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How to modify children’s activities for multiple ages

Do you have more than one child and need some guidance on adapting activities to fit them both? Read below for six types of activities and how to modify them to fit the skills of each child.
Two kids of different ages doing the same activity

So you want to set up an activity for multiple kids but are challenged by the fact that they have totally different skills and interests? I’m here to help! I will show you how to keep developmental expectations in mind and modify activities for multiple ages so that each child can be successful and enjoy the experience. This article is long, so I’d encourage you to save it for future reference as you go to setup different activities.

Read below for recommendations on how to setup kids for success in various types of activities. Within each activity type, look for guidance that considers early learning and play skills so that you can successfully modify activities for multiple ages. Older toddler is referring to 2-3 year olds, preschoolers are referring to 3-4 year olds, and Pre-K to Kindergarten is referring to 4-6 year olds.

When I mention ages, keep in mind that there is a wide range for developmental milestones in all of these areas. These recommendations are based on a variety of skill development charts and in no way should be used as a checklist or indicator of whether your child is on level or not. If you have concerns about your child not being able to complete tasks based on developmental recommendations, you should consult with your pediatrician.

How to Modify Sensory Play Activities for Multiple Ages

Sensory Play is any activities that stimulates one or more of your child’s senses. This includes touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing, among others. There are amazing benefits to sensory play, and it’s a type of play that naturally engages multiple age-groups without much editing.

Older toddlers will enjoy sensory play more when there are fewer elements to the play so they don’t get overwhelmed. This could be water play with animals, a bin, and a toothbrush, or it could be a bag of hair gel with buttons inside to move around.

Preschoolers will stay engaged with sensory play longer when there are more elements that also call on higher level skills. Consider adding learning elements to the sensory play to make it more challenging and interesting. Four year olds should be able to sort by color, so adding sets of colored pompoms or manipulatives and sorting by color can up the interest there.

Pre-K and Kindergarteners will love engaging in play that incorporates small world play. This means they can create scenarios within the sensory bin or water play. Adding more elements that can be used for imaginative play can interest older kids for longer.

An example: If you setup an animal bath bin activity (find out more in my Low-Prep Starter Guide), setup one bin with 5 animals, a few drops of soap, and a toothbrush for your younger child. Tell them to give the animals a bath. For older kids, give them more animals plus a few bowls and recommend that they give the animals a bath, count the animals, and sort them by color. They will naturally use the animals to create scenarios.

How to Modify Fine Motor Activities (cutting, drawing, isolating fingers)

Though gross motor skills are a main focus with babies and young toddlers, fine motor skills quickly move up in importance once kids are in preschool. As hand and finger muscles strengthen, kids quickly become more adept at activities that require fine motor skills

Older toddlers cannot use scissors yet to cut paper in a line. “Cutting” activities should focus on ripping paper, making snips in paper, and learning to open and close scissors using things like playdough and modeling clay. Once kids get stronger, they will learn to move scissors forward on the paper while cutting through it.

For drawing activities, two and three year olds do more scribbling than drawing, so they should be setup with instructions that ask them only to mark on paper with dot markers, markers, or crayons. You can ask them to copy and trace lines and circles, but they cannot create more advanced shapes on their own without tracing.

Preschoolers start gaining more control over kids-safe scissors, and they can cut a line or curved segment with emerging accuracy. Eventually they can cut a circle and a square shape after practice.

For drawing activities, preschool kids can practice forming the letters in their name and can copy a square, triangle, and X shape. They can also string beads onto a pipe cleaner or string to create bracelets, another skill that practices fine motor skills.

Pre-K and Kindergarteners can cut out more complex shapes and cut out along borders of non-uniform lines.

They will eventually be able to write and copy their name, write out the alphabet, and write upper and lower case letters.

An example: If you’re making the fruit puppets in my Low Prep Booster Pack, 4-5+ year olds would be able to cut out the circle shapes, while younger kids should either rip out the shapes or let an adult cut them out. From there, steps would be the same to create the fruit puppets.

How to Modify Matching and Sorting Activities for Multiple Ages

A lot of activities require matching items, grouping or sorting items, or assembling items. Knowing expectations for when kids can identify colors and shapes and when they can assemble puzzles or sort items will help you tweak these activities.

Older toddlers can identify two colors usually by the time they’re three, so color activities may be harder for your two or three year old. On the other hand two year olds can begin assembling puzzles up to four pieces, and by the time they’re three, kids can assemble puzzles of up to ten or twenty pieces.

As for shapes, kids can match basic shapes like square, circle, and triangle when they’re as young as two or three. They can also recognize patterns but can’t recreate them on their own.

Preschoolers around the age of 3 or 4 will begin being able to sort items by color, so don’t expect that this will happen before then. They will also be able to assemble more challenging puzzles by the time they’re 4 or 5 years old.

Kindergarteners will be able to put together puzzles of over 200 pieces, and they can match things like upper-case letters with their corresponding lower-case letters. Asking a kindergartener to match something more basic like shapes or colors will lead them to being quickly bored and uninterested in the activity.

Color by number or stamping upper or lower-case versions of the same letter are great matching and sorting activities that will keep kids’ interest for their entire attention spena.

An example: In my Low Prep Booster Pack, there’s a construction paper rainbow activity. For younger kids, ripping pieces of construction paper and gluing it to the matching color is a great way to hold their interest, but in order to be cognitively interesting to an older child, step up the activity! Instead of using construction paper, give them dot stickers with upper-case and lower-case letters written on them. Then, write the matching upper or lower-case letter in the rainbow so that they end up sticking rainbow colored dots on the right color.

How to Modify Pre-Reading Activities (Activities with letters)

Whether an activity is designed to be educational or recreational, pre-reading skills are so frequently integrated into them. Every parent values an activity that is both fun and also teaches letter sounds, letter recognition, or early reading. Knowing how to encourage those early reading skills without making an activity too challenging (and therefore uninteresting) or too simple (also uninteresting) is the key to keeping kids interested in any activity for longer.

Older toddlers developmentally cannot recognize letters (unless they’ve memorized pieces of a puzzle or picture, but that wouldn’t translate to letter recognition beyond that object). Instead, they can begin to note the differences between numbers or letters. Activities that require recognizing familiar objects or using pictures to tell a story are excellent pre-reading activities for this age group. Activities that look for differentiation between letters and numbers in general are also engaging and interesting.

You can incorporate these skills into so many other activities if you spend two minutes thinking about it. Asking them to use a dot marker of one color on letters and another color on numbers is one simple activity, and creating a wall chart with columns and sticking dot stickers onto the columns based on whether it’s a number or a letter is another.

Preschoolers around the age of 3 or 4 will start to recognize individual letters in different places. They will point out letters and numbers in different scenarios, and they can also recognize pictures that start with the same sound. This is where the dot letter pages in my Low Prep Booster Pack will be especially useful. Ask kids to dot or color the letters and then write the letter under the pictures on the pages. Talking about the pictures will add to the recognition of words that start with the same letter sound.

Kindergarteners will be able to make sound-letter associations, so they can do well matching letters with words that start with that letter. Some Kindergarteners will even be able to start sounding out simple words and know sight words. Activities that encourage putting letters together to create words and recognizing and using simple sight words will benefit kids at this age.

Activities that call on your child’s knowledge of the letters in their name is a great place to start for kids near Kindergarten age or in Kindergarten.

An example: In the Low-Prep Kids’ Activity Starter Guide there is a sensory bin activity that would be a great activity to build in pre-reading skills. Add foam letters, letter magnets, or other plastic letters and/or numbers to the bin. Vary the activity by age-group. 2-3 year olds can pull out the letters and numbers while playing and decide whether they have pulled a letter or a number. Older kids can pull letters and say what the letter is and what sound it makes.

How to Modify Pre-Math Activities (Shapes, Numbers, Counting)

There are a lot of activities that integrate early math skills, whether intentional or not. Activities that call on shapes and patterns teach the youngest of our kids how to think in a mathematical way. Once kids start knowing numbers, counting, and adding, their math skills pick up quickly. There are a lot of great ways to modify the same activities to different age groups when they’re related to math skills.

