How to Incorporate Toddlers into Daily Activities

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The pressure to make plans, extra activities and DIY projects for our young children is so strong. My time in the early childhood classroom gave me lots of insight into how I, now a Mom of 2, can weave daily tasks into the toddler daily schedule AND see the learning that comes from it.

No Need for Extra Work: Involve them!

I remember having a conversation with a parent about the pressure to get her daughter reading; she was only in Preschool. The Mom insisted there must be an afternoon program, a workbook or something that could get the interest going for her 4-year-old. She felt there “must be something EXTRA” she should be doing.

Luckily, she had reached an epiphany as our conversation continued on. I assured her that there were so many opportunities for pre-literacy learning ALREADY in her interactions with her daughter; absolutely NO need to add anything extra into their already busy schedule. I shared my favorite example of using and creating a “shopping list” with her child. (This is something I’ve been doing with my own daughter since she was about 12 months or so)

If you have the time to slow down any daily task, such as a shopping trip, you begin to realize there are SO MANY opportunities for your toddler to be involved and practice their independence. If you’ve got a toddler or two, you’re very aware they want to do a lot of things themselves.  While there are a lot of things, we’re not comfortable with them attempting on their own, there are a TON of things we can include them in.

The best part is that given repeated practice opportunities, you’ll see amazing skills being developed over time. My daughter truly looks forward to grocery trips and you can see her beam with pride when she helps out (and she legitimately helps out). I’ve broken down a typical grocery trip for us below, to include all the steps and learning opportunities we may not so easily see at first glance.

Example // Shopping List:

Try slowing down your grocery trip (if you have the time of course)

  • Before you leave, bring out a couple of pieces of paper and pencils.
  • Begin to write out your list, narrate what you’re writing and involve your toddler in figuring out what needs to be bought. (Do you see any cereal boxes in the pantry? What fruit do we have left in the bowl?) By offering them a paper and pencil, you may see them imitating you and “writing” out their list
  • Tip: I often sketch a quick drawing of the list item to support their understanding. It serves almost as a  “grocery scavenger hunt” for them to play too.
  • While at the grocery store, offer them a clipboard, paper, and pencil. Often this is a helpful way to keep them focused during a long trip too. As they get older, creating checkboxes that they can check off or put a sticker on, can be a great way to make it fun.

We tend to forget how many steps are involved in tasks we don’t give much thought too, like putting away the groceries. That task would be a great, missed learning opportunity for a toddler.

What missed learning opportunities do you mean?

The steps in the Grocery Trip example let children practice so many different skills, like planning, pre-literacy, problem-solving, critical thinking, physical and fine motor practice and collaboration.

There is SO much going on during this task that a toddler could participate in. In the beginning, of course, it might seem to take forever, but give them enough opportunities to help, they’ll be able to independently take on the task soon!

Things we don’t realize we are doing:

Using the grocery trip as an example…

Planning Skills:

How do we make a list? What do we need to write on our list?

Pre-Literacy Skills:

While making a list, they are learning print awareness among other things (understanding that the list starts at the top, and flows down, left to right) You can point to the words as you write and read them outloud.

Problem Solving:

How do I get these heavy cans of beans into our pantry? Do they all fit in the shelf?

Physical/Fine Motor Skills:

When they pick up a big bag of rice or carry the gallon of milk over to the cart requires a lot of physical power that a mighty toddler loves to do on their own. When you’ve let them have a list to doodle on in the store, they’re getting opportunities to practice their fine motor skills too!

Collaboration:

In my opinion, one of the most important skills to have a lot of experience in! Letting your child have the chance to brainstorm what to add to a shopping list and help you with the actual loading of the cart supports their understanding of teamwork.

Critical Thinking:

Your toddler may request spaghetti for dinner, so supporting them in figuring out what items are needed for that meal helps them think critically to solve the “problem”/challenge.

What are some other Concrete Ideas to involve toddlers in our day-to-day tasks and routine?

Remember to “start small”.  If any of the following sound like too big of a leap from where your toddler is developmentally at, scale back. It’s kind of a “less is more” thing in the beginning, and then thoughtfully add in materials/responsibilities etc.

Co-creating a “Menu for the Day”

Children love predictability. I love predictability. From my experience as a stay at home mom, things are unpredictable! So…. My goal is to strike a balance between spontaneity and routine during most of our days.

During breakfast, I bring out a piece of paper and pen to begin writing out what looks to be a checklist. We start by writing out the classes, appointments and/or the “have tos”. Next, we figure out what “tasks/jobs” she’d like to handle that day. We write out the fun things, snack, and naptime. The only goal we establish is to use the Menu as a way to structure our day a bit and support us feeling like we can anticipate some of what might be happening later.

Self-Help Snack Center:

Help find a designated shelf or space that a toddler could access their own utensils, water bottle and healthy snacks (as examples). Start off small.. One spoon, one water bottle, a bowl with 1 or 2 pieces of fruit. This small action, allows them to be able to navigate feeding themselves and taking care of their space.

Self-Help in Sunscreen:

As the weather slowly warms up for us, slowing down the process of applying sunscreen can be a great way to support toddler’s independence and ease the dreaded “getting ready to go outside” business. Bring a mirror out and plan for it to take a while. It is totally worth all the patience you use to have a toddler who can independently do this task.

Tidying Up/ Cleaning Station:

We started out with a dustpan and brush next to her Snack Station, and she was responsible for keeping the space “beautiful”. Having a sense of ownership over a space with designated, appropriate tools can support them wanting to keep it looking fresh.

Folding Laundry:

Offering your toddler a washcloth as a starting point for learning how to fold can be helpful! The same idea of starting off small is helpful here or else we all know how it might end! More laundry to be washed then we started with!

Washing Dishes:

We started small when she was very young. Offering a little Dollarstore dish bin with soapy water inside and scrubber brush. She had opportunities to explore that before inviting her over to the sink with her learning tower to wash unbreakable, safe dishes in the actual sink. Another option is starting them off with emptying the utensils (once sharp knives are out of course) and adding them to the drawer. The sorting that is happening in this job is a marvelous activity for toddlers.

Others: Prepping Food, Helping in the Kitchen, Grocery Trips, Checking the Mail…any “to do” can be turned into a lovely learning experience!

Angie Waltz Contributor
Angie Waltz

Angie Waltz is an Early Childhood Educator with over 10 years of experience in Reggio-inspired, play-based classrooms. Her undergraduate degree is in Child Development and she holds a Masters in Human Development. Angie is enthusiastic about sharing ideas, activities, and materials that support a play-based, child-led learning approach. She also loves helping families create developmentally appropriate, thoughtful, rich learning spaces for their children.