I have found, somewhat to my surprise, that I’m instinctively rather resistant to doing formal learning activities with the children. Anything that takes much preparation time turns out, by Murphy’s law, to be of no interest to them whatsoever. And I’ve discovered that teaching toddlers is not nearly as instinctive to me as teaching older children. So since my educational philosophies dictate that young children should be learning through free play, no problem, right?
Except they want to do puzzles and matching cards and little activities like that. I would let them play with them while I was trying to do something else–the omnipresent dishes, usually–and they would wind up as soon as I was out of the room converting everything, whether it be counting bears or number puzzles, into material for their favorite games, shopping and cooking dinner. For some reason these games always resulted in scattering everything all over the room, rolling it under the couches, and losing it. This made me want to ban the manipulatives altogether.
But I think we have found a compromise, and to my surprise it’s edging us into the direction of a formal learning time, although not when I would have expected. The worst hour of the day is always right before supper. We had settled on them going off to play in their room while I cooked supper alone, but usually they would have had enough of that long before DOB actually showed up at the door. Everyone is low on blood sugar, cranky and tired, but I desperately cling to the desire to have a family dinner instead of giving in and feeding them as soon as possible.
So when there’s a lag between supper preparation and supper eating, we sit down at their little table and we do manipulatives. It’s low-energy: I don’t have to read out loud or have them sit on my lap, so I’m happy. I’m giving them my full attention and they’re doing something novel they haven’t done in a while, so they’re happy. With me there, we can at least attempt to keep the manipulatives on the table and put them all away when we’re done. With a little encouragement, they happily use the material as intended.
I let them each choose an activity out of the cupboard. Often one each is plenty for them. D2 might like taking buttons in and out of cups or naming shapes and colors from the felt box, while D1 can do word puzzles or string beads. I usually look for spur-of-the-moment inspiration as to whether to nudge them into something obviously educational or whether to just let them play. (I find if I wait for inspiration, it’s much more likely to really fit what they are ready to learn than if I try to plan it out in advance.)