The day my first baby goes off to school, I’m going to melt. Like waterproof mascara on, shades up and a tissue box at the ready. It’s not going to be pretty. And actually, I don’t even want to think about it because it makes me so sad sometimes. But the reality is, my child is growing up. She can throw her dirty clothes in the laundry basket, retrieve her snack bowl from the draw in the kitchen and put on her shoes before going outside…most of the time. Yes, these are the things I have taught her. These are the things I expect her to do everyday. I’ve started raising the bar now because when she heads to school, it will be even higher. She will need to listen to her teachers and follow the rules. She will need to be polite, kind and respectful to all her peers. As her mother, it’s my duty to prepare her. So I’m going to do the best thing I can for her. The thing that is most important for any child to experience before all those years of schooling. I’m going to let her play!

Playing is the way every child learns. It is the building blocks of knowledge and it expands a child’s mind in such a unique way. There is no substitute. Every child plays differently, but all children learn very important life skills through each play experience. Below are some ways I like to play to help my child build upon her imagination and get ready for school.

Read, Read and Read Some More

You know that book you read to your child…like a thousand times?! The one you could read with your eyes closed. Yeah, their favorite one. That book may be super annoying to read on repeat but it’s crucial that you do. You may not see it, but there is a lesson there that your child is learning. It may be as simple as a word on a page they have been practicing to say out loud. Or there may be a character going through a similar experience that they have gone through. The point is, they are processing every sentence, idea and word in that book. So they need to hear it several times for them to grasp it. The more repetition of a book, the more you can be sure that your child is on the cusp of learning something new.

So read! And not just that. Ask them questions about the book. Interact with them about what is going on in every page. And give them a moment to answer. Allow them to reflect and think about what is going on in the story. Give them the chance to think for themselves. Reading a book can be unique and different every time. There is no rule that says you have to read every single word in the book. If your child has a short attention span, modify the language for them. Keep it short and simple until you think they are beginning to understand. Until you see them become interested. That’s the goal. Interest breeds curiosity. And curiosity is the spark of growth and learning for children. So keep your child curious about what comes next in the story. Some children are intrigued just by words alone, but others need to be coaxed with hands on stimuli. That means, reading one of those sensory books with pages that have different textures and materials a child can touch. That’s another way children learn, through touch. When I read a book with my daughter, she actually likes doing or imitating what the characters are doing in the book. For her to understand what is happening in the story, she needs to experience it herself. So I encourage her to act out the story. In this way, she remembers how her favorite book plays out. And just like that, she has developed a strong love for reading.

Color All The Time

Honestly, when it’s the late hours of the afternoon and I’m out of ideas on how to entertain my toddler, I pull out the crayons and announce, “It’s time to color!” And for my little one, that’s always a treat. Coloring, is definitely a way to keep a child busy in, let’s say, a restaurant or doctor’s waiting room. But it is also a fantastic fine motor activity that every child should practice before going to school. Coloring requires your child to hold a crayon in between their fingers and make specific marks. And that’s a workout for those little fingers! Especially when the child knows how they want to hold the writing utensil, but is struggling to hold it. Welcome to the toddler world of wanting to do everything by themselves, but not knowing a clue about how to do it! It takes practice and repetition to learn how to color. So the best you can do is give your child every opportunity to pick up that crayon, and go to town.

At first it can be a very frustrating activity for them, but one way I like to diffuse that frustration is by coloring with my daughter. I started coloring with her since she was 15 months. I would model how to hold the crayon, and she would attempt to do the same. When she was able to independently make marks with the crayon, I praised her. Now that she is 2 and a half, she is able to hold the crayon between her fingers, just like Mom. And she is super proud and confident about it. Now, is she coloring inside the lines and using all the appropriate colors to decorate a butterfly or princess? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s all circles and scribbles. But that’s not important to me. What really matters is that she is holding a crayon in the appropriate way, and that coloring is motivating her to learn her colors when asking for a specific crayon. But what matters the most is that she is using her imagination and language to tell me what she is drawing. Especially, when I don’t have the slightly clue!

