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Smart Learning Games

From Zoo School at the Tampa Lowry Park Zoo, Tampa, FL

Bat tag (To play with a bunch of kids)

  • Blindfold one child - she's the bat. The rest of the children are insects.
  • Every time the bat says "beep, beep," the insects call back "buzz, buzz" while moving all around her.
  • When the bat tags an insect, the insect has to go to the bat cave (say, the couch).
  • The last insect standing becomes the next bat.

The hidden lessons: Any chance kids get to work on their social skills, such as following directions and taking turns, pays off in school. Turn the game into Zoology 101 by telling them that they're mimicking echolocation, the complex way bats use sound to detect prey when hunting in the dark.


So big!

  • Check an encyclopedia or go online to and find out with your child how tall his toy animals would grow in the wild.
  • Draw a line outside with chalk.
  • Take a stuffed animal (say, a giraffe), remind your child how tall it can grow (19 feet), and have him walk that many steps while you count together.
  • Mark where he stops and leave the animal there. Repeat with the others.
  • Study your homegrown zoo together: Which is tallest? Smallest? The hidden lessons: Measuring in this way makes numbers more tangible. Plus, he's counting, comparing, and even graphing.

Outdoor play

From Schlitz Audubon Nature Preschool, Bayside, WI 

Family trees

  • Hike through the woods or around a park with your child to find baby trees (short, with thin trunks) and grandpa trees (tall, with fat trunks).
  • Find sizes in between for sisters, brothers, moms, dads, and grandmas.
  • Greet each new family member, and compare their sizes by giving them hugs around their trunks.

The hidden lessons: Transforming the trees into something that's the center of a toddler's or preschooler's world - family - helps them relate to nature. Wrapping their arms around trees helps them feel what small, medium, and big means.


Nature's treasure chest

  • When you're out: Have your child fill each compartment of an egg carton with two of the same object, like rocks, acorns, or leaves.
  • Back home: Look at, touch, smell, and talk about her finds.
  • Then dump them out and mix them up. Two- and 3-year-olds will have fun trying to re-match the pairs. Give your 4-year-old different ways to sort, such as hard vs. soft, rough vs. smooth, and living vs. nonliving.

The hidden lessons: Digging around outside gives kids a chance to explore and take small risks ("What will happen if I touch this ant?"); plus, matching and sorting are precursors of algebra and geometry.


Can you hear it?

  • Find a quiet spot outside where you can sit together. Close your eyes.
  • Use your fingers to count all the sounds that you hear in a minute.
  • Ask your toddler to tell you how many sounds he heard.
  • An older child can show you how deer and rabbits use their ears by cupping both of his hands in front of his ears to hear sounds behind him, or at the back of his ears to hear sounds in front.

The hidden lessons: Hones concentration skills and helps kids learn to pay attention.

Mind and body games

From Fit by Five Preschool, Westlake, OH

Knock 'em down, count 'em up

  • Set up a bowling alley in your hallway with six empty water bottles and a tennis ball.
  • Have your child help you arrange the pins in a triangle, and count them out loud together as you stand them up.
  • After he rolls the ball, ask him, "How many pins did you knock down?" Then count together how many pins are still standing.
  • Set them back up and let him roll and count over and over.

The hidden lessons: He's honing his hand-eye coordination and learning principles of addition and subtraction.


Feelings fling

  • Working together, draw happy, sad, mad, surprised, and silly faces on separate pieces of paper.
  • Make beanbags by filling up socks with dried beans and tying them tightly (the beans can be a choking hazard).
  • Spread the faces on the floor.
  • Ask your child things like "How do you feel on your birthday?" or "What does it feel like when your sister takes your toy?"
  • Have her toss the beanbags to the face that matches her feelings.
  • Let her ask you things.

The hidden lessons: She's learning to put names to feelings, as well as practicing her throwing skills and using her writing hand.

Balancing act

  • Form straight, zigzag, bent, or curved lines on the floor using long strips of colored masking tape. Then come up with fun and interesting challenges like: "Walk along the straight line"
  • "Walk on your tiptoes on the zigzag line"
  • "Now, take three giant steps backward on the curved line"
  • See how many crazy combinations you both can come up with.

The hidden lessons: Her body is focused on balance and coordination while her brain is concentrating on following a multifaceted direction - abilities that will take her far, whether she's listening to her teacher, piecing together a Lego set, or doing her first wobbly pli¿¿s at ballet class.

Creative pursuits

From Learning, the Arts and Me Nursery at the Third Street Music School Settlement, New York City

Wonder colors

  • Cover a table with an old tablecloth and tape down a piece of waxed paper. Then:
  • Pour diluted blue, red, and yellow food coloring into bowls.
  • Drip a red dot onto the waxed paper with an eyedropper (for a toddler, try a plastic spoon). Have him use another dropper to squeeze a yellow dot right next to the red.
  • Watch the colors swirl together: orange!
  • Ask: What might happen to red and blue? Yellow and blue?

The hidden lessons: He's learning to associate colors with their names. The eyedropper or spoon will also fine-tune his fingers for writing.

Dance fever

  • Turn on some music.
  • Have your child make up a simple movement.
  • Repeat her move and add another one.
  • Tell her to repeat the first and second movements and add a third.
  • Keep going until you both break into giggles.

The hidden lessons: Improvising with you shows her how much fun cooperation can be and sharpens her ability to remember a sequence (a math basic). This is also a great way to introduce her to new kinds of music.