Guest post: Structuring your child’s day

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Today I am excited to introduce Kristy to you. She has been inspiring me with the different activities she has prepared for her children and I have asked her to share some of her tips and ideas with us. Over to her…

Angela invited me to share with you on her blog. Firstly I feel very privileged to be doing this as I am a huge fan of Ang’s blog and it has helped me so much with parenting my two little ones. I hope what I share will help you also. Nothing I am sharing is my original idea, just how I apply it to my family life. I am so thankful to the Growing Families courses we have completed and also to Angela for her mentorship and encouragement.

Over the next 4 posts, I will be sharing things that I have found helpful. The first is structuring your child’s day, the second is busy boxes, thirdly sensory tubs and lastly I will be sharing a chore chart that has really worked for our family.

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STRUCTURING YOUR CHILD’S DAY:

We first heard about purposefully structuring a child’s day when our son was 18months old, after completing a toddler course from Growing Families. Now he is 4 and my daughter is nearly 2 and I have not looked back. It has been a huge help to myself and provides such a security for my children. They know exactly what is expected, they know what it means when a structured time is over (the timer goes off) and they know that Mummy makes all the decisions on how they spend their precious hours. It also helps me achieve things I need to get done in the day.

When I first began to structure my children’s day it was similar to when we first introduced couch time. At first it seemed a little fake, awkward and included lots of smiles while children either pined for our attention or were playing next to us very noisily. It seemed a little pointless, however we stuck with it and over time it was something my husband and I have started to crave. We can now catch up for around 15 minutes uninterrupted time while the children play near us. Even our son likes to remind us that “It is now couch time Mummy and Daddy.”

It’s the same with structuring your child’s day. It may seem pointless, loud, hard work and a bit of a joke when you start. But slowly as you persist with it, it becomes engrained into your everyday routine and in turn your children and yourself start to crave it. There has been many times in the morning when we have been in a little bit of a rush to get out of the door that a typical morning activity like table time has not been accomplished. My son begs for it now, so it’s used as an incentive once he has finished all his chores – if there is time left over he can do table time. I can really see the benefits of my children loving the structure and routine because of the security that comes with it. I have also found that trying my best to do certain structured activities at the same sort of time every day can help a lot. It saves the nagging and “What are we doing now?” questions.

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Our day comprises of breakfast, table time (4yo) or highchair time (1yo), chores, playpen time (1yo) or play room time (4yo), focus time (1yo), outing, morning tea, lunch, nap (1yo) or room time (4yo), tv time (half an hour), afternoon tea, outside play, sibling play, focus time (4yo) or mat time (1yo), chores, dinner, bath, couch time (parents) while children play on the mat or nearby, teeth, bed (2yo) story time (4yo) , bed (4yo).

This of course is very flexible and often certain times aren’t achieved. I just love having a ‘go to’ when I need to get things done. And because everything is thought out, it means I know that my children are spending their time well. You can add anything into your routine – book time, craft time, walk, errands etc.

How to start: I tried small amounts of time first and made sure I used a timer when their ‘times’ were over. They soon picked up that Mummy comes when the timer goes off, not in answer to their cries. Starting small and building up is the way to train your children in this and using praise, praise, praise when the timer goes off to indicate how proud you are of them. Verbally stating the time too with statements such as “Well done for doing PLAYPEN time. You stayed in your PLAYPEN the whole time. I’m so proud of you for playing happily in your PLAYPEN” etc. reinforces what the child has achieved and the word PLAYPEN will bring a new meaning and expectation into their little minds.

Sensory tubs for babies and young toddlers

Our 17 month old is staying with her Grandparents (along with some of her brothers and sisters) for 4 days and they have requested some playpen toys to use while she is there. This sensory tub or “pile of entertainment” is what I came up with. Perfect for highchair, mat or playpen times, these household objects will keep her going longer than the flashiest new toy ever could. (See this post for more info on flexible routines and links for training little people to sit and concentrate for lengthy periods.)

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Containers filled with interesting things are always a hit with this age. Check for choking hazards and make sure nothing is easily breakable. Include objects to open and close, lids to take off and put on, things to fill and spill, stack and fiddle with.

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A pile of plastic picnic plates to stack, old jewellery containers to open and shut, play keys, magnetic wooden ice-cream cone, pretend food, magnetic construction blocks, swizzle sticks in a jar, T/spoon and cup. Wander around the house and pile stuff in. Check the older kid’s toys for anything suitable such as the potato head toy. While she won’t be able to build it, she will take a couple of minutes to pull it to pieces and examine it.

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Take notice of what they pick up and walk around with when on the loose around the house. Mum’s cooking spoon, sister’s comb, brother’s hat, Dad’s shoe – chuck them in.

