When you are the parent of a four-year-old, every day is independence day! “I can do it myself” is a common refrain, and your child will play with toys for longer and longer times without needing you to participate. You are still very much needed, however, to keep your child safe, to provide lots of cuddles and to arrange for stimulating play. At four years of age, your child is smack in the middle of the preoperational stage of cognitive development. In this stage, your child’s use of language will sky-rocket. He or she will understand the difference between fantasy and reality and will enjoy pretend play. However, the ability to think logically hasn’t fully emerged. The following activities are suitable for children between their fourth and fifth birthdays. Of course, many of them can be enjoyed earlier and later, depending upon the individual child.
1. Puppet Play
With their new-found love of pretend, most four-year-olds will enjoy puppet play, as long as you keep it simple. Don’t be tempted by elaborate puppets or stringed marionettes that your child doesn’t have the coordination to operate. Your child’s stuffed animals or dolls can serve as puppets, but a hand puppet that your child can make “talk” is good for motor skills as well as for the imagination. If the puppet has arms (or legs or wings or fins) that can be moved with your child’s fingers, that develops another set of motor skills. Finger puppets are another fine choice.
You can devise a puppet theater in a doorway using a spring-loaded curtain rod and an inexpensive curtain. Place a low stool behind the curtain for your child to sit on. You play the second most important role – the audience.
You can also role play with puppets to teach your child social skills, such as answering questions, saying no without being rude and being kind to someone who is unhappy. Because this role play involves puppets, it doesn’t feel like instruction or criticism, but your child can still learn how to handle tricky situations.
2. Cardboard Creations
One of the best activities for children also happens to be practically free. Large cardboard boxes can be used for a variety of play purposes. If you have a giant box, you and your child can turn it into a play house, fort or castle. (You can make a cool drawbridge by cutting a door and leaving it hinged on the bottom, then tying a string to the top of the door to raise and lower it.) You can turn a medium-sized box into a car. Add a cushion or two, put on a video and let your child enjoy a drive-in movie! Medium-sized boxes can be cut and connected to make a tunnel for crawling through. Use strong tape like duct tape or packaging tape to hold the boxes together. You can also make an obstacle course out of boxes. Your child can crawl through one, jump over another and jump into a third. Repeat for however many boxes you have, or let your child dream up more ways to use the boxes.
It’s sometimes tempting for parents to take over projects like these and “overproduce” them. While it’s true that you could create a really awesome castle, for example, it’s better for your child’s development if he or she does as much of the work as possible, even if the finished creation is a bit rough around the edges. If you put a lot of time into a cardboard structure, you’re going to hate seeing it discarded or modified for a different purpose, even though that is the natural end of a cardboard box toy. Keep it simple and let your child’s imagination take center stage.
3. Modeling Dough
For an inexpensive toy that gives excellent play value, it’s hard to beat modeling dough. You can make your own easily, but homemade doughs sometimes come out sticky or crumbly. Commercial doughs are easier to work with, especially for four-year-olds. Working with dough is great exercise for little hands and fingers and good for manual dexterity. It also provides tactile satisfaction. Just think about how relaxing kneading a chunk of dough can be even for an adult!
Show your child how to use the palm of the hand in a circular motion to create a ball. Change that motion to a back-and-forth movement of the palm, and your child can make a cylinder, which can easily be modified into a snake. You can give your child a sturdy plastic glass for rolling the playdough flat. Then it can be cut into shapes with a plastic knife.
Your child doesn’t need specially designed play dough playsets, which tend to stifle creativity, but a few gadgets are nice. Extruders for the dough are available in several different designs, and kids find them fascinating. It’s also fun for your child to experiment with making impressions in the clay. Use small toys, sea shells, leaves and other objects. When that exercise gets old, you can add items to the play dough. Raid your craft box for googly eyes, pipe cleaners, and feathers to embellish your child’s creations.
4. Beginners’ Board Games
Four is a great age to introduce basic board games. Many early games don’t require number and letter literacy. Players may travel around a board, for example, by using a spinner that lands on colors rather than numbers. If your child does recognize numbers, however, basic games are a great way to build on that knowledge. In addition, board games build social skills, such as learning to take turns. Some children will have trouble coping if they lose the game. There are two philosophies about this issue. Some parents believe that children should learn to lose gracefully at an early age. Others believe that four is a little young for this lesson, and they opt for games that emphasize cooperation instead of competition.
Go Fish, Bingo and Memory are examples of games that can be played by four-year-olds. (You can find kid-friendly versions of Bingo that use images rather than numbers and letters.) Game manufacturers have created tons of other games for the early childhood market, but some are gimmicky and poorly designed. Reviews from other parents will help you determine which ones are worthwhile.
5. Measure Up!
Your child has been measured and weighed at the doctor’s office and probably at home. He or she may have seen you use a tape measure or weigh produce at the grocery store. Many four-year-olds are ready to do some calculating of their own. If your child can recognize the numbers from one to ten, he or she can measure many things using a standard ruler. If your child can count but doesn’t recognize numbers, you can measure things by counting. Use a toy block as a measure and see how many “blocks” long something is.
Some children will immediately catch on to the concept of measuring and will want to measure everything, much as some children want to learn the names of all the dinosaurs. If your child is interested, you can extend learning by challenging your child to measure things using different standards. Use sticky notes or toilet paper rolls as measures. You can also ask which toy car is the longest, or which stuffed animal is the fattest, and help your child find the answers. A child-friendly measuring tape could occupy your preschooler for hours. If, on the other hand, measuring doesn’t capture your child’s interest, at least you have introduced the concept.
6. “May I Have Your Order, Please?”
If your child is familiar with the conventions of dining out, he or she will enjoy playing restaurant. You can be the patron while your child is the waiter, and then you can switch places. This game can be played wholly in the imagination, or you can use props. A tablet and pencil will let the waiter take orders. Glasses, plates and tableware will make the play more realistic. (Plastic is best!) The food can be imaginary, or you can use play food or non-messy real food, such as crackers, veggie sticks and grapes.
As you play with your child, you are modeling proper restaurant behavior and how to interact with those who are serving you. This kind of play will enhance your child’s knowledge of and comfort with dining out. Soon your child will want to order at real restaurants and will be asking the waiter for extra sauce! Your child will also enjoy playing the part of a bad waiter or a rude diner. This kind of play will tickle your child’s funny bone while it is reinforcing the concept of proper behavior.
7. Innovative Building Sets
By the age of four, your child has probably been enjoying basic building blocks for a while. Don’t toss them out! They can be enjoyed for years and combined with other toys. But it may be time to add some other building sets. In addition to the classics that you may have played with as a child, there are some truly innovative designs, such as sets that use magnets or suction cups to hold the pieces together.
Some of these building sets are pricey. If you can’t afford a sizable set, it might be better to stick to a more basic style. You don’t want your child’s creativity crushed by having a set that’s too small to fit his or her imagination.
8. Just Swinging!
By the age of four, most children can use a regular swing seat, so this is a great time to invest in a swing set. A swing set is superior to a single swing because half of the fun is swinging with a friend. If you don’t have room for a full set, however, a single swing is better than nothing. Hang it from a tree or suspend it from a wooden frame.
Once upon a time, learning swinging etiquette and safety was a part of childhood. Sometimes the lessons were learned in a painful way! Today’s parents will want to teach their children basic safety, such as not walking in the path of a friend who is swinging. Four-year-olds will of course still need supervision, but it’s not too early to teach safe practices. Equipment design also plays a part in safety. The safest swings are made of rubber or plastic, not metal or wood. For extra safety, put mulch or other cushiony material under the swing. Check the parts regularly and maintain when needed.
Swinging is great exercise, and the back-and-forth movement is rhythmic and calming as well. Teach your child how to pump on a swing, and he or she will grow in confidence and be ready to tackle tougher challenges.
9. Tactile Alphabet Play
The year between four and five is prime time for learning the alphabet. Make the process more engaging by making it kinesthetic and tactile. These strategies are especially good for active children.
