January 3, 2018

Early Childhood Learning Part 1: The Playing Toddler

Because I have a teaching background, I get asked my opinion on a variety of topics relating to kids and education.  Many moms have asked me, "When should I start working on letters and sounds?  What specifically should I work on?  How often do you work on these things?  Should I do one year of preschool, or two?  Should my child be reading yet?"  While I am happy to give my opinion and share my experiences, I try to never tell my friends what they ultimately should do. But as a blogger, sometimes I feel like I am doing just that, telling my friends what they should do.  So I am saying this now, please never feel like I am telling you what you should do.  I am not the parent of your child.  You are.  Contrary to many opinions, you get to decide what is best for your child.  Isn't that a great thing!  Who is the one who sees your child at his best and his worst?  You are.  Who best knows your child's triggers and triumphs?  You again.  So knowing that you get to decide what is best for your child, and I get to decide what is best for mine, I begin this Early Childhood Learning Series.  I will offer some things I have learned about the different early childhood learning stages, as well as ideas of things that have worked for me.  Then you get to decide what would work with your child.  I guess you could call this "One Mom/Teacher's Experience".

Part 1:  The Playing Toddler

How do toddlers learn?  They learn through watching us, and through playing!  Beanie Baby is currently 2 1/2 and we bounce through a lot of activities in a day!  I love giving my toddler fun activities to do, but I really like to make them simple, easy to clean up, and reusable.  These are some of my go-to toddler activities, mostly with stuff we already have.  (This post contains affiliate links.)

Playing with erasers.  Cute erasers can be found at the dollar store, craft store, or Target dollar section.  All I do is give some erasers, a few bowls, a tray, and I let her play.  She will sort, stack, line them up, she'll even make me some "eraser soup"!

Squeezing has been a favorite of all of my children, as well as any friend who happens to be around.  I started out just saving the medicine droppers from the children's fever reducer bottles.  But when I started my preschool, I bought this great set of pipets, with very large bulbs for squeezing.  Sometimes we'll add food coloring and do color mixing.  Here, Beanie Baby is adding water to the bowl of fish erasers.  The jars are empty baby food jars, it can also be done with empty applesauce containers, but be advised that the plastic containers tip more often.

WARNING:  Inevitably, almost any child I have done this with will eventually pour from container to container.  You may want to keep some towels handy and put some cookies sheets or trays under the jars to avoid a flood.

At this age, am I sitting Beanie down and teaching her letters?  Nope.  That's not the right step for her right now.  I really don't create any structured lessons for her right now.  But she does get exposed to letters through playing.  For toddlers, puzzles with pegs are a good choice.  Beanie Baby loves this Melissa and Doug alphabet puzzle.  She can't do it independently, but I will hand her the letter, say the name, and then tell her which picture it goes with.  She will then put it with the correct picture.

Pinterest is full of amazing sensory bin ideas.  Sensory bins are containers that are full of a tactile experience for a child to play, feel, and even find things.  While I love some of the ideas out there, I have narrowed it down to one sensory bin in our house--a pasta bin.  I have tried rice, beans, cloud dough, popcorn kernels, but it turns out that those are just too messy for this mamma.  I love the pasta because the pieces are large enough that clean up is pretty quick.  This is a mixture of bow tie, penne, and spiral pasta.  I have added letters, erasers, Easter eggs, scoops, tongs, and bowls.  When we are not using this bin, a lid goes on it and it's stored up high.

While this post is about toddler-friendly activities, almost all of these activities are also loved by my older kiddos and their friends as well.

When I taught preschool, I noticed that there were some kids who felt tortured if we were coloring, and others who could sit there for an hour and color.  Beanie Baby happens to be one of those who LOVES to do any art.  She will sit in her own little world and color in a coloring book with crayons and gel pens for a long time.  She would love it if I got out paint every day.  But, I can't get behind that, so instead, a favorite at our house is the Melissa & Doug Water Wow Books.  You just fill up the paint brush pen with water or dip it in water and then paint the picture.  The pages are thick and after it wears off, it can be painted again and again.  We often give these to friends as birthday gifts.

In my experience, toddlers seem to really love dot markers.  Sometimes my toddler will dot with them, sometimes she will draw with them.  The great thing is that they are not too messy, and they still work after the lid has been left off for a long time.

Does anyone else have a toddler who thinks markers are the greatest thing on the whole planet?  Markers with toddlers stress me out, even washable markers.  But I am a fan of Color Wonder markers.  They only show up on special paper, leaving hands, table, and walls marker-free.  You do have to buy the special paper, but that is something I'm willing to do :)  For Christmas, Beanie Baby got this fun Crayola Color Wonder Stamp Set.  It's been a hit at our house!

My mom started what we call doing a "sink job".  On the rare occasions when the kitchen sink is clear of dishes, I will sometimes pull out these two measuring cups, a lime squeezer, and some cut up green sponges or "limes".  Then I leave the water running just a trickle, and Beanie goes to work.  This is an activity that I monitor more closely than some of the others, frequently drying up spilled water and making sure she doesn't turn the water on full blast.

Whether they are on the fridge, or on this white board, Beanie loves to play with magnets.  This is another way she is exposed to letters through play.

We sure enjoy our table time activities, but sometimes a toddler just needs to be active!  We have fun cranking the tunes and having a dance party, playing in the tunnel, hopping on or waving colored scarves (which are really just square scraps of fabric), and throwing bean bags.

Another activity not pictured involves blocks.  We build towers then knock them over or make long block lines across the room.  And of course, we love to take time to look at books!

After seeing all of these ideas, do not be fooled into thinking that I provide each one of these activities for my toddler every day!  I am a real mom.  I have time constraints, exhaustion levels, and lazy days.  This is almost my whole toolbox of toddler activities, and my toddler totally watches shows every day.  While two-year-old is definitely not my favorite stage, I do love watching my Beanie Baby learn through play.  What's in your toddler toolbox?

Come back soon for:
Early Childhood Learning Part 2:  The Exploring Three-Year-Old
Early Childhood Learning Part 3:  The Pre-Kindergartener


  1. I love reading this knowing we'll be hitting that stage soon. Thanks for making it so real and something I can relate to. Looking forward to more content!

  2. Thanks Denise! It's a fun adventure!