What to Teach Toddlers and Preschoolers

Activities that develop body skills

Exploring the senses

* Water-related activities provide much fun for small children—though they can get very messy. They like to help wash their own dishes standing on a sturdy chair by you at the sink. (But don’t leave them alone at this activity!) Washing windows or the car together can be a lot of fun too, and don’t forget watering the plants!

* To help your child explore his sense of taste, prepare a tray with bits of food he can taste. Talk to him about the different foods and flavors.

* Listening games are fun to play almost anywhere, at any time. Help your child get quiet for a moment while he listens to the sounds around him and tries to guess what they are. You can have him sit looking the other way while you do something behind him that makes a distinct sound. Ask him to tell you from the sound what you are doing. He’ll soon want to do something himself and have you guess what he is doing. Try it! You can play the listening game while out on a walk. Help him identify all the different sounds he hears.

* Whisper game: If you have more than one preschooler, you can turn your back and say the children’s names softly along with certain instructions for them to perform if they can hear you. Also, whispering a certain set of directions from child to child, for one child to perform, helps encourage careful listening and recalling what was heard. (If you find that one of your children is not able to hear some things, you may need to have his hearing checked by a professional. Sometimes children who have hearing problems are sadly misdiagnosed as mentally impaired, when the problem is simply that they cannot hear well.)

* Find a bag that you cannot see through, and put into it an assortment of safe-to-handle objects from all around the house. Invite your child to reach into the bag and identify each item before pulling it out of the bag. Teach him each item’s name and purpose, or help him learn how to describe the item in terms of size, weight, color, use, what it is made from, etc.

* Make a game of copying animal sounds and imitating their actions.

* A good exercise for improving listening skills is to put various materials (salt, beans, marbles, rice, etc.) in small opaque containers (such as empty film canisters). Be sure the containers are securely closed so that the contents don’t come out while your child is playing with them or shaking them. Encourage the child to rattle the containers and guess the contents, or match containers that sound alike, or put the containers in order of their loudness and softness.

* Give the child plenty of opportunities to listen with some definite purpose in mind. Can he identify certain sounds, words, etc.?

* It is a good idea to try simple sight tests. (Cover one eye and have the child read a letter, or word, identify a picture, or indicate the direction an object is moving.) Keep in mind that some people are colorblind; if this is the case, it may affect your child only slightly, or it may be quite serious. If you have a question about your child’s eyesight, have it checked by a professional. Poor eyesight will affect his progress in many areas, and can often be corrected quite easily.

* Many exercises require the child to determine or compare size and shape. Try giving your child a card with a circle on it, and have him find another circle from a set of cards bearing different shapes; or have him find a circle the same size from a set of different-sized circles. Such exercises require thought and careful observation on the child’s part. Plastic or wooden educational toys that teach these important perception skills can be found in many toy stores: nesting cups, stacking rings, shape boxes, etc.; or you can make your own teaching materials from cardboard or whatever’s handy.

* Make games out of daily routines. For example, play “Find your snack bag.” Make a little snack package and hide it. Give your child clues to help him find it. Toddlers like little treasure hunts and mysteries, and they especially like little snacks!

* The “I Spy” game is an all-time favorite with toddlers, and a great way to teach all sorts of listening and visual discrimination and classification skills. For example, have the child look for all the things in the room that start with a certain sound, or that are a certain shape or color: “I spy with my little eye something in this room that is blue and has a square shape.”

Seeing, feeling, understanding

The toys that children usually like to play with over the longest period of time are often the simplest things that let the child be in control, active, and creative. Some expensive and high-tech toys are soon set aside when the novelty has worn off or there is just no more that the child can learn from them. When there is nothing more a toy can do or that can be done with it, children return to the simple joys of toys that they can do anything with: sand boxes with buckets and shovels; toy cars; crayons and paper; dolls and tea sets; water and containers; marbles; blocks and balls.

Many of the basic discoveries children make and the skills they acquire come to them naturally through play and the common activities of life. It is important to give young children the chance to see, feel, and try things out for themselves. For example, young children enjoy making comparisons, discovering differences and similarities. Adults find it hard to understand or even believe that a young child is not necessarily able to understand or appreciate size relationships just by looking at things. As much as possible, a child should be allowed to feel things as well as see them, in order to grasp the concept of size and come to understand why big things do not fit in small containers, etc. Think about the difficulty that you may have finding the correct wrench to fit a certain nut or bolt if you are not familiar with the tools—and you have years of observation and trialanderror experiences behind you!

