Thursday, August 6, 2009

Thursday Thinking - Why do we do “tot school”?

(Don’t know what tot school is? Check it out here.) untitledI’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately. I’ve been trying to create a little more structure in my days with M, and giving more thought to planning tot school time.

And, sometimes, a little voice in my head says, “Why are you spending (*wasting*) your time on this? He’s only 2!" And it’s true that most of my “real-life friends” don’t do these things with their children (at least not in a planned or structured manner), and my mother didn’t with me. (And I like to think I turned out pretty OK. ;) )

I strongly believe that small children need certain things – love, attention, and affection top the list. Obviously they also need their physical needs to be met – good food, good rest, and exercise. And we are obligated to discipline them, help them learn to get along with others, and to discern right from wrong.

Developmentally, here’s what I think is important:

  • Creative time - let them play with play-doh, paint, draw, whatever – just let them create something every day (or at least as often as possible).
  • Free play time, completely child-directed.
  • Outside time, as often as possible, regardless of the weather.
  • Books, books, books, and more books, and time together with a parent to read them all.books

Tot School for us started long before I even knew to call it that. It started by making library lists of things M wanted to know more about. I think airplanes were our first subject. Then came trucks, cars, bikes, anything with wheels. He is all boy. :)

Soon, autumn, my favorite time of year, was coming, and I wanted to share my love for it with M. Colored leaves lend themselves nicely to all kinds of crafts and art and so we added in a few activities along with books about the seasons.

Suddenly my mind was swimming with “themes” to learn about and I turned to the internet for help finding activities.

And, fyi, there’s a lot of info out there. Wow.

I was drawn into the world of crafty, artsy blogs of moms with toddlers and preschoolers; I learned what Montessori actually is; I found out that homeschooling moms are not weird, they actually really have their act together, and boy do they have a lot of resources they are willing to share!

Somewhere along the line I stumbled across the whole Tot School internet world. And I loved it. Making my own games and activities for my child really appealed to me.

{All the learning toys on the market appealed to me too, and I went through a not-very-discriminating period where I was buying anything “educational”. I eventually learned to be a bit more picky, but that’s another post for another time.}

At a very young age (less than 1 year old), M learned to recognize letters by constantly asking us to name his little foam bath letters for him. He has always been interested in the ABCs and finding new ABC activities for him has simply been a way of providing him with what he needs and wants to learn about.

I’m trying to follow his lead more in other areas too – if he’s interested in numbers and counting, I find ways to help him learn more about them. If he’s not interested then we turn to a completely different activity.

Preparing tot school activities is mostly a hobby for me, something I really enjoy doing. I enjoy doing it so much, actually, that I really need to remember it’s just a hobby, not a full time job! I must admit one of the top reasons we do planned tot school time is so I will spend one on one time with M, doing something other than playing with his matchbox cars and making car noises again and again and again. Because, honestly, that makes me crazy. And the last thing we need, any of us, is a crazy mama.

Tot school looks like a lot more than it is, I think. We mostly do it on Tuesday mornings, for maybe an hour. Then if he asks to do it on other days I usually have 2 or 3 activities picked out to give him.

I try, purposefully, to not do it all the time, because I do think the items I listed earlier are more important. I don’t want every little thing to be a teaching moment. In Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk, David Elkind writes about how children play. While much of their play is truly work, in that they are learning something, sometimes it’s just play. Children need to play in order to work through emotions, feel in control of something (dinosaurs eating people is the current game my son enjoys controlling these days), and in order to simply relax and have fun.

If we try to turn everything into a lesson, they may give up on what they were doing – not work through the emotions (teddy being scared, etc), or simply feel that mom is always taking over and controlling every thing. Not a pleasant thought, right? It’s certainly not how I want to be seen through his eyes.

I don’t believe tot school is making M smarter than other children. You know, simply learning your ABCs at an early age doesn’t mean you are smarter. It simply means you learned it sooner than someone else!

I think most parents spend similar time with their children. We do tot school on purpose simply because that’s what works for us. I get distracted easily and I’m very task-oriented, which means I could easily forget to just sit and relax and have fun with my son if it weren’t planned and scheduled into our day!

Also, it gives me a chance to see how much M knows, what he’s interested in… it gives me a chance to simply know him better. He’s a great little guy to know! :)

Do you purposefully do tot school activities with your little one? Have you ever felt discouraged when someone doesn’t understand why you are doing this? How have you responded?

I hope you and your tots have a beautiful day! :)


  1. Thanks for posting your thoughts on this. I'm sure every mom (regardless if they specifically participate in Tot School or something different)has stepped back and thought "Why am I doing this?". I know I have. I've also tried to stick with the thinking that the more experiences I can provide for my child the more connections he will be able to make which will help in his learning. Wow, sorry I got carried away. =)

  2. Good posting! I look forward to your thoughts on the educational toys you've had and didn't like.

  3. Great post. We love structured tot school, but it is definitely a very small part of our day. Most of the day is independent and creative play. I consider tot school to be everything from helping me dust and wash the floor to helping prepare dinner and learning how to properly wash our hands. There are so many learning opportunities throughout the day.

  4. I am a teacher at heart, and I love working with my son, too! We are going to dive in in earnest this fall after I quit my job to stay home full-time - one more week, woohoo! He is 20 months now, and it is amazing the things he can learn. Just from being with me in the camp office, he knows all our staffers names (about 30-40 people), and he can also recognize several letters - we need to spend more purposeful time on the 'creating', though - that's the one thing that's fallen by the wayside this summer. Thank you for sharing!!! Heading to the Tot School website now. :)

  5. I, like you, love to prepare for Tot School. It has become one of my hobbies. Also, like you, I do Tot School so that I make myself spend time one on one with my daughter. I could say a lot more about how I relate to this post down to the going through an educational toy phase part! Basically this is an excellent post and I totally relate!

  6. What a wonderful post - your "Thursday Thinking" is great and refreshing. I think I am walking more or less the same road, and in so many ways Matthew sounds so much like Anna - early talker, early learner of many academic. She loves to play with words, and she loves books. No, I don't feel discouraged when I get "hints" that I am pushing her too hard and doing too much. I believe in my own intuition and knowledge of my daughter, and I try to follow her lead. I am not on a mission on making my daughter smarter, but I believe in her inborn intelligence, and I want to feed her natural curiousity. I always wanted to hold out with any formal "school-like" activities until she turns 3, but she really took off in the last 2 months, and I had to revisit my timeline. I also wanted to give her more exposure to messy projects that my husband was willing to tolerate. And, truthfully, I am doing Tot School (rather preschool by now), because I am enjoying myself. There were days before when I didn't want to come home from work, because it felt that I am just entering another shift and I didn't have a clear idea what I want to do with Anna for the rest of the day. I was resentful of all the time and energy this little person requires. But now I am really looking forward to our afternoons together, talking about things, reading, cooking, creating or simply hanging out with her in the backyard and watching her play on her own.

  7. great post! i loved reading your thoughts and seeing how they are so similar to my own...

    I think that tot school is nourishing you as a mother, maybe you have a natural love for teaching and you do that through tot school? :)

  8. Gosh, what a great post. I can relate to SO much of what you wrote, and it almost felt like you were reading my mind. Ha! I, too, absolutely love doing the more "structured" activities and it HAS become quite the hobby for me. I taught elementary school for five years, and while I occasionally miss it, I feel that a huge part of me is fulfilled when I "work" with Maddie (and it's only in quotation marks because it's always such a fun time and "work" doesn't properly describe it).

    I'm rambling. Anyway, awesome post and I SO agree with it!


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