Teach through Song and Rhyme

I never thought I would sing my way through the day…but I do. And I’m told by my husband, that I’m no Mariah Carey. I’m telling you, thank goodness for Alexa. She does it better. But no matter how badly I sing, my toddler is always begging me to do it. We sing on the swings, we sing during bath time and especially on those long irritating drives in the car. Singing is a very popular way my daughter learns information. Through rhyme and music, you can sing about almost anything. And if you get the right tune, it gets stuck in your head…like forever. So to learn about the basics, we sing about our ABC’s, numbers and even the days of the week on the daily. We sing about body parts, opposites and cleaning up our toys. Singing is a great way to absorb, memorize and understand language and concepts that we live by each day.

Children are interested in music, and how the lyrics give a certain meaning. That’s why every kid event incorporates song into their program. Simply explaining to children about how the world function, just doesn’t work. But if you sing about it, now that’s fun!

Get Messy

The last thing any mother wants to deal with is a mess. I mean, we try so hard to keep the playroom tidy, the crayons off the floor and the clothes as clean as possible. It’s really exhausting. So much to the point that one day, I decided to have a messy day. I laid down a disposable plastic tablecloth in my kitchen, pulled out some paint and handed my daughter a paint brush. The only rule: STAY ON THE TABLECLOTH. And boy did my little one go to town. I thought maybe she would be entertained for about 10 minutes, but I was shocked when she painted for almost 30 minutes! She painted pictures and even on some toys that I didn’t care about getting messy. But her favorite thing was painting her feet. She absolutely loved painting her feet. It was totally a sensory experience that really entertained and calmed her at the same time.

Allowing your child to engage in messy play is truly a great way to expand their imagination and get creative. Structured play is awesome, and kids actually need it. But sometimes, it can be very refreshing to give them the tools and just observe how they want to play. How they will pretend and experiment to form their own ideas of what is fun. Messy play really helps children to independently learn about their environments, and all the elements that exist within it. Sometimes we don’t need to teach our kids everything about the world. Sometimes we need them to explore and learn those lessons for themselves.

Let Them Explore

Children learn from touching…everything they can get their little hands on. That’s because they are learning about one thing after the next for the first time in their lives. They want to feel things to gain a sense of what it is, and how it works. It’s hard to remember that as a parent. Especially when you are trying to keep everything clean. It is so ingrained in our head to never let a child touch things because “they aren’t clean” or “it might break”. But it’s so important to let your children explore with their hands so that they can begin experiencing the world at their own level. Young children want to feel secure and in control of their environment. So allowing children to manipulate objects around them gives them a safe feeling about their surroundings.

I like to encourage my daughter to explore through touch when I introduce new foods at mealtimes. She’s a picky eater. So if I allow her to explore foods with her own senses rather than try to force her to eat it, there is a better success rate for it actually being swallowed. I let me child poke, lick, and brush her fingers against the food. I ask her to describe it to me. My daughter loves strawberries! If you ask her why, she will brush the skin of the strawberry up to her lips and say, “Its bumpy and it has seeds!” Then she gobbles it up. She feels proud that she can understand the feeling of a strawberry. That she knows what it is like. And that it is something which is familiar to her. This familiarity is comfort to a child, especially when they enter a new situation like school.

Engage in Pretend Play

Imagination. That’s the number one thing I want to teach my child. How to imagine. If I fail in all other ways as a parent, at least I will feel happy to know that my child can use her imagination. Because that’s truly a gift she will be using the rest of her life. I want to encourage my daughter to think outside the box. Being outside the box will push her to develop new ideas, form new creations and cultivate a passion for something. And I hope that “something” will lead her to many places one day.

Pretend play is where a child allows objects to represent other objects. For my toddler, that basically means that everything that is NOT a phone, IS actually a phone. That means most days you will find my daughter chatting endlessly into a stick, a pillow, a block, a ball, a sippy cup and, almost always, a shoe. That’s because I have modeled these kind of pretend play skills to her since she was a baby. The development of pretend play helps the child use her creativity to problem solve, understand emotional roles and engage in cooperative play with others. Through pretend play, a child will build a storyline for the way he or she plays, and therefore, provides distinct meaning for their play scheme. If she wants to play “Telephone”, she will always have the ability to play it because she gets the concept. You talk into something, someone talks back, and you quickly get a conversation going. That’s the idea. Doesn’t matter what you are really talking into. The point is, comprehending the idea of the game and applying it to other situations. This is a skill I want to teach my daughter so that as she gets older, she is able to apply those big ideas to all different kinds of experiences in her life.

