By Alex Hasell, co-founder of Little Hands Learning

The first five years of a child’s life are a key time in terms of their development. And the characteristics they develop during this time will likely define much of how they perform when they start school and throughout their education.

Counting skills and knowing all 26 letters is never a bad thing for a child beginning school, but far more important is that children start school with a love of learning and are developing the key characteristics of being an effective learner. It’s not so much what and how much they know, but how they learn.

According to the national curriculum, these are the key characteristics of an effective learner:

  • Playing and exploring
  • Active learning
  • Creating and critical thinking

Try these five easy activities at home.

1. Art Activities

Many parents are often filled with the sense of dread at the thought of art activities. They can be very simple though and you can use what you have to hand at home. Paper, crayons, watercolours, poster paint, chalk can all be used to enable and encourage your child to experiment, create and explore as they wish. Art activities will encourage children to “have a go” at trying something new.

During art activities it is important for children to have opportunities to express themselves. The less structured the art activity is, the better! It is not about the end product; the process in which your child creates the art is much more important.

After the artwork is finished, through discussion led by the adult, they can reflect on what they have created. For example: “Tell me about your painting?” or “Is there anything you would change about your picture?” These types of questions will support the development of critical thinking skills.

2. Sensory Play

Sensory play is any activity that engages at least one of your child’s senses.

Fantastic, and easy, examples of sensory play are coloured rice, water scented with either fruit or herbal tea and playdough. These could all be presented in a tray with different tools, utensils, toys or containers and then the child can freely play as they would like to.

Sensory play, like art activities, is great for helping children develop a “have a go” attitude as part of the playing and exploring characteristic. They can investigate and explore the different materials. They are able to think creatively about how they can play, and it puts them in charge.

Sensory play also lends itself to developing finger strength and fine motor skills, which are important skills children will need when they start writing at school. Developing these physical skills whilst playing will allow children to enhance their progress at school.

3. Simple Science Experiments

There are endless science experiments that are simple enough for children to try. Easy ones to try are floating and sinking with a range of different natural objects or items from around the house; mixing baking powder and vinegar to create a reaction; and melting ice using warm water or salt.

Science experiments are a brilliant way to allow children to develop all the characteristics of an effective learner at once. Through science, children can explore, hypothesise and investigate. Science experiments are always exciting and lots of fun, which gives a child the motivation to engage and persist with the activity even if it doesn’t go to plan to start with. This will develop the characteristic of active learning that will be vital when they are at school and need to focus and persevere with their learning.

4. Small World Play

Small world play is creating a miniature world for your child to explore. It can be a farm, a pond, an ocean or whatever theme your child is interested in. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated, and you can use whatever you have to hand. Animal or people figures, toy cars, pebbles, water and natural items all work well in small world play.

Small world play is a great opportunity for open ended play for your child. It enables them to explore how they wish. There are no right or wrong ways to play through this type of activity; they are free to imagine, explore and interact as they wish.

Small world play is also a fantastic opportunity to develop their language which will then support them in other areas of the curriculum. Whilst they play it is important to not only talk to them and join in, but also allow them some time to play independently.

In addition, small world play it is the perfect safe environment for children to explore the idea of when things go wrong. It is important for children to learn that things don’t always go right and equally important for them to understand that this is ok and that we can learn through these experiences. This builds resilience within your children.

5. Getting Outdoors

There are endless opportunities for play outdoors but some of our favourite ones, that are easy to try, are growing plants, going on a nature scavenger hunt or making your own bubble mixture to play with outside.

The great outdoors by its very nature is an exciting and enabling environment which is exactly what children need to develop their playing and exploring characteristic.

Whilst playing outside children are not only learning about the world around them but it teaches them to think critically and make links between what they already know. This, in turn, helps them understand new concepts.  Give children time to think, talk and ask questions when you are outside together.


Alex Hasell is a former teacher and co-founder of Little Hands Learning, an educational and eco-friendly subscription box for children aged three to six years. Every month your child will receive an exciting gift in the post containing a beautiful picture book and everything needed for four engaging and fun activities. The play-based activities are handcrafted and designed by teachers to focus on key areas of the National Curriculum. The curated books together with the activities help nurture healthy minds and encourage early literacy skills, giving children the best start to their education.

Instagram: @littlehandslearninguk