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17 Craft and Free-Play Essentials Every Preschooler Should Have

What you need to keep on hand—and why

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Encourage activities that promote your child’s physical and cognitive development—without spending a fortune. Author and art educator Susan Scwake, of Rollingford, NH, suggests you stock up on these inexpensive and versatile items, and watch your kid have a blast!
17 Craft and Free-Play Essentials Every Preschooler Should Have
Set aside ample time—and space—for your child to create, explore, and discover his inner potential with items that enhance motor skills and inspire imagination. Start with the following 17 basics, and add more choices later on.

1. What: Air-dry clay

Why: It’s lightweight, inexpensive, and paintable when dry. It creates no dust, requires no baking, and stays soft in the container.

Best for: 3+

2. What: Buttons and hardware*

Why: They come in a variety of shapes and colors; they’re great for detail and for their metallic appeal.

Best for: 5+

3. What: Paper with high-shine surfaces

Why: It has visual appeal.

Best for: 2+

4. What: Large blunt plastic needle

Why: It’s empowering to thread the big eye and sew.

Best for: 3+

5. What: Yarn or string and a pair of scissors

Why: Kids can spend an hour tying everything in your living room together, and then another hour taking everything apart.

Best for: 5+

6. What: Elmer’s glue

Why: It dries clear, is nontoxic, and can be bought in bulk.

Best for: 2+

7. What: Chenille stems (aka pipe cleaners)

Why: They’re soft, pliable, and versatile.

Best for: 3+

8. What: Soft, pliable wire, cut into a variety of lengths

Why: It’s great to use with a Styrofoam block; it can make paper and cardboard stand up.

Best for: 6+

9. What: Ink pad

Why: Kids love to use it for thumbprints or found-object prints.

Best for: 3+

10. What: Washable markers in bright colors

Why: They’re attractive, which gives them added appeal.

Best for: 6+

11. What: Illustration board and foam core

Why: Illustration board is sturdy and comes in scores of colors; foam core is lightweight and great for pushpin collages

Best for: 2+

12. What: Masking tape

Why: Kids love to stick things to things. Easy to use and clean up. Comes in various colors, widths, and lengths.

Best for: 2+

13. What: Boxes and a small net to catch and examine critters

Why: They encourage curiosity.

Best for: 4+

14. What: Bucket with handle

Why: Collecting is irresistible.

Best for: 2+

15. What: Clear tubing, turkey baster, plastic boats, funnels

Why: Kids are like ducks when it comes to water play.

Best for: 2+

16. What: Child-sized binoculars

Why: They’re an excellent tool for observation.

Best for: 4+

17. What: Old electronics, screwdrivers, pliers, and sorting containers

Why: They enable kids to take stuff apart and use the parts to invent something new.

Best for: 5+

*Buttons, coins, paper clips, beads, pen caps, and small toys are potential choking hazards for children age four and younger.