Poking Q-tips into a spice jar takes some doing at this age (Montessori small spaces activity) and bright books are good, along with a small photo album of family members and other common objects (pets etc.)

All of my children have rejected baby board books at this age but have been particularly interested in paper books. Perhaps because they see everyone around them reading them all the time? I set aside some paper paged books that are not particularly loved in case they get wrecked and give them to the little ones. I find if they are in perfect condition they will rarely be torn, but the moment there is even a small tear it will have a powerful draw and little fingers will have that page ripped out in a flash. It’s irresistible, they just can’t help themselves!

 

 

 

 

Homeschooling with toddlers; a new year begins!

As our thoughts turn to the new year, it is time for an evaluation of routines and a sort-out of school cupboards. A major part of successfully homeschooling a large family is ensuring that the toddlers and babies have a well structured routine that includes some extended periods of time where they are able to play independently, leaving me free to concentrate on schooling the other children.

I spent a little time today changing over the playpen, mat time and highchair toys; boxing away baby toys that are now at the wrong developmental level and quickly making up some new and interesting activities as well as bringing out some I have stashed away from previous years. A big bottle, a box, some containers and bibs and bobs from around the house and I was all set with stimulating and educational toys that cost nothing at all.

The 12 month to 2 year range is difficult to cater for as they want toys that do something but are usually not yet ready for pretend play. Montessori style practical life tray activities are perfect and are cheap and easy to make. You can put them together in just minutes and throw them out when you are done. Better than buying new plastic fantastic dinging doodads that loose their attraction in a week or two.

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My husband didn’t realise that when he purchase his latest Christmas gift to himself he also bought one for his daughter. This box had the perfect design for a Montessori style object permanence box. Little ones drop the oversized marbles into the hole and watch them disappear and are then astounded as they magically reappear at the bottom. They eventually learn that the object is still there even though they can’t see it and begin to watch for the marbles to roll down into view. Simple concept but fascinating to the right age.

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All I need to do was glue two wood offcuts to the bottom to ensure a slope so that the balls rolled to the front of the box and tape the sliding inner piece in place. 1 minute = new activity. You can buy wooden versions for $40.00 but who needs one? You could use a toilet roll or anything else really to glue underneath to keep one end of the box elevated.

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A shoebox version of exactly the same thing. A hole in top to drop the balls into and a large slot to retrieve them again from the bottom.

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Drop bottles are always lots of fun. Fitting into the Montessori “small spaces” and “posting” categories they require some fine motor control and problem solving to get the objects into the hole at the top of the bottle and retrieve them from the bottom. Watching my 17 month old turning the block laboriously in her chubby little hands and repeatedly poking it at the hole until it dropped in was entertaining. Watching her clap herself each time she did it even more so.

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Something to pull apart is good for a few minutes. There is no way she will be able to put these back on again but she carefully removed every one and then stuffed them all into one of her honey tubs with a hole in the lid. (Yep, expensive toys around here – honey tubs as well!)

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Large garden stones to drop into a yoghurt pot with another hole in the lid. Satisfying clunk sound and weight. Eventually she will figure out how to turn the container upside down and shake them back out again.

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Pom pom posting container. The draw-back of this one is that once they are in they can’t be taken back out again. She does this one first every mat time and then sets it aside to focus on the other items.

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A pile of objects to fill and spill are a must. All the better if the container they go into makes a good metallic sound when they drop in.

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At the moment my youngest (17 months) has playpen time each morning for at least an hour four days a week – we are out for the 5th day. These are her baskets that she uses on a rotational basis. Because they only come out for playpen time once per week I will only need to change them again in a month or two. Using some basic categories that help me come up with ideas I walk around the house and plop items in. An hour or so (most of which is putting away the items from the old boxes) and I have playpen time sorted.

This month the categories were:

  • posting/small spaces
  • something to wear/put on/household object
  • books
  • something to stack/pull apart
  • something to cuddle

I’ll be posting about my other 6 children’s school time activities over the next little while. Next up – the 3 1/2 year old.

 

Toddler bags for out and about: How to get through a restaurant meal with a toddler.

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Any parent of young children knows that a meal out in a restaurant can be taxing with a toddler in tow. There are ways however to minimise the stress and make it a pleasant experience for everyone.

Firstly, train your child at home to sit in their highchair after meals for a period of time with a few toys or activities, or perhaps a book or two and include playpen time (or room time) and mat time in your daily routine. Having these daily periods where your child is used to happily playing with the toys you give them, whilst staying within a boundary, is excellent preparation for other occasions when they will need to sit quietly for a longer than normal stretch of time.

