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Learning Through Active Play: Gather Round Activities

mother father and child playing at playground net

From birth to three, children learn so much through play. These parent-child activities support the development of early learning skills

Birth to 12 Months | 12–24 Months | 24–36 Months

Gather Round activities are designed to help families promote their child’s language and literacy skills, while also nurturing the other domains of development. A children’s book is suggested for each topic area and age and activities related to the book based on a range of developmental domains and early skills. The activities can be used with parents as a tool to promote children’s learning through book-sharing and age-appropriate parent-child activities.

Birth to 12 Months


Barnyard Dance by Sandra Boynton
Publisher: Workman Publishing Company

Activities that build on the ideas in Barnyard Dance:

1) For some fun “tummy time,” place your baby on a blanket on the floor. Lie down where he can see you and sing a song like “Old MacDonald” but replace the “Donald” with your child’s name, so it may be “Old MacDennis had a farm…” As you sing this song—with all of its funny sounds—your child may be able to stay longer and longer on his tummy. Note: Young babies may prefer tummy time if they have a rolled up blanket or bolster under their chests to help them keep their heads up. (But remember to always put your baby to sleep on his back.)

2) Put on some fun music that you enjoy, pick up your baby, and have a “barnyard dance.” Holding your baby, stomp your feet, clap your hands, bow, twirl, strut, prance, trot, and do all of the other fun dance moves mentioned in the story. Slow it down or pick up the speed based on your child’s cues about the kinds of movement she likes. Whether you go fast or slow, your baby will especially enjoy spending time close to you.

3) Babies often enjoy games that have a consistent pattern that they can come to anticipate. Using a line from the book, such as “with a baa and a moo and a cock-a-doodle-doo!”, you might begin a routine with your baby where you say “baa” when you kiss his hand, you say “moo” when you kiss his belly, and then “cock-a-doodle-doo!” when you nuzzle his neck. After a few times, your baby might start to laugh as soon as he hears “with a…” because he knows what will happen next.

4) Help baby learn about “cause and effect”. Place her hand on your nose and make a funny “mooooo” sound. Do it a few times in a row and show her how you will “moo” when she touches your nose. Then stop and wait—will she reach out and touch your nose on her own? If she does, give her a big silly “moo!”

5) Sing the “Barnyard Dance” song from the book and, as you do, gently bring your baby’s hands together to clap.” You can also lay him on his back and gently bring his feet back and forth up over his belly and toward his chin. Or try softly “bicycling” his legs back and forth to the song. These movements encourage babies to organize themselves around their “midline” or the middle of their bodies. Using their midline is important for skills like rolling and reaching.

12–24 Months


From Head to Toe by Eric Carle
Publisher: HarperFestival

Activities that build on the ideas in From Head to Toe:

1) Cut out a photo of a dog from a catalog or magazine. Glue it to a sturdy piece of cardboard and glue (or tape) a popsicle stick to the back so you can hold it and use it as a puppet. Show the picture to your child and say, “Look at the dog. The dog likes to run!” Then make the dog puppet “run”. Using the pattern from the book, ask your child, “Can you run too?” You can have the dog puppet do many different actions—run, jump, go to sleep, sniff, eat, bark, and so on. With each action, give your child a chance to participate: “This is a dog, and he can . . . jump up and down. Can you jump too?”

2) As you go about your day, point out the animals you see around you. Notice what they do and how they move: “There is a squirrel, and he can run fast. Can you run fast too?” Or, “I see a bird, and they flap their wings to fly. Can you pretend to flap your wings too?” Toddlers love to show you all that they can do with their new physical skills!

3) Take photos of each family member performing an action (hugging, cooking, laughing, brushing teeth, washing dishes, etc.). Glue these photos onto index cards and write descriptions under each picture: “I am a Mommy, and I hug my children. Can you give a hug?” “I am a baby sister, and I shake my rattle. Can you shake it too?” Read these cards with your toddler and give him a chance to talk about or act out each one.

4) Play “over, under, in, and out” with your child. See if your toddler would like to crawl over the pillow, or under the table, into the laundry basket (and out again). Games like this help your young toddler learn the meaning of new words while being active.

24–36 Months


Clap Your Hands by Lorinda Bryan Cauley
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile

Activities that build on the ideas in Clap Your Hands:

1) Like in the book, play a game in which you create “challenges” for your child that she can master. “Jump up and down, then clap your hands.” “Wiggle your bottom and then run to the chair.” “Wave to Grandma and then turn in a circle.” Your child will have lots of fun while learning to listen and follow directions.

2) Look for ways to make everyday routines a game like they do in the book. As you get ready for bed, tell your child in a sing-song voice: “Can you brush your teeth and wash your face? Then we’ll have a putting-on-pajamas race!” Finding ways to make these everyday routines fun can reduce power struggles that often happen around bedtime. It also creates opportunities for you to share joyful moments with your child.

3) Make an everyday walk to the bus stop a chance to have some fun with your child. See if your toddler would like to “take BIG steps,” and then “take teeny, weeny steps,” and then “do bunny hops.” Activities like this give your child a chance to be active while also practicing new physical skills.

4) Get your child up and moving while you are working on dinner or another chore. Lay down a five foot line of masking tape or painting tape on the floor. See if your toddler would like to walk along the “tightrope,” jump over it, crawl on his hands and knees on top of it, etc. This gives him a positive way to stay occupied.

5) Make cleaning up fun! Set a timer and see how fast you and your toddler can pick up all the blocks. Or grab a laundry basket and have your toddler push the basket around the house, picking up toys and other things. She can then “deliver” each item back to its proper place. While your toddler will need your help with these clean-up tasks, this is a good opportunity to have fun together while also teaching the importance of family chores.

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