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Creating a Toddler Learning Environment in Your Home

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February 17, 2012

Homeschooling has become a trending option for stay-at-home moms nowadays. The Home Education Study Institute (NHERI) found that since 2003, the number of homeschooled students has more than doubled and is steadily increasing at a rate of 15% annually. School usually begins at age 3, but because children develop so rapidly between 12 and 36 months, it is important not to overlook the need for a learning environment for this age group. While published curriculum options are available for preschool through high school homeschoolers, parents must be more creative with toddlers, and many of them seem to be searching the Internet for support.

“The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences.” -Maria Montessori

A home-based toddler classroom should be literacy-rich and foster opportunities for structured, rule-governed play and unstructured imaginative play. Based on my experiences as a special educator, this is how I set up our home-based toddler classroom.

1. Library – Essential to a classroom library is a large rug to sit or lay on and a bookcase filled with age-appropriate books. You may want to include a small rocking chair or beanbag chair as well. Books may be organized by theme, a child’s interests, or a certain letter-sound you are focusing on teaching.  I suggest including pop-up books, books with sounds, paperback books, board books, hardcover books, books with stickers, books on tape/CD, and big books.  I like to include objects that correspond with the chosen theme. When I was pregnant with my second child this summer, I filled my library with baby-themed books for my toddler daughter. Then I placed baby dolls and related items in a bin on the rug in our library so that she could explore these objects and relate them back to the books.

2. Structured play area – It is important to create an area for structured play and unstructured play. Our structured play area consists of a small table with two chairs, several shelving units, and toys that are sorted into bins. Bins can be labeled with pictures and words to show the child what is contained within each bin, expose the child to more literacy opportunities, and remind the child where to place toys when play is finished. I like to choose manipulative toys for this area that have a clear beginning, middle, and end, such as wooden puzzles, shape sorters, large beads with string, lacing cards, stacking rings, and simple sorting activities. This area can also double as a crafting table. We have a bulletin board just above the table to display my daughter’s artwork. She is always proud to show Daddy her newly-displayed projects when he comes home from work.

3. Unstructured play area – An unstructured play area should contain toys that cause your child to really use his imagination. These toys allow for infinite play options. While the toys are also sorted into bins, they can be played with on the floor or at a table. I like to include instruments, dress-up clothing, felt storyboards, pretend cooking toys, farm toys, blocks, puppets, and trains.  If you have a surplus of toys (as I tend to have), you can ‘hide’ some in a garage/attic and pull out toys according to the theme in the library area. Remember to focus on your child’s interests so he will want to explore the toys.

Most importantly, the learning environment must be inviting. Toddler-age children are just learning to explore the use of language to communicate ideas, their hands to create new things, and their imaginations to make sense of the world around them. The classroom should be colorful and should invite your child to explore structured and unstructured activities. The focus is simultaneously on learning to play and playing to learn. With a small space and innovative ideas, you can create an amazing classroom for your toddler.

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