Some people might find themselves going stir crazy after you make it through a week of coronavirus-imposed lockdown with your toddler. What do you do if your toddler’s daycare is temporarily closed down for coronavirus safety? What if you prefer to “home school” your toddler regardless of coronavirus– what is the best way to structure your day so that you as a grown-up don’t go crazy?
Toddlers aren’t exactly the best at focusing their attention for longer periods of time the way older children and adults can do. So if you know how to work with the way toddlers naturally operate, and if you choose the right activities (activities that capture, sustain, and grow their independent concentration), you can make it through a toddler’s day with a lot more ease.
I have worked at 5+ Montessori toddler programs so far and in early childhood programs since 2006. So trust me when I advise that toddlers thrive when given a consistent daily routine. Based on all the different schools I’ve been hired by, particularly those utilizing the Montessori method, there is a “sweet spot” in daily routine formats that I believe works best with toddlers. My go-to daily routine gets us through the day no matter where I find myself employed. I also use this structure whenever I babysit for people.
If your child has siblings or a twin in these times of mandatory house arrest, or if you’re a homeschooling family with more than one child, you are actually better off than people with only one child because kids keep each other engaged for longer and act as peer models for attentional engagement. I know your life probably feels crazier with more than one child, but this is a blessing in disguise, trust me! I also have suggestions for “only children” families as well, so worry not! I will try my best to create routines for those of you with only one child and those with an infant in subsequent posts.
So what are you supposed to when you’re stuck at home with a toddler all day long for multiple days in a row? (infographics at the bottom, helpful details at the top).
Before I offer the daily routine that I believe works best, here is some background information that I think will support you in growing your child’s attentional capacities, and in helping you to fill in the nuances of your family’s daily routine.
When I refer to “toddler” I refer to any child who is walking well; and can utilize toys while standing up without needing to hold onto anything for support. Any typically-developing child who cannot yet walk well, or who still needs two naps to make it through the day is usually classified as an “infant” by Montessori standards.
If your child has a physical disability that prevents them from walking, “toddler” will be defined by their intellectual capacity to seek out and engage with toys, only needing one nap per day in the afternoon, and how well they can communicate (not talk– communicate. There’s a difference, as not all children with differing needs can physically speak. But your child’s intellect may very well be at toddler developmental level).
Whenever I set up a classroom for a toddler Montessori program, there are eight “sections” that I always include in the room that hit different development and learning goals. You can always send me an email if you live in Oahu and would like me to come set up your home, Montessori style.
Tip 1: What you make available for your child to do is going to guide how well your child’s focus and concentration can be captured, maintained, and grown. Our goal, using the Montessori method, is to capture and maintain your toddler’s attention for as long as humanly possible without the use of screen devices, because we are literally trying to move ourselves through a 16-hour day with a toddler. And in the Montessori method, we do not ever use screen devices of any variety with children three and under.
Choosing particular toys and activities well will naturally grow a child’s ability to stick with one activity for longer, and longer, and longer. This will in turn give both the child and the adults in their lives more, and more, and more freedom to act independently of each other. The child won’t need to depend upon you to engage with their environment if they already know how to engage with their environment by themselves, and enjoy it.
For those of you reading this who are dog owners, is literally just like owning a puppy– did you want that puppy following you around all day, crying its little head off the moment the two of you separate, or did you want the kind of puppy who knows how to sniff around the home, find all the chew toys you’ve strategically placed around the room, and who automatically knows how to be content, chew on his toys, and remain happily engaged for periods of time without you needing to directly play with him?
Trust me on this– we use the activities to create freedom for everyone in a Montessori reality. As a Montessori guide in classrooms where I have had up to 26 two year olds in my care at the same time (yepp!), do you think I’m sitting there keeping each and every one of them directly entertained with personal engagement the entire 9-hour workday? No way! I’d never get anything done given that I have 26 toddlers to provide 1-on-1 lessons for. So that is one of the biggest indirect goals of the Montessori method: to build a child’s independence, and in turn to set people free— the baby people and the grown people. LOL.
Tip 2: “Thou shalt not interrupt a focused child”. OK this is HEEEYUGE, people. So pay attention. If your child chooses an activity and starts playing with it, DO NOT SUDDENLY OR RANDOMLY INTERRUPT THEIR CONCENTRATION. My goal is to help you get through a very long day with a little human who might not be so great at doing any one thing without you, or for very long. And this whole “don’t interrupt a focused child” rule is critical for getting them to do things for longer and without adults constantly needing to entertain them.
“Engagement” and “entertainment” are not one and the same. Engagement involves independence, and comes from the inside out. Entertainment is co-dependent, and is driven from the outside in. Whenever the child stop talking to you, and zones in on the activity with a more intense focus, that’s when you don’t want to interrupt them. And you want to fade yourself back. Concentration stamina is growing through these moments.
If your toddler is busy happily doing something on their own, it creates a window of opportunity for you as the adult to focus your own attention elsewhere. It can be difficult managing a child who is what we Hawaiian teachers lovingly refer to as an opihi (an ophihi is like a Hawaiian barnacle that clings to the reefs; and teachers will sometimes lovingly joke amongst ourselves that a child is being someone’s opihi when the child refuses to separate from that person and insists upon clinging to them). Following this “don’t interrupt a focused child” rule is how I am able to run a classroom with 8+ toddlers in it and simultaneously meet everyone’s needs. Again, my largest classroom ever was 26 toddlers in one room. So if you only have one to three children to manage in your home, this strategy should also work for you.
