Monday, May 12, 2008

Why I Believe in Focused Activities for Toddlers

I have recently come across some literature on the internet suggesting that the best thing you can do for your toddler is NOT to "school" them but to let them just play.  I want to say five things about this.

One, I totally agree that toddlers need to be left to just play.  Toddlers obviously like to be left to play sometimes.  But not all the time.  At least not all toddlers.  If I leave my toddler to play whatever she wants for more than hour at most, she comes looking for company, wanting to hang out with mommy.  If I resist, she clings to my legs and begs.  I can get her engaged in other activities only so many times before she is fed up with it and demands attention.  So we do the laundry together, we put the dishes away together, we vacuum together, and we explore the world around us together.  She is obviously eager to be with me and do things with me.  I know from watching older children that this stage won't last, and I want to lay a good foundation for her while she's here.  I also know this from my experience of Montessori School.  The Montessori pre-school I attended very much followed the principle of leaving us to ourselves to play whatever we wanted, alone or with each other, with very little adult interaction besides just enforcing rules of orderliness.  I remember being STARVED for interaction with an adult.  And I remember feeling lost among so many options for playing with so little adult interest in what I was doing as I was doing it.  A little space to play was great.  Hours and hours was too much.  I got use to it, but it's a lot like just crying it out at night and then being quiet because you realize no one cares.  And so I just don't buy that what toddlers really want and need more than anything is to just be left alone to play or to be watched playing.  Good grief, if that were true then why do so many homeschool moms, at least at first, look for ideas of "what to do with that toddler" while educating the "educatable" children.

Two, I agree that it is possible to push your child into being an overachiever and in the process both of you miss out of this unique stage of development.  But I also see it happen all too often that the parent leaves the child to play on his/her own so much that both of them miss out of this unique stage of development.  Most moms of toddlers that I meet, especially when the toddler is the only child (maybe this changes when there are multiple children?), are so bored watching that child play that they end up filling their own mind and time with activities completely unrelated to their toddler (like, they spend their time on the phone with friends, watch TV, or whatever).  I don't think this is facilitating parent-child bonding better than the mom applying her mind and her time to enjoying the child, interestedly considering "what is my child doing right now in her play?" and, when appropriate, "Is there a way that I can play with her well as she does this?"  This is very different from, like, trying to teach her to parse Latin.  Working together is relationship-building.  Just because it can be done poorly doesn't mean no one should do it.

Three, I believe it is a lie from popular culture that kids are not ready for school until the age of 3 or older.  I believe kids stay at home until 3 or 4 because culture still widely recognizes that children should be at home, if possible, until then, and they are considered too wiggly these young years to "learn" well.  But that buys into the ideas (and I don't know any homeschooling parents who believe this) that children start education AWAY from home and education is properly a solely sit-and-listen activity.  I do all kinds of "educational" activities with my 20 month old, and she loves it.  Maybe if I called them "fun, together playtime" activities it would be less bothersome for people who can only imagine "education" to be stiffling creative play.  But she loves everything we do.  When she doesn't like something I suggest, I follow her lead. Most of the time, though, because I know her so well from working with her, I know what she's going to be interested in and we can work together accordingly.  I mean, I guess I don't think there is a huge difference between a 9 month old developing an interest in learning to walk and babble and a 19 year old contemplating the potential value of narratology.

Four, maybe not all children are like this, but my toddler LOVES the ABC's.  She loves counting the stairs as we go up and down.  Once I showed it to her a couple of times, she started initiating it frequently.  She can't get enough of the activities I do with her.  I had to stop telling her when we were "done" with "school" - meaning the hour in the morning when we do some focused play - because she would throw an absolute fit.  If she was bored or unhappy or didn't want to do this stuff, I could then imagine that I'm "pushing" her.  But, honestly, sometimes I feel like she's dragging me along.  What's more, one reason we do this school time in the morning is that I've noticed she is plays alone better at other times of the day when we do this.  In the morning, she learns a new game or discovers something new to do with a toy as we work together.  Then she starts to take over and make the activities her own as we continue.  And finally, when she is playing alone, she totally takes over, expanding the idea further and further, molding it into things I never imagined, or sometimes just reviewing what we did over and over.  And so I don't think, at least with this child, focused activities necessarily hinder toddler creativity.  

Fifth, and finally, because I am working with her now, she and I know each other so deeply when it comes to learning and playing - I know how she learns and how to tell when she's figured something out even when she gives almost no clue, and she knows me just as well.  I cannot imagine that somehow this will be bad when it comes to homeschooling her when she is older. 

We have so much fun with this stuff, she is doing so well, and we are enjoying each other so much that I just cannot imagine that this is somehow harmful.  And so I wish that the encouragement not to push your toddler would somehow be more balanced with encouragement to learn to work well with the toddler, to learn how to discern what the child is learning through his/her play, and to learn when and how to encourage that development.  Such balanced encouragement would help the mom learn not only how to temper her urges but also how to facilitate the very natural inclination to learn how to work with her child.  Telling the mom - at least the mom of any only child - not to teach the toddler is like telling the mom of a baby not to cuddle for fear of smothering him.


Melitsa said...

Love your thoughts.
Whilst I think there's a lot of talk about play I don't think alone play is the only option that's talked about.
Play is all about balance. Some time for the kids to experiment and learn putting into practice what they have seen and/or imagine etc as well as guided play where they play alongside or with a sibling or adult. Some children need more of one than the other due to personality. Some children don't get those opportunities at all because of work/life pressures of families where play isn't a priority.

What concerns me more is the lack of balance when it comes to play for the little guys. All by themselves won't work all the time neither will always with someone or something(E.g. TV)

In our home we try and look for opportunities during the day for play. Some activities are child focussed and really led by them whereas others are planned skills through play.

I write about play ideas at and have some fun activities emails as well. You have some super fun ideas on your site. Why not consider submitting them for the emails.

Found your through Carnival of Homeschooling.

klh said...

What a great resourse you have! I will submit something sometime.

Queen of Carrots said...

This was a thought-provoking post. I do believe in the value of free play for little children, but I also remember when my oldest was between the ages of 1 and 2--it was very hard to keep her occupied. Sometimes I felt frustrated that she didn't seem to know how to play and I wondered if I was interfering too much to show her things.

Now I think it was just a legitimate stage. Young toddlers don't have a lot of resources, imagination, or information to fall back on. They need someone at their side at times to give them new ideas, tell them the names of things (which includes all that shapes, colors, numbers and letters stuff), and encourage them to try new things.

I didn't do as many activities with my next child (15 months younger). He picks up a lot from his older sister, and now at 2.5 and almost 4 they will play together with little supervision for hours, constructing fantasies and passing on information. Their world is much larger than it was two years ago, and they have much more extensive skills.

I'm sure I will do even less directed play with the next two (due in a few weeks). But it balances out; they will get less time with Mom but more older siblings to show them new things.

The key to making parent-child play productive rather than burdensome is, as you point out, looking to what the child is doing and expanding on it rather than trying to fit the child into a strict plan. Children that age are learning all the time--you can hardly catch their attention with any activity that does not teach them in some way. Sometimes it helped me to pretend I was the big sister or babysitter looking for something fun to do rather than the mother coming down from on high.

I don't update it as much as I would like to right now, but you might like to check out the blog where I log what things I do with my little ones: