Teaching toddlers: Confusing, unconventional, rewarding

Pushing out foam numbers and then returning them to their spots is a great challenge for letter learning and fine motor skills.

My little boy, William, just turned two. His hobbies include running, throwing and dumping whatever can be dumped.

I wanted to encourage knowledge growth before I send him to nursery school, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to start, or confident about how to achieve tangible results. I started with general playtime, and ideas to help coax his brain to learn started coming.

I don’t have a specific lesson plan or structure. I let William make the call about activities regarding when, length of time and content.

I’ve had success with four learning mediums: books, screen time, puzzles and songs.

Screen time

I let William watch up to two hours of “shows” a day. Options include Sesame Street, Super Simple Songs, Super Truck, Thomas and Friends and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. All these are available via Amazon Prime Video, which we use because it eliminates advertisements; however, they are also uploaded on YouTube.

I prefer the older Sesame Street episodes because they beat a dead horse with the letter of the day and the number of the day. It is repeated and visualized in different ways so there is no question that William has seen and heard the letter or number. I haven’t noticed William using the educational information Sesame Street conveys, but he has transferred what he sees from the show to other areas of learning, which I will explain and tie-in later.

We were introduced to videos by Super Simple Songs. William has been absolutely entranced by these since he was six months old (see: “Snowflake Super Simple Songs”). The animations are clear and large, and the songs are, well, simple.

After many failed attempts between myself and family members, William finally caught on to the peekaboo game after the white cat with massive green eyes in the peekaboo song captured his interest. He knows (emphasis on knows, not does) directions, types of movement, body parts, basic hygiene, animal noises, how to get dressed and more, all from a few hours weekly of these videos. Plus, the songs don’t drive me nuts!

Books

An alphabet puzzle that turns into a carrying case with Sesame Street characters is one of William's go-to toys.

William enjoys books for about 20 minutes during the day and again before bed. I let him decide when he wants to read, or I suggest it and he will either run to the books or decline the offer.

I have a variety of counting books, letter books and shape books so William can have a varying visual experience, but receive the same message.

The two books that come to mind that William has most obviously absorbed are a book of opposites and a book of shapes.

In the opposites book, there is just one word per page: loud, quiet, near, far, up, down, etc. For each page, I show him what it means to be loud by raising my voice and quiet by whispering. He mimics the action. I hold the book to his face for “near,” and at arm’s length for “far.” He gets so excited by the ssslllloooowww page, he gets up to show me how fast! he can run for the corresponding page.

The shapes book is presented by Sesame Street characters, which might help grab his attention, but also the structure is one giant shape on one page, then real-life examples of the shape on the neighboring page. For example, Cookie Monster is hanging out in a circle on one side, and on the other side is Abby Cadabby with a ball and a globe.

We got to the rectangle page one day and I showed him the door is a rectangle. He looked back and forth from the book to the door. There are also triangles in the door design, which I showed him during the triangle page.

About a week later, William started pointing at the door while speaking Toddler. After a little confusion, I realized he was pointing out the triangles.

Songs

I use the tunes from Super Simple Songs and put different words to them because they are familiar, which causes William to be extremely receptive to the song and calms down to listen during a diaper change or getting dressed.

For example, to keep him entertained during the process of putting on pajamas, I sing the Peanut Butter and Jelly song: “…then you take the grapes and you pick ’em … then you take the grapes and you squish ’em …”

During each action I pick or squish (poke) his belly, which he thoroughly enjoys.

He also is able to associate each song with what we are doing and begins either to do or help with the action, i.e. getting dressed: “Put on your shoes, your shoes, your shoes … Put on your shirt, your shirt, your shirt …;” taking a bath: “Can you wash your hair? Can you wash your arms?;” and brushing teeth: “Brush your teeth, round and round; brush your teeth up and down …”

You get the idea.

We discovered Casper Babypants, who produces non-annoying and non-conventional kids’ music. William’s favorite is “Run, baby, run.”

This song directs the child to run, jump, spin and clap. William always has a wonderful time sprinting for three minutes straight during this tune, plus it ingrains action words because he is able to actually do them for a fun activity.

I have a felt board I made along with some well-made story sets that can be found on Etsy. My story sets are Old MacDonald, Brown Bear and Five Little Ducks.

During a meal, I set up the felt board and sing Old MacDonald (or whatever song is relevant to the story set), and have William make the animal noise as I add it to the scene. He loves it. I also use this as a tool for directional learning: over, beside, on top, behind, etc.

Puzzles

I don’t think any activity makes William feel more accomplished than finishing a puzzle.

I got a Sesame Street floor puzzle on a whim, not realizing what a great purchase it would turn out to be. Because he pays close attention to the show, William is able to find each character’s face, which the puzzle has split onto two pieces, and puts them together. Granted, he just assembles the faces, but William searches through the pieces to locate the exact match. He frequently asks to complete this puzzle.

We have a more advanced train puzzle that makes sound when it is completed, and chunky puzzles. He is drawn to his shape sorter, too. I sit with him so I can tell him the shape or color he is holding, and to make sure all the pieces don’t get mixed up. Now, William identifies shapes – I think his favorite is “star” because he can say it – and is working on his colors.

Through these puzzles, William is on his way to mastering shapes, vehicles, numbers and colors. He wants to work on puzzles at least once a day.

Though this does not feel like teaching, William is certainly soaking up a lot of knowledge through our daily activities. I am continually finding ways to help William learn while he plays, and the results are rewarding!