Spend a little time preparing some new and interesting activities that are kept aside for use while you are out. Either purchased toys and books or some simple (and cheap) home-made ideas like the ones that follow. Toddler’s generally do not have a well-developed imagination and tire of toys that don’t “do” something relatively quickly, so having to buy new things continually to keep up with their changing developmental needs and interest can become very expensive. These home-made toys are great for developing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination and when introduced at the right developmental level, will be stimulating and interesting for your young child. If a task is too easy it will not hold their interest. Too hard and they will become frustrated and lose interest.

This is the bag of “toys” I put together for my 18 month old to use during a lunch we attended on the weekend. He only used a couple of them as I bought them out one at a time and only changed them over when necessary.

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Posting bottle: Posting noodles into an empty vanilla bottle and tipping them back out again.

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Posting box: Pushing pompoms into the hole in this twine box. Help is needed to open the box to tip them out again but as we are sitting right next to him this is not a problem.

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Small spaces jar: Posting earbuds into a spice jar with holes in the lid. He discovered after I had taken off the lid and tipped them all back out about 5 times that he could shake them out one at a time through the holes so that added a new dimension to the activity.

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Posting tin: Posting plastic poker chips through a slot into an empty baking powder container. Yes, I know, it’s another posting activity. But at this age, my son LOVES to post stuff so I’ll run with that for a while and change when he is no longer so fascinated!

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Surprise boxes: Opening and closing these little pill containers to find the small toy inside is great for fine motor development.

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Dolly peg and hair bands: Sliding hair ties on and off a wooden dolly peg may be a little difficult for him but we will give it a go and see what happens. I haven’t used this one yet.

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Dinky car: Having older siblings means that interest in cars has developed early and he knows how to play with them form observing his brothers.

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Pipecleaner box: Shoving them in and out and bending them into different shapes could be fun. (We haven’t done this yet either but I remember one of my older children using this idea as a toddler and spending a very long time poking the ends into the small holes in the chair he was sitting on.)

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This old bag is how we cart the activities around. The fact that it has several different compartments as well as zips means that it is an activity in itself.

Having children will certainly change your life, but it shouldn’t stop you from doing the things you love. Train your children and you will reap the benefits.

Other posts you may find helpful:

Mat time on the go

Activities to make for toddlers and babies

Buffet training

Arsenic hour and toddler meltdowns

Buffet training

Something we try to remember as parents is not to expect our children to do anything while out that they do not do at home. For example, if my toddlers are unable to sit at the table for any length of time after a meal, I wouldn’t ask them to do so in a restaurant. We think it is unfair to expect something from them that we have not trained them to be able to do in the first place.

Asher in his highchair

With long-term goals in mind, we include highchair time as a regular part of our daily routine and our little ones are used to happily staying in their highchairs after meals with a couple of small activities to play with for a reasonable amount of time. We can then go to a restaurant or meeting and set them up with something to do and know that they will be happy to sit for quite a while without expecting to get straight down. At home, it means that I have time to finish cleaning up the table and kitchen and leave the area without having a trail of mess that I need to come back to later.

A sitting up on the mat

There are times when we visit others or find ourselves in a situation where there are just too many tempting items for the baby to get into. A young child will only stay in your arms for so long! Mat time training can help here. See introducing mat time and mat time on the go for ideas and explanations. Using a partacot (portable crib) as a playpen can also work well for those china filled houses. (See also starting late.)

Take a look around your table during a meal. If visitors were present, would you be embarrassed? Table etiquette and manners are something we need to go over and over (sigh..) but one strategy that has really helped us is the “3 warning” system.

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We occasionally hold “buffet training” evenings. They are great for a family night activity and really very simple. All we do is put out a whole array of food on the kitchen bench in lots of bowls and have the children move along and serve themselves in the same way they would do at a buffet. We discuss etiquette at the same time and add our own rules to make it work for a home dinner. (For example, “You may skip over no more than 3 of the dishes” to ensure that the tomato haters are satisfied but the vegetable phobic children still end up with a few specimens of the veggie kind on their plate.) The children need to know how to take an appropriate amount, avoid wastage, to think of others coming behind them, use the tongs, general manners and so on.

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Hosting high teas and other special events in our home and having the older children act as greeters, seaters, waiters and waitresses is also something they love and helps them to learn how to show hospitality and serve others by making people feel welcome and comfortable.

backyard boundaries

Have you ever had a visitor’s child waltz through your house as if they owned it, helping themselves to whatever they like? If children are used to having complete freedom in their own home to go wherever they like, touch what they like and do what they like, then don’t be surprised if they do the same while they are out.

As well as having a routine in place, limiting inappropriate choices and providing verbal, physical or visual barriers in our own home, when we arrive at someone’s house or a play area, one of the first things we do is identify the physical boundaries for the children.

We also spend a little time on the way there discussing the kinds of situations they may face and have the older children remind the younger ones of the manners they need to remember (a good review for them as well!)

