tot-schoolWelcome to the first post in our new series #StartingTotSchool. During the next month, I will be sharing exactly what Tot School is, how I teach it, and revealing my secrets to the short toddler attention span.

Today we are going to talk about what exactly is Tot School. This is something I had started with Sicily (19 months) when she was about 12 months old. When I first started, I had no idea what I was doing. I had worked with toddlers before in a preschool setting, but I felt like teaching my own daughter was different. Plus being at home didn’t exactly feel like work. The last 6 months has been frustrating as we have tried to figure it all out. I thought I had figured it out a few times, but always ended up changing something in the next few weeks.

But today, I’ve got the perfect Tot School plan and I’m ready to share it with you. So what exactly is Tot School?

I’m so glad you asked! If you head to Pinterest and type in Tot School, you will get a million different answers. Some say it’s intentional play while others give you a full academic base curriculum. But for me, I think it’s a mix of both. Our Tot School days include free play, intentional play activities, and academic activities. Lets go through each one individually.

Free Play in Tot School

This is the most important aspect of Tot School, or any toddler life for that matter. I think it’s hard for some parents to understand that kids really are learning far more than we believe just by playing. Let me give you an example by looking at this picture below.

Tot School

What do you think Sicily is learning in this picture? I had left Sicily to play on her own while I did some work. When I went to check on her, she had found the magnetic letters and nesting cups. She was filling the cups up with letters. To some parents, it may not seem like she is learning at all, but in reality she is learning so much.

Filling and dumping things is a foundational skill for mathematical thinking. She is building the concept of capacity and quantity by seeing how many letters can fit into each cup. Since each cup is a different size she is able to realize that each cup will fit a different amount.

Free play should take up the majority of your day and follow each structured activity. When you follow a structured activity with free play, your toddler is able to decide on their own if they want to continue the activity or move on to something else.

What Does Free Play Look Like?

Simple! Free play is your toddler playing and you staying out of their way. You become a puppet in their play. Let them think and figure things out on their own. That’s where those critical thinking and problem solving skills come in. There is not a right or wrong way to play with a toy during free play. Follow their lead and let them tell you how to play.

Intentional Play Tot School Activities

Intentional Play Activities are activities we do that do not necessarily meet an academic concept. These may include cooking, gross motor, fine motor, and sensory experiences. These activities are usually planned ahead of time with your child in mind. When I sit down to plan intentional activities, I try to think about skills she needs to work on or hasn’t been introduced to yet. I keep my skills checklist handy and reference it for when I need ideas.

Academic Tot School Activities

These activities are based around colors, shapes, counting, and letters. These take up the least amount of our Tot School time and we only do them a few times a week. I believe that toddlers need more play time and will learn the majority of these skills through their play and natural interactions with us.

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

We talk about these things during our daily routines, and I’m always surprised at how much she picks up without being formally taught. Sicily knows what a star and heart are without me ever teaching it to her. Same with S. She knows her name starts with S and she can identify it. That’s just from me pointing it out one day while playing with sidewalk chalk. So academic activities are far and few in between. However, I am not comfortable with leaving all the academics up to her picking them up along the way. So I plan out some activities.

Right now we are working on our colors. The activities I plan are play based, which means we are not sitting down doing a printable or flashcards. We are learning our colors through art experiences and reading books. Right now, we are painting with a different color every week. Once we finish all the colors, I’m going to staple them together into a book for her.

Tot School

Putting Tot School Together

The main parts of Tot School is to keep it play based and child-led. Play based means that the activities you plan are focused around playing. No workbooks or flashcards. The activity should be hands on and feel like play to your child. Remember you’re trying to build a love for learning.

Keeping things child-led means that you are following your child’s lead. When your toddler is frustrated, you stop the activity and let them free play. If your toddler decides to place a colander on their head as a hat instead of placing pipe cleaners in it, you let them. By letting Sicily do things her own way, I’m usually surprised at the learning experience she had. Usually she comes up with a better activity and learning opportunity than I would have ever thought of.

Child-led also means following their interests. Instead of planning out themes months in advance, our themes are planned when an interests shows itself. Sometimes our themes only last a few days, while other times, our themes last a few month.

Keep it simple and keep it fun!

Happy Learning!


Monthly Print and Play Calendar


Enjoy the quality time with your kids while learning and having fun!

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