Constantly focusing 100% of my attention on only one person, entertaining them for a whole nine hour workday would be impossible. That is not how any human is designed to operate. Even infants need time to gaze around at things in their environment that aren’t the adult; and even when only adults spend the whole day together, we aren’t cued into each other nonstop the whole time. Humans naturally crave a diversity of activity and stimulation. So as soon as one child in my class starts engaging with something, I leave that child be; and I am then free to move on to another child or another task that needs my attention. That might even mean I have a moment to meet my own needs, and drink water.
Tip 3: It is always possible that your child may still need your help here and there in order to engage with a particular toy or activity when they hit a hurdle. But only help them with the part that is preventing their ongoing engagement. As soon as you get them moving again, fade yourself back and let them be so that they can reconnect with the activity again and concentrate again without your help.
Another consideration is that there are activities that can engage a child’s independence even within parallel work or collaborative work. For example, you can both be building with blocks and your child can be concentrating independently on their tower, not speaking to you. Or you can both be baking muffins and there are times within that activity where you will speak to each other and you’ll help the child. And there will also be times when the child will zone in and not speak to you. Avoid interrupting them when they are disconnected from speaking to you, and engaged in the activity on their own.
Tip 4: There are certain kinds of toys and activities I recommend every family curate in your toy collection to help you make it through the entire phase of toddlerhood with as much ease as possible. But I will have to flesh that out in a different post.
You do not need a whole mini store full of toys in your home to keep a toddler happily engaged through the entirety toddlerhood (approximately 12 months to 3 years old). To give you an idea, one closet of toys serves 12+ toddlers for an entire 365 day school year; and the same toys serve generations and generations of toddlers for years and years. We keep the same well-curated set of toys until the toys break and we have to replace them. You are a household. Not a school program. So you don’t need a ton of toys. You just need enough awesome toys. And enough creativity to use those toys in a lot of different, fun ways.
Tip 5: Some types of engagement capture and maintain a toddler’s attention for longer than others. The selection of materials that have been created within the Montessori method are never “by accident” or “at random”. These are “developmental aides”– Montessori materials are designed on purpose, intentionally, with the goal of capturing, maintaining, and lengthening a child’s independent focus and concentration. Montessori developmental aides and activities are also designed for helping children acquire specific life skills and academic knowledge. And the more of that a child possesses, the more independently they can operate in life.
Luckily, you don’t need “Montessori” materials in order to grow a toddler’s attention and concentration at home. Nor do you need expensive Montessori developmental aides to teach them valuable life skills. You likely already have everything you should need in your home already. You will need some educational toys, though. Many classic children’s toys are in fact educational, and inspired by the Montessori method (regular people just don’t realize that’s where these kinds of toys came from). You can find cheap and long-lasting educational toys from many places. But as I mentioned, I’ll need to do an entire separate post fleshing that out.
Tip 6: you have the luxury of being at your own home. Home is where you can do whatever the heck you want for however long your heart desires. If you want to go to the beach and swim for four hours, you can. In a classroom program, I have the obligation to keep us moving along through a set daily schedule because there are demands of running a company for profit that I can’t ignore as a hired teacher. Public Montessori programs are professional businesses and public services with a start and end time. So we just don’t have as much flexibility as you do at home.
Sometimes at school, the kids would absolutely love to keep doing what they’re doing; and I know I could theoretically stretch their concentration for longer. But I have a schedule to keep and requirements to meet. At home though, it’s totally up to you how long you want to stretch or shrink different parts of this structure I’m about to show you.
It’s also up to you what activities in your day you decide are fixed and non-negotiable. I recommend that “rest”, “movement”, and “books” are always fixed non-negotiables, but again it’s up to you; and what you allow to be time-flexible or nonessential. An example is, “if they wanna play for ten extra minutes before lunch, that won’t break us/ we don’t have to do a craft today”. That’s the beauty of using Montessori at home versus being at school– there’s way more flexibility at home. If your child wants to run around in just their underwear at home, you can. Meanwhile at school we’re fighting the clothing battle or the “keep your shoes on” battle. Not to mention the dreaded masks as of coronavirus times.
Tip 7: Your toddler might be really into doing the same activities over and over again. Ride this out until they “burn out”, and then move on and rotate out that toy, offering something new in its place the next day. Repetition may get boring or annoying for us as adults. But for toddlers (and children) they love repetition. And even if they’re doing the same things day after day, if they are engaging and enjoying themselves, that is the goal. Remember, we want engagement to get us through our long (*ss) day. LOL.
For example, I have a child who has been obsessed with looking at bird replicas for no joke, weeks now. W E E K S. The same six bird replicas. The same activity. And no, she does not have an autism spectrum disorder, she’s just a toddler. She can happily sit there looking at, touching, and naming these bird replicas every. single. day. for most of the morning work cycle in class. Maybe she’ll be some kind of bird specialist when she grows up? Ya never know.
The toddler’s natural borderline obsession with one or certain kinds of activities for days on end may seem odd to us adults. But it is fully what toddlers might be inclined to do. Remember when you were a kid and all you wanted to do is ride bikes all day long? Or how you watched The Little Mermaid like 50 million times, and rehearsed the splash rock scene in your bath tub every day for months? Whatever your toddler happens to be “into” for the time being, let that activity carry the time load for you. Their obsession is your assistant. You don’t have to guess what they want to do!
Final tip, Tip 8: other families have toys, too. If you aren’t sure whether you have enough toys to pull you though days and days of staying at home, you might consider partnering with another family and swap toys. Just make sure you bleach them all before you share, and again when you’re ready to return them. And if your child breaks someone else’s belonging, make sure you’ve made arrangements with the other family regarding how they want to tackle broken toys (do they care, or not?).
THE STRUCTURE OF THE DAY
You: finally! So here is the structure of the day that works for me 110% of the time. Please pardon the watermarks on the icons– these infographics were created by me on canva.com; and right now I’m unemployed and can’t afford to pay the canva subscription.