- Spread shaving cream on a cookie sheet and help your child draw letters in the foam. Smooth over and do again!
- Make letters out of modeling dough. You can help by crafting long thin “snakes” for your child to use in making the letters.
- Draw large letters on card stock or construction paper. Gather an assortment of small objects like dried beans, buttons, beads and small pompoms. Help your child glue the objects on the lines to make a tactile alphabet. You can use all one object for a particular letter or mix and match. This is an especially good activity if your child is learning one letter per week.
- Cut letters out of sandpaper and glue them on card stock. (A set of stencils makes this process easier.) Have your child trace the letters with his or her fingers. The rough sandpaper creates a tactile memory. You can also buy sandpaper letter cards online if you don’t have time to make them.
Remember that many schools prefer that children learn lower case letters first. If your child goes to preschool, ask the teachers how to approach the upper and lower cases or call the kindergarten that your child will be attending and ask for guidance.
10. Wet and Wild!
Nothing calls for water balloons like a hot summer day plus one or more four-year-olds. Start gently, though. Your preschooler may be a little startled the first time that a balloon erupts into a spray of cold water. Soon, however, everyone will get into the fun. Depending upon your child’s personality, you can gently toss the balloons back and forth or have an all-out water balloon war!
Water balloons are thinner than regular balloons so they will break easily. It’s best to fill them up ahead of time, as it takes a couple of minutes to fill each one. Put the filled balloons in a box, laundry basket or other shallow containers. Don’t layer them more than two deep, though, or the weight may break the ones on the bottom.
If you don’t look forward to spending an hour filling water balloons, there are a couple of alternatives. You can buy splash balls that soak up water. These are good for tossing back and forth but not as good for battles. Getting hit with a ball, even a soft ball, is a little scarier than getting hit with a balloon. Sponge bombs are a kinder, gentler water toy. Make them by cutting household sponges into three lengthwise strips. Stack three layers – a total of nine strips – and tie tightly in the middle with twine or zip ties. Fluff the strips into a ball. Drop them into water and toss when they are saturated.
11. Play Chef
Need a little help in the kitchen? Get your child involved! Actually, every parent knows that a four-year-old in the kitchen will probably be more mess than help. Still, this is a great age to get your child involved in food prep. Some parents even say that their children eat healthy foods more readily if they have helped to prepare them.
It’s probably wise to start with snacks rather than full meals. Children should be taught to wash their hands thoroughly before starting and to keep their fingers out of their mouths during food prep. That last one is sure to give a four-year-old trouble, though, so don’t stress too much about it. Four-year-olds can stir things up, spread soft edibles and cut foods that are soft enough to be cut with a table knife. They can also arrange prepared foods for serving and participate in cleanup.
Here are some ideas for kid food prep:
- Ants on a Log. This classic recipe consists of peanut butter spread on celery sticks and studded with raisin “ants.” Precut the celery and let your little one handle the rest.
- Variations of Ants on a Log. Try soft cream cheese with edamame or peas, or hummus with olive slices. If your little one is not a celery fan, substitute carrot sticks or apple wedges.
- Homemade Granola. Have your child mix rolled oats, chopped or sliced nuts, seeds, raisins and other dried fruit. This is a great way to introduce measuring cups. You can add the oil and sweetener if desired and toast in the oven.
- Pizza. Buy prepared crust or make your own. Let your child spread on the pizza sauce, add toppings.
Preschoolers can also cut cheese into cubes. Let it sit out for half an hour to soften. They can make sandwiches like peanut butter and jelly, and they can take grapes off the stem and cut them in half for safe snacking.
12. What’s in the Sack?
For this activity, find or make a plain sack that’s not see-through. A medium-sized drawstring bag is best. Fill it with household items such as a paper clip, piece of macaroni, button, coin, comb and key. This is an appropriate activity for two or three children, although your child can also play by himself. The children take turns putting a hand in the bag and choosing one object to feel. They make a guess about what the object is, then pull the item out and see whether they guessed correctly.
