ParentPal’s Holiday Activity Guide: Birth to 3 years

Starting from birth, every experience your child has directly impacts developing brain architecture, the very foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. During this amazing period of growth and development, more than one million new nerve-cell connections form in your child’s brain every second. That’s why free play, exploring, manipulating toys, and socializing with you and other grown-ups and children are such important aspects of your child’s day.

During the holiday season, we tend to break from normal routines in favor of decorating, wrapping presents, preparing delicious meals, baking, visiting friends—all of those fun activities we typically do every winter. So, during this exciting time of year, embrace the joy and try to incorporate some of these holiday-themed activities into your little one’s day. The experiences will be among the greatest gifts you can give your child.

Activities for 0-9 months



Crinkle, Crunch

What to do: After opening presents, use the wrapping paper to make crinkling and crunching sounds close to baby’s ear. Label the sounds being made. With your supervision, let baby squeeze, crush, or kick the paper, making sure it stays out of his or her mouth. Paper is a choking hazard.

Why it’s important: Sensory activities engage little ones and stimulate curiosity, promoting cognitive growth.


Reindeer Games 

What to do: Read “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement Moore aloud, then play with baby’s toes or fingers and identify them as Santa’s reindeer. For example, “This toe is Prancer. He loves to eat carrots with his friends.” Or, “This is Rudolph. He has a big red nose and guides Santa’s sleigh.”

Why it’s important: Reading activities expose your child to new vocabulary words, introduce baby to print and its uses, and help establish and maintain positive relationships with adults.


Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

What to do: Give baby an egg shaker or other baby-safe percussion instrument and help him or her move it to the beat while you play “Jingle Bells,” song 47 in The Complete Collection in ParentPal’s music library.

Why it’s important: Encouraging your little one to hold and shake an instrument helps develop fine-motor skills and builds an awareness of tempo and rhythm.


Activities for 9-18 months



Holiday Colors Everywhere

What to do: As you trim the tree, label the different ornament colors for baby. Find something in the room that matches each color and point to it as you label it, e.g., “This ornament is blue. That pillow is blue.”

Why it’s important: Talking with your child helps him or her begin to understand increasingly complex language. Classification is a cognitive skill that promotes higher-order thinking.


How Tall Am I?

What to do: Invite your child to lie down as you measure his or her length with a piece of holiday ribbon. As you measure, explain that you are making a record of how tall your child is. Then, cut the ribbon and show its length to your little one. Using a marker, note the year somewhere on the ribbon. Then, help your child to hang the ribbon on the Christmas tree; or, you can tape it somewhere prominent for all to admire.

Why it’s important: It’s easy to make lasting memories while exposing your little one to this early math skill. Measuring objects also helps build self-awareness, and prompts your child to consider height as a characteristic of physical things.


Make Your Own Christmas Tree

What to do: Draw a simple Christmas tree shape on a paper grocery bag or large sheet of art paper, and cut it out. Next, gather some pre-made colorful bows designed to stick onto packages, and help your little one decorate the tree with the bows. Narrate his or her actions along the way.

Why it’s important: Simply grasping the bows and attaching them to the paper tree helps promote fine-motor skills, with extra credit for removing the paper tab that protects the sticky side. Decorating the tree engages your child’s artistic sensibilities.


Activities for 18-24 months



Discover Family Traditions

What to do: Talk with your child about each ornament or decoration as you take them out of storage. Where are they from? Is there meaning behind them? Whenever possible, involve your little one in deciding where they should be displayed.

Why it’s important: Talking with your child about holiday keepsakes, traditions, and close family members gives him or her a sense of belonging and well-being.


Ornament Soup

What to do: Gather some plastic ornaments of various sizes (nothing that might be a choking hazard). Fill a large bowl half-full with water. Float the ornaments in the water. Seat your child in the highchair and place the bowl on the tray. Give your child a soup ladle and demonstrate how to ladle an ornament onto the tray. Then, challenge him or her to remove the remaining ornaments. If that’s too simple, add in the element of time. How quickly can it be done without dropping an ornament?

Why it’s important: This simple challenge helps promote your child’s fine-motor skills and problem-solving abilities.


Holiday Sensory Bin

What to do: Make a sensory bin and fill it with child-safe items related to the holiday season. Items might include pine cones and small pine boughs; garland made of tinsel-like aluminum or green plastic; large plastic ornaments with different textures; holiday-themed toys, e.g., Santa, reindeer, elves, large bells; and anything else that could excite the senses of sight, hearing, and touch.

Why it’s important: Whenever you stimulate curiosity and motivation, you’re helping promote your child’s cognitive development. Further, a sensory bin prompts your little one to begin considering the physical properties of things—size, weight, scent, texture, and so forth.


Ornament Making

What to do: Gather plastic ornaments and holiday-themed stickers. Invite your little one to use the stickers to make extra fun and special ornaments.

Why it’s important: The act of decorating an ornament helps develop the right side of your child’s brain—the side that controls problem solving, intuition, thought, creativity in writing and in art, and imagination. Art projects also give your little one the opportunity for self-expression. Peeling and placing stickers provides fine-motor practice.


Activities for 24-36 months



Holiday Cookies

What to do: Gather different child-safe cookie cutters and a roll of sugar cookie dough. Roll out the dough and invite your child to use the cutters to make various cookie shapes, and then put each one on a cookie sheet. Once all the shapes have been cut out, talk about how the shapes are the same, and how they differ. Once the cookies have been baked, challenge your little one to sort them by shape.

Why it’s important: Manipulating the cookie cutters provides fine-motor practice. Once the shapes are made, sorting and discussing the shapes prompts cognitive development while exposing your child to math concepts.


The Nice List

What to do: Invite your little one to help you write a “Nice” list. Say, “Let’s make a ‘Nice’ list for Santa. Do you know what ‘nice’ means?” Once the definition of “nice” is understood, ask your child who they want to put on the list. As your child offers names, slowly write them down, labeling each letter, e.g., “Keno…that’s /k/ /k/ K, e, n, o…Keno.” Then, invite your little one to give an example of something about that person that is “nice.”

Why it’s important: Having your little one watch as you write letters helps promote literacy skills—he or she will begin to realize that symbols represent letters with specific sounds. Asking your child to name people who are nice and then tell how they are nice promotes higher-order thinking skills, such as analysis and evaluation.


Holiday Scents

What to do: We associate certain spices with the holiday season. Gather nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and ginger from your spice cabinet and a muffin tin from your pantry. Sprinkle a small amount of spice into a corner well of the muffin tin—one spice per corner well. (The goal is to separate the individual spices as much as possible.) Introduce each spice by naming it and letting your child gently smell it. Which spice does your little one like best? Like least?

Why it’s important: Your child will use the senses of sight and smell to learn new vocabulary words. Then, he or she will analyze and evaluate the four spices to decide which is favorite and which is least favorite. Making these determinations is the highest level of thinking we as humans can do.


Pine Cone Ornament

What to do: Gather (or buy) a large pine cone, small pompoms in various colors, a glue stick, and dark green washable paint (optional). Then, help your little one make and decorate a pine cone Christmas tree. First, paint the cone green and let it dry overnight. Then, show your child how to decorate the “tree” by gluing the pompoms to its “boughs.” Hang the tree where all can see and admire it.

Why it’s important: Art projects give your child fine-motor practice and the opportunity for artistic expression. Along the way, he or she is learning about color and size, and involved in planning and problem solving while decorating the “tree.”