Advent and Christmas Activities for Preschoolers with (and without) Down Syndrome

With many schools being closed yet again, I thought I’d share our Advent traditions and what Junior and I are doing for the month of December.

Here goes….

Contemplating Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem is a beautiful way to pray during Advent.

To give Junior (and my other kids) a better sense that we are waiting for Jesus (and not for presents!) , I lined 24 LED candles on the mantle. (Real candles would be lovelier and more prayerful, but we’re not quite ready for that yet!) On Dec. 1st, I’ll put the statue of La Posada behind the first candle. With each passing day, we’ll move Mary and Joseph to the next candle and light it. Little by little, Junior will see that as Joseph and Mary get closer to Bethlehem, there is more light. Jesus, Light of the World, will soon be born!

(If you want to be biblically accurate, the statue of La Posada should appear seven days before Christmas. Some scholars believe it took four to ten days for Joseph and Mary to travel the 80 mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, skirting around the Samaritans. Biblical scholars also believe that Mary did not ride a donkey; she probably walked. Even so, I think it’s worth having an image of Joseph and Mary traveling, especially during Advent.)

The statue of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6 reminds me to fill their shoes with chocolate the night before.

I think it helps for children to experience darkness and increasing light as Christmas approaches. Naturally, we have an advent wreathe with candles. During the first week of Advent, we eat dinner in complete darkness, except for the light of the first Advent candle. Each week, as another candle is lit, we enjoy more light to grace our meal. And then for Christmas Day dinner, all the lights are on, a large white candle takes the place of the Advent candles, and a feast is spread on the table. It’s a very simple but beautiful tradition.

Since my oldest was a child, playing with Nativity Set has always been a favorite Advent activity. Over the years, a dear friend has gifted our kids with two – three Fontanini figures each Advent, and now we are blessed to have quite the collection! On the first Sunday of Advent, we put out the stable. And each day thereafter, the younger kids get to add one figure to the set. It’s fun to watch them play with the figures, lining them up and rearranging them over and over. During the Christmas Triduum, they get to add Joseph and Mary, and finally after Christmas Eve mass, we bring in Baby Jesus!

Playing with the Nativity set with Junior this year will look a little different. I’ll be using a Play Sequence Script so we can target specific speech therapy goals during our play. This script is not meant to be followed word for word. It’s more of a guideline for ways we can encourage the use of speech in play. To find out how you can elicit more two – three word phrases by playing with a Nativity set, download the script here:

Swaddling and rocking “Baby Jesus” is another way we’ll be playing with a purpose.

There are so many things you can teach with this simple activity. For example, lay the blanket out flat and point out the shape of the blanket. When you pull down the tip (to swaddle), point out that you have just made a triangle. Together with your child, name and count all the body parts… and your child’s, too! Teach your child how to swaddle the doll, using as many two word phrases as possible, such as fold up, fold over, wrap around, and hold gently. If you have a toy bottle, pretend to feed the doll, modeling and prompting phrases such as: Baby’s hungry, baby wants milk, feed baby, baby drinking, etc. You can talk about taking turns rocking the baby. My turn, your turn, holding baby, rocking baby. Then pretend to put the baby to sleep using phrases such as Baby’s tired. Sleep, baby, sleep. Together, sing a familiar lullaby and then gently place the doll in a basket (for a manger).

And now for the preschool activities:

Junior’s older siblings have a wooden advent calendar with drawers and tiny magnetic pieces. But those would be choking hazards. So I was glad to find the Doug and Melissa Advent Calendar, which is just too cute.

Each day, I will give him one ornament to add to the tree. And as the month progresses, we will have more and more ornaments to count and play with.

Learning beginning letter sounds

Together, say the name of the picture. Then stress the beginning sound. To reduce the possibility of error, limit the choices and make sure the letter choices have very different sounds. Then encourage your child to match the correct letter to the picture.

Matching Christmas Vocabulary Cards

If your child is not ready to match beginning letter sounds, matching Christmas pictures is a great way to build vocabulary and visual discrimination. You can find really cute nativity vocabulary cards at Teaching Talking and Christmas vocab cards at TeaTime Monkeys.

Jingle bells! Sort them, match them, or count them:

Using the magnetic fishing rod from a Doug and Melissa puzzle adds to the fun. We have discovered that sometimes the rod picks up two bells and sometimes it picks up three. This allows Junior to practice identifying two and three while he’s sorting. You can download the Christmas tree pattern card and the Christmas counting cards here:

And then there are pom poms… sort by size or sort by color:

or transfer them with these tools for fine motor development:

or use them for two-to-one correspondence:

(You could do this activity with M&Ms or Cheerios.)

Junior’s favorite activity with pom poms is poking them through holes:

I downloaded the tree from Pixabay, printed and laminated it, taped it onto a shoe box and cut the holes.

Last Christmas, I made this felt tree for Junior:

We count the candy canes and name the colors of the ornaments as he puts them on the tree. To practice two-three word phrases, we talk about putting the ornaments on the tree, off the tree, and in the box. When an ornament falls off, we use the phrases fell off, pick it up, and put it on.

For more fine motor, we’re ripping wrapping paper and playing Nativity stickers.

To make it easier to rip the wrapping paper, make a cut at the top of the sheet. As you child gets better and better, make that cut shorter and shorter. Creating a nativity scene with stickers is not just good for fine motor skills; it provides another opportunity for talking about the Christmas story.

And to help him blow off some energy, we always add in some gross motor activities:

As I shared in an earlier post, drawing on an easel is so good for these kiddos. Draw a Christmas tree and invite your child to add ornaments (small circles). Or draw a snow man and invite your child to make dots for snow. Or draw a star and let him/her draw rays (lines) coming out of the star. I call it collaborative errorless art 😉 Wiping up the picture at the end is also good for our kids, especially when they have to reach high up or cross their midline. By the way, for kids who have difficulty holding a pencil or marker properly, mini dry erase markers are the way to go.

Playing with window clings is good for fine and gross motor skills.

We also use them as a way to practice using prepositions, counting, and colors. For example, Put the hat on his head. Put the snowflake above the snowman. How many eyes? How many buttons? Which hat is blue? etc….

Throwing bean bags is just plain fun…

and we talk about in, out of , and through the hoop.

Here’s a fun activity: Toss jingle bells inside a large blanket or beach towel. Have your child grab one end of the blanket while you grab the other. Then shake, shake, shake! Make a game out of trying to keep the jingle bells in while your child tries to shake them all out. This is a fun way to practice more short sentences such as shake hard! bells ringing! bells fell out! and when you and your child are picking them all up, pick up bells, bells in blanket, etc.

Junior enjoys movement cards, so I printed out these Christmas Workout Cards. At least they will give him more ideas for dance moves! He LOVES to dance!

And last but certainly not least, the one activity we’ll be doing most of all is cozying up on the couch and reading lots and lots of books about Christmas. If you haven’t done so already, check out Sarah Mackenzie’s list of December Picture Books. Such a wonderful list! Here are some that are most suited for the littlest ones:

I hope these give you some ideas for celebrating Advent and keeping your little ones occupied during the month of December.

Stay tuned for next post… coming soon because I just can’t wait. I have a special gift for your little ones!

Have a blessed Advent!

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