Do you want your child to be ready for preschool and kindergarten? Are you wanting to learn the best ways to teach them all the skills they need to know before they get to school? Supporting toddler development can be fun, engaging, and effective if you know how to go about it.
The great news is, it doesn’t have to be that hard. Read on for the 2 biggest mistakes parents make and what to do instead when it comes to teaching toddlers at home.
Mistake #1: Being too formal when teaching your toddler
Sometimes we think to prepare our toddlers for school, we have to treat them like school-aged children. Parents will buy their children flashcards to learn words or try to “quiz” them on their alphabet or colors. I’ve seen families rely on “educational” tv shows or videos in the hopes that their child will learn the necessary skills.
Caregivers often stress about comparing how much their child knows to a cousin or neighbor. This sends everyone into a panic, so parents start trying to up their game and teach their children more skills.
However, the research shows that children simply don’t learn that way. Or rather, that isn’t the best way for them to learn. So what should you do instead of formal teaching?
Fix #1: Play in order to support toddler development
The answer is PLAY! You should play with your child! Playing with your child is the most effective way to help them learn many skills. Children learn about self-regulation, social interaction, problem-solving, basic math skills, pre-literacy, and so much more all through play!
What is Play?
The American Psychological Association defines play as “activities that appear to be freely sought and pursued solely for the sake of individual or group enjoyment”. There are three main types of play: locomotor, object, and social.
Locomotor play is big movements like running, jumping, and climbing. This kind of play is great for all children because it helps kids develop fine (small movements) and gross (big movements) motor skills. Locomotor play might be climbing up the stairs at a park and then going down the slide. It might mean playing tag or chase. Locomotor play is active and engaging.
Object play is when a child interacts with toys or other objects in a variety of ways. As young children, this might just be banging two objects together. As children get older, their play gets more complex and they use toys for more specific purposes.
Social play is when children interact with peers or adults in play. Social play includes pretend play, like when children act like their favorite animal or pretend to parent their baby doll. Social play can also be playing a game like hide-and-seek.
Play is fun! The most important part of play is that it’s fun! To play, your toddler has to enjoy it. It can not be too forced because that may make it unenjoyable for your child.
Benefits of Play:
Teaching toddlers at home through play is not just a random idea I cooked up. It’s scientifically based because it really works! Play has an incredible amount of benefits. Some of them may seem obvious, while others you may not have considered.
- Play is an important part of brain development. Your child learns so much just through play. Without a regular time to play, your child’s brain may not develop as well or as fast.
- Children’s first friends are made through play. Play allows for great social interactions and fun. When toddlers are playing with other children, they are learning about how to engage with other people.
- Play actually helps children focus. This might sound counter-intuitive, but playing and “getting the wiggles out” helps children focus AFTER they are done playing. Sometimes children need some physical input before they can sit down and concentrate on a task. It’s important to build play into your toddler’s day so they can focus when you need them to.
- Your toddler sleeps better when they play hard. Have you ever had a jam-packed day of fun and your toddler crashes an hour before their regular bed time? That’s because play improves sleep.
- Play helps you learn how to problem solve. Certain toys or tasks may present some sort of problem or difficulty. Your toddler can learn to problem solve by figuring it out on their own.
- Toddlers and children learn about cause and effect during play. When baby is just starting to play with objects, they might notice that when you bang two objects together they make a sound. As your child gets older, they may realize that a tower falls over if it’s not straight or that you will fall down if you are going too fast.
- Social skills like sharing and turn-taking are learned through play. As toddlers begin to play with peers, they have to learn how to play together.
- Many cognitive skills can be learned through play, including coloring, counting, identifying shapes, and so much more. (Check out my post here on teaching colors, or this one for counting, or this post for shapes.)
- Toddlers begin to use their imagination when they play. Imagination is essentially coming up with your own ideas or pretending.
- Children can learn tons of language through play. By playing with someone else, toddlers can learn new words. Similarly, new toys or novel toys will have new vocabulary that your child may not have heard before.
- When we parents take time to play with our children, it creates a strong bond. When we play with our kids, we are more responsive and so are they. And don’t worry too much if you feel a little strange pretending that the baby doll needs a diaper change. Play isn’t something we adults do all the time anymore, but your kids will love it and they will never know that deep down your feeling weird about it. Just let loose and enjoy!
Here’s a great article by the LEGO Foundation that goes in-depth on the topic of play and learning.
The Best Toys for Each Kind of Play
This great baby jumper is awesome for little ones who are working on building strength in their legs. While your baby plays in the jumper, you can talk about the colors, read the little book that is included, and talk about what it means to jump or hop.
I love this baby walker that is shaped like a lion and will help your little one start to walk. You can talk about the animals, listen to the music, and discuss all the colors.
Have you ever seen one of those door swings? Door swings can be hung inside on a door frame for little babies to play in. They work on their walking and jumping.
For older toddlers, you can check out this awesome balance bike. It helps get toddlers used to wheels without pedals, which is great for learning balance and coordination.
Toddlers can also work on their jumping skills with these mini indoor trampolines. The trampolines build strength and help kids work on jumping and balance.
One great way to learn and use pretend play is through kitchen sets. It’s an easy thing for your child to pretend with and learn from because they see us working in the kitchen. So the pretend play isn’t too hard to make sense of. I love this play kitchen and these great bins of pretend food. You can work on colors, food groups, problem solving, and vocabulary words specific to the kitchen.
Little People (a specific toy by Fisher-Price) are also great toys for toddlers. There are so many to choose from! Each set comes with it’s own vocabulary to learn, colors to talk about, and jobs or places to talk about with your little one. I love this little firefighter set with a fireman and fire woman.
