Welcome to another post from our #StartingTotSchool series. So far we have talked about:
What is Tot School?
How to Create the Perfect Tot School Schedule
What Toddlers Really Need to Know
Today we are going to talk about planning Tot School with a child-led approach in mind. I am a huge believer in following your child’s interests, which can be very difficult to plan for. 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. When your toddler free plays, you are not doing anything to encourage them. You are simply a puppet in their play doing exactly what they tell you to do. 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.
As I talked about in our planning a schedule post, I follow up every activity with free play time. Some activities you plan may take 5 minutes while others will hold their attention for an hour. Having free play after an activity gives your toddler something to do on their own terms.
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. For Sicily, I plan these activities around colors and shapes. Once she turns 2, I will start planning our activities around themes.
I wait until she is 2 to introduce themes because she will be better at expressing her interests, which will help me decide which themes I need to plan. 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 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. The majority of these activities are art, sensory, or motor skills based. I will add one or two academic based activities each week to expose her to the different skills. We only do school four days a week because she spends Monday with her great grandparents. As I mentioned before, we are focusing on colors and shapes right now until Sicily turns two. Here are my plans from last week, when we were talking about the color blue and squares.
All I do is simply plug in the activities under each day. You can find your activities on Pinterest. I share a lot of Tot School activities on my Pinterest account. You can also use a curriculum, like The Toddler Experience Curriculum. This curriculum starts with basic colors/shapes like I am doing with Sicily. Then when the toddler turns two, the curriculum changes to themes. The themes follow the letters of the alphabet, but you have a choice in which theme you want to teach and when you want to teach it. I designed the curriculum this way, so you can pick themes that relate to your toddler’s interests at any particular time.
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.
Not sure where to start with Tot School? I have a whole guide to help you get started. This guide has a To-Do list, our favorite supplies, book recommendations, a skills list, my Tot School planner, and more.
Monthly Print and Play Calendar
Enjoy the quality time with your kids while learning and having fun!