To kick off our month of toddler/preschool themed tips, articles, blogs, etc., I've compiled a list of fourteen tips that I think are helpful to know when raising and teaching toddlers. Enjoy!
1) Routine, not schedule. Toddlers thrive on routine. Knowing that things will happen in the same basic order each day is comforting to them. It gives them a sense of security. They feel some control knowing what is coming up next. But we have to be careful not to confuse routine with schedule. A schedule is strict, planned minute by minute. This kind of thing tends to cause more stress than help. What's the difference? A schedule might look something like this:
7:30 Wake up, get dressed
7:45 Eat breakfast
8:00 Play outside
8:30 Reading time
9:00 Art time
10:00 Free play
11:30 Clean up
A routine, on the other hand, doesn't have specific times. With a routine, a toddler might know that when he wakes up, Mommy will help him get dressed and then they'll have breakfast together. Then they'll enjoy some time outside, and then come in and cool off with some favorite books. Then some play time, which will end when Mommy makes lunch and he gets to eat. See the difference? Any part of the day may be longer or shorter on different days, if he wakes up late one day he takes a nap later that day. If the weather is really nice, he might play outside for 2 hours and come inside just in time for a couple of stories and 20 minutes of play while Mommy makes lunch. Things flow in the same basic pattern each day (lunch is always followed by clean up, and then its time for a nap) but not necessarily at a certain exact time each day. There's a security in the continuity but without the stress of having to do things by the clock.
2) Never disturb a happy toddler. Picture it: the two year old girl is sitting in the floor with her mother, enjoying a book. Except...she's been staring at the same page for several minutes. Trying to move things along, Mom turns the page and continues reading. That's the point of books, right? But what mom has just done is disturb what could have been a very deep thought in the mind of her child. Toddlers are still figuring out the world. Their minds take awhile to process things sometimes. What seems like boring pointless staring, doing the same thing over and over with a toy, etc., to us...is really important brain work for the littles. If they're happy doing something, don't rush them. Don't disturb the workings of the toddler brain!
3) They don't always have the words. Kids this age, they just get so...
Yep, they get those things. They have those emotions. But they often don't know how to tell you they're having them. So it's up to us as parents to give them the words they need. "You look like you're feeling frustrated. Is that toy not doing what you want it to do? That is frustrating!" They will learn in time to use the words themselves and tell you what they're feeling. You know how you hear parents/teachers saying, "Use your words?" Well, that's a great concept, but first you have to be sure to teach them the words to use!
4) Just because they say it, doesn't mean they want it. I see this scenario all too often:
Child sees cookies
Parent: No, we're not having cookies right now.
Why is it that parents are so quick to assume that children want everything? Toddlers are constantly working on their ever expanding vocabularies. They are exploring how sounds make words, words represent objects, and saying words elicits reactions from other people. How much nicer it would have been if the scenario had gone something like this:
Child sees cookies
Parent: Oh, you see those cookies? We like cookies, don't we? They're yummy!
Parent: These cookies have chocolate chips in them. I like chocolate, do you like chocolate?
Child: Chocolate (OK, so it comes out more like chokwat)
Parent: We'll have some cookies later at snack time. Let's go find a book to read.
Much nicer, yes? Don't always assume they are demanding something. Maybe they just are trying to determine if that is really the right word for that object. Or they want to know more about it. Or they're just acknowledging that it's there.
And then, yes, sometimes they do want a cookie. But not all the time.
5) They wash. Kids wash. Dirty faces, sticky hands, muddy feet, ketchup-dripped-on shirts. It all washes. Kids should be allowed to get dirty. Enough said.
6) Repetition has a purpose. You read the same book for the tenth time. Sing the same song for the eleventh. And then put together the same puzzle for the bajillionth. It's boring to us, yes, but to their still developing minds, repetition has great purpose. Pathways in the brain are being formed, and doing the same things over and over helps make those pathways strong. The day will come when they tire of that book, that song, that puzzle. The day will come when they read on their own and listen to music on their ipods and can't be bothered with childish things like puzzles. Enjoy the time while you can, even for the four thousandth time. You're forming a bond with your child while helping their brain develop. It doesn't get much better than that.
