Learning + Toddlers = Fun

For those a bit late to the party, I’m an educator by trade. (Some might say that a school librarian isn’t an educator, but dudes…I educate.) While I have no idea whether this is my lifelong calling, it’s definitely something I strive to do on a daily basis, whether the kids are in my classes or under my own roof.

But, when you have a two-year-old (or any toddler or kiddo, for that matter), it’s not always practical or realistic to have nice sit-down lessons. At this age, it’s all about making things palatable, like hiding veggies in meals and smothering things with cheese. (We all do it, guys, there’s no shame here.) Life’s also all about fun (as it should be), and it can be surprising what simple things kids can deem as a good ol’ time.

So, today I’m here with a few tips on fitting some simple, fun learning into your little one’s day. Even if you just pick out one or two to try here and there, you can feel a little bit better about the amount of times he’s watched the same Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on repeat. (Or, in our house, Duck Tales and Mickey Christmas Carol. Yep. It is what it is.)

Use toys as learning tools. We tend to over-think the early learning process. Simple is totally best at this stage. So, things like simple mathematical concepts are totally doable. “Let’s count how many farm animals you have!” (Depending on his/her stage, count along. Hadman’s great up until 13, but then repeats it several times and skips to 17. We’re working on it. ;-)) You could also line up four Legos, have him count them, then take one away and ask how many are left. Simple addition/subtraction like this will get his mind thinking in a different, problem-solving way than basic counting.

Magnet letters are my BFF. I need to buy another set since he’s used the crud out of these (read: half are missing), but our Melissa and Doug magnetic letters LIVE on the fridge. Recently while waiting to get packed up, Hadley had a bunny toy and a stuffed baby doll in his hands. We named what they were (“bunny” and “baby”) and while making the “B” sound several times, I asked him what letter they start with. He ran to the fridge and immediately started to search for the “B.” I’ve found my favorite new game, folks, and he LOVES getting claps and hugs for correct answers. Believe it or not, toddlers are people pleasers. 

Potty time is learning time. Let’s face it: waiting for potty to come out is a boring (sometimes excruciating) job. Turn it into a fun time by reading short board books together, doing a rhyming game, learning “patty cake” (Had can now do it all by himself. My proud mama heart bursts!), singing the alphabet, naming the parts of the body, and more. When I do the alphabet, I’ll pause for him to say the next letter, or lately we’ve even started trying to name things that start with the letter sound. Vowels are a challenge since they take on the sound of the letter following it (for example, “elephant” sounds like “L”), but moments like “What starts with an ‘M’?” “MAMA!!!” are awesome. (This tip goes for bath time and commutes, too.)

Never too early to read. Okay, so maybe you’re not like us. Maybe you don’t have a bedtime routine down yet. Maybe you thought your infant was too little to start reading to. It’s totally okay! Just know that it’s NEVER too early or late to read with your little one. There are so many studies touting the importance of early reading — that they feel love and security in the routine and one-on-one time, they learn the proper care and use of books (modeling how to turn the page properly and that we can’t turn the page until we’ve finished reading all the words), that books can teach AND entertain us…the list goes on. Establishing the routine also helps them settle down and learn expectations for each night; in other words, we have very little divergence from the regular routine (once in awhile I’ll bring him a sippy cup of water, but even that is pretty rare). Another awesome side effect? Seeing how their personal preferences and interests develop.

Give art meaning. I often draw a holiday symbol as a little coloring sheet to mix up our usual Sesame Street coloring activities, but you can take this a step further. Give your little one a sheet of white paper and ask them to draw something and describe it. (Sometimes it’s one word, sometimes it’s a full sentence.) Then, either write the sentence/phrase below the picture or post it on a piece of construction paper with a separate sentence strip below it. Show this to your child and read the sentence. You could also do the same with plenty of seasonal or concept-driven themes. For example, an apple stamping and write a fact from an apple book (or a basic fact like “Apples come from apple trees.”) to create a sense of importance to the art, but also teach a simple lesson.

Can’t say enough about independent play. I’ve heard that boys are better at this than girls, but I also feel that it depends on their environment. Hadley is, for the most part, an only child (aside from pets). He’s the only little one at his grandma’s house during the day. He’s the only little one at home, for now. While we do play with him often, he’s quite content to seek out his own time to play and pretend. I, however, was the fourth and youngest child in my family. I was used to having people play with me, so as I got older and they weren’t into my little kid games anymore, it stung and I had a very hard time playing independently. I truly believe that a greater imagination is developing in our little guy, as well as additional skills that I may not have been blessed with. People need to know how to be alone, how to occupy themselves happily, how to have an internal dialogue. I truly think it leads to deeper thinking and connecting, so I’m happy that our buddy is so happy doing this.

If you have more than one child, it’s AWESOME for them to play together – don’t get me wrong! They need that social interaction and to learn the ebb and flow of proper communication. However, trying out alone time (even if a couple times a week for a short period of time) will help them to develop this additional those imaginative, independent-thinking skills.

Kinetic play is just as important as the alphabet. We haven’t done a ton of this, but have just recently started to get into it. Let’s just say he LOVES it. We’ve been using traditional Play-Doh (I know! An eco-mama who doesn’t make her own flour-based solution?! Blasphemous!) and he adores squishing and poking his fingers in. He’s amazed by the rudimentary dinosaurs, heads, and other animals we make for him to play with — to think, he’s completely non-judgmental of poor artistic ability. (Dave’s awesome at it, though.) Getting hands-on gets neurons in his brain moving that haven’t hopped, skipped and danced before. I’m thinking of making a SIMPLE seasonal sensory box to up the fun (and brain activity).

Don’t be afraid to make a mess. This one can apply to the Play-Doh or any other artistic activity…or, heck, play, for that matter. It’s just not worth obsessing over a train track that takes over your entire living room floor or the fact that the paint project your kid’s mastering also includes painting every. single. finger. Besides, it’s not what life’s about. At any given moment, we have cat toys, random Little People and play food strewn about or stuck in unexpected storage spots. It is what it is. Visit anytime. 😉

That said, now’s a good time to teach responsibility. Yup, we can make a mess. It’s totally cool. But, we’re hitting on the “don’t play with the next thing until you pick up the last thing” rule in our house. We’re trying to keep it low-key and relatively fun, though, by making it a team effort. Sure, the kiddo is the one who made the mess in the first place, but by teaming up and helping him it seems like a) a more manageable task and b) almost FUN! “Let’s see how many puzzle pieces we can each put away!” or “Hadley, I forgot where the train pieces go. Can you show me, please?” can be a good starter.

Or, if your little one hasn’t started “helping out” yet, start by explaining the reasons. We already have, and he’s catching on a little at a time. Making them aware of a mess is the first step, stating that it’s okay but that it needs to be picked up is the next step, then just getting them to put ONE toy away is the final. Moving from this stage will happen gradually but surely, and the day that your child puts ONE toy away without argument seriously feels like you won the lottery. SIDE NOTE: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood uses a great, short clean-up song that we sometimes sing to make it fun. Some moms hate these songs, but I’m a Daniel junky.  


What about you guys? Any tips to add to the list?

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