Custom Search

Engaging Toddler and Preschoolers

Engaging Toddlers and Preschoolers in Play

Engaging Toddlers and Preschoolers in Play

Carolin asks:


I was just curious to see if anyone had suggestions on keeping kids engaged in a preschool.

I have it set up to have free play in the morning, until everyone arrives.

Then we start with circle time. Everything is there. Reading book, questions, flannel pieces, etc,

I just find some kids are not into anything, especially the boys, who have nothing like this at home.

Some of my older ones--going to be three-- are just interested in cars, ninja turtles, swords, etc.

This does not really fall into curriculum and because they are the oldest the little ones seem to follow.

They do not want to play with the sensory table, at sit down games or participate in singing.

They cannot wait for free time to rough it back up with the others.

I work really hard to make centers fun and engaging, but somedays it leads to not one interested.

Is it just me or is this normal, and how do we work around it?

Thank you for any insight you may have!


Miss Cheryl says:


Hi Carolin! It sounds like you have quite a range in a multi-age classroom and therefore have both toddlers and preschoolers.

And that is the reason for the lack of participation and yes, it is normal for this age!

It can be challenging when there is such a wide range of ages and therefore developmental levels.

You may need to change some of what you have available and perhaps your scheduling a little bit.

Arrival Time

Instead of Free Play (which I am making an assumption that you mean a free choice of centers) until everyone arrives, have a limited amount of choices available.

It is difficult for this age group to be in dramatic play mode and then stop and come to a group Circle Time.

The usually need some type of hands on activities after being in the car to get to preschool once they arrive.

Some suggestions would be having 3 activities available. Change out what the materials are each week.

Week 1:

1. Cars and a car mat 2. playdough at a table 3. puzzles

Week 2:

1. Blocks and dinosaurs 2. paper and chalk at a table 3. books and puppets or flannel pieces to go with it.

Circle Time

Set a time for Circle Time to start consistently each day. There are always children who will arrive later, but waiting for them can cause two problems:

1. The children already there only have a set amount of attention span time. Waiting an additional 5-10 minutes can throw off their day.

2. Unfortuantely, if parents know that the day is not starting at a set time, they will continue to come later and later. Of course, there are the occasional exceptions such as inclement weather or when a parent is running late for other reasons.

Reconsider Your Goals for Circle Time

You said you have everything ready--you sound quite prepared! That is great! However, the challenge does not sound as though it is your lack of preparation but the children's attention span.

The items you mentioned as an example are a book to read, your questions to ask and flannel pieces if being used this day.

With the age of your children, it may simply be too much at one sitting.

I would suggest having two group times, with each of them lasting no longer than 10-15 minutes each. Even at that, with young twos and young threes, that is long.

The first one would be in the morning, after the Arrival Time Activities.

Utilize this time for hands-on activities and relationship building. Choose activities that allow for your children to participate in a hands-on way.

They like turtles? (Teenage mutant ninja turtles are all the rage!)- provide pictures of turtles that you have places on Ninja Turtle color cards (red, blue, orange, purple). Have them name the turtle that wears that color and then place it on a piece of construction paper matching that color.

Do a music and movement activity where they walk like a turtle, act like a turtle on their backs, etc.

Introduce different toy turtles and talk about the differences.

Make this circle time focus one of community and participation.

Have a second circle/group time after Free Play/Interest Center Time.

Sing a song or do a dance to transition from play to relaxing.

Utilize this time for reading the story and asking questions/sharing ideas about the story.


Free Play Time or Interest Center Time?

You state they can not wait to get to free play. Is this the same as interest center time?

You also state a curriculum. Are you required to follow a specific curriculum or do you plan your own?

For Interest Center Time (or free play), the activities can be set up to incorporate what they are interested in based on your theme or focus.

No.....I don't mean "Yay! It's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Time!", although our kids would love that.....it's not appropriate to garnish impromptu swords and begin fighting!

What I do mean is that we need to gain an idea of what motivates and draws our particular group of children into play and use that to set activities...and each of our groups will be different.

It sounds like you have a good idea of what interests your children. Your observations are specific about what they enjoy doing.

Use this to your advantage in your planning (if you have say over this).

You may find my series of choosing themes and activities helpful in this.

Click here to read my Plan A Theme article series.

Ratios and Planning

Finally, how many children do you have and how many adults (in addition to yourself) are in the classroom?

During Free Play/Interest Center Time, each adult might be assigned certain areas to oversee and interact with the children in.

For example:

In one program we had 16 three year olds and 2 adults.

We "separated" the room into halves which we called the "front of the room" and the "back of the room"!

The front of the room had art, computer, library, easel, math/manipulatives.

The back of the room had dramatic play, sand/water table, writing table, science table.

One week I was in (and planning for) the front of the room and my co-teacher was in (and planned for) the back of the room centers.

Some Resources

For some ideas on preschoolers and Circle Time, you may find the following pages helpful if you have not already read them:

Circle Time Dos and Don'ts

Setting Up Circle Time as an Interest Center

Also, here is a book written specifically for the age group you work with! I'm a HUGE fan of this book!



The Encyclopedia of Infant and Toddlers Activities for Children Birth to 3: Written by Teachers for Teachers

I hope this is helpful.

Also, what say you teachers? Do you have ideas and suggestions? Please share by clicking the comment button below!







Click here to post comments

Join in and write your own page! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Ask Miss Cheryl.