Opportunities for children to learn are absolutely everywhere! With a few minutes of thoughtful preparation, you and your child can both enjoy hands-on learning activities using materials you already have at home. You won’t need more than 10 minutes to prepare, and your child with unique learning needs will benefit from these easily differentiated activities that engage all the senses and provide real-life applications.

Four Fun Learning Activities

1. Sensory Bin

Sensory bins provide young children with an opportunity to learn through play. Children explore different textures, engage multiple senses and direct their own learning curiosities. Sensory bins are especially useful for preschool and early elementary children and children with kinesthetic learning styles. Many special education classrooms and therapy clinics have a sensory table on wheels with an adjustable-height desk.

At home, you can make a simple sensory bin out of a large plastic container or storage bin. Fill the bin with any number of household items, such as:

  • Beans
  • Rice
  • Corn
  • Dry pasta
  • Dry cereal
  • Water
  • Soapy water
  • Colored water
  • Water with ice
  • Shaving cream
  • Cotton balls
  • Shredded paper
  • Pom poms
  • Dirt
  • Sand
  • Rocks
  • Mulch
  • Pea gravel
  • Pine cones
  • Flower petals
  • Leaves
  • Sticks
  • Marbles
  • Water beads

Although your child will learn to play independently with the sensory bin, we strongly recommend you supervise all activity for safety and to limit the likelihood of a big mess. Once your bin is ready, set a few simple ground rules for your child. For example, “beans stay in” or “no rocks in mouth.”

Model one or two ways to engage with the sensory bin contents to provide your child with an example of how to start playing. You might put a few toy diggers in a bin of sand, different-sized measuring cups in a bin of water or toy farm animals in a bin of leaves. Try giving your child open-ended exploration time with the sensory bin for the first several times they use it. After they are comfortable with its contents and the rules for how to engage with it, you may begin to incorporate more explicit learning objectives, such as sorting pom poms by color or size or using fine motor skills to grasp toy dinosaurs with tongs.

2. Nature Scavenger Hunt

A nature scavenger hunt is a wonderful way to spend quality time with your child, reap the benefits of outdoor play and learn about science. Depending on your child’s age, abilities and interests, you can tailor the scavenger hunt to meet their needs.

A quick Google search for “nature scavenger hunt for kids” will pull up dozens of sample downloadable sheets for you to print and use. Many are designed with icons to support pre-readers, early readers and non-readers. Before you head out, preview the list of items with your child and make a prediction for where you might find some of the items. If appropriate, review safety protocols before embarking on your outdoor adventure.

An extension for students with more advanced literacy and technology skills may be to use the Seek app or something similar to take pictures of different plant species in the back yard for identification and classification.

If you have access to News‑2‑You, your child can take a virtual trip outside to explore the world using the interactive Let’s Go feature in Joey’s Locker. Engaging point-of-view videos and real-life images provide insight into a topic in the current edition.

For a less formal learning activity, simply take a walk with your child in your neighborhood or a nearby outdoor area and notice aloud what you see, smell and hear in nature. It will be like medicine for both of your bodies and minds.

3. Math Manipulatives


Did you know you can transform dozens of household items and toys into functional math manipulatives to practice numeracy? You can easily help your child practice skills like counting, sorting, comparing quantities, adding and subtracting all while they play with their favorite things.

Here’s how to get started:

Choose a group of items for math play based on your child’s interest
  • Counting bears
  • Colored Lego bricks
  • Toy cars, trucks or diggers
  • Wooden blocks
  • Dot or character stickers
  • Sticky notes
  • Coins, dollar bills
  • Craft sticks, pom poms, beads or buttons
  • Twigs, sticks, leaves or small rocks
  • Small food items
    (Goldfish, Skittles, marshmallows)
Determine the math skill to practice
  • Matching quantity to numerals
    (e.g., matching five toy cars to the number 5 written on a card)
  • Counting by ones, twos, fives or tens
  • Counting on from a novel number
  • Sorting
  • Solving problems by addition or subtraction
Play and practice math

Model for your child how to practice the chosen math skill. For example, if you are playing with buttons and practicing the skill of sorting, show them how to separate the buttons by color families, size or the number of holes.

For children with learning differences, hands-on math is usually the primary teaching method for making numbers make sense. It is critically important for children to visually see the value of numbers, especially in the earlier years. What better way to reinforce numerical fluency than with the very toys and items your child is already familiar with?

4. Book Party

Reading is important for all ages, whether your child is learning to read or reading to learn. If possible, make reading with your child a part of your daily routine. When you start to notice them getting a little squirmy from these long days and weeks at home, try varying the schedule a bit by inviting your child to a book party!

Tea party read-aloud

Share an afternoon snack and a cup of warm decaf tea with your child. If they are old enough to use a real teacup and pour from the kettle, let them! As your child enjoys their tea and snack, read aloud a short story or portion of a novel that you will continue to read each day.

Porch read-in with ‘friends’

Encourage a younger child to invite their stuffed animal “friends”—or siblings—to join them on your porch or deck area for a read-in. Help them share the rules about staying in the chair and reading books (it is also OK to just look at the pictures) until you let them know the read-in is over.

Fancy dinner party book chat

Invite the whole family (parents or caregivers and siblings included) to get dressed up and bring their favorite or current book to dinner. During dinner, each family member gets to share something about their book—a short summary, why they love the main character, a confusing sentence or part, a question they have, etc. Your child with unique learning needs may need sentence starters, visual cues like SymbolStix Squares or other help to share their story. Give them the supports they need to feel confident and excited about sharing.

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About the Author
Kelley Spainhour is a special education professional with a decade of teaching and leadership experience. She is passionate about the unique needs of children with medical needs and enjoys collaborating in multidisciplinary contexts. Kelley currently serves as a special education consultant and writer.