In a variation on this game, try putting items that are less distinctively shaped in the bag. Put in things that are round and square, soft and hard, rough and smooth. The children take turns choosing one item and describing it to you. Then they ask questions to help them identify the object. They might, for example, ask what room of the house the object belongs in, or what color it is. When they think they have enough information, they can make a guess and check whether they were right. Make a list of the items you put in so that you don’t forget one!
Both of these guessing games require that children use their words. Your child may readily recognize the shape of a piece of macaroni, but have to search a bit to come up with the proper term. In the second version, children get to practice using sensory and shape words to describe the object. In the end, this is more of a vocabulary game than anything else.
13. Safety Scissors Skills
Using scissors is a skill that may not be mastered until the age of six or so, but most four-year-olds are ready to be introduced to a pair of safety scissors, so called because they have blunt tips. The edges shouldn’t be super sharp, but they shouldn’t be dull either, or they won’t cut anything and your child will get frustrated. You should emphasize to your child that scissors are only for cutting paper and other craft items.
It’s easier for children to start by cutting something that has a little substance to it. Construction paper and plastic straws are good for beginners. (You can put the pieces of straw on a string for a necklace.) Thinner paper will often fold around the blade instead of cutting. At first, you should let your child snip at will. Use the bits of paper for a cool collage! Later you can draw a straight line and let your child try to follow it. The ability to follow a curved line and cut out shapes may not come until later.
14. Explore the World of Color
Children are fascinated by color, and you can use this interest to spark an interest in art or science. If you make homemade play dough or slime, let your child mix in the colors. Here are some other color activities.
- Color Mixing. Give your child plastic glasses of water and some food color and let him or her experiment with mixing colors. This is a great activity for outdoors. It’s also best if you have food color vials that are partially full. You can add a little water to make a solution that will still work but that won’t be quite so messy.
- Simple Tie Dye. Fold a paper towel into as small a square as possible. Help your child dip each corner into a different shade of food color. Open the paper towel and enjoy the patterns.
- Color Explosion. Pour milk into a dinner plate. Help your child deposit one drop each of red, blue, green and yellow food coloring into the center of the plate. Place one drop of dish soap on a cotton swab and let your child stick it right in the middle of the colors. Watch the color explosion! If your child needs an explanation of the phenomenon, it occurs because the soap molecules are “chasing” the fat molecules in the milk. (Full-fat milk works best for this reason.)
- Colored Volcano. Show your child how to make a “volcano” by mixing baking soda and vinegar. Make it a colorful eruption by adding food coloring or washable paint to the baking soda. A quick Internet search will yield specific directions and lots of interesting variations.
- Blooming Colors. Buy a few white carnations at the flower shop or grocery store. Put each in a clear vase or drinking glass and let your child add a few drops of food color. Watch over the next few days as the flowers start to absorb the color. This experiment will also help your child understand how plants use water.
15. Real World Skills, Too
Besides engaging in guided activities, your child should be developing some safety skills. Preschoolers should know their full names and the names of their parents. As soon as possible, they should also know their addresses and at least one phone number. (Do an Internet search for some creative ways to teach these.) They should know what to do if approached by a stranger and what to do if separated from parents. While teaching these valuable skills, it’s important not to create a fearful child. If taught in the right way, your child will be confident but not worried. A good way to reinforce these skills is by asking your child to think through various scenarios and come up with a plan of action. “What would you do if a man asked you to help him find his dog?” “What would you do if you got lost in the supermarket?” Help your child refine his responses into good plans of action.
You should also be fostering your child’s independence in other ways. Maintaining routines and giving your child small responsibilities are excellent ways to grow skills and to build self-esteem. Supervise bathing, dressing and grooming, and don’t be tempted to take over. Allow plenty of time for these routines, and you won’t be stressed out if your child is slow.
The year between your child’s fourth and fifth birthdays is a special one. For most kids, it’s the last full year before they start formal education. That makes it prime time for learning but also a great time for play. Make the most of it!