School Literacy & Culture’s Annual Holiday Gift Guide – 2017

Play Around the Home: Gifts for Where Children Spend Their Time

Welcome to the 2017 SLC Holiday Gift Guide! We hope this post finds you embracing the holiday season with Thanksgiving just around the corner and the promise of precious time spent with family and friends near. With Thanksgiving, of course, comes the opening of the holiday shopping season and our gift guide is here for you just in time! This year, we’re focusing on “Play Around the Home.” The gifts you see on this list are organized by place in the home and are most appropriate for children aged three to six years old, though some of the materials can be used for children a little older and a little younger.

At SLC, we’ve recently read a book titled, Becoming Brilliant by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff. This text walks readers through what they call the “6C’s” of 21st century learning: collaboration, communication, content (deep knowledge of an academic subject area), critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence. These 6C’s, the authors suggest, are what children need to become “knowledge transformers” rather than “knowledge digesters” (p5); to become the productive thinkers and dreamers of our tomorrows. Our futures quite literally depend on the creative thinkers we are growing and building up in our homes and classrooms! The gifts we’ve selected for this year’s gift guide encourage these 6C’s in young children as they play with friends, siblings and perhaps most importantly, cherished adults in their lives.

You’ll notice these gift picks do not include any technology, and only two items in the whole gift guide even require batteries. The materials are uncomplicated and focus on children engaging with the materials in authentic ways. There are opportunities for building, making music and art, fostering early literacy skills and pretend play options in this gift guide; the sort of play materials young children need most. Don’t get us wrong, there is a time and place for those hot toy items, too (Hatchimals in 2016 or Fingerlings in 2017, anyone?), but we want to be sure that toys like those are balanced with play opportunities that provide numerous occasions to foster children’s oral language development and budding imaginations. So, anticipate seeing a lot of “tried and true” and classic toys on our gift guide this year because some things are just so good they never go out of style!

With little ones in the home, you can bet parents spend a whole lot of time in the kitchen. Someone is always hungry, and prepping meals and snacks takes time! These items are excellent additions to a child’s stash of toys that make for excellent play in the kitchen while a parent or caretaker is making a meal. Wondering why we included Play-Doh and tools rather than a pretend play food set? While the wooden or plastic pretend food is great, a banana will always be just a banana. But with Play-Doh and a set of plastic dough tools your child can create all kinds of imaginative dishes and not be limited to the items in the pretend food basket. Pine cone and pear soup, anyone? Magnets also make a great option for kitchen play as most dishwashers have a magnetic surface. Children can practice building words or creating scenes and play scenarios with the magnets suggested here!
1. Play-Doh 10-Pack of Colors and Play-Doh Shape N Slice Set
2. Melissa & Doug Wooden Magnets Set – Animals and Dinosaurs
3. Melissa & Doug 52 Wooden Alphabet Magnets
4. Melissa & Doug Chef Role Play Costume Set
5. National Geographic Kids Cookbook
6. Stainless Steel Pots and Pans Pretend Play Kitchen Set

Bath time is a favorite play time in many homes with young children. A few new bath toys like these can inspire budding artists, engineers and young readers!

1. Munchkin Letters and Numbers Bath Toys, 36 Count
2. Zviku Magnetic Light Up Fishing Baby Bath Toys Set
3. Green Toys Seaplane & Submarine Bath Toys
4. Crayola Bathtub Fingerpaint 5 Color Variety Pack
5. Crayola 9-Count Bathtub Crayons
6. Lakeshore Waterway Pipe Builders, 52-Piece Set

New and classic books are always a must-have addition to our gift guides. This year brought us several new, great books and we’ve listed a couple here along with a few other new-ish ones that need a home on your child’s bookshelf. Bedtime stories are a routine in many homes with children, offering the opportunity to snuggle up in a warm bed and share a great text with rich conversation about the story. Remember to read animatedly; bring the story to life for the little ones who are listening!

1. They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel
2. Little Excavator by Anna Dewdney
3. The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars by Jean Merrill and Ronni Solbert
4. A Nest Is Noisy by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long
5. Zoo-Ology by Joelle Jolivet

Playroom/Living Room
In a house with young children, the playroom or living room is often the most lively as it plays host to the majority of playtime activities. We’ve included lots of play options for this home space – from board games and puzzles to instruments and fort building blocks to a doll house and train table. Games are always a great addition to a playroom as they offer opportunities to collaborate and communicate with others as well as engage in problem solving and critical thinking. We’ve even included one here that helps develop a child’s budding number sense. You can bet we have blocks in this year’s gift guide, as they are versatile and purposeful. Block play stimulates learning in all domains of development: cognitive, intellectual, physical, social-emotional and language. Opportunities for hand-eye coordination, visual perception, spatial awareness and balance are also provided as children explore with blocks. And let’s not forget options for pretend play in the doll house and train table – these are sure to keep little ones engaged in play for extended time periods!
1. Original Memory by Hasbro
2. Pop the Pig Game
3. Melissa & Doug Busy Barn Shaped Jumbo Jigsaw Floor Puzzle (Preschoolers)
4. Classic Twister
5. Melissa & Doug House Pets Jumbo Knob Puzzle – 3 Piece (Toddlers)
6. Melissa & Doug Farm Wooden Chunky Puzzle (8 pcs) (Older Toddlers/3’s)

