What Does it Mean to Teach a Toddler?

(My earliest professional work with children took place in a child care center, working with infants and toddlers. Part of my responsibilities included occasionally contributing to the center’s newsletter. I hung onto my articles, and am including a sampling of the more relevant pieces. Enjoy!)

Toddler Classroom, Spring 2008

It happens all the time: people ask me what I do.

“I’m a teacher,” I say.

“Oh, what grade?”

“I work with toddlers,” I reply.

Then comes the blank look, the polite nod, perhaps some lighthearted chitchat about how challenging it must be. A few brave souls ask me about the curriculum. Because, of course, what can you possibly be teaching toddlers? Are they learning to read? To write? What about math? Of course not, they think. And just like that, your status falls from educator to babysitter.

It’s frustrating, but it would take much too long to explain that, in fact, if you’re doing it right, everything you do with toddlers is prepares them for formal education.

First, and most basically, toddler teachers are in tune with children’s natural development, and we don’t rush children into things they are not ready for. Instead, we look for the curiosity and interest that is inborn in children and then we structure the environment so that they have opportunities to discover the properties of the world and to work small experiments. We foster their inborn senses of wonder and excitement in the world. We use our knowledge of child development to be aware of where children might be heading next in their development. Generally speaking, children of this age are children are still learning “the language of things” (David Elkind). They are still very hands-on with their environments; they have to see it to believe it. They are just on the cusp of beginning to learn how to represent their worlds symbolically through mental imagery, drawing, language. And before they can do that, they have to have a firm grasp of their physical worlds.

A little more specifically, children are literally working on the skills they need for formal education. Toddler teachers help to facilitate the development of the building blocks of reading, writing, and math.

In terms of the development of writing, we give them markers, crayons, chalk (sometimes even pens and pencils!) so that they have the opportunity to hold items and manipulate them, to develop the pincer grasp, coordination, and finger strength. Right now, their drawings are being refined from wide, random marks on the page to more continuous, usually circular movements. With practice, they will develop greater control for where they place the writing utensil and for starting and stopping at will.

Literacy occurs through daily experiences such as listening and telling stories, reading aloud on a routine basis, and reading familiar stories. We read to them, over and over. We give them access to books, time to pour over the pages and study them in their own ways. We model the power of reading as we look over “teacher” books and papers. Given these opportunities, children will develop literacy skills for later reading success.

“Math skills involve a way of thinking about the world that includes observing, thinking and talking about observation and describing these observations to others in a meaningful way” (www.willnorth.org). We talk about quantity, measurement, and weight often in the context sand and water-play. We start out the day with shelves that are organized categorically (whether or not that lasts very long is a different story!). We talk about numbers throughout the day (“I’m going to turn the water off on the count of 5!”). All of the things that children do as toddlers…all of their play…prepares them to be ready to learn when they are developmentally ready.

And so we come to the third, and perhaps most important, way in which we are “teaching” children. We are caring for and helping to nurture the children’s socio-emotional development. At first blush, this may not seem to have much to do with education. Who cares if they’re well adjusted, as long as they can learn, right? Actually, Dr. David Elkind says, “To be successful in first grade a child must have three basic social skills:

  1. He or she must be able to listen to an adult and to follow instructions.
  2. He or she must be able to start a task and bring it to completion on his or her own.
  3. He or she must be able to work cooperatively with other children, to take turns, stand in line, and share.” (Hurried Child, p. 70)

First grade is a long ways off, but as anyone with a toddler will tell you, so are the social skills listed above. Toddlers learn a great deal from one another in group care. They are learning how to interact, how to be gentle, how to laugh together, how to negotiate space, how to negotiate in general…how to be social. And the only way they will learn is through practice and guidance.  

And that is what a toddler teacher teaches to her students. They don’t do it because the children are cute or loving or because they say funny things (though those are great perks!) and they don’t do it because it’s “easy” (because it’s NOT). Toddler teachers prepare children cognitively, physically, emotionally, and socially for formal education and for life.