Infants can begin exploring the concepts of in, on, and under in very simple ways. Put a variety of small items (such as blocks, spoons, plastic lids, and plush toys) in a container. Use items that are large enough to handle but not small enough to swallow or choke on. Infants will delight in taking the objects out of the bowl or container and in putting them back in. Comment as children engage in the various actions: "Look! You took the spoon out of the bowl." The key is to let infants explore the physical relationships and for you to verbally label them.
Toddlers are great at getting into small spaces, and they enjoy the privacy those spaces offer. In addition, since toddlers are natural born "carriers," you can encourage them to carry things in and on other things, as well as under, over, and through. From a collection of items, invite children to select objects that you name and put each item into their containers. ("Jaime, a block! Krystin, a comb!") Then ask children to help count the items in their containers. Lead a parade around the room with children holding their containers: go around the tables, go under the desk, go through the door. As you go past each location, invite children to take an object out of their containers and place it on or under the table, desk, or chair.
Remove the chairs from a table in your room. Ask children to pick an object from the block or dramatic-play area and line up the items leading to the table, leaving two to three feet between each item. Then ask children to line up and follow your directions to get to the table - a child can go over the block, around the spoon, and under the table. You can add a through direction by using a cardboard box with the ends cut out (you'll have to tape it to a chair so it will stand up) or by getting a cheap trash can and cutting the bottom out of it to form a plastic tunnel.
"Can Do!" Kindergartners
Kindergartners will love the challenge of crawling through a tunnel and walking "on a narrow bridge" suspended "over a river." Using the trash can tunnel idea from above, place a balance beam through the tunnel so children can crawl through it. Then lay a 2' x 4' pine board on the floor at the end of the tunnel. Place a "river" cut out of craft paper under the board. Children can walk the board to go over the river. Later, invite children to carry a block or spoon on a tray as they move through the tunnel and "over the river."
This article originally appeared in the March, 2001 issue of Early Childhood Today.