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Activities to Encourage Your Toddler

Here are some activities designed to be fun for both you and your toddler as well as to help your young child (ages 1 to 3) gain the skills needed to get ready for school.

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The activities below are designed to help you prepare your toddler (1-, 2- and 3-year olds) to learn and develop. Most of the activities are simple and easily can be made part of your daily routines. As you do the activities, remember that repetition is important, especially for very young children. Children enjoy — and learn from — doing the same activity over and over.

Activity: shop till you drop

Shopping for groceries is just one of many daily routines that you can use to help your child learn. Shopping is especially good for teaching your child new words and for introducing him to new people and places.

What You Need

  • Grocery shopping list

What to Do

  • Pick a time when neither you nor your child is hungry or tired.
  • At the grocery store, put your child in the grocery cart so that he faces you. Take your time as you walk up and down the aisles.
  • Let your child feel the items that you buy — a cold carton of milk, for example or the skin of an orange. Talk to your child about the items: “The skin of the orange is rough and bumpy. Here, you feel it.”
  • Be sure to name the objects that you see on shelves and talk about what you are seeing and doing: “First, we’re going to buy some cereal. See, it’s in a big red and blue box. Listen to the great noise it makes when I shake the box. Can you shake the box? Now we’re going to pay for the groceries. We’ll put them on the counter while I get out the money. The cashier will tell us how much we have to pay.”
  • Encourage your child to practice saying “hi” and “bye-bye” to clerks and other shoppers.
  • Leave for home before your child gets tired or grumpy.

Activity: puppet magic

Puppets are fascinating to children. They know that puppets are not alive, yet they often listen to and talk with them as if they were real.

What You Need

  • Old, clean sock
  • Buttons (larger than 1 inch in diameter to prevent swallowing)
  • Needle and thread
  • Red fabric
  • Ribbon
  • Old glove
  • Felt-tipped pens
  • Glue
  • Yarn

What to Do

  • To make puppets:
    • Sock puppet: Use an old, clean sock. On the toe-end of the sock, sew on buttons for eyes and nose. Paste or sew on a piece of red fabric for the mouth. Put a bow made from ribbon at the neck.
    • Finger puppets: Cut off the fingers of an old glove. Draw faces on the ends of the fingers with felt-tipped pens. Glue on yarn for hair.
  • Things to do with puppets:
    • Have the puppet talk to your child: “Hello. My name is Tanya. What’s yours? Kaylee. That’s a pretty name. What a great T-shirt you have on, Kaylee! I like the rabbit on the front of your T-shirt.” Or have the puppet sing a simple song. Use a special voice for the puppet.
    • Encourage your child to talk to the puppet, answering its questions and asking questions of her own.
    • Put finger puppets on your child’s hand to give him practice moving his fingers one at a time.
    • The next time you want your child to help you clean up, have the puppet make the request: “Hello, Max. Let’s put these crayons back in the box and these toys back on the shelves. Can you get the ball for me?”

Activity: moving on

Toddlers love to explore spaces and to climb over, through and into things.

What You Need

  • Stuffed animal or toy
  • Large cardboard boxes
  • Pillows
  • Large sheet
  • Soft ball
  • Large plastic laundry basket
  • Elastic
  • Bells

What to Do

  • Pillow jump. Give your child several pillows to jump into. (Toddlers usually figure out how to do this on their own.)
  • Box car. Give your child a large cardboard box to push around the room. He may want to take his stuffed animal or toy for a ride in it. If the box isn’t too high, you’ll most likely find your toddler in the box as well.
  • Basketball. Sit about 3 feet away from your child and hold out a large plastic laundry basket. Let her try throwing a large, soft ball into the basket.
  • Table tent. Cover a table with a sheet that’s big enough to reach the floor on all sides. This makes a great playhouse that’s particularly good for a rainy day.
  • Jingle bells. Sew bells onto elastic that will fit comfortably around your child’s ankles. Then watch (and listen) as he moves about or jumps up and down.

As you do an activity, talk, talk, talk with your child about what the two of you are doing!

Activity: music makers

Music is a way to communicate that all children understand. It’s not necessary for them to follow the words to a song; it makes them happy just to hear the comfort in your voice or on the recording or to dance to a peppy tune.

What You Need

  • Noise makers (rattles, a can filled with beans or buttons, empty toilet paper rolls, pots, pans, plastic bowls)

What to Do

  • Have your toddler try banging a wooden spoon on pots, pans or plastic bowls; shaking a large rattle or shaking a securely closed plastic container filled with beans, buttons or other noisy items; and blowing through toilet-paper or paper-towel rolls.
  • Sing or play recordings of nursery rhymes. Have your toddler participate actively. Even if he can’t recite the words, he can imitate your hand movements, clap or hum along.
  • As your child becomes more physically coordinated, encourage her to move to the music. She can twirl, spin, jump up and down, tiptoe or sway.
  • Find recordings of all kinds of music for your child to listen to. Help her learn to clap out rhythms, to move to both slow and fast music and to listen carefully for special sounds in the music.

