Originally Published: March 2001
Little ones demand attention, making it a challenge to give older children the one-on-one help they need with their studies. Sending toddlers to another room may leave them frustrated and, without your supervision, at risk of getting hurt. Further, while toddlers may not be officially ready for schooling, they can gain readiness skills with just a bit of direction and suitable materials. By allowing them to use these within sight of family lessons, and by holding them on your lap frequently when you teach the older children, they can also feel part of the learning experience.
Toddlers want and need frequent opportunities to move in order to develop their fine and gross motor skills. Take advantage of their desire to imitate their older siblings by speaking to them in the same “teacher” voice as you direct them to carry out tasks that encourage movement and development of skills appropriate for their age. For example, instead of expecting them to entertain themselves with blocks, tell them to “stack the blocks as high as you can,” or “pile all the red blocks here and the blue blocks over there,” putting a red block and blue block in the appropriate spots so that they can sort by matching the colors. They could also fill a container with blocks. Once they are “working,” turn your focus to the others, pausing to redirect the toddlers with another “command” or offering a different activity as needed, since their attention span is quite short.
For example, when blocks have lost their appeal, toddlers can copy a pattern on an appropriately large pegboard, or organize nesting boxes by either putting one inside the other or stacking them into a tower. If the family is having a lesson in history or literature, toddlers may want to feel as if they are participating by looking through picture books, joining the others in acting out a story, or, if others are involved in a project, coloring in simple line drawings or painting a picture that only requires water. If you are reading out loud, they may enjoy sitting on your lap even though the content is beyond their comprehension.
Frequently, once they feel involved, young children will be content with tasks that don’t coordinate with family lessons as long as they can see you. I put an indoor slide in our kitchen-school area. That and a cardboard box big enough for him to sit in kept my son occupied longer than many other activities as I worked with my daughter.
During short periods when the other children are occupied and do not require your immediate attention, take the opportunity to develop language skills. Read books with rhymes, those that name objects, animals and their babies, and simple stories with prepositions (in, on, under, over, through, etc.). Ask toddlers to point to parts of their body as you call them out. Have them move themselves or an object as you direct in order to learn prepositions (put the block on the box) and verbs (jump, hop, tiptoe) in a concrete way. It only takes a few minutes throughout the day, but these activities contribute greatly to a solid foundation for later reading.
Audiocassettes of simple songs, rhythm instruments, and push, pull, and pounding toys are also appealing to toddlers. But since these would distract others from working, they should only be made available before or after school hours.
Materials you may want to have on hand:
- Building blocks: Legos, Duplos, Bristle blocks, large cardboard blocks, foam blocks
- Stacking rings. Nesting boxes. Spinning tops.
- Shape sorters: puzzles with one shape per cut-out and boxes with holes of various shapes to push matching shaped objects through.
- Pegboards with large pegs. When having children copy a pattern, teach them to work left to right in preparation for later reading and writing activities.
- Flannel board and cut-outs can also be used to make patterns to copy as well as for simple counting and directing the toddler to place pieces above, below, beside, etc.
- A variety of sturdy picture books and flannel books.
- Soft (spongy) balls or bean bags to practice throwing into a container or beyond a mark on the floor.
- Toys to push or pull.
- Water play toys: objects that float, containers for pouring and filling.
- Paint brushes large enough for easy holding. Toddlers can paint treated pictures that only require water to keep messes to a minimum.
- Finger paints and paper for supervised projects.
- Indoor slide. Large box with a large hole cut out for the toddler to crawl into and out of or these pop-up fold-ables.
If you have difficulty finding items suitable for early childhood, you can request a school supply catalog from School Specialty & Beckley Cardy at 1.888.388.3224 or
J.L. Hammett at 1.800.333.4600 (J.L. Hammett no longer accepting orders; telephone has changed to 1.800.955.2200). Amazon affiliate links are provided as examples of the products being described.