Dear parents of a gifted toddler
I’m sorry. When people told me they were homeschooling their toddler before I had kids, I laughed – how could it be school if they were toddlers? Then I had the Engineer. And the Princess. And the Destroyer. I get it now.
I’m sorry that when you ask for help in a homeschooling group, no one answers. I’m sorry that some homeschoolers write irritated posts about how they wish people without school age children wouldn’t call what they are doing “homeschooling,” because it can’t possibly compare to doing math with a middle schooler or chemistry with a teenager.
I’m sorry that when you ask for ideas in a gifted group, most people write you off as an attention-seeking parent with a rosy view of their child’s abilities. I’m sorry that when you mention your child’s age, people stampede all over themselves to tell you “let them play. They’re too young for school.”
So here and now, I’m sorry. I thought that way until I had kids. Gifted kids. Kids who never left the “why?” stage. Now that I understand, I see how difficult it is for you. I know you’re searching desperately for ideas to keep your little bundle of questions from being bored.
Please understand that what you’re doing with your gifted toddler IS homeschool. In every way! You may be teaching preschool at the age of 2 or kindergarten at 3, but you’re doing the same level of work with an added level of difficulty. You’re trying to teach kids who aren’t developmentally ready to hold a pencil but who desperately want to learn. It’s tough – you have to be creative and resourceful. You have to spend a lot of time finding things that will work.
I wish I could say that homeschooling will get easier as they grow older, but I’m finding that’s not the case. I’m still re-creating the wheel for much of this stuff because of asynchronous development: that lovely term that describes being multiple grades and ages all at the same time.
So here are a few ideas for teaching your gifted toddler. Please keep in mind that learning happens best through play at this age and use that to your advantage. No matter how much they want to learn, sitting for hours doing worksheets (or 30 minutes even) is probably too much. Get them moving, keep them active, and learn outside of the box.
Your child may already be reading. That’s amazing! If they’re not, that’s ok too – my 5-year-old still isn’t reading because he’s just not ready yet. Reading ability doesn’t denote giftedness.
Even if they’re reading, they still have gaps in their knowledge base. It’s your job to figure out those gaps and work on them while simultaneously challenging them (never said it was going to be easy!)
Make sure they know uppercase and lowercase letters by playing games like the one pictured. Point out different punctuations (? ! ,) and define what they mean. Even if they can’t read, a 2-year-old may love searching through a list of ingredients on a cereal box to find the one little asterisk * hidden in the ingredients. Bonus points for counting the %!
Model proper grammar, and teach them past, future, and present tense (verbally, of course.) Use big words – and define them to make sure they understand the nuance of the word and not just the context. Our trips around town are a constant stream of chatter interspersed with little pauses for definitions. Practice enunciating clearly with them – it’s developmentally appropriate for toddlers to substitute letters, but they learn to say the sounds correctly by listening and practicing. Make it a game by picking a sound and finding things that start with that sound.
Above all else, read to them. A lot. A child who loves reading will have an easier time learning to read. Try audio books in the car when they’re a bit older, or digital e-books with interactive components that will read to them.
Don’t. That pretty much sums it up. Sure, let them experiment, show them shapes and how to draw the letters, but don’t sit them down with a handwriting worksheet unless they’re dying to do it. Instead, focus on strengthening those fine motor muscles so that they’re ready when it’s time to write.
Play with play dough. Use play dough mats or freehand it to make letters and numbers. Words. Math problems. Sculptures. You name it!
Do art. A paintbrush works just as well as a pencil for those muscles. Draw, paint, fingerpaint, and get messy. Even gifted kids usually like getting messy at this age.
Sort things with tongs or big tweezers. Pompoms, Legos, marbles, seashells – anything they’re interested in. Sort them by color, shape, or just put them in a container and back out again.
Play with kinetic sand – this stuff is tactile and fun, plus it requires some squeezing to keep its shape. Do a dinosaur dig with little paint brushes and plastic dinosaurs. Design a topographical landscape with shaped mountains, valleys, and a “river” of paper or marbles.
Go old-school and get a chalkboard decal. Writing upright with big arm movements is huge for my 2e son – he did most of his early writing in chalk because it was so much easier for him.
Try a hole punch. It’s difficult to find one that isn’t too tough for their hands, but they love punching holes in paper. It’s even more fun if you find punches with different shapes!
Count everything. “Look, I see 3 birds in the sky!” Every time we visited Target we would run from blue post to blue post in the handicapped section and count them. Exercise and math! One time we dumped the Hotwheels boxes out and sorted cars by color and counted how many we had in each color. We have a lot of Hotwheels!
Point out numbers and label them. Count down from 10 to launch a “rocket” and skip count by 2s by hopping.
Do puzzles: this helps build critical spatial logic and reasoning. Learn shapes and count the sides – and do a treasure hunt for the shapes around your house. Build things – blocks, Duplos, rocks outside in the yard, whatever you can. Building is critical for those spatial logic and reasoning skills too. Plus, it’s fun!
Buy a few packs of red solo cups and show them how to stack them. Then count to 3 and run into them and knock them all over. It sounds so simple, but it helps them learn to wait their turn. Just be prepared to do it again, and again, and again…
Describe everything. Visit the grocery store and talk about the countries the fruits come from. Live your life – and show them how their town works. Visit a fire station on an open house day and let them sit in a fire truck. Ride the bus or the train just because – let them experience the wonder of things that are commonplace to you, but are fresh and exciting to them.
Take a large piece of foam board or cardboard and draw a town. Let them help you draw in a grocery store, a fire station, a library, and so on. Draw roads and parking lots, parks and playgrounds. Then pull out the little toy animals and cars and “drive” around your town.
Watch videos about different cultures. Let them help you cook a new food and taste it.
Most importantly, expose them to different cultures, different people, different ways of thinking. It’s good for learning, and it’s good for character.
Get outside. Go on nature walks, inspect ladybugs, and chase butterflies. Hunt tadpoles and watch the minnows. Don’t expect them to be super observant, so point out everything interesting and talk about it. Discuss why this leaf looks different from that one, or why the moth blends into the bark of the tree. Why do a worksheet on life cycles when you could raise a butterfly or a tadpole?
Go to the zoo and discovery museum. Let them help you cook (where age appropriate) and discuss why the cupcakes are light and fluffy compared to the slimy batter. Put yeast in warm water and watch it bubble. Combine colors and grow crystals. Get a set of large magnets and test things to see if they stick. Demonstrate polarity with two wooden trains (the kind with magnets on the ends.)
Take them to a farm and show them how their food is grown. Pick strawberries in the spring, or apples in the fall. Check your local county fair or 4-H club for animal shows, or visit a petting zoo. Plant a small garden together and watch the plants grow. Get dirty and explore.
A learning environment:
If you’re like me, you probably have a shelf of “school” stuff that you pull out and use when it’s school time. I gave up on that and decided that school time was all the time, whenever they wanted. School things, art supplies (not the paint, yikes!) and educational toys are all on kid sized shelves within kid reach.
It’s important to set up a welcoming, exploration-friendly environment. They’re little so it’s more work to clean up, but it’s worth it. Easy access means easy learning. Don’t fall into the trap of “everything has to be educational!” and only buy toys that teach the alphabet, or toys that pedantically teach. Everything can be educational – even Hotwheels!
Give them the time and freedom to play. Don’t make learning work – play games, pretend play, and talk about everything. Prancing animals around a barn is just as educational as doing math problems, and may be more important for a gifted kid. Pretend play teaches empathy – something that gifted kids often struggle with.
You can do this! And when they reach school age, you might just find that you enjoy it so much that you keep homeschooling. It’s a lot of fun 🙂 A lot of work, sure, but so is parenting. Happy learning!