Older toddlers can do a lot more in this realm with activities than in pre-reading activities. 2-3 year olds can match basic shapes and recognize patterns. Early on they will recognize patterns in your house, like tiles on the ground or repeating symbols on wallpaper. They will eventually start seeing patterns in the real world, too.

So many activities that older kids can do more with will have shapes that can be used for younger kids. Setting up an activity in a way that relates to shapes, matching, and identifying patterns keeps younger kids interested and participating.

Preschoolers have so many options for activities that they’ll find challenging but interesting. By the time kids are 4, they can likely count up to 20 and sort by color, shape, and size. This is the perfect age to play games that require counting or matching.

Pre-K and Kindergarteners can start adding using the fingers on one hand, can start identifying which of two numbers is larger, and can add with fingers on both hands (and sometimes higher)

An example: In the Low Prep Booster Pack, there is a wonderful pre-math activity that can easily be adapted to each of these age groups. The activity has kids string pony beads or straw pieces onto pipe cleaners. Young kids can use the printable to continue the patterns shown, while older kids can finish the pattern then create their own patterns. Pre-K and Kindergarteners can then incorporate simple addition when setting up their patterns. Write simple math problems on the printable and have them use beads to represent the numbers and solve the math problem. There is another example for this in the pack. This will will build fine motor skills and pre-math skills.

How to Modify Imaginative Play

Like sensory play, imaginative play crosses age groups and doesn’t really become less interesting as kids get older. On the contrary, kids’ imaginations build over time, so the simple imaginative play scenarios that are interesting to the youngest kids are still well-loved by older kids. They just use them in a more advanced way. This makes imaginary play one of my six year old’s favorite ways to play! Knowing what younger kids will do is important, though, as you can foster their imaginative play to make them more successful.

Older toddlers will begin running with your ideas when they’re as young as two, but they need ideas to build from. Offer those ideas with an object that matches the theme of your suggestion, as the object helps them create the play. Older 3 year olds can play without the aid of an object, but it is still helpful for them to have ideas to build from.

Preschoolers in the 3 to 4 range start acting out familiar events and activities like going to a restaurant or the grocery story, but it isn’t until later in the 4 year old range that they start acting out events that don’t happen as often, like going to the doctor or dentist.

Pre-K and Kindergarteners thrive on small world play. Small world play is when a child develops stories in their imagination or recreates stories they’ve experienced, and then they translate those stories with objects and figurines. It is so fun to watch small world play happen, as it will give you a lot of insight into what’s going on in the minds of your kids. Later Pre-K and Kindergarten kids will start playing games like counting games, games with a dice or a spinner, and board games with rules.

An example: In the Low Prep Booster Pack, you will find quite a few printables to setup imaginative play scenarios. For younger kids, provide figurines or obecjts that match the theme of the play. For example, there are road signs and stoplights with instructions for creating roads. Providing cars and people will be helpful for younger kids, as it matches the theme of the play. Older kids, on the other hand, can play with the signs themselves or add animals, blocks, or other off-theme items to build from the road to a world surrounding the road and where people are going.

Two girls doing crafts on the floor

Four other considerations

You will not only get more interest and engagement by adapting activities to different age groups, but you’ll also see more skill development when the activities are age-appropriate. On top of recognizing what kids can do at these ages in these types of activities, consider these three questions:

  1. What supplies for this activity work for only one age and can be exchanged for a different supply to create a similar activity? (ex. Can one activity use a glue stick for the younger child and bottled glue for the older one? Or would this change the activity to make it not work for one?)
  2. Can your older child help your younger child with some of the steps? Or, can they work together to complete the project? Provide suggestions for which child can do which part of the activity, or setup two of the same activity and let the older help the younger with some part.
  3. How frequently are you checking in with each child? You can coach kids on their focus by fading out the frequency that you’re stepping in and checking or helping with an activity. The more you do these activities, the longer kids will be able to focus.
  4. What can be an easy go to for the younger child if they finish early? Can you put markers and paper plates our or playdough and playdough tools that your younger one can turn to when they lose interest in an activity. Similarly, does your older child have a journal or simple books they can reach for if the activity is simpler and doesn’t require as much time on their part?

Please leave a comment with any simple tips you turn to when adapting activities for multiple ages. I’ll share another post with reader tips that would be helpful for others.

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