1. Fort Boards Prime Pack Kids Fort Building Kit (90 Piece Set)
2. Melissa & Doug Castle Blocks Play Set
3. Melissa & Doug Deluxe Band Set With Wooden Musical Instruments and Storage Case
4. Melissa & Doug Wooden Castle and Kingdom Play Set
5. Melissa & Doug Deluxe Standing Easel
6. Melissa & Doug Easel Accessory Set – Paint, Cups, Brushes, Chalk, Paper, Dry-Erase Marker
7. Melissa & Doug Wooden Building Blocks Set (100 Blocks)


1. Fisher-Price Little People Surprise & Sounds Home (Toddlers)
2. Hape All Seasons Kid’s Wooden Doll House Furnished with Accessories (Preschoolers)
3. Imaginarium Metro Line Train Table

Backyard/Outdoor Play Space
Outside play is essential to a young child’s healthy physical development. Running and jumping and climbing outside fosters gross motor development, and, with materials like tweezers, opportunities to practice fine motor skills as little ones explore the wonders of the great outdoors. Giving a gift like a tee ball set nurtures hand-eye coordination and chasing after endless iridescent bubbles with a bubble machine is just plain fun. Thanks to our climate in Houston, we can take young children outside to play nearly every day of the year!

1. Little Kids Fubbles Bubble Machine
2. Little Tikes Big Digger Sandbox
3. Little Tikes T-Ball Set
4. Kangaroo’s Insect Bug Adventure Set – 18 Pc Backyard Exploration Kit

Happy holidays to all of you. We wish you a joyful season!

Need more ideas?
2016 Annual Gift Guide – Blocks: A Gift That Spans the Ages
The 2015 Annual Gift Guide For Toddlers
Holiday Gifts for Promoting Imagination and Creativity in Preschoolers


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Listening for the Stories

Like hundreds of thousands of Houstonians, our team at Rice University’s School Literacy and Culture program returned to work this week for the first time after Hurricane Harvey’s catastrophic weather event ravaged our city.  We came in jeans and tennis shoes because we couldn’t muster the energy to dress in professional attire and we gathered around the table.  There was work to do, but somehow we couldn’t do it until we’d shared our stories… stories of hunkering down, of four year olds who wore helmets and played in bathtubs through tornado warnings, of loved ones whose homes filled with water and lost everything.  We juggled the guilt of being the lucky ones who entered the homes of our neighbors and the sanctuaries of our churches and used sledgehammers to take out our frustration as we took down drywall.  We hadn’t lost everything, and in many cases we hadn’t lost any thing, yet our world had been shaken.  We were no longer asking “What day is it?”, yet we were still in search of our “new normal.”

Because we are early childhood educators, our conversation quickly turned to the children.  As adults, we had a compelling need to share our stories before we could re-enter the regular world.  “Children will need this opportunity to talk, too,” we said.  Then we asked ourselves, “How can we create these safe spaces for children to share their stories?”

This activity guide is our attempt to work with our colleagues across the city who are just beginning to welcome preschoolers and kindergarteners back into their classrooms.  None of us really know what we will find as the children return to us, but when we talk it through, we realize that our backgrounds as early childhood educators have prepared us to support them. Please share this document with your teaching team, your leadership teams and your fellow educators as we begin to help children recover from the traumatic experiences associated with Harvey.SLC Listening for the Stories-102017 Find the PDF version of “Listening for the Stories: Supporting Prekindergarten and Kindergarten Students as They Return to the Classroom” on our website.

Written by Karen Capo, Jordan Khadam-Hir, Debbie Paz and Vanessa Vierra of Rice University’s School Literacy & Culture
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Program Feature: Writing Across the Curriculum


While it is easy to think of writing as its own “subject,” in reality writing is crucial across disciplines and areas of life. When developed and harnessed effectively, the symbolic thinking skills, confidence, motor skills, inventiveness and more that children gain from creative writing can be translated into success in social studies, science, math and beyond–a true testament to writing’s ability to meet children’s needs in innovative ways. Further, while writing can be an intimidating and frustrating endeavor for many children, educators can utilize activities and techniques that make writing meaningful and exciting. Doing so sets children up with the tools and motivation they need for a life of learning.

Given the powerful promise and urgent necessity of developing children’s writing abilities across the curriculum, we invite you to participate in a three-day workshop this July that provides the opportunity to discover fresh, effective writing activities and techniques that span the genres. Expert School Literacy and Culture mentors and Creative Writing Camp teachers will share narrative, expository and poetry prompts that transfer directly to the classroom, specifically addressing English, science and social studies.

Participants will be divided into two sections. Pre-K through 1st grade teachers will discover techniques that are meaningful to emergent writers and develop expertise in evaluating a variety of strategies for teaching writing and developing voice in the early childhood classroom. Teachers of 2nd through 4th grade will focus on creative writing formats across genres that are meaningful to students, with an emphasis on strategies that make it possible for students to transfer skills learned in creative writing exercises to standardized writing prompts.

