The message annoyed me a lot more than it should have: “Check out the homeschool curriculum I just found for my two-year-old!”
I know that judging other moms isn’t helping anything (and I hate it when people judge my parenting), but sheesh. This was definitely not helping me overcome my obsession with young son’s “academic” development.
Of course, I automatically looked up the curriculum. And at first, it looked pretty decent. But then I saw it:
The letter of the week
Much like when driving past a car wreck, I found myself torn between knowing that I should shut the browser window immediately and an intense curiosity. That’s right, part of me desperately wanted to know what I should be doing to teach my baby letters and other “preliteracy skills.” But most of me knew that this was a terrible idea.
Why I Don’t Like the Letter of the Week (and “Tot School” in General)
It’s Ineffective and Inefficient
This point was really driven home for me by Erika Christakis’s excellent book, The Importance of Being Little. If you use the letter of the week method, it will take your child half a year to “learn” the entire alphabet. And because this order seems random to your child, there’s a good chance they won’t actually remember any of it. In contrast, kids will naturally learn letters that have meaning for them—such as the letters in their name—when they are ready to do so. Same thing with numbers—the first number Luca learned was “four,” not “one,” because we were staying on the fourth floor of a hotel and he wanted to push the button.
It’s Antithetical to Child-Led Learning
I truly believe that most people who develop tot school curricula understand and embrace the idea of child-led learning—at least in principle. Indeed, one of the curricula that I was most enamored with (until I actually looked closely) talked explicitly and at length about child-led learning and the importance of free play. But the fact is that no curriculum will ever be child-led because it isn’t developed by the child. At best, parents or teachers develop units based on the child’s interests. At worst, the units are based on generic ideas about what toddlers should be interested in or arbitrarily chosen topics such as the letter, color, and/or shape of the week.
It’s often said that children are natural learners or even sponges that absorb everything. As parents, all we need to do is provide them with opportunities. Which is no doubt what many parents are trying to do when they start to homeschool their toddlers. But there are other ways to stimulate your child’s interests and encourage them to explore without setting up a half dozen or more different activities.
Read on for three ideas for what you can do instead.
Creating a Learning Environment for a Toddler Without “School”
Read, Read, Read!
I know you know this, but it bears repeating. Reading to your child is one of the most important things that you can do for them. But it’s not just to teach them preliteracy skills and create a culture of reading in your home as I always thought. According to another excellent book I recently read, the biggest advantage of reading to your child doesn’t come in early elementary school when they are learning to read, but later when they start “reading to learn.” At that point, with the mechanics of reading worked out, what children need for reading comprehension and to enjoy reading is background knowledge—something that they can get through those early read-aloud experiences with mom and dad. So read often from a wide variety of sources, including not only storybooks but also children’s encyclopedias and other nonfiction books—which can be a great place to turn when your child starts bombarding you with why questions you don’t know how to answer.
Go on Field Trips
Not only are toddlers natural learners, they are experts at communicating what they want to learn more about. Not sure what I’m talking about? Just think about the questions your little one asks. Those are your toddler’s interests. Now. Where can you go experience them more deeply? Make a list of these places, as well as “predictable” destinations such as the local Children’s Museum, and try to see one each week. In our family, we use Sundays as our “field trip” day, but if you and your child both stay home, you might choose a weekday instead.
Be Intentional About Toys
It’s no secret that I don’t think kids need many toys. But I try to be very intentional about what we have. Always available are a set of blocks, a bucket of animal figurines, some cars, a basket of dress-up clothes, musical instruments, and lots of art supplies. Other toys are selected based on Luca’s current interests: early this year it was jigsaw puzzles, then Three Little Pigs figurines, and soon a gardening toy since his current obsession is asking how things grow. From time to time I’ll put out something more academic, like letter magnets or a scale, so that he gets some exposure and opportunity to explore pre-reading and pre-math concepts. But rarely more than twice a month.
What I Do Like “Tot School” and “Preschool At Home” Curricula For
I’ve always wanted reading to be an important part of my child’s life, and I knew that our home would be filled with children’s books. But which ones should I buy? Answering this question is perhaps my favorite use of Tot School and homeschool curricula because the books have already been prescreened as age-appropriate and have been deemed reasonably high-quality by someone who cares enough about child development to develop a curriculum.
Learning About Developmental Milestones
Any other child development junkies here, or parents obsessed with milestones? I’ve been told most parents get over it by their child’s first birthday, but it didn’t happen for me. While I don’t worry if Luca hasn’t met a milestone, I love to check the ones he’s met off lists. And some curricula provide these lists, while you can deduce the milestones from the activities provided in others. One word of caution: I try to look at these more as “what a toddler can learn at this age” than what they will naturally be able to do. After all, if you never sing the ABC song, it’s only natural that your child doesn’t know it. But it is still fun to see what your child is likely to start doing soon and even get some inspiration for activities to help them develop emergent skills you might not have been prepared for.
Ideas for (Occasional) Sensory Bins, Strews, and Other Activities
While I don’t like the idea of formal “tot school” (and especially not curriculum) some of the more detailed ones can provide you with activity ideas, especially if they are (at least partially) organized thematically. Is kiddo really into farm animals? Oh, look. This curriculum includes a popcorn sensory bin she might like. Or maybe this small world activity is more up her alley.
Truth be told, in my experience, these things are more like homeschooling craft porn for moms than anything else. As much as I enjoy looking at them (usually on Pinterest, not in curricula) it’s pretty rare that I actually set one up. And it’s even rarer that Luca actually engages with one for an extended period of time. And frankly, deep engagement is more important to me than exposure.
Conclusion: Stop Stressing About Your Toddler’s Education and Have Fun
I understand why parents are drawn to tot school. Especially in the U.S., where everything is so competitive, and social and economic security so shaky, it’s natural that parents want to do everything they can to give their kids a leg up. But so far my experience has confirmed the research: many of these things kids will pick up naturally (without tot school) and others will become easier with age. This is especially true if you’ve taken the time to set up a natural learning environment at home and to help your toddler learn more about their interests.
And as an added bonus, the time saved setting up activities and teaching your child what you want them to learn can be redirected to connecting and playing with them on their terms. The result? A closer parent-child relationship and less time spent running around trying to find random supplies.
Do you do any sort of “school” or “educational activities” with your toddler? Why or why not?