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Hands-on Thanksgiving Activities That Will Make Toddlers Feel Empowered and Included

Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to spend precious moments with friends and family, and for focusing on gratitude. It’s a perfect opportunity to enjoy being together and celebrate all that your little one can do. Small children can take part in more than just the gathering. They can also help decorate and prepare your home. Here are some fun and meaningful ways to include your child in Thanksgiving preparations. 

Make a flower centerpiece together

Take your little one to the grocery store or florist to pick out a loose gathering of flowers and seasonal grasses. Being a part of the decision gives your child a sense that their contribution matters. Here are the next steps: 

  • Sit with your little one at a table where they can reach comfortably.
  • Put out a vase and lay the flowers in a pile on the table. Depending on their age, you may only have a few flowers on the table at a time for them to select from, so that they aren’t overwhelmed by the choices. Keep the larger bunch on the counter and you can add to the pile as they continue to be interested in the activity.
  • If they are closer to three years old, and can handle scissors, they can help cut the flowers to the right length for the vase. Show them how to measure against the vase to choose the height. If they are very little, then you will go ahead and trim all the flowers to the appropriate length ahead of presenting the activity.
  • Then, let them choose flowers to add to the vase. Use the specific names for each flower and grass (Sunflower, Rose, Prairie Grass, etc.) to appeal to their interest in language.
  • Keep in mind, your child may decide they’re finished with the activity before you run out of flowers – and that’s OK! 
  • Show your little one how to place the flowers at the center of the table, and thank them for their contribution to the beautiful decorations.  

Create a pinecone and leaf decoration

Whether you choose to use a flower centerpiece or not, you and your child can put pinecones, autumn leaves, and other natural fall items on the table for decoration. Take your little one outside with a small bucket or basket that they can carry themselves. Show them how to choose pinecones and colorful leaves to add to the bucket. It is important to respect your little one’s choices, even if they do not choose leaves that you think are beautiful! Let them fill their basket as they would like. When they are finished, they can come inside to their table. If they would like to continue with the activity, you can show them how to sort their treasures. If they are very little, they may only be able to distinguish between pinecones, leaves, and acorns (or whatever else your yard has to offer). If they are ready for more challenge, you can also sort between leaf colors, or leaf shapes (Maple, Oak, Birch, etc.). Once the items are sorted, you can show your little one how to place the decorations in the middle of the table–using a stool or learning tower if necessary. 

Decorate place cards

This is a special way to include your child in Thanksgiving preparation, while also providing an opportunity to talk about special family and friends who may be joining you at your meal.

  • Prepare the name cards ahead of time. Simple is best so they can focus on the task. Cut out the shape and size you’d like the name cards to be, but wait until you are with your child to write the names.
  • When your little one is ready to work, sit down with the name cards and colored pencils or crayons, whichever your family prefers. Starting with their own name, let them watch you carefully write out the names, saying the name as you write it and talking about the person. This conversation will give them an opportunity to practice language and also refresh their memory of the people that are close to them and who they will see at the Thanksgiving meal.
  • After the names are written, give them the placecards to decorate with pencils or crayons. If you are hosting a large event, you may break this activity up into different sessions, as suits their attention span. They can decorate the cards however they’d like–with as much or as little color as they want. Try to refrain from making suggestions!
  • Letting your young child feel as though their authentic contribution is worthy will build their sense of self-worth from the inside. Once all the cards are written out and decorated, they can help put them at each seat, saying the names of the people again as you go.  
thanksgiving toddler placecards

Model gratitude practice

The act of practicing mindful gratitude has been shown time and again to be beneficial for mental health. Thanksgiving is the perfect time to exercise this with your little one. This can be done in two ways. First of all, when you model gratitude, they will observe your example and absorb your positive energy. When you see something beautiful or encounter something good, you can practice explicit gratitude for your little one to witness. “I am so grateful for the warm sunshine!” In that same way, you can also let your child feel your gratitude for them as you genuinely appreciate their meaningful contributions in the home. “Thank you for decorating these beautiful place cards!”

The second way to practice gratitude with your young child is to allow them to share what they are thankful for, if their language is developed enough. Either at dinner or before bed, you can first give the example. “I am grateful for your grandmother and how much she loves you.” Then ask them if they’d like to share something they are grateful for. It is important to honor whatever they decide to say, even if it is something like, “I am grateful for my blue shoes!” Similarly, if they have not yet grasped the concept of gratitude or they have nothing to say in a particular conversation, you can let the moment go and try again another time. 

Thanksgiving is a precious time for you and your little one. There are so many ways you can invite them to be a part of the season. They will grow in gratitude and confidence when they can contribute in meaningful ways.

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