When “Let Them Play” Doesn’t Apply


Chances are you’ve heard this comment before.  Especially if you’re homeschooling, or planning on homeschooling.  If you poke your head into a homeschooling group and ask a question about academics for your preschooler, odds are you’re going to hear this a lot. And with good reason: studies say that kids learn best in a play-based environment until they’re older.

But what do you do if you have a toddler who is bored with the “letter of the week” preschool things you’ve tried?  What should you do if your child absolutely loves workbooks?  How about when your child is already reading – and there are practically no age-appropriate books out there for reading toddlers?


It’s tough.  The parenting experts tell you to “follow your child’s lead,” but they don’t usually expect that to mean doing serious math at 3, or starting reading at 2.  There are very few good parenting books on how to deal with the 2-year-old tantrums and facilitate reading at the same time.  It’s an asynchronous mess!



What is play-based learning anyway?

Here’s the thing: play-based learning doesn’t mean “just play,” although kids do need a huge amount of free play.  Play-based learning means that they learn through games, pretend play, and child-led exploration.  What you chose to do with that is entirely up to you.  If kiddo loves doing flashcards, then do flashcards.  Every flash card you can find that they like.  (note:  doing flashcards will not make your child gifted.  And a ton of kids think they’re horribly boring.)

If your child wants to read, then look up book lists for curriculums like level 0 Build Your Library or the level K Torchlight Curriculum.  These include a lot of great, age-appropriate, fun books for your kids to read alone without you worrying they’re spawning nightmares over something they might see.

If your child is an insatiable black hole of curiosity, let them do the messy experiments and trial and error their way through a problem.  Challenge your child to build a bridge with blocks, or a staircase with Duplos (it’s harder than you think!)

Play-based learning for us involves a ton of educational toys, cards, pictures, tools or machines, or hands-on experimenting.  It’s more than just zooming cars around the house or creating a puppet show – it’s an environment that promotes learning.



Balance it out

As with everything else in parenting, balance is key.  It’s not developmentally appropriate for a toddler to grasp a pencil tightly and sit still for long periods of time, no matter how much they love doing workbooks.  Their bodies still need to move.

In fact, giftedness is so intertwined with other issues like sensory and anxiety that giving your toddler a sensory-rich environment is critical to their development.  If they want to learn letters, shape the letters out of play dough.  Trace them in sand (or sugar, it’s easier to clean up.)  Give them games to play that involve body movements and hopping, running, skipping, and jumping.

We use sensory bins to help with learning more complex concepts or ideas.  One of the Engineer’s favorites at the preschool age was the desert biome bin we did with sand, paper cactus cutouts, little desert animals, and rocks.  We were learning about biomes – not an average preschool subject – but he still loved the sensory aspect as well as making a mess.



Just go somewhere

One of our biggest learning aids is going out and about. We do a ton of field trips to places you might not think to take a toddler.  We’ve gone to botanical gardens, butterfly pavilions, sculpture gardens, the Terracotta Army, art museums, aquariums, and so much more.  Don’t expect your toddler to want to read all the signs and learn all the stuff – that’s perfectly normal.  Don’t even expect to stay for long – zero in on the kid section if they have one.

My toddler loved “flying” the airplane in the Air and Space museum, but he also studied the flaps on the wings closely when he moved the steering this way and that.  My daughter couldn’t read the display for the jellyfish at the aquarium, but she stood there for a long time completely transfixed by the way they moved.   Gifted kids are keenly observant – so give them lots of opportunities to see new and interesting things.

And that includes your everyday, around town stuff.  On one of our slow days when we needed one thing from the grocery store, I took them to a store with a wide selection of produce.  We roamed the produce section discussing all the different things we saw, and I sent them on a few short scavenger hunts to find what we needed.  Where else can you easily find sugar cane in this country? (for the record, they all hated it.)


One last thing …

Ask for advice in homeschool groups.  Use those keywords “hands-on,” “sensory,” and “wiggly.”  Just don’t say your child’s age.  If I’m asked what age my child is, I’ll usually say he’s doing XYZ grade level work and leave it at that.  It’s annoying that I feel like I need to hide my child’s age to get good advice.  It’s even more annoying to feel like I have to hide my child’s giftedness, but it is what it is.

Even now, with an almost seven-year-old, I still have to do this.  Because most people think that seven-year-olds shouldn’t be doing algebra.  Or multiplication.  Or fractions.  Or whatever the subject is.  It’s not cool, but you may as well get used to it now.  Your child is way ahead already and they’re not planning to slow down anytime soon.

And if you feel like you need a curriculum so that you have something you can rely on to challenge and entertain them, go for it!  Look for fun, sensory-based curriculums and don’t be afraid to adapt that sucker as much as you need to.  It’s an aid, not a manifesto.


Follow your child’s lead.  Even if they lead to reading early, loving workbooks, and doing science.  And brace yourself – it’s a fun ride!


Note: I’m not sure the Destroyer qualifies as a toddler anymore, but in this image he had just turned 3.




This post is part of the Gifted Homeschooler’s Forum blog hop on Parenting and Teaching a Gifted Toddler.  Click the image below to read more posts on this fun subject, and check out my other posts with tips, ideas, and commiseration for dealing with the little ones.


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  1. Oh my gosh, this is so our experience! My son loved his element flash cards (at 3). He took over our house putting together an accurate periodic table. We did ‘experiments’ where he wrote down the results that were very splashy and fun – except for the time we accidentally made rotten egg gas indoors. Science was his play.


  2. You just put into words exactly what it has been like with my daughter! She is 5 and reading the boxcar children at the moment, and trying to figure out multiplication through a few books we have. She loves space and in her favorite sensory bin we have she found rocks outside in the proper sizes and painted them to look like the planets in our solar system! She would beg at 2 to please do school. So we started learning the alphabet (in detail she already knew her abc’s) . Since then if we don’t do school every day , her entire day is off her mood is bad and nothing productive happens. I’m sure tons of people think we drill her with flash cards and all sorts of things, but of course we don’t… I mean we have our fair share of flash cards but we don’t drill her with them! I always feel I have to explain that her play is a constant state of learning/ and figuring things out. Even if I didn’t organize an hour to and hour and a half of our day for “school” she would and has just done it herself! Once I forgot to do a certain math sheet and she went and created and completed her own worksheet ! It is a crazy, fun, and confusing ride!


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