Fostering Independence Whenever You Can

When you have a child who is a stage 5 clinger, pushing for independence can be quite a challenge. Especially if they are experiencing a change in routine or transition. And let’s face it, for a toddler, that’s basically everyday. It’s NOT easy. One day they want to do everything by themselves and the other day, they demand you to hold their hand every step of the way. Being a toddler is full of ups and downs. The only constant is you. The parent. And all you can do is be there for them. Sitting with them during their meltdowns, cheering for them at every accomplishment, and encouraging them to try something new. It’s exhausting, but when you see the growth in your child, it can be so rewarding.

The many ways I like to incorporate independence in my toddler’s life is through little jobs around self care. Most days I prompt my daughter to clean up her toys, pick out her outfit in the morning, and get a bowl from a reachable draw for snack time. And she does it…most of the time. I can tell she is proud of herself when she completes the task. She loves that she is control and doing her job to help around the house. Embedding these duties into her daily routine is so important for my daughter because it helps her to realize all the things she never knew she could do. It motivates her to meet her own needs, identify her responsibilities and be self-sufficient. In school, she will need this type of independence to grow into a student and stand up for herself.

Attend Kid Events in the Community

One of the greatest ways children learn is through observation. And my little one is the queen of people watching at libraries, parks, town centers, churches and shopping centers. She soaks it all it. What people are saying and doing, all the time. And later, when we are home, it all comes out in her play. That is why getting out to community events is so important for children. It teaches them how to interact with others, and how to behave in a classroom setting. When we go to a library storytime, my daughter will practice introducing herself to other children that are her age, and learn to sit attentively in a circle with her peers as the librarian sings a song or tells a story. Librarians realize how hard it is for children to sit still and listen, so many of these programs are incorporating music and movements into storytimes. That’s my daughter’s favorite. These particular activities help her to get all those wiggles out, and keep her focused on the event.

Providing this kind of environment to young children helps them to understand the world and prepare them for the school expectations. Now, my toddler is isn’t well behaved every time we go to these events. And actually, it’s rare when there isn’t some kind of tantrum in public. But the fact is, community members that run these kid friendly activities totally get it. They know children aren’t going to listen all the time. And you shouldn’t expect them to either. The point is to just slowly expose them to structured play with others so they familiarize themselves with these new social expectations.

Have Lots of Playdates with Friends

Some people think I’m nuts to have a dozen toddlers over for a playdate at my house. But I do it for a reason. I know that because I have chosen to be a stay at home Mom, I need to build socialization into my child’s life. That means interacting with our friends on a regular basis. And since my toddler is super timid and quiet around new places, I welcome our friends to come over and play! These playdates allow for my daughter to feel comfortable in her own home so that she can practice interacting with her peers. It provides a great atmosphere to encourage her to share her toys, take turns and use language to ask for help from another adult. Honestly, my daughter sticks to my side like glue during most playdates. But eventually, I hope that the more I incorporate these gatherings into our lives, the more she will come out of her shell.

It’s important for children to have friend before they actually go to school. They need to experience what friendship is like, and how to practice that back and forth play. Granted, my 2 year old is still working on that smooth play exchange between herself and her friends. And most of the time, it ends in a fight. But at least she is practicing. At least she is working out these interactions now, while I can help and teach her. That way, when it comes time to meet new friends at school, she will have the skills to play with others (most of the time).

Always Be Silly

Being silly is super important. There will never be a time again where your child can play on their own terms. Once they enter school, they quickly adopt structure, rules and expectations that is all well and good, but no longer innocent play. When they head off to school, the world will influence them. Their peers and teachers will influence them. And most of these imprints will be incredibly important, helpful and necessary, but at the same time, a firm reminder that your baby is growing up.

So let them play their way! Let them discover, imagine and create at their own level. Don’t pressure them to know everything, and play in a certain way…not yet. Not while they can enjoy these golden years of pure curiosity and innocence. When you play with your toddler, be silly with them. If they start a nonsensical game, go along with it. If they create a funny language of their own, indulge them, and talk back. If they dance in a ridiculous way, laugh with them and join in. This is the time to have fun with them. This is the time to let your little ones be themselves. That way, when they go to school, they have the confidence to continue being just that.

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