Preschool Activities on a Shoestring

Sometimes we want to do something creative with our toddlers and preschoolers, but don’t have the energy to think or look up an activity. One of our writers compiled a few of her simple favorites. Be sure to leave a comment and link to your recommendations for easy, affordable activities. 

Activity #1: “I Spy” Jars

There are dozens of tutorials on the internet on how to make I Spy Jars. That’s where we started with these and my 4-year old son hasn’t gotten enough since! He packs these in his backpack when we’re traveling and takes them out when he has a friend over. They keep him thoroughly entertained, curious, and engaged.

To make an I Spy Jar, first collect various small objects and toys from around your home.

Next, take individual pictures of each of those objects. Upload to your computer and with a little editing work, make a chart of all the objects. I like to name the objects underneath the picture. (For children that know how to read, you could just make a list of the objects.) Place the chart inside a sheet protector, or a more costly option is to laminate it. A cheaper way to laminate is to use clear contact paper; I find that works just as well for all my laminating needs.

Now you will need a jar with a lid, the collected objects, and something to fill the jar with. I use dyed rice to fill the jars; sand works, too, although I found that it can leave a dusty film on rubber objects such as small erasers…To dye rice, mix rice with one spoon of rubbing alcohol and a few drops of food coloring. Let dry overnight. Also, for this project, I purchased the cheapest white rice I could find-a 1 lb bag of generic white rice for $1.

With some simple instructions, my son was able to assemble the I Spy Jar himself by adding a couple of objects at a time followed by some rice.

When using a funnel and creating less mess, my preschooler feels

less overwhelmed and more confident about completing the task at hand.

Glue the lid onto the jar. Using the chart, the child is now ready to spy the objects inside the jar using some basic twisting, turning, and shaking! When the child has spied an object in the jar, he or she can cross it off on the chart using a dry erase marker. Erase using a tissue.

Another option for an I Spy Jar is a themed jar, such as an ocean theme using sea creature toys, or an alphabet theme using alphabet beads.

Activity #2: Sorting

Here’s a sorting activity we came up with after purchasing a back massager from the dollar store. When I purchased this back massager, I didn’t know exactly how we would use it. I noticed all the uniquely shaped bamboo beads, though, and knew it would come in handy for something.

We took it apart and my son decided to save even the thin plastic tubes. I handed him an egg carton along with some wooden spools (clearance rack from craft store) and he, without any prompting from me, started to sort the different beads in the egg carton. He eventually turned it into his own game, sorting, and then building different structures in each section.


Another sorting activity my son enjoys is sorting pompoms by color using plastic tongs into different ice cube trays (pompoms and tongs purchased at dollar store, these shaped ice cube trays were purchased at IKEA; regular ice cube trays would work just as well, too).

Activity #3: Montessori Sandpaper Letters

Using Montessori sandpaper letters is an effective way for children to practice writing letters, to learn self-correcting, and to develop fine motor skills. Sandpaper letters are easy and inexpensive to make, but a bit time-consuming. It was an ongoing project for me that I finished over a few sessions, over a few weeks period of time.

I purchased a package of sandpaper and index cards from the dollar store and made English and Arabic sandpaper letters using these templates:

English lower case letters:  (click on “Print lower case” under “templates”)

Arabic letters:

To make sandpaper letters, print out the templates and use them to cut out the letters. After you’ve cut out all the letters, glue them onto the index cards or any type of cardstock paper.

I also purchased a bottle of sand (used for decorating), and had at home a wooden tray left over from a Melissa & DougÒ toy. I poured the sand in one side of the tray. My son’s instructions were to trace the letters on the cards with his finger, and then to write the letter in the sand. When he completed a letter, he would put the card in the compartment on the opposite side of the tray.

He certainly enjoyed the break from paper and pencil!


Activity #4: Recycling

My children help me take out our empty egg cartons and cereal boxes to the recycling bin every day, but by recycling crayons, preschoolers get to actually see for themselves how we can turn something old into something new. All you need are some old crayons and foil muffin cups (or an old muffin tray).

To make new crayons from your old crayons, remove all the paper from the old crayons and then place the small broken crayon pieces into the muffin cups, either mixing up all the colors or separating the colors.

Place in a warm oven just until all crayons are melted. Remove and they will solidify as they cool. When completely cool, remove the crayons from muffin cups and children now have new, multicolored crayons to draw with. My children also added glitter for a sparkling effect on their drawings.


My 8-year old daughter enjoyed making “earth” crayons using old blue, green, and white crayons.


Activity #5: Arts & Crafts

When all else fails (or even when it doesn’t), a mom and her preschooler can always depend on an arts & crafts project for some solid fun and creativity. With just some paper, glue, scissors, crayons, and sometimes a few other basic craft materials, the possibilities for a project are endless! Here are 3 arts & crafts projects we recently completed:

sea turtle puppet (made with cardstock, foam paper, and a couple of googly eyes)

Native American dancing stick (made with toilet paper rolls, felt, yarn, feathers, a wooden dowel, and beads)

Candle holders (made by gluing scraps of tissue paper to the jars; we use battery operated tea lights instead of candles)

Hagar Emira

Hagar lives in Maryland with her husband and three young children. She enjoys attending Islamic halaqas, reading, learning new things, and spending time with her family.

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