When we think about learning and education, most of us automatically refer back to our own experiences in school. But toddler learning occurs all the time, through everyday activities like imaginative play. Your tot doesn't have to have formal instruction to learn—in fact, it could even be more harmful than helpful for toddlers. According to Stephanie Pratola, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Registered Play Therapist Supervisor, "sit down and learn" situations are not developmentally appropriate for young children.
Instead, focus on giving your toddler meaningful opportunities to explore and play. This isn't as hard as it sounds—Pratola says, "Children are naturally curious, and left to their own devices will explore their world in the ways that are intrinsically rewarding to them. In this way they will enjoy the process of discovery and mastering novelty, setting the stage for them to become self-motivated learners."
Exploratory Learning: Think of your child like a sponge, soaking up her experiences and surroundings. Almost everything is a new discovery to a toddler. Roberta Golinkoff, Ph.D., professor at University of Delaware and author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, says parents shouldn't stress about providing opportunities—there are limitless free activities to fuel your tot's curiosity.
- Take her to the park. The great outdoors can teach your toddler a variety of valuable lessons, from exploring her own growing proficiency in physical development or learning about nature from the different flowers, insects and habitats she can observe.
- Talk about what you see. One-year-olds are still building their language development. You can help by labeling your everyday surroundings when you talk to her. "Look, a car! A blue car! That blue car has wheels."
Organized Learning: One-year-olds can pay some limited attention to organized learning activities, like reading, and you should build these into your day. But don't force it—be alert to your child's interest levels and stop when her attention wanders or if she seems tired or bored.
- Bedtime books. Read at least one story every day. Choose picture books and basic stories to hold her attention, and don't be too concerned if she wants to flip the pages or skip around the book. At this age, talking about what's happening on each page—especially the parts she points to—is just as valuable as reading the words. Golinkoff says, "Talking about the letters on the pages is also good as it makes kids more aware of print. But don't think that when they can recite their ABC's this is a predictor of good reading! It's being read to and understanding the wonders of books that makes kids good readers!"
Exploratory Learning: Kids at this age may sustain play for a longer period of time. There's no such thing as "just" play—it's one of the most critical activities for toddler learning.
- Playing with blocks. Golinkoff says block play correlates with children's math and spatial knowledge. "They are doing 'baby physics' when they learn about balance and focusing on the properties of geometric volumes when they align the blocks."
- Sorting trail mix. You don't need expensive toys. Letting your toddler sort through a cup of trail mix will teach her about categories and sets, says Golinkoff.
Organized Learning: Just because the two-year-old next door is learning to read from a set of DVDs doesn't mean your child has to follow suit. Golinkoff says "sit down and study is NOT how little guys learn," and the hands-on experiences your child gets each day are much more important for long-term learning.
- Drawing: Giving your kid a pencil and paper offers so many ways to refine her cognitive abilities and develop her fine motor skills. Don't worry about what she draws—just let her enjoy the process.
Exploratory Learning: Kids at this age are beginning to shift from parallel play to more interactive play with peers. Make the most of it by providing activities she can enjoy with friends.
- Playdate pals. Arrange scheduled playdates with her friends to maximize the potential for shared exploratory learning.
- Water and sand. Pratola says parents can encourage active learning by providing a safe environment with simple, manipulative toys and activities, such as unstructured play with water and sand.
Organized Learning: Your child has morphed from a toddler to a preschooler, and it's time to begin practicing some of the basic skills that will allow her to get the most from her organized learning experiences once she's old enough for kindergarten.
- Sitting still. Circle time activities, sitting still for books or while you sing songs are all good ways to reinforce the concept.
- Focus her attention. Basic worksheets that hone pre-kindergarten skills, can be fun for your preschooler to try. Don't demand that she finish it all in one sitting, but urge her to spend a few minutes with her attention focused on the task at hand.
Above all, learning needs to be fun. Golinkoff says if parents talk with their children, follow-up on their interests, take them places and allow them to help you with a variety of tasks "they will learn all they need to be ready for school." If your kid isn't interested, she won't be getting the most out of the experience. Keep her engaged by providing a variety of activities and styles.