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To avoid having young children who will only sleep in their own cots at home, we occasionally put them to sleep in a variety of situations; in the portacot in another room, in the pram, on a sibling’s bed, in our big bed, at Grandparentss house for an overnight etc. While they never sleep as well when we are out, at least they will have part of a nap.

While far from perfect, the children are slowly growing and developing into young adults that we hope will be a blessing to us and to others.

Make your own baby and toddler toys

There comes an awkward age somewhere between 12 months and two years where it becomes more difficult to keep babies and young toddlers interested in their toys. They are no longer content to just shake and slobber on something that feels and look appealing, toys now need to DO something.

To complicate matters further, children generally do not develop imaginative play skills until around the age of 2. New toys are appealing but often lose that appeal quickly once they have been explored a few times and are too expensive to be constantly purchased. You can swap with friends, join a toy library or simply make your own. For me, the make your own option is the easiest, the possibilities are almost endless and they often turn out to be the long-term favourites. Here are some of my home-made baby toys that I use for mat time, highchair time, playpen time, table time and room time.

Find a bunch of small flat-bottomed toys, blocks, shapes, plastic figures or suitable objects and a base to stick them to; piece of smooth wood, plastic lid, small tray etc. Use self-adhesive velcro to attach each piece to the base so that children can stick them on and take them off again, enjoying that satisfying ripping sound as they do so. If you have enough, it is better to cover the base with the velcro so that objects can be stuck anywhere rather than only on a small matching dot. Older toddlers like this too if small people, animals or other figures are used and enjoy manipulating the pieces to play-act and tell stories.

Use an old baby wipes container and any flat objects that are slim enough to fit through the slot and not so small as to pose a choking hazard. Old credit cards, large plastic construction pieces, dominoes, poker chips, Jenga blocks  or anything similar will do. When interest wanes, simply change the material to post.

Wooden dolly pegs have dozens of uses. Young children find it challenging to slide them on and off objects and enjoy the sound of plunking them into tins and containers. My youngest loved to take them off the sides of containers like the ones above but not to put them back on again. They only did that part once – when they packed the activity away! Posting bottles and tissue box posting are other ways to use dolly pegs.

Formula tins have a large number of uses. They are great as rattle cans for crawlers to push about and with a hole, slot or cross-shaped cut in the top, act as posting tins for any number of small objects. Pegs, popsticks, dominoes, wooden shapes, milk bottle lids or whatever you have will do.

Toddlers are fascinated with Mum’s purse although most of us will agree that it is not a toy and it is unwise to allow toddlers to access it in that way. Because of that, some parents feel that even providing a similar option is not a good idea, fearing that children will not know the difference and think it is ok to touch Mum and Dad’s. I wondered about this too but in my experience have found that by the time they are able to manipulate cards and photos in and out of a purse or wallet, they are old enough to tell the difference between the play version and the real thing.  Find a bunch of old family photos, some fake credit cards (the display version that comes in junk mail trying to get you to sign your life away) and any other small objects that will slide in.  An old handbag is another version that toddlers love. Pick one up from an op-shop with as many zippers, pockets, divisions and press-studs as you can find and fill it with a bunch of small items. This works great for mat time on the go and can be re-stocked with different items on a regular basis to keep interest high.

For more toddler and baby activities, click on the “toddlers and babies” or “workjobs and Montessori activities…” categories on the left hand side bar.

Routines: Room time

Amazing things can be created in room time!

At around 18 months to 2 years of age, a toddler is ready to transition to room time instead of playpen time. Having said that, my two and a bit year old twins still have playpen time rather than room time for a number of reasons – space and lack of available rooms being two!  The following are some ideas for how to go about room time. My next post will help you to transition to room time smoothly. (It may be helpful to have a quick read through these posts first: playpen time, toys and starting late, choices)

What is room time? A time each day that is set by Mum when a child plays in their room (or a designated room) for a period of time determined by Mum. Do not confuse room time with a child choosing of their own volition to spend time playing in their room. This is a time chosen by you, with toys chosen by you (or a limited choice for older children) for the length of time chosen by you.

