If homeschooling is the route you’ve chosen to take with your children, then trying to think of when to actually start is somewhat of a grey area. Technically, your child started learning as soon as he/she entered this world…but when do you start making that learning process a little more “official”? In the past, when I’ve let my mind wander a few years in the future and see myself trying to homeschool my son, I realize one thing: both my son and I need to start getting ourselves into the habit of a schooling routine now or we might both lose our minds when kindergarten starts. I realized it would be beneficial for both of us to start gradually easing into that type of routine so it doesn’t smack us in the face a couple years down the road.

My solution: Tot School. I thought I was being really witty when I thought of the name but apparently there are hundreds of other people who’ve already coined the same phrase…but I digress. Essentially, Tot School is a way of working your way towards a Pre-K curriculum. Before you know it, your child is ready for Kindergarten and you realize that teaching your child at home isn’t that scary after all.  It’s nothing official but it does provide you and your toddler with some routine throughout the day while also facilitating some learning.

My son is turning 3 years old in a week and we’re about to start our second year of Tot School. I thought this would be the perfect time to share some tips on how to prep for Tot School and also share some resources that will help make the process go smoothly.

Organizing the Space

You really want your child to understand when it’s time for school. Setting the mood for learning and removing distractions is key to helping a child transition from wanting to run freely through the house like usual to focusing in on what Teacher Mommy is saying.

For some, this might mean reserving one room and setting it up to be the spot where learning takes place. For others (myself included), this means making a room that already has a purpose (say, the living room) and giving it another one (tot school). I even take it a step further and make multiple rooms in our house ready-to-use for Tot School. I am dealing with a toddler so staying in one location for the entirety of school is just not going to happen. Also, we have what I like to call a “quaint and cozy” house, so keeping things multifunctional is a motto I like to live by as the keeper of the home.

So, what about all those toys lying around that could cause potential distractions? I solved this dilemma during our previous year of Tot School by implementing toy rotations Discussing toy rotations is a post in and of itself.

Another tip when homeschooling a toddler in a small and/or limited space is to consider keeping things mobile. I’ll elaborate on this more in later Tot School posts, but in summary: to the best of your ability, have places where you can tuck away your homeschooling tools and accessories when you’re not using them. That way, if you’re having to use your living room or kitchen table for homeschooling, those places can still be used for their original purpose whenever Tot School isn’t happening.

Knowing Your Goals

It can be overwhelming to think about what you should be teaching your child. You can easily fall into the trap of “mommy guilt” when you start reading what certain kids know how to do by a certain age…yet your child hasn’t even scratched the surface. DON’T BE THAT MOM. Tot School is a very casual way to start introducing a learning routine in your child while fostering a love to play, explore, and learn. Our children are all different and gifted in unique ways. The following links will take you to some standards and skills that are important for your child to know before kindergarten. These are simply guides to help give you ideas on what to include throughout your homeschooling days.

Developmental Milestones (ages 2-3)

Developmental Checklist PDF (ages 3-4) 

Skills Expected Prior to Beginning Kindergarten 

Planning Your Year

Take it from me, planning your week the weekend beforehand is probably going to leave you frustrated, causing you to want to throw in the towel early on. It might sound intimidating to think about planning a whole year in advance, but it’s actually very simple when it comes to Tot School. Plus, you can always find awesome moms out there in Blogging Land who have done most of the hard work and then freely give the fruits of their labor to other ambitious homeschooling moms.

One mom in particular I’d like to direct your attention to is the Stay At Home Educator. She just recently did a series on “How to Preschool Lesson Plans an Entire Year in Advance”. I basically used every printable schedule she made available. After a couple of hours, I had myself some decent lesson plans for the next year (woo-hoo!) Here’s the link to the wrap-up post that includes links to the other 4 posts in the series. I HIGHLY recommend using her printable schedules if you’re looking for some direction on planning. She practically fills in all the spaces for you.

Some questions to consider as you plan for your Tot School year:

  1. Would you like your school days to be half day or full day?
  2. Are you looking at doing school 5 days a week? 3 days a week? A little bit on every day of the week?
  3. Do you have more than just one child at home? This could change up your routine a bit.
  4. Are you looking at an August-May(ish) schedule or year-round schooling?
  5. What are some of your child’s interests?
  6. What events/trips/holidays are already on your calendar? Plan for school weeks accordingly.

Using Your Tot’s Toys

Children at this age learn best through hands-on play time. It’s amazing how many skills can be mastered as a toddler plays with toys, reads books with Mom and Dad, observes the behaviors of others around him/her, and so on and so forth. This is yet another reason why you can take a sigh of relief and not get stressed over those lists of skills and the thought planning for the school year. A lot of the skills will just happen and you’ll sometimes wonder if it was even you that taught your child the skill. Honestly, there are days when I think my son probably learned something thanks to Clifford or Curious George. But that’s OK!

However, I don’t encourage substituting the TV in place of the parent as a teacher. I do encourage putting to use all those toys your toddler has collected over their short lifetime (thanks Grandma and Grandpa!) And speaking of those grandparents, do your research and figure out what toys will help you out best when trying to help your child grasp a certain skill you’re trying to teach him/her. Then, send that list to the grandparents. My little man is blessed with two sets of grandparents that are always happy to help out in the toy department (and really, I’M blessed too by their generosity).

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What types of toys are best when encouraging your child to learn through play?

  • Thinking Toys — The toys that target cognitive development (stacking blocks, shape sorters, puzzles, nesting cups, paper and crayons)
  • Pretending Toys — These toys target social, emotional, and language development (kitchen sets, stuffed animals, farm toys, toy dishes, dress up clothes)
  • Moving Toys — Toys which target gross motor development (balls, tricycles, musical instruments)
  • BOOKS! Maybe these aren’t toys, per se, but they are enjoyable and offer lots of learning opportunities. Build up that library!

Knowing Your Limits

Don’t make this harder than it has to be. Technically, you’re already doing a great job as a parent simply by acknowledging that you are your child’s first teacher. Sometimes you’re going to have off-days. Sometimes your toddler is going to have off-days. Sometimes, you might share those off-days together. Don’t sweat it. If Tot School just doesn’t seem to be happening on a particular day, don’t feel like a failure if you need to press the pause button and pick up where you left off the next day. Learning can take on many forms. For example, maybe you or your toddler had an emotional outburst of some sort while trying to do an activity for the day…possibly anger or frustration. In that moment, it becomes clear that trying to push through the lesson would only lead to more anger and frustration. Rather than ignoring the emotions in hopes of getting through the day’s plans, focus on the emotions. Talk about what emotions are being felt and why. This is an important skill to learn as well. Don’t feel confined to whatever you had planned for the week. It’s very likely that no learning is taking place if your toddler isn’t enjoying himself and neither are you. Take it day-by day and take note of things that might need to be tweaked in order to have a more enjoyable homeschooling experience.

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I hope you’ve found this tips helpful and not overwhelming. It was my best attempt to summarize all the research and all the findings that I’ve come across in the past year and a half as I’ve tried to smooth out the edges of our Tot School routine. It’s my hope to continue sharing posts in the future about activities, tools, resources, and what an average day of Tot School looks like around our house. 

How do you school your toddlers?  Please feel free share your thoughts, questions, comments, and/or concerns in the comment section!