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Top Tips for Teaching Toddlers

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #39, 2001.

Toddler teaching time!
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Mary Pride

One of the questions those of us who have been homeschooling for a while get asked most frequently is:

"How can I handle a toddler while I'm trying to teach the older kids?"

There are several quick answers to this question, which you will find in various homeschool books. Most involve finding ways for the little one to amuse himself while you give your full attention to the "real" students.

As a mother of nine totally homeschooled kids, I have to tell you that all these gambits fall short. As they should. Junior may be short, but he's not dumb. He can see that "homeschooling," whatever it is, deserves your full attention. His much-admired older siblings are doing it. And he is not, so he will relentlessly annoy you and badger you and interrupt you until you pay him some attention!

A truly determined toddler can make mincemeat of anyone's lesson plan. I include in "anyone" even those of you who live by the rule that misbehavior should be dealt with at the first infraction. Yes, over time a little one will learn to "behave" - e.g., not interrupt - which beats temper tantrums. But the underlying cause of all these interruptions will still not have been dealt with successfully.

Junior wants to learn something!
He wants to learn it now!
He wants to learn it RIGHT NOW!

Teach the Toddler First

I say, "Indulge the kid." The best way to deal with a toddler in your homeschool is to teach him first, before you go on to the older kids' lessons. Secure in your love and attention, reassured that he isn't doomed to miss out forever on all the fun stuff, he is much more likely then to be willing to play quietly while the other kids get some attention.

What to Teach

Remember, we're talking "toddler" here. Only a birthday or two have gone by. Little Missy isn't at the age or stage for formal instruction in reading, writing, and 'rithmetic yet. Her command of English is likely fraught with "kid-isms": bisgetti instead of spaghetti, wa-wa instead of water, and so on.

Missy is now at what I call the "sponge age." She is ready to soak up all kinds of exciting new experiences, textures, smells, sights, and sounds. She likes to grab things and chew things and drag them around.

Here are some ideas for Toddler Teaching Time:

  • Music. Much has been made of the "Mozart Effect." Researchers have observed that babies and toddlers exposed to classical music in general, and Mozart in particular, seem to exhibit permanent gains in IQ. Putting on a piece of classical music before you start your schoolday takes little to no effort, and has also been shown to produce a calmer, more productive study time for the older children!

  • Foreign Languages. Researchers have also found that babies are born knowing all the sounds made in every human language. As they get older, most gradually lose the ability to make any sounds but those of their native language - unless they are exposed to other languages at an early age. So you might want to invest in some foreign language CDs for toddlers: they exist!

  • Math. Counting and matching games are lots of fun. I used to have a denim jumper with exactly 20 silvery buttons on the front. I'd count them from one to twenty, with the little one repeating after me, then backwards from 20 to 1. You can count and group M&Ms by color, pair socks together as they come out of the drier and count the sock balls, measure water with your measuring cups (always a winner!) and much more.

  • Science. Backyard Scientist Jane Hoffman once mentioned a study in which kindergarten kids who had oodles of science experiences tested higher in later grades than those who concentrated on studying the 3 R's. How much more so when the child in question isn't even old enough for the 3 R's? Nature walks and simple "kitchen science" experiments are easy to do, and just as much fun for the older kids.

  • Arts & Crafts. Starting the day with a bit of supervised lacing, coloring, clay modeling, or whatnot is a guaranteed kiddie-pleaser.

  • Exercise. Balancing, gentle tumbling, running, swinging - a worn-out kid is a happy kid!

  • Read to Me. An older child can help out here! Some toddlers will also learn to love favorite books and songs on tape.

Complete baby-and-up curricula are also available, such as the excellent and inexpensive Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready book. Just remember, whatever you do, do it as the first event in your daily homeschool.

And don't forget to cuddle!

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