Check out Engineering Explorers, our newest online resource!

Busy Boards

by Jennifer Asimow, M.Ed

I have been jotting ideas for blog posts whenever they come to me ever since I stopped writing regularly for Early Math Counts last year.  My list isn’t that long but I can’t seem to break the habit.  I get especially excited when I can take a couple of pictures to go along with the idea.  When I saw my neighbor’s Busy Board, I knew I wanted to write about it. As the name implies, Busy Boards were originally developed as a way to keep energetic toddlers “busy.”  I think they can do a lot more than that.  

If you look up Busy Boards on Pinterest, you will see dozens of great examples of homemade versions that are wonderfully constructed, have stimulating and varying materials, and range in size.  My neighbor’s board is HUGE!  That is one of the things I really like about it.  Several children can stand in front of it at once and manipulate the levers and knobs. It is also tall enough that four and five-year olds can stand alongside their younger classmates or siblings and play side by side. It is also solidly made; heavy plywood, securely fastened objects, and softly sanded edges.  I asked my neighbor where she got it and it turns out that her brother built it for her children as a gift.  With a little ingenuity, a dash of elbow grease, and a few hours of work you can build your own Busy Board for your classroom, program, or outdoor space.

You can see that this board is a little weather worn because it lives outside in the backyard.  It has a base that allows it to stand anywhere, but it would be equally interesting if it were to be attached to a fence or a wall as a permanent fixture in any play space.

Take a moment to look at the items that make up this busy board.  There are simple things, such as the mirror in the lower right corner, and much more complex items like the old lock and the accompanying skeleton keys hanging right near it.  Each item is either open-ended, like the chalkboard in the center, or specific in purpose, such as the numbered press lights. (Look carefully, and you can see the spaces where the other three press lights used to be. The kindergartner of the house wanted to build a robot and thought that the lights would work well in his overall design.)

Nearly all of the objects on the board support early math learning in one way or another.  For very young children, opportunities to explore relational concepts such as “on/off,” “open/closed,” “in/out,” and “locked/unlocked” are strewn around the board. Other items focus on other math areas.  The kitchen timer supports early understandings of measurement.  It has the added benefit of ringing when time is up. The stacking rings ask children to use their sequencing skills.  There are hooks around the board that allow you to hang a bag for chalk, or keys to locks.  This design asks that children match their use with other items on the board.

There are latches that slide, buttons to press, knobs that turn, a wheel to spin, and bells to ring.  Each of these actions asks that children consider spatial relationships, and develop ideas about how things work. It is a place for exploration, a place to build and test hypothesis.  If done right, a board like this can meet the developmental needs of a range of children. Yes, toddlers can stay “busy” playing at the board, but older children can also explore the items in ways that are meaningful and appropriate for their ages and stages as well.

How to build a Busy Board

Use 3/4 inch plywood (make it thick enough that screws don’t come out of the back).  Have it cut to size.

Paint the board with a nontoxic indoor/outdoor paint.

Go into you basement, garage, junk drawer or workshop and look for items that might work on the board.

Sort them.

Look for old toys that can be repurposed, like these stacking rings.

Make a list of items that you would like to include and create a “Wish List” of items you can send out to your families.  You might be surprised what people have laying around.

Gather the items. 

Lay out the items on the board and make sure that there is enough space between each item so they can be manipulated.

Secure each item to the board so it is safely adhered and can’t be pulled off.

Enjoy your board!

Here’s a list of items I think would work well.  Some may not work for an outdoor board, but you might make those removable. What can we add to the list?


Any type of clock


Wall telephone (A rotary phone would be cool)




Push lights




A magnet board – magnets



Locks (with and without keys)

Hooks and eyes



6 Replies to “Busy Boards”

  1. Very good idea. I think there is too much on one board, perhaps maybe it could be a little overwhelming. I found in my classroom that boards with several different locks the children enjoy using them.ingle boards work best for me. I do have

    1. Hi Michelle,
      If I could, I have would have several different boards with themes. One could have locks (of all sorts), and another could have knobs or buttons that move in different ways. It would be really great to have a system to change them out periodically.

  2. I love it, this is a great idea and the children would love it. With a board this large several children could work on it at once, and use number sense as well, comparing how many locks each unlocked and also sharing the locks that they have unlocked.

  3. I love this idea. I think its a great way to keep busy toddlers entertained as well as learn and explore early math processes and concepts. I like that it has unlimited potential for learning, exploring, having fun, and for all ages.
    By the way, nice board and thanks for the list of ideas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *