This is a really simple and fun Christmas STEM activity for preschoolers. We used cute holly buttons and small cups, but you can use just about any Christmas trinkets for this holiday invitation to play. It’s amazing how much learning takes place through play!
We loved adding this to our preschool Christmas activities, but you can mix up the manipulatives and use it with almost any preschool theme!
Christmas STEM Activity & Invitation to Play
While maybe less common, one of my favorite ways to teach preschoolers is with a simple play invitation. I try to include one in all of my preschool lesson plans.
It is one of the truest forms of play-based learning.
An invitation to play may not have a specific set of objectives. At least, not necessarily a concrete, “students will be able to name all letters” kind of objective. The objective of an invitation to play might sound more like this,
Students will be able to explore and manipulate the materials in various creative ways to dictate their own play.
That objective is a big deal!…and not nearly as specific, either. Not all children know how to creatively use materials outside their obvious intended purpose.
Some children do not know how to even play with materials that are not obvious toys. They don’t know how to manipulate an object to make it do something different, or they do not know how to “wonder” and try something new with the materials.
An invitation to play allows the chance to learn all of that!
Frequently Asked Questions about Play Invitations
An invitation to play, or play invitation, comes from a Reggio philosophy of teaching. It is a set of materials presented to preschoolers with no rules on how to use them. It is an arrangement of materials, random or collected, that invites preschoolers to explore and learn through play.
Like process art, there is no intention of what the outcome should be. The value in activities like an invitation to play is in what happens while the preschoolers are playing, not after they are done.
Invitations to play should be arranged in an organized an inviting way. They should pique curiosity and beckon children to play, but should be intentional in design and purpose. Of course, they need to be age and developmentally appropriate.
Keep in mind that an invitation to play should allow children to freely explore, investigate, and question. They should be allowed to touch, feel and manipulate all the materials with their various senses. Also, an invitation to play should allow for the participation of all the preschoolers.
There are so many different ways you can theme a play invitation. You can use a specific theme like the ocean, or a season or holiday like fall, spring, or earth day. You can also theme a play invitation around loose parts, like buttons, or around a material like play dough.
How a Christmas Invitation to Play Turned into a STEM Activity
Now, what I loved about this specific invitation to play, other than its Christmas theme with the cutest Christmas holly buttons ever, is that is naturally turned into a STEM activity for my preschoolers.
This is actually not as uncommon as you might think.
Many invitations to play, when designed with purpose and intention, will be thought-provoking and invoke a natural process that leads itself to STEM activity.
While these materials are very specific, you can substitute the holly buttons for any Christmas-like buttons or manipulatives. Even things like mini erasers, jingle bells, small christmas ornaments, and mini candy canes would work well! I got my buttons from a local craft store, but below are some other options that would work too. The mini plastic cups could be replaced by small jewelry gift boxes, for example.
The Set Up
Arrange the materials in an inviting way that is organized and will pique your preschooler’s interest. For this, I arranged the buttons in a series of narrow rows and placed the cups on either end in a stack.
You could also set up these same materials in small melamine bowls like these. (I actually own two set of these bowls and use them for all sorts of preschool activities.
Now, invite your preschoolers to join you in some Christmas themed play. (But watch how this turns into a Christmas STEM activity for preschoolers.)
What Preschoolers do in an Invitation to Play
Sometimes, when you invite some preschoolers to join you in an invitation to play, they might not know what exactly they are “supposed to do”. In that case, I ask, “What can you do with these materials?”
First, my preschoolers scattered the buttons. They listened to the button skitter across the formica tabletop. They watch as they glided and bumped into one another. Then they worked their pincer grasps as they picked up the buttons and dropped them into the cups.
Then one preschooler tipped over a cup and watched a button roll across the table and then off the end. “It bounced!” she said delightedly. Meanwhile, another preschooler filled the cups to the brim, listening as they made a “tck, tck, tck” sound.
And then, my preschoolers dumped the cups full of buttons, watching them bounce and scatter once again, and of course, giggling at the noise they made as they hit the table.
This all sounds very basic, and maybe not even surprising, but while it just looks like play, my preschoolers were thinking:
- How can I make this happen again?
- Will this happen every time?
- What if I try it with this instead?
- I wonder what happens if I use more?
And so on and so on…Do you see how an invitation to play can turn into a Christmas STEM idea? All these questions that preschoolers naturally ask as they play lend themselves to the first thing every scientist does.
And in answering one of these questions a preschooler thought, “Can I make a musical instrument with these buttons and cups?”
So then he did! He shook and shook and shook the cups, listening as the buttons clattered about inside. Science in play. And not to mention physical motor work that went into hanging onto the cups the keep them together.
Meanwhile, another preschooler is wondering how he can make a tower with the cups. He starts with four cups, and then builds on. His tower tumbles, and he is disappointed, but then another preschooler joins in and together they figure out how to build a pyramid.
This is all very much part of the “E” in STEM. It’s the “engineering” side of “science, technology, engineering, math (STEM)” and I love watching this kind of play. A Christmas STEM activity for preschoolers shows off how creative and innovative they are!
But there was a huge amount of math and fine motor play as well. Preschoolers lined up the buttons, sorted them, and arranged them in shapes of their choosing.
There was a dispute among two preschoolers about if the shape above was a circle or an oval. And a disagreement that the single Christmas tree button didn’t belong in the middle of all those red buttons. “It’s the link thing that put it together,” one preschooler said, referring to the clasp of a necklace.
But there was no disputing how many buttons were used, and as a teacher I found this a very authentic (yet informal) assessment of how well my preschoolers could count and if they had mastered one to one correspondence in counting.
And then my little engineering preschooler turned into an artist when he started making designs with the buttons.
If you are in early childhood education and you haven’t tried invitations to play, you must. They are loaded with natural and authentic learning, and that’s the kind that really sticks with preschoolers.
Which might lead you to the next question…
What does teaching look like in an invitation to play?
There are no lesson plans for this.
Gasp! I know.
Me without a lesson plan? Inconceivable!
But here’s the thing.
The teaching involved in an invitation to play is led by the children. I cannot plan for it in advance. There is no order or sequence for what concepts the children might explore. I can predict some things, but not all.
I like to ask myself questions to further the learning. What are they doing in their play that I can build off of and take to deeper meaning? How can I challenge their line of thinking without derailing their play?
And when activities like this turn into STEM activities, then I ask myself, “How do I build upon this concept they are already exploring?” Sometimes I will sit next to a child and play along side them. Other times I make a mental note to add another STEM activity to my lesson plans.
What are your favorite Christmas STEM activities for preschoolers? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
Christmas Picture Books
You know me – no activity, even a Christmas stem challenge, is complete without picture books! Here are some of my favorite Christmas picture books for the holiday season.
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I’m Sarah, an educator turned stay-at-home-mama of five! I’m the owner and creator of Stay At Home Educator, a website about intentional teaching and purposeful learning in the early childhood years. I’ve taught a range of levels, from preschool to college and a little bit of everything in between. Right now my focus is teaching my children and running a preschool from my home. Credentials include: Bachelors in Art, Masters in Curriculum and Instruction.