Tips for successful room time: 

  • try to arrange the room so that you can check on the child but they can’t see you.
  • start with 10-15 minutes and work up to longer time periods over several days. Even children who have been contentedly spending an hour in their playpen need smaller time increments to start with. This is a new freedom and you want to be able to praise them for their success in staying in their room and making wise play choices. Once the transition has been made and all is running smoothly you can increase the time again.
  • get the child started on an activity they enjoy before you walk out.
  • do not plan to use this time for the first week or so. Hover nearby, check on children frequently and deal with situations before they get started. Remember, the purpose of the short time period to start with is to finish while it is going well and praise, praise, praise! Do not be tempted initially to extend the time because it is going well and leave it until a problem happens – end on a good note.
  • start when you know you will be able to be home for a few days in a row
  • for young children, consider doing it through the weekend until well established
  • have it at a similar time each day
  • set out the toys you want a toddler to use or provide a limited selection of toys for an older child to choose from – not unlimited access to everything in the room.
  • introduce packing away from first use – demo, help, then independent. Have an easy storage system such as open crates. Sort toys out. One large toy box for everything not a good idea. Toys get lost, pieces are mixed up, toys are buried and forgotten and children can’t be bothered digging through to find what they need.
  • The success of room time depends on the focus and control that you are modelling and teaching throughout the whole day. A child who has too many freedoms and will not obey you during the day will not suddenly obey you when it comes to room time. Using a gate in the doorway can be useful for little ones during the initial transition and takes away the temptation to keep coming out. However a child who is not being trained in obedience will find a way to get out if they REALLY want to, despite the barrier.

 Toys:

  • You may like to keep room time toys only for room time so that the interest level stays high. Alternatively, toys can be sorted into crates for each day of the week or changed on a monthly basis.
  • Have a system in place to put the crates/boxes etc. into. A low bookshelf or cupboard that the child can reach is ideal. A few shelves that are out of reach can also be handy for those toys that are not for general playtime but are saved only for room time or for playing with Mummy and Daddy etc.
  • Clear plastic crates allow you to see contents at a glance.
  • Remove lids and simply have open containers that slide onto shelves. Remember, the easier it is to pack away, the more likely the child will do it without a fuss.
  • Sort toys out into smaller containers of similar sort (as children get older, toys become more complicated and have more pieces – mixing sets or kits with other toys makes it difficult to access.)
  • Do not store toys in draw-string bags, cardboard boxes with lids etc. until the child is able to manage those by themselves. If they have to ask you to take a lid off for them, they will be coming out of their room to do so and/or unable to pack up without your assistance.
Transitioning from playpen time to room time:
  • Put the playpen in the bedroom to begin with.
  • Use a mat or some other kind of blanket/carpet etc under the playpen that will become the designated play area in the room once the playpen is removed.
  • Have the toys sorted out and in the same places you will put them when room time begins without the playpen.
  • Take down only one crate at a time and say every day that this crate must be packed away before another one can come out – while in playpen one crate is all they get, so include enough variety to last the entire session. This means that later there should be a controlled amount of mess – no more than the contents of one crate should ever be out at one time.
  • Pack up with the child to begin with, one kind of item at a time, in a methodical way – remember you are teaching them how to pack up for all those times later they will do it themselves. Say out loud what you are doing, “First lets put away all the cars, now lets find all the books” etc.
  • Once the child is used to helping you, do some together then leave them to finish a set amount. No consequence for not packing up is needed, they are simply not free to come out until it is done.
  • If  there is a lot to pack up, simplify the pile into perhaps one or two kinds of toys – too many items from different containers/kits will be confusing and children often end up sitting there packing away nothing at all. For example, if a box of Duplo is out, along with books and a puzzle, perhaps clean up the books and puzzles for the child and require them to do only the Duplo.

Removing the playpen:

  • Explain that they need to play on the mat or other area you have designated.
  • Remind them of the toys that they may choose from – the same system you have well established while still in the playpen.
  • Initially, continue with the crate system. As children get older and toys become more complicated, begin to slowly hand over the choice to the child eg. you choose 3 items from the shelf, I will choose the rest.
  • Pack away most of the toys in the bedroom to begin with and only have out a few options that the child can choose from. More can be added later.
  • Remove any treasures or irresistible things that shouldn’t be touched.
  • Always have a set place for items. Teach how to pack away every toy as it is re-introduced back into the bedroom or a new toy is added.

Troubleshooting:

  • Try to ensure that household traffic is not passing by the door of a child who is having room time or they will be constantly distracted and more likely to want to come out.
  • Keep activities that sound like a lot of fun away from the sight and hearing of a child in room time. If they love to paint and you use this time for the older children to paint, it is much more difficult for them to be content knowing what they are missing out on.
  • In large families where children share rooms there may not be enough room time rooms to go around. If you are homeschooling and have older children at home, they could perhaps use this time to complete school work and have their room time at a different time of day. I prefer to have everyone in room time together so I get a break therefore we use almost every room of the house. Toddler and baby nappers go in portacots in rooms other than those they sleep in. Middle ages have their own desks and toys set up in separate bedrooms, including their own sleeping room and the baby room. The eldest is the most mobile as his interested are more portable. A crate with wheels makes his Lego set moveable and books are easy to pick up and cart about. Any other project is collected before room time begins and moved to where he will be. This may be the family room or loungeroom or even outside if the weather is nice.
  • Make sure that the toys are age appropriate, interesting and provide enough stimulus to last the whole time. Older children move away from just toys and in my household are given their own desk around the age of 4. We give them a mini set of drawers stocked with all manner of craft and drawing items, scissors, glue, construction paper and all sorts of bits and pieces and they have a wonderful time creating with these every day. Construction toys are pretty much essential for boys and good books are great for all.

