putting them back together several times before handing them over to kids. Mainly because if they are too stiff while your kids use them the wooden may splinter, or worse, break.


That small set-back aside, my kids love them! We also have the number set and they come in handy for lots of themed activities. You can introduce them one letter at a time (such as for Letter of the Week or letter themed sensory bins) or all at once. Puzzles are great for fine motor skill development and because these are self-correcting puzzles they can work on them independently.


My kids normally dump them out on the coffee table or on the floor. They separate them and scatter them and as they complete them they put them back in the box. 


If they need direction, you could ask them to search for the letters in alphabetical order and line them up as they are completed. If you need to give them a hint, you can point out that the picture sides have a matching word below it. We usually sing while completing these, though sometimes the songs change. Today while we were completing the puzzles our song changed from "B is for Butterfly. Butterflies fly free" to "B is for Butterfly. Butterflies are insects!"


We've had our LeapFrog Letter Factory Phonics set since Bean was a baby and it's still a favourite. We try not to have too many electronic toys around, so we are selective of the ones we buy. The fridge set was given to use second hand and usually can be found on our fridge, which is where my kids like to stand when I am cooking. They love the letter song and each letter is said along with its letter sounds. You can use the non-magnetic letters in sensory bins or use them with homemade play dough (though regular magnetic letters work best). This is also an easy way for toddlers to work on their fine motor skills while seeing letters and hearing their names and sounds.


LEGO DUPLO Play with Letters was one of the first Lego sets that we bought and we still use it today for our activities (see how we learn with play using Lego's). You can introduce them by themselves or with other Lego pieces. They may notice that some of the letters have a matching picture. They might group them by colour. You could sort vowels from consonants or link them together in alphabetical order or form words.


Sometimes we separate the letters from the rest of the Lego's to see what they will do with them. Munchkin usually just builds with them, but he will point out each letter and will often say that he is "building on G" or "smashing V" as he clobbers it. Bean usually stacks them by colour or into words that she knows how how to spell.


Munchkin has loved playing with Lego's since he was about 18 months old, give or take a few months. They are great for fine motor play, as well as colour recognition and pattern making. We have used them for lots of literacy and math themed activities as well. When children are first introduced to Lego's you can present them with a couple and slowing build up from there, either by adding different sizes or shapes, so they can familiarize themselves with how they work. Now Munchkin has a huge bin of them (though I wish it was more organized than that) and will search the entire bin for specific pieces.

You can spread out the letters on a blanket on the floor or on a building plate. Watch them put them together and see what they create!


You can also add other Lego pieces for a matching game! You can focus on the first letter.


Or the whole word! Either have them mixed up by themselves or sorted into a pile with other letters for them to find the correct ones. You can even have a check list on hand so they know how to spell the word correctly. Or you can search for the object that matches the letter or the word. For instance, "D is for Dog. Can you find the dog?"


They can line up the letters...


Or stack them!


We don't usually do Letter of the Week activities, but we did when they were younger. We created small baskets like the ones below that focused on a letter and occasionally on a matching word.




Here is our phonics basket that we used to go with the letters. There's a toy in here for each letter (some letters had multiple objects), though some were hard to come by in Lego form, so we improvised a few (such as drawing an x-ray on one and using a couple of Mega Bloks, like the koala, that fit the DUPLO's).


Bean works on matching the objects to words (if possible).


While Munchkin matches the letter to the objects, such as C is for Cow and Car.


If you don't have a matching object, you can also say, "B is for blue" and match it to a blue block. In this case, F is for fire, fish and fire hydrant. But the fire could also represent orange, the fish as silver and the hydrant as red.


S is for sign, shovel and sheep. The zoo sign could be used for letter Z if you don't have a zebra. The construction work sign could be used for red or triangle or shovel or construction. As you can see, there are many options! We first started by assigning one word to each object, though now they are getting creative on how they sort them!


As you can see, you can use all of these loose pieces for so many activities! Bean especially enjoys using them to practice spelling!


At our literacy table we have a set of letter stamps (that are usually much neater and separated by uppercase and lowercase). We found ours at Target for $3 per set and it is very similar to this Melissa & Doug Deluxe Alphabet Stamp Set. This would mainly be for older toddlers (at least 2+, but you know your child best!). Stamps can be used for simple play (who doesn't love stamping wildly? I know my kids do!), as well as for letter recognition and spelling. Small stamps like these are also great to improve grip and their fine motor skills. You can set them up to practice spelling specific words or to stamp out the alphabet.


Send them on a letter scavenger hunt! We use post-it notes, since they have a sticky back and can be applied easily. My kids especially love when I pre-write them and they can run around with the post-it note pad and stick them to matching objects on the fly. I usually write them like this, "E is for egg." This way they see that the uppercase letter starts at the beginning and the rest are lowercase. Though sometimes I forget and use an uppercase for the letter of the word they are searching for! You can even leave the object word blank and simply put a line there, so they can come up with it on their own and fill in the word later. For instance, we had so many choices for F today that I simply wrote, "F is for __" and let them decide. Munchkin wanted frog, but Bean placed it on the fruit first. So I made a second post-it note for F and he put it on his collection of frogs.



This was totally Bean's idea! She is checking G off on her check-list. :)


I definitely thought they would find the apples in the fruit bowl, but nope, they chose this one instead!



And last, but not least, are letter blocks! I know some children would prefer plain blocks. In fact, some parents may argue that blocks with letters and pictures on them are too busy for young children. To each their own, right? As for us, we only have blocks like these, so that is what we use! It makes no difference to my kids. When they are building, that's all they focus on. It doesn't matter what pictures are on them, they just look for blocks that are the size or shape that they need. But while they build, they are seeing the letters. They are recognizing them and putting the letter to the picture. Exposure to letters will help their literacy skills and in the meantime they are working on their fine motor skills that will also help them down the line when they are ready to hold a pencil!


Their favourite is the Fisher-Price ABC Alphabet Puzzle Block Set. While two sides of the block are plain, the other four have a combination of letters (uppercase and lowercase), pictures, shapes, numbers and each block has one side that forms into a barn block puzzle.


Some blocks are completely smooth while others add a tactile element by being cut into the block. You can use those blocks to practice tracing the letters, which will familiarize the child with the shape of the letter. You can also use alphabet tactile cards or make homemade sandpaper letters for your toddlers to practice tracing letters with their fingers!


Phew, what a long post! I hope these activities will give you some ideas on how to introduce and teach your toddlers about letters and the alphabet while playing!

Be sure to keep in mind that every child is different and not every toddler may be ready for these loose pieces (for instance if they are still mouthing you don't want them to eat a magnetic letter or stamp). 

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