Here are a few tips to get your child to sing:

  • Sing yourself. Sing fairly slowly so that your child can join in. Discourage shouting.
  • Start with simple chanting. Pick a simple melody, such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and sing, “la, la, la.” Add the words later.
  • Make singing a natural part of your daily routine — let your child hear you sing as you work around the house or sing along with songs on the radio or TV or with your own CDs or recordings. Encourage him to join in.

Activity: play dough

Young children love to play with dough. And no wonder! They can squish and pound it and form it into fascinating shapes. Helping to make play dough lets children learn about measuring and learn and use new words.

What You Need

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 cup salt
  • 4 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • Food coloring
  • Food extracts, such as almond, vanilla, lemon or peppermint
  • Saucepan
  • Objects to stick in the dough, such as Popsicle sticks and straws
  • Objects to pound with, such as a toy mallet
  • Objects to make impressions with, such as jar lids, cookie cutters and bottle caps

What to Do

  • To make play dough:
    • Add the food coloring to the water. Then mix all of the ingredients together in a pan.
    • Cook over medium heat, stirring until it forms a soft ball.
    • Let the mixture cool. Knead slightly. Add food extracts to different chunks of the dough to make different smells.
  • Talk with your child about what you are doing as you make the dough. Let your toddler or preschooler help you with measuring and adding ingredients.
  • Let your child handle some dough while it is still slightly warm and some when it has cooled off to teach him about temperatures.
  • Give some of the dough to your toddler or preschooler so she can pound it, stick things in it, make impressions in it and make her own animals, houses and people from it.

Activity: read to me!

The single most important way for children to develop the knowledge they need to become successful readers later on is for you to read aloud to them often — beginning when they are babies.

What You Need

  • Board books, predictable books and books that label and name concepts (such as colors, numbers, shapes)
  • Children’s dictionary (preferably a sturdy one)
  • Paper, pencils, crayons, markers

What to Do

  • From the time your child is born, make reading aloud to your child a part of your daily routine. Pick a quiet time, such as just before you put him to bed. This will give him a chance to rest between play and sleep. If you can, read with him in your lap or snuggled next to you so that he feels close and safe. As he gets older, he may need to move around some as you read to him.
    If he gets tired or restless, stop reading. Make reading aloud a quiet and comfortable time that your child looks forward to.
  • Try to read to your child every day. At first, read for no more than a few minutes at a time, several times a day. As your child grows older, you should be able to tell if she wants you to read for longer periods. Don’t be discouraged if you have to skip a day or don’t always keep to your schedule. Just get back to your daily routine as soon as you can. Most of all, make sure that reading stays fun for both of you!
  • Give your baby sturdy board books to look at, touch and hold. Allow him to turn the pages, look through the holes or lift the flaps. As your child grows older, have books on shelves or in baskets that are at his level. Encourage him to look through the books and talk about them. He may talk about the pictures and he may “pretend” to read a book that he has heard many times.
  • For a late toddler or early preschooler, use reading aloud to help him learn about books and print. As you read aloud, stop now and then and point to letters and words; then point to the pictures they stand for. Your child will begin to understand that the letters form words and that words name pictures. He will also start to learn that each letter has its own sound-one of the most important things your child can know when learning to read.
  • As you read, talk with your child. Encourage her to ask questions and to talk about the story. Ask her to predict what will come next. Point to things in books that she can relate to in her own life: “Look at the picture of the penguin. Do you remember the penguin we saw at the zoo?”
  • Reread favorite books. Your child will probably ask you to read favorite books over and over. Even though you may become tired of the same books, he will enjoy and continue to learn from hearing them read again and again.
  • Read “predictable” books to your child. Predictable books are books with words or actions that appear over and over. These books help children to predict or tell what happens next.
    As you read, encourage your child to listen for and say repeating words and phrases, such as names for colors, numbers, letters, animals, objects and daily life activities. Your child will learn the repeated words or phrase and have fun joining in with you each time they show up in the story. Pretty soon, she will join in before you tell her.
  • Be enthusiastic about reading. Read the story with expression. Make it more interesting by talking as the characters would talk, making sound effects and using facial expressions and gestures.
  • Buy a children’s dictionary-if possible, one that has pictures next to the words. Then start the “let’s look it up” habit.
  • Make writing materials such as crayons, pencils and paper available.
  • Visit the library often. Begin making weekly trips to the library when your child is very young. See that your child gets his own library card as soon as possible. Many libraries issue cards to children as soon as they can print their names (you’ll also have to sign for your child).
  • Show your child that you read, too. When you take your child to the library, check out a book for yourself. Then set a good example by letting your child see you reading for yourself. Ask your child to get one of her books and sit with you as you read your book, magazine or newspaper. Don’t worry if you feel uncomfortable with your own reading ability. It’s the reading that counts. When your child sees that reading is important to you, she may decide that it is important to her, too.
  • If you are uncomfortable with your reading ability, look for family or adult reading programs in your community. Your librarian can help you locate such programs. Friends and relatives also can read to your child and volunteers are available in many communities to do the same.
Excerpted from: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Communications and Outreach. (2005). Helping Your Preschool Child. Washington, DC: Author.
You are welcome to print copies for non-commercial use, or a limited number for educational purposes, as long as credit is given to Reading Rockets and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact the author or publisher listed.