Learn more and register for Writing Across the Curriculum. We hope to see you there!



Authored by Magen Eissenstat, Rice University School Literacy & Culture Senior Intern


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Is There Such a Thing as Too Many Toys?

Minimalist Playroom

As teachers and parents, we spend a lot of time thinking about what kinds of toys we give to children. We want toys that will encourage spatial reasoning skills, facilitate motor development, inspire collaboration and spark imagination. But how often do we think about how many toys are in our bins?

In a recent blog post, minimalist Joshua Becker (author of “The More of Less”) argues compellingly that if we truly care about the values listed above, we should consider limiting the number of toys we provide in our classrooms and playrooms. Through a list of twelve benefits he demonstrates how having fewer toys will help stimulate children’s creativity and problem solving skills, executive function, and socioemotional skills.

For example, he cites a study conducted by German public health workers where all of the toys were removed from a kindergarten classroom. As a result, students were forced to be creative and invent their own games based only on what the classroom provided. This example reminds us that anything can become a toy, and giving children the opportunity and motivation to make their own toys helps spark their creativity and teaches them to solve complex problems. Having fewer traditional “toys” also inspires children to find toys in nature, to appreciate art, and to look for satisfaction outside of consumerism.

Fewer toys can also lead to improved executive function in young children. When children have too many toys to choose from, it makes it more difficult to focus on one, so having fewer options can lengthen children’s attention spans. It also encourages perseverance, because children cannot simply move on to another toy if a certain puzzle or type of play becomes too difficult. In this way, having fewer toys encourages children to develop plans, carry them out, and persist in the face of challenges.

Finally, limiting the number of toys children play with can facilitate socioemotional development. Fewer toys means children have to share, collaborate, communicate and have less objects to fight over. On the flipside, Becker argues having too many toys can lead to selfishness and in some cases even entitlement.

Plus, on a practical level, fewer toys makes for easier cleanup and motivation for children to take care of their things! Although many of the points Becker makes are compelling, implementation of his vision can be difficult. How many toys do you provide, and why? How do you manage the competing forces that might push that number one way or another? One thing is for sure: if we want to craft intentional play experiences in our classrooms and homes, we must be intentional not only about which toys we provide but how many.

Read Joshua Becker’s full article here.

Authored by Magen Eissenstat, Rice University Senior SLC Intern

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Playing to Learn, Learning to Play: How Mature, Extended Play Can Develop Both Literacy and Self-Regulation

Mature Play

What does “mature, extended play” entail, and what skills does it develop? These questions, while important for early childhood educators, are rarely taken up by journalists. Po Bronson is an exception: in a national tour of early childhood classrooms he sought these exact answers. Specifically, he visited schools using the Tools of the Mind curriculum–an approach based in Vygotskian theory–but mature, extended play isn’t limited to this program. What Bronson learned is important for us all, whether you already utilize mature play in your classroom and you’re looking for inspiration, or you’re trying to incorporate concepts from this approach for the first time.

So what is it? This approach involves dramatic play centers with some key elements:

  1. Preparation: Before students play in a center (for example, a flower shop), they spend time learning about what it represents. Children might read storybooks about flower shops, visit a real flower shop, or meet a florist. This preparation allows children to draw from their own experiences when they set up play scenarios.
  2. Planning: Each child writes a “play plan” with an action they intend to perform. For example, for a restaurant scenario, the child might fill in the template “I am going to” with “take orders,” and draw a picture of themselves doing so.
  3. Play!: Students switch roles every day and centers every week, and all of the centers are replaced each month. When students aren’t playing, they’re learning about an upcoming center!

Bronson noticed several benefits for this type of play. First, natural motivations for writing are incorporated throughout. Students want to write their “play plan” as well as various kinds of writing that occur in play itself, such as taking orders, making appointments, writing checks or sending letters. Three year olds might only be able to write squiggles on their “play plan,” but these squiggles are an important precursor to the desire and ability to write. On the other hand, kindergarteners write sentences on the board while playing schoolhouse or act out scenarios from books they’ve read or first graders might reenact “Magic Treehouse” books.

Mature, extended play also helps children develop their executive function skills. When Bronson saw a child break from a character role, a teacher simply asked him what he wrote on his “play plan” and the child returned to that activity. And, confirming Vygotsky’s insight that “in play it is as though [each child] were a head taller than himself,” Bronson observed a kindergartener “pretending to be a student [at a schoolhouse center] truly concentrate and fight to use his phonics skills to read the whole sentence. I had the sense that, if he weren’t pretending to be a student, and was instead just a regular student doing this with a real teacher, he would have given up. But by taking on the pretend role of ‘student,’ he kept to his role and managed to read aloud.”

These stories remind us we don’t need to choose between activities that develop executive function versus literacy–in fact, these skills are intertwined and are best developed in tandem. How are you incorporating mature play in your classroom, and how have you seen it affect your students? We’d love to hear your story!

To read Po Bronson’s full article, click here.


Authored by Magen Eissenstat, Rice University SLC Senior Student Intern

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