Another great type of toy is musical instruments. Children can learn so much from these types of toys and they are fun and engaging. I love this set of musical toys that comes in a cute little backpack. Music promotes overall cognitive development, fine motor skills, and sensory input.
Puzzles are another wonderful toy that help children learn about problem solving and whatever object the puzzle features. We have this puzzle set at our house, and my kids really enjoy it!
Stuffed Animals and Baby Dolls
Kids also enjoy stuffed animals or dolls. These stuffed animals are machine-washable and cute! These dolls are great and come with fun accessories and they come in lots of colors. Dolls and stuffed animals are a great way for kids to work on social skills (even if it is with a fake friend) and pretend play.
Since social play just entails playing with someone else, toddlers can use just about anything to engage in social play. There are some toys that especially promote social play like little games. “Bears in Pairs” is a favorite at our house, along with “Pop the Pig“, and “Connect 4“. Depending on the age of your toddler, you don’t really NEED to follow the rules. You can just use the toy to take turns and have fun.
Mistake #2: Not getting out enough or not having a variety of activities for your toddler to do.
Sometimes we underestimate the importance of letting our children experience a variety of things for themselves. We get stuck in a rut, going to the same parks, doing the same activities, and shopping at the same stores. We don’t bother to venture out, and that means we are really missing out on helping our child experience a wide range of activities or experiences. While it might not seem like a big deal, having limited experiences can truly be a barrier to your child’s future learning.
Fix #2: Hands-on Experience and Educational Activities
Babies, toddlers, children, and even adults really benefit from having hands-on experiences. You can tell your toddler it’s hot outside, but they won’t really know what that means if you haven’t gone out in the heat before and told them, “Wow this is really hot!” Likewise, your child may read a book with you about fall, but they won’t truly understand it until they experience the colorful leaves and changing weather.
When you give your child a variety of experiences, they can learn more quickly and understand more deeply. Educational activities include any number of things! It might be experiencing different temperatures, textures, tastes, sights, smells, or sounds. You can really engage with all of their senses!
Benefits of Your Toddler Learning Through Hands-on Experiences
An incredibly important part of learning new concepts and ideas in school and at home is having what educators call “prior knowledge”. Prior knowledge is what kids already know that can help them understand new topics and ideas. Prior knowledge is an extremely important part of school and really, learning anything new.
While your child can learn through TV shows or screen time, they really benefit so much more from real-life experiences. Children get to interact with all of their senses when they are in person doing an activity, and they get to explore first-hand. When your child uses a screen they are limited to sight and hearing. Additionally, they are in a passive role, watching someone else do something. Again, I’m not saying screen time is all bad, but it pales in comparison to the real thing when that’s an option.
How does one get prior knowledge? Through experiences that are mostly hands-on! By giving your child tons of opportunities to learn and experience new things, you are setting them up for success later on. If they have good background knowledge, they will be able to learn new ideas faster.
Take this for an example: Your child may not have ever heard about what a dolphin is, but if they have seen or talked about fish before, they will understand a lot. They will know that fish live in water and swim using fins. When they learn about dolphin fins, they will be able to draw on their prior knowledge of fish to help them understand the new information.
If you want to learn more about prior knowledge, check out this great resource.
Ideas for Hands-on Experiences and Educational Activities for Your Toddler
- Cook with your child. If you want more ideas on how to do this well, check out my full article on it right here.
- Grow a garden or plants together. They can learn about how plants grow and enjoy the fruits (literally) of their hard work!
- Visit a petting zoo, regular zoo, or farm so they can see new animals.
- Let them help with putting away dishes.
- Go to a pumpkin patch.
- Pick apples at an apple orchard.
- Go to a parade.
- If your child isn’t in school, take them near a school so they can see a school bus, the school building, and teachers.
- Participate in a library story time.
- Take your child sledding. Let them build a snowman or a snow fort.
- Go to the ocean, lake, or river.
- Go to different parks around your town or city.
- Take them to a factory.
- Let them grocery shop with you at the store.
- Have them help you rake leaves and then jump in them.
- Try out a music class for small children and toddlers.
- Go to a children’s museum.
- Look at the stars with them and point out the moon, planets, and constellations that you see.
- Let them try out a dance class, gymnastics, or toddler sports.
- Go swimming at a pool.
- Collect something…rocks, shells, flowers, anything your toddler might enjoy.
When should you be teaching toddlers at home?
Now that you’ve read about what it really means to teach your toddler at home, you know that the real question is “When should I play with my child?”. The answer is all the time! Whenever you can, play with your child or give them an opportunity to play by themselves.
When do you start? Right away! Your child starts learning the moment they are born. In fact, your baby is learning BEFORE they are born! Babies start their brain development in the womb, and that’s why prenatal care is something doctors take so seriously.
All that to say, your baby will start learning right away, so you can start “teaching” right away. But as I outlined above, teaching happens through play and experiences, NOT flashcards and educational videos. (Not to say your toddler cannot learn anything from those sources, but they certainly aren’t the best avenues.)
If you’re a nerd like me, you’ll want to find out more about how the brain develops. It’s seriously insane! Here is a great resource all about brain development in babies and toddlers.
The Best Ways to Support Toddler Development
So now you know that the best way to teach your child new skills is through play, hands-on experiences, and educational activities. The next question is, WHAT should you teach your toddler? And I’ve got the answer!
If you’re wondering about what to teach your toddler, check out my post on “22 Things You Should Be Teaching Your Toddler“. It will be a great place to start! If you want more specific articles, check out my post here on teaching color, or this one for counting, orthis post for shapes.
And don’t forget to leave a comment if you want to share your favorite ways to play!