Learning and Development

9 picturebook activities for nursery children

  • 9 picturebook activities for nursery children

Plan a party for dragons, then break out the balloons, explore shapes and numbers, and learn why plastic bags don’t belong in the sea, suggests Hilary White…


Steve Anthony, Hodder Children’s Books

1 | Favourite things to do

Amazing tells the story of a little boy and his pet dragon, Zibbo, and the many activities they enjoy doing together. Ask the children to help you compile a list of the activities that feature in the story, including snacking, dancing, snoozing and playing basketball. Encourage each child to choose a favourite activity and take photos of them engaged in their activities. Converse with the children individually about their photos and scribe some of their words to make captions for the photos. Turn the words and pictures into a frieze for the setting wall.   

2 | My dragon

Invite the children to create their own mixed-media imaginary dragons, just like Zibbo in the story. Start off by talking about the features and characteristics that most dragons share (wings, pointy tail, scales, fiery breath), and look at examples of dragons from art and other picture books. Give each child a dragon shape cut from sturdy card. Paint the dragons with pearlescent and metallic paint, leave to dry and stick on sequins, buttons, silver foil and fabric scraps. Encourage the children to name and tell stories about their dragons. 

3 | Party time!

Of all the activities that the little boy and Zibbo enjoy together, their favourite is going to parties – even though disaster sometimes strikes when the dragon blows out the candles! Set up a role play ‘party’ area with fancy dress clothes and party props such as gift bags, balloons and banners. Include resources for making invitations and cards, and involve the children in creating healthy party snacks. If your children have made their own dragons, check that any collage pieces are firmly stuck on and suggest that they invite their dragons to the party. 

Ten Little Aliens

Mike Brownlow, Orchard Books


Many of the pictures in Ten Little Aliens are constructed from geometric and other simple shapes. Look out for different shapes in the illustrations, including triangles, circles, rectangles, stars and clouds, and provide similar cutout shapes in various sizes and colours. Let the children play with, name and count the shapes, and use them to create pictures and patterns. The shapes can either be used for transient art (take photos as a record) or stuck down to make a permanent picture. Challenge older children to create a robot, like the one in the story.

4 | Hot and cold

Look at the snowy, icy scene and the fiery, volcanic scene in the story, and talk with the children about being hot and cold. Gather a selection of hot and cold items such as hot water bottles, heated wheat bags, glass bottles filled with hot and cold water, bags of ice cubes and frozen ice packs. Let the children feel the temperature of the items and sort into ‘hot’ and ‘cold’. Search the setting for hot and cold areas, such as radiators and the fridge, and make a map marking ‘cold’ in blue and ‘hot’ in red.

5 | Exploring number

Count the aliens in Ten Little Aliens and look at the numbers on each page. As the children get to know the story, encourage them to join in with the repeated refrains. Create a space and alien-themed number exploration activity in your tuff tray. Offer moon dough made from two parts cornflour to one part hypoallergenic hair conditioner, rocks and crystals, toy space rockets, alien models, counters and numbers. Let the children explore the resources and encourage counting, counting totals and matching quantities and numbers.   

Somebody Swallowed Stanley

Sarah Roberts, Scholastic Children’s Books

6 | No more plastic bags!

Using Somebody Swallowed Stanley as a starting point, compare plastic and cotton shopping bags and help children to understand that plastic bags are bad for sea creatures when they end up in the ocean. Talk about the advantages of cotton bags over plastic bags (they are much more sturdy, and if cotton fabric is thrown away it doesn’t harm wildlife in the same way). Provide plain cotton bags, non-toxic fabric paint and printing resources, and let children decorate their own bags. Use the children’s creations throughout the setting to demonstrate the versatility of fabric bags.

7 | Plastic art

In the story, a little boy eventually turns Stanley the plastic bag into a fun and decorative kite. Reusing and upcycling our rubbish is just one way of managing waste in an environmentally responsible way. Plastic comes in many different shapes, sizes and colours and it’s great for creating art. Give children a selection of waste plastic such as yoghurt tubs, lids, plastic bags, water and milk bottles, herb canisters, straws and net fruit bags. Offer card and various sticking and joining resources, and let them create waste plastic collage and models. 

Exploring sea-life

Somebody Swallowed Stanley makes a useful starting point for finding out about different sea creatures. Look at and talk about the jellyfish, whale, seagulls, fish and turtles that live in or near the ocean in the story. Provide sea-life reference books and discover more about these creatures. Ask the children to help you paint a big ocean background. Cut half potatoes into simple jellyfish shapes, like those in the story, and print lots of jellyfish in different colours. Add cut-out pictures of sea creatures along with name labels. 

The Blue Balloon

Mick Inkpen, Hodder Children’s Books

8 | Exploring balloons

Balloons are interesting items and fun to explore – as Kipper and the little boy in The Blue Balloon discover. Experiment yourself. What happens when you blow up a balloon and let it go, or draw on a deflated balloon with a marker pen and then blow it up, or if you’re brave enough to try squeezing and squashing a balloon, or if you put a water-filled balloon in the freezer? What do balloons filled with water and cornflour feel like? Try introducing different shaped balloons and modelling balloons. 

9 | Coloured balloons

Although the balloon in the story is a gleaming sky blue, balloons come in lots of other colours. Gather different coloured balloons and name the colours as you play with them. Ask the children to paint sheets of card in various colours, brush with PVA glue to make the paint glossy and cut the cards into balloon shapes. Use the balloons for matching and grouping activities to help children explore colours. Older children can experiment with mixing primary colours to make new colours and adding white/black to make colours paler/darker.

Balloon journeys

The blue balloon in the story takes the little boy and his dog Kipper on an exciting journey into space. Where might the magical blue balloon take you? Working either individually or in very small groups, talk to the children about imaginary journeys. Record their narratives, and provide dressing-up clothes and props to reflect their ideas so they can act out and further develop their journeys. Take photographs, scribe the children’s words and turn them into a book of stories to share with the whole group.


Along with characters and endings, the setting plays an important part in a story. Focus on the illustrations in a picture book to help children identify where the narrative events are taking place. 

Sensitive subjects

When it comes to exploring sensitive topics with young children, a carefully chosen picture book can be invaluable.

Skilful picture book makers have the capacity to present difficult subject matters with subtlety and a light touch; for example, the author/illustrator of Amazing cleverly communicates that the little boy’s wheelchair is both unimportant (it’s never mentioned in words) and central to his active life (it appears in every picture).

Children can also make better sense of challenging ideas when they’re introduced within a meaningful context. The important message embedded within Somebody Swallowed Stanley has far greater impact on children because it is presented via a fun and interesting story.

With so many thoughtful books to choose from, it’s never been easier to introduce tricky topics with care and sensitivity. 

Hilary White is a former nursery and primary teacher. As an author she has written a number of books and contributed to a range of magazines.