Having room time for everybody every day leaves me with a chunk of time every day to recharge and gives the children a much-needed break from each other. They are often refreshed and in much happier moods when they re-emerge. Those personality types who crave time alone are rested and recharged and the more sanguine children benefit from learning to be by themselves and using their time in a worthwhile fashion. The projects the older children get up to are often quite amazing and the time is rarely wasted.

Building Focussing and Concentrating Skills in Toddlers

Patrice Walker was one of the speakers at our big GEMS night recently and she gave an excellent introduction to developing focussing and concentrating skills in our toddlers and young children. She has kindly given me permission to reproduce her notes here and while there is a lot to read, I think they are well worth the time. I have added links to further information or explanations from my blog posts as they relate to what she has to say.

Focussing and concentrating skills are habits and skills which are needed for a lifetime, as they affect all areas of our lives. An impulsive child who is always looking toward what is next rather than enjoying what is in front of them, becomes an unsettled adult, unable to stick with a single task very long. Whether it is in the classroom or workplace, this impulsiveness will often result in work that is poorly or incompletely done. This child or adult will be unlikely to achieve any personal sense of accomplishment or have the confidence to tackle bigger projects; they can be easily discouraged and give up quickly. We can help our children to use all the gifts and talents God has given them, if we help them develop the virtues of attentiveness and self-control.

So, let’s begin by looking at encouraging focusing and concentrating in the toddler years. What will help you most as a parent is to understand the need to manage the freedoms your toddler is allowed, and therefore, the routine and structure of his day.

We know that God has blessed our toddlers with an insatiable curiosity for the world around us. It’s so exciting to see a little one’s eyes open with wonder as they see something for the first time, maybe an ant moving along with a crumb… They lie down on the floor and watch it, maybe pointing with their chubby little fingers or poking it and making “gooing” noises. Very cute, right? Would it be so cute if it was an electrical power-point which had captured their attention? Probably not, and you would be justified in wanting to remove your little one from the danger. While we do not want to suppress the natural, healthy curiosity of a toddler it’s clear they should not be allowed unlimited freedoms to come and go with no guidance; to explore without limits or to touch without restraint. The boundaries that a toddler needs, however, go beyond just the health and safety concerns.

The best way that parents can establish healthy limits for their toddler is by making decisions for them, and setting reasonable physical boundaries. You should make the most of your toddler’s curiosity, by helping them pay attention, focussing and concentrating on what is best for them. That means Mums that you decide who does what, when they do it and where they do it. So you are able to make good decisions yourself, it is helpful to have some order and structure in your day.

It’s important to understand that a routine is meant to serve you and your family. It should give you the opportunity to make the most of the days that God has given us, to do the work that he has appointed for us. Having some structure and predictability in the day provides security for your little ones and helps you use your time effectively enjoying and training your toddler. There are many activities that can be included in your day which give healthy boundaries, use their curiosity and  attention, and will therefore encourage a toddler to focus and concentrate.

I will be explaining some of the activities we have included in our toddler’s days that are useful for developing these skills. Most of these I have learnt about from reading the Growing Families materials and observing the results in families we know who use these principles in their own homes, with their own children.

I’m going to begin with the activity that most toddlers have a “love-hate” relationship with – the playpen or room time. This is a time, determined by Mum, for your little one to have some time to play on their own.  Learning to play contentedly for a period of time without having someone there to entertain him is an important skill for a toddler to learn. Playpen time can be used from a very young age for short periods of time, initially only 10 minutes or so but increased over time, particularly as the little one’s sitting skills develop. We have used wooden playpens, a portacot or sometimes, when space was tight, their own cot. We have also varied the location, depending on the child and our home, but as much as possible tried to make it an area that is reasonably secluded from the rest of the family, sometimes even using a playpen outside.

Playpen time transitions to room time around 18-20 months of age, when the toddler’s room is usually used as his play area. For some toddlers, going from a playpen to a room can be an overwhelming freedom, so a blanket placed on the floor as a visible boundary may help your toddler transition better. I used a quilt my mother-in-law lovingly made for our first to line the base of our playpen and then used that on the floor of their room during room time. Again, beginning with short periods of time, build up the time spent in room time as the toddler develops the skills of focusing and concentrating on their toys.

My children have all learnt to enjoy their room time for up to an hour by the age of two or so. When children are left alone it is amazing to see how content they can be playing with one simple toy after another, undistracted by the other people or noises in the home. I have, at times, had to encourage our other children to leave the little one alone to enjoy their play! Don’t confuse room time with a free play time in their bedroom – your toddler needs to learn to play in his room when you, the Mum, says it’s time to do so, for the period of time you decide.

