toddlers-learningOverview: Knowing the expectations for toddler learning can help you plan activities that meet your child’s needs, but also allows you to follow their interests.

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


Knowing what to teach your toddler can be a challenge, and planning those activities can be an even bigger challenge when you are trying to teach through your child’s interests. Knowing the expectations for toddler learning can help you plan activities that meet your child’s needs, but also allows you to follow their interests.

I like to break up the toddler learning concepts into 5 sections: fine motor, gross motor, self-help/social, language, and cognitive. For toddlers, your main focus is going to be on the motor skills and self-help skills. Our most important goal with toddler learning is to lay the foundation for a love of learning.

Now that doesn’t mean we are not going to teach our toddler academic concepts like numbers, letters, shapes, and colors. We will definitely teach those skills, but at this age it’s more of exposing them to the skills instead of making sure they know it 100%. Developing a love of learning should be your ultimate goal because that will make learning in the later years so much easier.

Toddler Learning: Fine Motor Skills

The fine motor skills are the small muscle movements in your hand. These skills are declining in children these days because of the strong focus on academics. When I taught fourth grade, more than half my class could not tie their shoes or use scissors properly. That stems from the lack of fine motor practice at the toddler age.

Activities that involve spooning, transferring, and scooping objects are perfect for toddlers learning fine motor skills. Plus toddlers seems to love moving objects around. Other activities include filling/dumping containers, pouring water, and pushing/pulling objects like zippers.

Playdough, clay, and other sensory explorations should be a huge part of your tot school curriculum. Maneuvering these mediums helps strengthen those hand and wrist muscles.

By the time your toddler is three, you should expect them to be able to unzip their coat and help with getting dressed/undressed. Your toddler should be able to draw a line and a circle, but they may not use the correct pencil grasp just yet.

Toddler Learning: Gross Motor Skills

These skills involve the large muscles in our bodies such as our legs, arms, and torso. Activities that involve climbing, balancing, and manipulating a ball help strengthen these muscles.

Getting your toddler outside will naturally take care of the gross motor learning activities. Encourage them to climb fallen trees, run, and play with a ball.

My-Many-Colored-Days-Nature-Walk

Toddler Learning: Self-Help/Social/Emotional Skills

Toddlers are old enough to be able to do many things on their own. When Sicily was capable of walking well, I expected her to throw away her own trash. When she was tall enough, I taught her how to throw her dishes into the sink when she was finished. We practice getting dressed/undressed by ourselves. Sicily knows that when she makes a mess or spills something she is expected to clean it up on her own.

Related: Toddler Self Help Skills

The best part is that toddlers usually love doing these things. They are independent creatures and crave the ability to be like the adults.

By the time your toddler is 3, they should also be working on sharing and taking turns. These skills can still be hard at a young age, but it’s something your 3 year old should be testing out for themselves.

They should also be exploring their feelings. Most 3 year olds can tell you how they are feeling using basic words such as happy, sad, and mad.

By the time they are 3, they should also know how to regulate their feelings, but may need help. For example, when a child gets angry, they should know they can calm down by going to read a book. But they may need you to remind them of their choices, especially when the emotion becomes very strong.

Toddler Learning: Language Skills

Above all else, I think the most important thing a toddler should master by the time they are 3 is a love of reading. Sicily (19 months) loves reading and will bring me 20 books at a time. Setting the foundation for a love of reading will make learning so much easier as they get older.

Other language skills your toddler should be working on is identifying their name and the letters in their name, following 2 step directions, and using 2-4 word sentences. By the time your toddler is 3, he should be starting to ask lots of questions about his environment. This is where the annoying “whys” start to emerge. I encourage you to embrace those “whys” and teach your child how to find the answers on their own.

Toddlers should also be exposed to lots of language, a print rich environment, and writing. Let them see you write the grocery list and read a book of your own. Add words around the house and use lots of different vocabulary to explain what’s going on.

Related: How to Create an Encouraging Environment 

All About Me Toddler Theme

Toddler Learning: Cognitive Skills

As I said before, cognitive skills are definitely important, but do not have to be mastered at this age. Don’t force your toddler to do workbooks, printables, and activities they find undesirable.

Simply expose these concepts during your toddler learning time. Many times if an activity is met with frustration, it means that your toddler is not ready to learn that skill. Try the activity again in a few weeks.

What they were not ready to do today, may be something they are 100% ready for the next day. Just keep exposing these concepts on a regular basis.

Related: The Toddler Experience: A Hands-On Toddler Curriculum

I find it best, and easier, to expose these concepts through every day experiences. Sicily and I like to count the steps as we go up and down. We also sit outside, watch cars go by, and talk about the color of each car. Simply talking to your toddler and using the vocabulary helps develop an interests in the skills.

Some skills you want to expose your toddler to are colors, shapes, counting to 5, and identifying numbers to 5. Chunky puzzles are perfect activities for toddlers learning. It involves matching, critical thinking, and problem solving skills.

Another loved activity in our house is finding hidden objects. I like to hide her favorite teddy bear and give her simple one step directions to find it. Matching, sorting, and grouping activities should be planned at least once a week for toddlers.

Teaching your child these basic toddler skills will help set the foundation to a life long love of learning. Each of these domains has specific skills in which you can focus on when planning for your Tot School. You can click below to download the complete list of toddler learning skills along with other resources to help you get started with Tot School.

Happy Learning!