There are many different qualities an object can have: rough/smooth, big/little, long/short, round/square, black/white, hot/cold, loud/quiet. Help your child learn to appreciate and be able to describe these differences. It is good to give small children many experiences and examples when you are trying to help them understand something. For example, if you want the child to understand “big,” make many comparisons throughout the day, such as comparing his small bed with yours, a saucer with a plate, a spoon with a ladle, a toy car with a real car, etc.

Maria Montessori (1870-1952), noted for her advances in early childhood education, believed in presenting children with items and materials that clearly demonstrated some physical quality, and allowed the children to compare those objects with similar yet slightly different ones. She believed that for the best intellectual development, children needed a foundation of physical experiences that gave all of their senses practice in evaluating different objects and experiences. As the child progressed through a guided series of experiences, they were also taught appropriate words or expressions to describe the objects involved or the experiences they were having. Some of the teaching tools she used were the following:

* Colored rods, wooden blocks, and cylinders of varying size and weight to teach comparison and simple mathematics
* Sets of colored tablets to teach colors
* Small jars containing different fragrances
* Various fabrics and surfaces with different textures for children to feel and identify by touch (e.g., rough and smooth)
* Objects that appeared to be the same shape and size but were of different weights
* “Sound cylinders” with various items in matching opaque containers, which made distinctly different sounds when shaken (or using two sets of sound cylinders, to find pairs that made the same sound)
* Wooden puzzle-like objects in varying sizes that children could learn to put back into their proper place
* Puzzle pieces with tiny knobs that required children to develop very fine muscle coordination to handle

It is not necessary to own or purchase such fancy equipment, but we mention these here so that you will be able to keep these teaching principles in mind when you come upon several stones of different sizes, or leaves of different colors, or fabrics that are all different to the touch, or color swatches—anything that you can use to let your children experience and learn about the many qualities and contrasts found in the things around them.

Activities that encourage muscle coordination

A child needs to learn not only the coordination skills involved in walking, running, and balancing, but he also needs to develop the fine muscle coordination that he will need in writing, moving gracefully, and using his hands and other parts of his body in certain ways.

* Encouraging a child to do physical exercise is important. Good exercise involves running, jumping, crawling, rolling, hopping, throwing, dodging, and so on.

* The more refined movements come with practice. It is good to have him practice balancing by walking on a small board or line drawn on the floor with chalk or colored tape, perhaps even carrying something at the same time. Have him do water-pouring exercises (or bean-pouring at first, to save water spills): from pitcher to cup, cup to cup, transferring it with a spoon, pouring into a funnel, etc. Increase the weights and amounts he has to handle as he improves.

* Eye-hand coordination is an essential part of the early education of any child, and without it he will have difficulty in many areas. Building things that need good eye-hand coordination is ideal. There are many activities and games a child can do to develop eye-hand skills. For example, standing dominoes on their ends in a row (if you knock one down they all topple); games involving guiding a marble across a course and trying to keep it from falling into a hole, or trying to get several marbles into an arrangement of holes. Look for exercises that have this challenge built into them, and that make your child exercise his coordination skills. (Caution: Marbles can be very dangerous! They can cause choking or suffocation if swallowed, and can be very difficult to dislodge if stuck in a child’s throat. Be sure your child is past the stage of putting everything in his mouth before giving him marbles. Or use large marbles for increased safety.)

* Prepare your child for writing by giving him lots of little exercises for the thumb, index finger, and middle finger of the right hand (or left). Encourage the child to grasp small objects with these fingers and have him hold crayons and other pencil-like objects as he would to write. Puzzles and toys with small knobs are good too.

* Beanbags are fairly easy to make out of old socks or scraps of cloth. Fill the bags with dried beans, rice, lentils, or popcorn, then sew them shut, and let the child toss them into a bucket or waste-paper basket. You can also teach him to balance the beanbag on his head while he walks. He can also use them to learn to catch.

* Rolling balls to very small children helps develop good eye and hand coordination. Have a set of three or four small rubber balls of different colors that you can use for indoor play time. There are all sorts of ball games you can invent that will hold the toddler’s interest. For plastic bottle bowling, set up small plastic bottles like bowling pins. Roll balls down an incline to knock over a small object set in the way. Throw all the balls into the bathtub at one time and guess which ball will come to rest on the drain hole first (be sure the balls are larger than the drain). Play simple marble games using the balls. Roll them off the table trying to get them to land in cups or egg cartons.