Playing in his room also doesn’t mean he is able to do whatever he chooses in that time. Mum chooses the toys which should be age appropriate, rotating them regularly, keeping them interesting and challenging. As we know, bored children quickly find trouble! I have found it helpful to spend time showing a toddler how to play with their toys during the day before using it in either the playpen or room time. I’ve also spent time learning about age appropriate toys and activities through books, the internet and talking to other mums. For a while we belonged to a toy library and this was great for exposing us to different toys that were often more educational in nature. They had a variety of toys and activities that were not available in the local toy shop or were beyond the range of our family’s income. It’s also great for those toys which little ones only use for a short period of time.  Another way we’ve found to keep the interest levels high without having to keep purchasing new toys is to swap and share toys with other families. It’s a good way to determine which toys last well and whether the interest in a toy is high enough to consider purchasing it.

It’s important to include some free playtime in your day. This is when your toddler has the freedom to choose what he plays with. It is still supervised because you decide when he is able to do it but it is free time because the child is making the decision about what to play with, based on his interests. This time should usually be short, around 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the age of your toddler. I have found it best to decide where the play is to take place and usually encourage outside play several times a day as it’s important for little ones to have the opportunity to get fresh air and use up some of their never-ending energy. I try to encourage my toddler to sustain his interest in his chosen activity by not allowing them to flit from one toy to the next, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. Limiting the number of choices helps with this. For example, we don’t have all the toddler’s toys out in a huge box to be rummaged through but have several smaller containers of toys both inside and outside. We also teach our little ones to pack up one thing before moving to the next, meaning less desire to “chop and change” and less cleanup at the end of the day.

A structured, focused playtime with Mummy should be a priority for toddlers. Not only do they need your supervision, they need your love and attention. I’ve found that making a time each day for me to focus solely on the little ones really helps them feel loved and secure. Some days the time is shorter than other days and the activities are almost always chosen by me. We might read, play with toys or a game, do crafts, bake together, do a puzzle or so on. I have found with some of our children that spending this time with them early in the day has meant they are more content to play by themselves later in the day. When one of our children was younger they were becoming quite difficult in the early evening, but I discovered that if I spent a short period of time focussed on them in the late afternoon that usual fussy time was much less likely.  This time also provides me with the chance to encourage an older toddler with their attitude or behaviour we’re working on. The Terrific Toddler books by Mel Hayde are excellent resources for how you can build happy, healthy hearts in your toddlers – very practical, positive and encouraging.

A quiet reading or “sit time” is another essential element of our toddler’s day. During this time our little one is either in the high chair, on my lap or next to me on a couch with a few books. Starting with small increments of time, this can be increased as the child matures. Your toddler can learn to focus and concentrate, to love books and to develop the self-control to sit and read what, when and where he is told. This skill can be transferred to many situations outside the home, while waiting at the doctors, queues at the shops and especially at church. We do encourage our toddler to read quietly but this is an enormous task for some so I have found it helpful to concentrate on training our toddler to sit still first. Then, when they can demonstrate that consistently, I begin to train them to sit quietly. Separating the two skills has really helped those of our children who are chattier by nature. I will sit with them reading quietly myself, praising them and in time they learn that it is a quiet reading time. Sometimes, I’ve found that beginning this time by cuddling our toddler on my lap, reading a story to them first or perhaps asking them to find a particular character in a book for an older child, has helped those who have struggled to focus on a book for more than a minute or two. I also choose a quieter time in the day, usually after lunch, as a toddler is starting to wind down for an afternoon rest, sometimes the early evening works well too.

Attending our library’s storytime session was helpful for me in our earlier parenting years. We had an excellent storyteller who had a way of captivating the children’s attention by choosing only the best children’s stories and using her voice to really make the story come alive. I learnt many useful skills that have made more confident reading aloud to my children and also how to help them focus and concentrate on stories and their illustrations.

The virtue of attentiveness is one that can be greatly encouraged by expecting and maintaining eye contact and a verbal response when talking to your toddler. The best way to teach this to your little one is to demonstrate it to them. Show you care about what they have to say by stopping and listening properly to them when you can. This may mean getting down to their eye-level or bringing them up to yours when talking to them or listening to them. When giving an instruction to a toddler, don’t overtalk to them, explaining in great detail every little thing that they are probably not going to understand. You do need to speak clearly and make sure you tell, not ask. This could be as simple as picking up your one year-old and looking him in the eye and saying, “It’s time to go play in your playpen now” and then carrying him there. I would sometimes have to gently but firmly hold our toddler’s chins to encourage them to look me in the eye.

