what-to-teachOverview: I get asked all the time “What do I need to teach my little one, and when do I teach it?” Today I spend some time answering this question and giving you some signs for when your child is ready to learn certain skills.

I remember when Sicily turned 18 months like it was yesterday. Society’s push towards education was starting to get to me. I hurried onto Pinterest to try to find a bunch of activities to help her learn her colors…and fast.

Well like everything else I tried at that age, it backfired. I would spend loads of time planning and prepping for these activities only to have Sicily shrug her shoulders and go play with something else.

I was beginning to get really frustrated with teaching her the colors, so I just stopped. Then one day out of the blue, she turned to me and said “pink mom?” as she held up a pink block.

I was surprised that she knew what that color was, and to my surprise she knew most of them. I never really taught it to her, so how did she learn it?

She learned it through our encouraging environment, and she was ready to learn it.

Related: Play and Learn: Can You Really Do Them at the Same Time?

I can’t sit here and tell you what to teach and exactly when to teach it. It really is up to your child. You can try to teach any concept at any time. You can even follow a boxed curriculum that tells you exactly what to teach and when to teach it.

But ultimately, if your child is not ready to learn it, they won’t. Simple as that!

So I guess the real question for today’s post is…

How do I know when to teach certain concepts to my child?

The answer includes 2 parts and is quite simple.

1.Have an encouraging, child-led environment for your child to explore in.

2.Be on the lookout for signs of readiness

An Encouraging, Child-Led Environment

To me child-led means the activities are appropriate for their development, interest them, and allow the child to start/stop the activity on their own time. Child-led also gives them the chance to create their own learning and “rules” to the activities you provide or they choose on their own.

Related: Child-Led Learning: Staying Organized with a Wonder Journal

An encouraging environment means that the your child’s environment provides multiple and meaningful exposures to all academic concepts, as well as introduces them to new topics that they might be interested in.

Multiple Opportunities

Multiple opportunities for exposure includes giving your child multi-sensory experiences with the concepts. For example, Sicily is only 26 months. During the toddler years, it is my intention to expose Sicily to her letters, not teach them. If she learns her letters, that’s great! If not, that’s okay too.

To expose her to the letters, we always have a letter of the week that relates to our theme. I lay out the letter building sticks, the sandpaper letter, books, the sand tray, and a sensory bin that relates to the letter of the week. I also write a few words that begin with that letter on sentence strips and include a picture to talk about each morning. Each exposure has a different sensory aspect and focuses on exposing the letter in multiple ways.

I do not plan a specific activity for each of these materials. Most of them sit out on our shelf for her to explore at her own free will. We will talk about each word I wrote to increase vocabulary and trace the sandpaper letter every morning. But I only do this because Sicily shows interest in learning her letters.

As she reaches 3 years old or starts to show more of an interest in her letters, I will add more concrete lessons to our week.

Meaningful Exposure

In order for your child to learn the concepts, he must find meaning in it. If your child is not ready and has no real reason to learn the concept, then he won’t.

Meaningful exposure means the activities and concepts you introduce should relate to their life and they must have a reason for learning it. This reason must come from within them, not from you.

A child must see you using these concepts in your everyday life in order to grasp the reason for why they should learn it. Let them see you reading your own materials, writing the grocery list, and using math to pay the bills.

Taking into account their learning styles and interests also creates meaningful exposure to the concepts. So taking my example above, the words I write and the letter I choose all relate to our theme, which is based on Sicily’s current interests. I don’t randomly pick themes I THINK she will be interested in.

Related: How to Plan for a Child-Led Tot School

The last part of meaningful exposure is to learn through play and keep it natural. Learning through play is the best way to teach a child. Play is their work and it’s meaningful to them.

Keeping it natural means to throw the concepts into your child’s everyday life, and not to quiz them. When playing with a toy, add the concepts in naturally. Some examples may be:

-“Can you hand me the blue truck?” (Learning colors)

-“Lets count the steps as we go up.” (Counting)

-“I see the letter S on that stop sign” (Learning letters)

It SHOULD NOT sound like:

-“What color is your truck?”

-“How many steps are there?”

-“What letter is this?”


Signs of Readiness

After setting up an encouraging environment and providing multiple, meaningful exposures you can start to watch for signs of readiness. When your child starts to exhibit these signs, then you can begin more formal lessons on the concept.

Even with the formal lessons, you want to keep them meaningful by following the guidelines above. Let’s go over some of the signs of readiness for the important academic skills.

Colors and Shapes

-Asks to identify shapes and colors frequently

-Looks for a specific color

-Begins to show a preference for a certain color (favorite color)

Number Identification and Counting

-Wants to count everything

-Can identify similarities and differences with ease

-Begins to notice more and less

-Interested in counting books or counting everything in regular books

Letter Identification

-Wants to read more often

-Can identify similarities and differences with ease

-Asks you to identify letters they see in their environment

-Shows a strong interest in the letters of their name

-Wants to know the first letter of the things he’s interested in


-Has a strong pencil grasp

-Has determined his hand preference

-Can control writing materials

-Knows most of his letters


-Can remember and retell simple stories

-Asks to learn to read

-Has strong book and print awareness skills

-Enjoys playing with sounds in words (rhymes, syllables)

-Knows most of his letters and their sounds (does not necessarily need to know them all if he has a strong interest in learning to read)

Learning academic concepts may not be on our time table, but learning will be deeper, faster, and more meaningful when we wait for them to be ready. I like to follow this basic outline for when to teach the concepts:

Toddlers- Exposure

3 Year Olds- Identification

4 Year Olds- Application

These basic skills are the most important skills your child will learn and they have a whole 5 years to learn them before starting Kindergarten. Take your time and follow their lead. Creating an encouraging, child-led environment naturally leads your child into WANTING to learn these academic concepts.