* Freeze dancing is a fun game to play with small children. Everyone dances while music is being played, and then when you stop the music everyone has to “freeze” on the spot, trying not to move.

* Play games with your children that involve lots of movement, decision-making, observation: skipping, follow-the-leader, ball-catching, hide and seek, tag, etc.

Teaching the practical skills of life

Living involves learning thousands of skills—everything from pouring water to turning off lights when they’re no longer needed—and toddlers are at the ideal age to begin learning those skills. Your home contains countless skill-learning opportunities for your young child. You can make each room and each item in the room a learning activity for him if you simply stop for a few moments to show him how something works and let him try it for himself. Listening to explanations, trying out new things, and learning to use something for the first time help children develop both physically and intellectually.

Taking care of things

One skill that toddlers and preschoolers need is learning how to take proper care of their belongings and surroundings. Make a place for toys to go after they are played with, for clothes to go when they’re not being worn. Then help your child get in the habit of picking up his things when he is done, and hanging up his jackets, folding and putting away his pajamas in the morning, etc. Make learning these habits fun by being lavish with your praise for a job well done.

Orderly surroundings give young children a greater sense of security and help them get an early start in forming good habits of their own. Your child’s environment will have a direct effect on his spirit (and yours too), so try to keep it clean, bright, and cheerful. Involving your small child in maintaining that order, beginning with little things, teaches him responsibility for himself and his surroundings. Helping him learn to perform the skills and tasks needed in everyday life also helps him learn new skills, improves his coordination, and teaches him consideration for others.

Small children are usually very happy to help around the home and can assist in many needed chores that provide learning experiences. Teach your toddler the art of moving things, such as his small table and chairs, safely, skillfully, and quietly. Teach him to count as he hands you clothespins while you hang up the laundry. Let him help Daddy wash the car. Teach him about food, vitamins, and the importance of cleanliness as he helps prepare the salad for dinner.

Daily household chores can be fun learning activities for little children: dumping the waste baskets, cleaning, tidying, sweeping, polishing, dusting, folding clothes, setting tables, washing dishes and clothes, and making beds. When it’s time to clean his room, your toddler or preschooler can help wipe down his toy shelf and wash the plastic toys. Low hooks and shelves for his towel, washcloth, soap, toothbrush, and clothing can turn a dependent, whiny child into a more content and helpful one!

Teach your child the proper way to do each task from start to finish. Studying all the different aspects of folding clothes or wiping up dust is very interesting, even absorbing, to a child of two and a half to four years old. He will need time to learn to do it himself. His first tries can’t be expected to be too proficient, but children will gladly try to imitate the correct way of doing things if they are carefully shown how to.

Tools and utensils

Learning the proper use of simple tools and utensils is important. Mastering the use of eating utensils, for example, is among the first implement skills a child learns. Everyday activities such as sorting, carrying trays, and putting away food are surprisingly good exercises to help prepare him for writing and even for reading.

Many household and kitchen utensils and implements require skill and practice to learn to use properly; for example, using tongs, pouring water into a cup up to a certain level, using an eye dropper, spooning or measuring ingredients, using tweezers, spreading butter, taking nuts off bolts, opening locks and different doors and drawers, opening and closing various containers. (Be sure to point out dangerous liquids and containers not to touch—as well as keeping these well out of reach! Take every opportunity to teach safety awareness.)

Look closely around the child’s living area and bedroom, and you will discover hundreds of skill-learning activities to practice, and safety awareness details to point out to him.

Take a “childview” of life

Remember that a child often has a different reason than an adult would have for doing something. Often he simply enjoys doing the activity and is not as outcome-motivated as adults tend to be. The activity itself is often reason enough for doing something; finishing what he starts is not so important to him. Sometimes adults become impatient with children for their slowness in doing a task. They can’t see why a child doesn’t just hurry up and finish what he is doing. The child may have a very good attention span for his age, but he may not be focusing his attention on the same thing you are. You may want him to finish some activity because you need to move on to something else, but he may not be so interested in rushing through a perfectly enjoyable activity or moment just to begin something else. If you need to hurry him along, you should take time to explain why you want him to speed up, and how he also will benefit.

