Overview: I’m sharing my process for planning Tot School with a child-led approach in mind.
Welcome to our Starting Tot School series. Be sure to check out all the other posts in this series to learn my step by step process to getting started with tot school.
1. What is Tot School?
2. Planning the Perfect Tot School Schedule
3. Toddler Learning: What Do Toddlers Really Need to Know
4. How to Plan for a Child-Led Tot School
5. Loose Parts for Toddlers: How to Use Them Effectively
6. Toddler Curriculum: Hands-On, Child-Led, Process-Based
I am a huge believer in following your child’s interests, which can be very difficult to plan for at times. As I mentioned in our What is Tot School post, I try to incorporate free play, intentional play, and academic play into our plans every week.
Free play should always be your focus. This should be the majority of your day and it is NOT planned. There is no lesson plan, model, or right/wrong way for free play.
I follow up every structured activity with free play time, and the majority of our activities are invitations that don’t need my direction.
All activities you plan should be child-led. To me that means the activities are appropriate for their development, interest them, and allow your toddler to start/stop the activity on their own time.
None of the activities you plan, including the academic activities should be forced. Keep in mind that toddlers do not need plans. It’s not going to matter if you don’t get to an activity that day or the activities didn’t go as planned.
As long as your toddler is playing and is enjoying his play, then they are learning. Plans are more for us Mamas who need to have something in our back pockets.
Related: The Toddler Experience: A Hands-On Toddler Curriculum
Remember these little guys are just toddlers, and our goal for Tot School is to develop a love of learning. If they grasp a concept that’s great, but if not it’s okay too.
Young children have until Kindergarten to learn the basics. It’s a slow process and should not be rushed. Just keep exposing your children to the concepts. Eventually they will learn it on their own time, and when they are ready to learn it, they will learn it quickly.
What to Plan?
For toddlers, I just plan simple activities that meet interests and academic concepts. I plan art activities, sensory experiences, and tot tray activities.
Some themes may last a few days, whereas other themes may last a few months. It all depends on your child. If they are super engaged with a theme, you don’t want to stop to move onto another theme. You want to use their questions to help guide your activities.
The same goes for a theme that your toddler has no interest in at all. You don’t want to force them to do activities around a theme if they are bored or frustrated. It will decrease their love of learning.
The Planning Tot School Process
The first thing I do is observe. I pay attention to what Sicily is engaged with, which books she loves to read, and the toys she seeks out herself. These things will lead me to her interests.
At this age, toddlers do not have the capacity to ask the questions about the things they are wondering, so we have to watch for these things to find their interests. An example I use often is watching an ant. If your toddler is outside watching an ant carry food into his hole for a while, then it probably means they are interested.
As for older toddlers who do ask questions, you want to use those questions as your guide. Do NOT answer their questions.
You want to teach them how to find the answers on their own. Teaching them to find their own answers helps develop critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Your job is to set up activities that will help them discover the answer. So when your older toddler asks “How does a caterpillar turn into a butterfly?” you know to set up an activity that will help them discover the answer.
Related: How to Cater to Your Child’s Learning Style
One question I get asked a lot is how do I plan in advance, but still reach their interests.
I’m a planner and I need to know what is on the plan for at least a week in advance. Toddlers interests can change at the drop of a hat, so you have to be choosy. I plan in advance with themes I know she is interested in and has been interested in for some time.
However, if I notice a new interest is blossoming, I want to take full advantage of that. I will quickly plan an activity or two to mix in with our current theme. This helps me gauge how interested she is in this new thing.
If the activities hold her attention, then I know I need to plan out some more activities for that theme quickly. If it doesn’t hold her attention, then I know that I can let that theme go or put it on my list of themes to try in the future.
Take advantage of the things that hold your toddlers attention because those are true interests and a lot of learning will be taking place during those activities.
Sitting Down to Plan Tot School
Once I know what Sicily’s interests are, I sit down to plan out our activities. I also plan two activities per day. We only do school four days a week because she spends Monday with her great grandparents.
All I do is simply plug in the activities under each day. You can find your activities on Pinterest or you can also use a curriculum, like The Toddler Experience Curriculum.
Then I set up the activities and trays the night before, so everything is ready to go the next day. Remember Tot School is suppose to be super simple. They are just toddlers and do not need a full academic learning experience. Just build a love of learning and let them play the majority of the day.
Print & Play Calendar
Simple, low prep activities that can be modified for toddlers and preschoolers on a simple calendar. No more worrying about how to keep the kids entertained. Just print and go!