Another activity which encourages focusing and concentrating is a high-chair or table time. I use the high chair mainly for younger toddlers and a table time for the older ones. During this time the toddler is directed to an activity Mum has chosen in a place Mum has chosen– the highchair or table. Simple activities that will hold the attention of your toddler that don’t require much assistance or preparation from you mean that you can then do other things nearby. I often use this several times a day after meal times and particularly during meal preparation time, as the little one is then not likely to be needing too much of my attention while I’m handling sharp knives and hot food. Good activities for younger toddlers include a few small cars or dolls on the tray or mat, magnetic shapes or letters, wooden puzzles, stacking cups and rings, container of pegs or similar to put in and out. For older toddlers try paper and crayons or pencils, felt boards, play dough or threading activities. All my little ones have enjoyed playing with various kitchen items, mixing bowls, spoons etc copying me if I’m in the kitchen. Again, I start with small increments of time, but gradually, as your toddler develops the power of attention and self control, they can sit and play for increasingly longer periods of time. My good friend, Ang Pascoe has an excellent blog which has an abundance of articles and examples of activities and resources to use with young children. They are mother and child-friendly with lots of photo’s to encourage and inspire. Her blog address is angathome.com.

A few other factors to consider when planning your toddler’s day include deciding the best order of the activities, the transition times and the gender and personality of your child. I’ve found it’s best to keep to a similar flow of activities each day. This encourages the toddler to feel secure in what is expected of him throughout the day. I also think it’s best to alternate activities that our toddler does alone with those that he does with me or other children, those that are quiet with more active ones, and inside and outside activities. Watch the transition times between activities – don’t allow your toddler to wander aimlessly waiting for your directions. I would rather have my little one in the highchair, playpen or a stroller for a few more minutes while I organise what is happening next, than have them getting into all sorts of trouble because I’m not quite ready. I have often played a game with our older toddlers where I tell them they are my shadow, so they have to stay really close to me, this is very helpful during those transition times. I think it’s worth noting that, as a mother of four delightful boys I know very well that God made them all different to each other and also to my two lovely daughters. Rather than compare them, I do my best to accept that God has made each of our children with different needs, strengths and weaknesses. I need to be mindful of that when I’m choosing their activities and training them to focus and concentrate.

Please be encouraged that while it is hard work, it is possible to have wonderful days with toddlers! They can learn many positive skills and attitudes through playing and good direction of their time. The skills of focusing and concentrating are ones that will affect them for life and influence the development of virtues such as attentiveness and self-control. If most of this is new to you, don’t feel overwhelmed but choose one or two things which you can begin with. The small GEMS groups are a lifeline for many mums, myself included, to encourage and equip us by talking through issues and sharing ideas with others on the same parenting journey.

Homeschooling with toddlers: Duplo copy and build

Here’s another fun yet educational activity for your toddlers or pre-schoolers to do while you homeschool the older children (or just get some dinner cooked!) It works as a Montessori style tray activity, table activity, playpen activity or mat time (blanket time) activity and can be adapted in difficulty to suit a wide range of ages.

Assuming you own Duplo (or any other suitable construction toy) and a digital camera, it costs almost nothing to make and is simple to put together. Older children could be enlisted to make the models required.

Simply make a selection of small models, photograph them individually and put only the pieces needed to construct each one into separate containers. Print the photos (laminate if you want them to last) and put them with the corresponding model and that’s it! The child simply uses the blocks supplied to copy the photo. The activity is self-checking in that there will be no spare blocks left at the end if they have copied correctly.

The easiest model for a 2 year old to copy might simple be a stack of 3 or 4 square Duplo blocks. Each set given from then on can increase in difficulty by adding more blocks and changing the complexity of the designs. It may need some teaching at first for the very young children to grasp the concept, but once they understand what to do they will be off and running. After each model is created children can play with the little set of bricks and try to make something different with it. Little boys in particular love to build, however my girls have enjoyed the challenge of making the colours and shapes of the blocks match exactly.

Make your own baby and toddler toys – ball posting

Ball posting is another very basic activity for babies and toddlers. Plonking the balls in through the hole and learning how to shake them back out again is absorbing and clear containers add to the interest. Ball posting is great for  playpen time and mat time, but not as good for table time or highchair time simply because the balls fall off and roll away.

DESCRIPTION:

  • The child posts the balls through the hole and tips them back out again by shaking the container.

CATEGORY/SUBJECT AREA:

  • Practical life

CONCEPT/SKILL:

  • Fine motor development

EQUIPMENT & MATERIALS:

  • Container with lid (cut a hole into the lid slightly larger than the balls)
  • Balls or other objects to post and shake out again

Please see my articles titled “Workjobs and Learning Styles” and “Brief Montessori Overview” for more information.