Try not to rush your child through his day and constantly be pulling him away from absorbing things he is engaged in. Give children time to learn, time to observe, explore, and experience. Don’t rush them through a nature walk, or you may miss something very important. Take full advantage of God’s creation: the sights and sounds, creatures small and great, wind and weather, sunshine and rain. Think back and remember what experiences you had as a child that stand out in your memory, such as going barefoot in rain puddles, or pretending leaves in the tiny stream were boats on a wild river. Give children time and opportunity to learn from the greatest teacher of all—the Creator and His creation.

Personal care and self-sufficiency

The more you can help your toddler learn to be self-sufficient and able to care for himself early in life, the more time you will have for doing other things together. Be prepared that when your little ones are first learning to do these things for themselves, it can seem to take forever—and can be frustrating if you’re trying to go somewhere. The solution is to slot plenty of time and try to let them do it as much as possible. (Of course, there will be times when you have to do it for them, but they usually don’t like those times so much!)

Learning to protect and take care of their own bodies involves training and practice. Young children need repeated personal health, hygiene, and safety lessons in almost every area of life: washing up; care of teeth, hair, and clothing; cleaning ears (using nothing smaller than a washcloth on a finger); using the bathroom and washing their hands each time; learning how to use buttons, buckles, snaps, and zippers; combing or braiding hair; polishing shoes; dressing; learning how to eat nicely; learning how to cross streets safely, etc.

Learning to tie their shoes is often a milestone achievement for young children. You can use the following shoe facsimile to teach your child to tie his shoes: Trace an outline of a pair of lace-up shoes onto a piece of cardboard. Then draw in the general design of the shoe, clearly marking the eyelets where the laces go. Punch holes through the cardboard for the eyelets, and then lace up and tie these cardboard shoes.

Social development (care for and consideration of others)

There are many practical and social skills that small children can learn. Learning these skills helps direct some of their energies into positive pursuits, and makes them feel needed and an important part of a family team or work effort.

Begin teaching children consideration for others at an early age. For example, they should learn to respect other people’s privacy, say please and thank you, say excuse me when they need to interrupt others, learn to greet new people, and to be less vocal when other conversations are going on.

Learning to set the table properly is another part of caring for others. Small children can learn how to prepare and serve food and drinks, such as juice or milk or simple sandwiches. It’s best to use unbreakable serving pitchers, plates, and drinking cups. Have a tea party with your toddler. You can use water, milk, juice, or herbal tea rather than caffeinated tea.

Try some simple food preparation activities with your little ones. You will need to work closely with them on any kitchen adventures. Toddlers can help you form no-cook cookies made from peanut butter, oatmeal, etc.; add fruit to a fruit salad; lay out bread slices for sandwiches; mix cake or pancake batter. (Cooking at a stove, however, is too dangerous for small children.) Lessons on hygiene in food preparation, and healthy eating, can be mixed in with your cooking activities

Encourage young children to do good things for others. Work with them to prepare a special surprise for someone they love or who needs some extra love and attention. Children enjoy doing deeds of kindness, as it is very rewarding. Being kind and considerate is learned largely from seeing good examples and from being expected and encouraged to be that way themselves. Children quickly learn to want to do helpful things for others, to tidy up when Mommy is feeling under the weather, to bring Daddy his slippers, etc. Reward them with a large measure of love when they show others kindness and consideration, and praise them and thank them for the good they do. This reinforces good behavior and encourages them to develop good manners.


Following are a few suggestions that will help you direct some of your toddler or young child’s unbounded energies and channel his abilities into useful learning activities.

Books are important for young children

Books introduce children to a wider vocabulary, and open up new worlds of experiences about people, places, and things that are beyond their own environment or daily life. You’ll find that at first children respond best to pictures of familiar objects.

The left-to-right orientation of printed English (and other western languages) is important to keep in mind when working with babies and children. Children do not automatically look from left to right when they look at books; that is a skill they need help to learn. To make future reading progress easier, encourage your child to turn the pages in the proper direction, and when you read to him, point out that you are reading words in order from left to right. You can point out periods at the end of sentences and explain, “This little dot means that sentence is over, so I pause a little when I see that dot. These dots are called periods. Go down the page line by line and from left to right just like I do when I read to you, and point out each period on this page.” (You can take his index finger and guide it along the lines, stopping at each period.)