7) Say yes more than no. If your life were a TV show, and you could go back and watch yourself throughout one day, you would likely be appalled at the number of times in a day you tell your children "no". No parent wants to admit it but if we're honest it's the truth. It takes a conscious effort to tell your children yes more often than no. Why is it so much harder to say yes? Well, because saying yes takes more time. Saying yes means we have to take the time to actually stop and listen to what our kids are asking. Saying yes means we might have to put down the phone, get off the computer, put our grown up stuff on hold long enough to do something with our little ones. It makes life a little harder. A little messier perhaps. But it makes for great memories years from now, and a better relationship right now. Plus, saying no less makes it a much more powerful word for when you really mean it.
8) Start early but make it fun. Do I believe in early childhood education? Mmmm...yes, sort of. I believe in teaching young children things. In not underestimating their ability to understand and to figure things out. But I don't believe in things like workbooks, flash cards, or curriculum for kids this young. Kids this age learn through play, I can't say it enough. Play. Play. Play. Young children learn best when the material learned is presented in fun and interesting ways. I'll be blogging later about some specific ways to do this. Don't make your 2 year old into a high schooler. Just say no to worksheets!
9) Leave them alone sometimes. Another scenario I see over and over is a young child working away at something. The parent sees the child not quite getting things to work correctly, or looking intently and thoughtfully at something, and the parent thinks they need to step in and "help" the child. To those parents I say: LEAVE THAT CHILD ALONE!!! Like I said back in #2 (never disturb when happy), young children's minds are constantly working out the world around them. It may take them awhile. It may take numerous tries, numerous mistakes. We may have to bit our tongues, sit on our hands, but we MUST let them figure things out on their own when they can. If they want help, they can ask for it (either verbally or through nonverbal cues). If they get fed up, they can stop and walk away for awhile. But children who are allowed to figure things out on their own at their own pace are getting a far greater education than anything we could ever teach them.
10) Reading is essential. Read to them. Every single day. Not just one five page board book. Lots of books. Let them see you reading books of your own. Talk about what's in their books. Let them go through them at their own pace (younger toddlers will often still be in that skip-a-few-pages-and-then-stare-at-one-particular-page-naming-everything-on-it phase). Point out letters, numbers, shapes, colors in the books. Reading - early and often is quite honestly the most enjoyable way I can think of to help ensure an intelligent and well educated child later on. Plus...who doesn't love a good Little Golden Book?
11) Childhood is messy. If you're looking for fast, easy, non-messy things to do with little ones, I'm the wrong person to ask. Children should be allowed to make messes in the name of learning and exploring. This also means children should be taught early on to help clean up the messes they have made. Let them create things. Huge block towers, finger paintings, scissors snipping paper into tiny slivers (excellent fine motor skill development by the way). Whatever it is, don't sweat the mess. Just like the kids, it cleans up!
12) They need to be active...and rested. Gross motor development is just as important as fine motor skills or linguistic development. It's often overlooked because it just seems like something that is so natural for young children. But there are children who are never allowed time (or at least adequate time) to run, jump, and climb. Make sure your child is not one of those! Encourage them to run. Run with them! Push them on the swings then help them learn to keep their swing going. Go down the big slide with them. Get them active! Even in bad weather you can think of little games to get them moving indoors.
On the other hand, young children need times of rest. Most kids in the toddler years still take an afternoon nap (though some don't), but they also need other times for rest during the day. Follow up outdoor play with some quiet reading time or snuggle time. Alternate vigorous play with quieter play throughout the day to ensure they are at top form for whatever comes their way.
13) Process over product. Probably my favorite toddler tip ever. For that matter, not just for toddlers, but for people of all ages. But certainly, this especially applies to the little ones. What does that mean, process over product? It means that things young children create should be more about the process of creating something than about the final product. This is why I hate things like preschool craft printables: have your child color these pieces, cut them out, and glue them together to make a (fill in the blank). Things like that provide the child very little involvement in the process of creating. Pretty much anything with step by step instructions is suspicious to me when it comes to toddlers. Better to give them some paper, pens, paint, and pompom balls and let them come up with their own creation!
14) They just want to feel safe. All in all, children just want to feel loved, secure in the knowledge that their parents (or primary caregivers) will always be there to help them when they need it, hold them when they're sad, chase away the monsters, and kiss away the hurts. Just love them, do what seems best for them, and you'll all be just fine.