A toddler should learn how to handle a book properly. Try to be consistent in how you handle a book when you read to a child. He will soon imitate you. Teach him proper respect for books, and do not allow him to tear pages or leave books lying on the floor. (If a book is accidentally torn, repair it together.) Even very young children can be taught to put their books back on the shelf by themselves. It takes work and consistency to help small children develop good habits, but they soon enjoy the sense of orderliness and accomplishment that comes with tidying up.

When telling stories or recounting events to small children, it is good to tell things in the order they happened. Learning to understand and follow a sequence of events can be a real challenge for young children. You can encourage the development of this skill by telling a child short stories (for example, stories from the Bible), and then have him tell the story back to you. It helps to have a storybook with pictures that clearly show the sequence. Even sets of simple drawings of events are very useful. Encourage him to arrange the pictures about the story in the same order as you told the story.

Reading and writing preparation

Put up word cards in your child’s play area of some of the new or favorite words he is learning to use. For example, put up the names of his favorite toys. This helps your child begin to learn to read. Attach word cards you make to interesting pictures you cut out of magazines to show him during quiet moments, or you can put them up on the walls in his rest or play area.

Use educational games and toys that give practice in reading and counting, and other skills as well.

Help your child make a scrapbook where he keeps his best drawings, photos and cutouts of things he likes. Print captions for him to learn to read. He will greatly enjoy creating his own book.

Toddlers like to “write” letters to all sorts of real or imaginary people. (One little girl even wanted to write to her own imaginary children.) Encourage your child to dictate his letter to you while you write down each word. Have him take his letter to others and ask them to read it to him. This activity strongly reinforces the connection between the spoken and written word, and encourages a child to want to read and write.

A quick in-the-kitchen activity is to put some salt onto a dark colored tray or dinner plate and let the child do some simple finger drawing in the salt. Just shake the plate or tray to erase the last picture and begin again.

Interpret pictures

Give the child a simple illustration or photograph of some event and have him tell you what is happening or is going to happen. If the child can understand, he is demonstrating that he has the mental power of imagery, and can readily appreciate and understand more abstract materials and stories.


“A sample, not a sermon” is the best way to teach a child to better understand what you are talking about. Actions speak louder than words, though you must include the words too.

Talking to a very small child can be like communicating with a foreigner—you have to use all the ways you can to get him to understand you. Have you ever had to resort to taking out a paper and pencil and drawing what you mean to get someone else to understand what you are trying to say? Try it with your children. Keep a notepad handy when you are explaining things. The more senses you can involve during your explanation the better. Acting something out along with your explanation is very effective.

If the child tries, but does the wrong thing, show him again how to do it. If you are doing something with your hands, it sometimes helps to put the child on your lap and reach around him so your hands are in the same position as his to do the task; for example, how to tie a shoe. It is nice to show him how to do something from his own perspective.


Do all you can to be a good sample of correct speech. Try to get toddlers to respond orally and help them make correct sentences. Make a game of saying certain sounds they have trouble with. You can put their hands on and off of their mouths to get a different sound effect for them to hear, or let them babble into a hollow tube to get an echo effect. Even older children chant out loud when they realize there is an echo.

Try recording a toddler’s speech and let him listen to himself; he will be quite surprised and often encouraged to make more sounds.

Toddlers love to hear rhymes, and will often join in the fun of trying to find words that rhyme.

Arts and Crafts

Generally you should not encourage children to waste food, but once in a while it is fun to do something fun with food besides eating it. Dry rice, macaroni, spaghetti, and raw potatoes all can serve to turn a rainy inside day madhouse into a calm, fun, non-TV-centered playtime activity for toddlers. Raw potatoes can be cut and the surface carved to create pattern-making stamps. Form shapes such as diamonds, squares, circles, hearts, plus signs, minus signs, equal signs, etc., on the potato surface. A small sponge soaking in a washable paint mix can serve as the stamp pad.

Hollow noodles (uncooked) can be painted and threaded onto string to make simple necklaces.

Grains of rice, lentils, spaghetti, flaxseeds, etc., can be used to create patterns or pictures on cardstock. The surface the seeds are set down on can be first covered with a paste mix made from flour, salt, and water. Aprons are called for in all such gooey activities. This is a good activity to help toddlers develop their fine finger and arm muscle movement skills, as they set the tiny objects in place one at a time.

You and your toddler can make some funny-looking potato figures using toothpicks or straws or small sticks for legs, etc.

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