Helping Your Toddler Excel
10 creative ways to develop toddler understanding of letter and number concepts through play.
Brain growth and development peaks before children even enter kindergarten. Even before preschool both the size and neuron connections within the brain grow at exponential rates that are only seen in those first few years of life.
Research shows brain volume doubles the first year and by the second year correlates to roughly 80% of an adult’s, with neuron connections presenting a similar pattern and rate of growth to that of the brain structure. By the age of two, that unique joyous little human who stands less than three feet tall already has 80% of the size and number of neuron connections of an adult size brain and by age 6 that number grows to 90%.
So how can we best use this time of exponential brain development? Children learn everything from social, to emotional, to physical skills during this time. By incorporating the development of a toddler’s letter and number knowledge during these first years we will lay the foundational groundwork for preschool and future learning in kindergarten. Developing their letter and number skills will prepare them to recognize their name and key sight words, as well enable them to formulate basic number concepts. Doing this by the time they get to preschool will make them feel more independent in their tasks.
To your toddler everything can be fun and new and entertaining. Almost anything can be a game because they are formulating their image of the world around them and developing their schemas of their world and their experiences. What new experiences you expose them to influence what they learn and how they learn it.
Fostering letter and number sense as often and as much as possible especially through tactile and kinesthetic activities helps them to develop these necessary skills. Games benefit development in a variety of ways and adding letter and number knowledge whenever possible helps your child grow in their abilities. So what are some games we can we use to help facilitate letter and number concept learning through play?
When you’re two everything is a game
The list below is by no means exhaustive as at this age you can add the word “game” to almost anything you want to teach your toddler, automatically making it more fun. Immersing them in tactile, imaginative, creative activities to grow their number and letter understanding and putting away electronic devices which research shows may hinder a developing brain are a great way to engage with your toddler and help define their world.
As you read through the games and activities below just remember that no two toddlers are alike and all children are at their own developmental level which is exactly where they need to be. Looking at the activities adjust them however you need to for your child’s current ability in order to maintain a level of fun and excitement without causing frustration or a desire to give up.
Games and activities for learning letters and sight words
Singing the abc song is one of the earliest ways we teach our kids about letters and the alphabet but there are numerous other ways to creatively incorporate letters and sight words into easy games and every day activities.
Hangman is a favorite for its ease in preparation and short supply list. All you need is paper (or a napkin) and a pencil and as little or as much time as you have. It is also an easy game to adjust based on ability and age. Yes you can start playing hangman with your two and a half year old. Start by using their name and the few words they are starting to recognize at this age like mommy and daddy. Write the alphabet out for them, let them point to letters, make up sounds, and guess. Give them big clues and small clues. This is about having fun and exposing them to the idea not about getting it right. Starting with their name use lots of repetition. You can reuse their name in a hangman five, ten, how many ever times in a row and if they are still pausing and figuring it out then they are learning something new each time until they fully realize the idea. Just remember it’s about having fun and adjusting the game to your own child’s abilities. All children are at varying levels of development and ability so as long as you’re having fun so will they.
One of my daughter’s favorite games that we started playing when she was two was called “the chalk alphabet game”. She and I would go outside and sing the alphabet song while I used chalk to make the letters of the alphabet large enough for her to stand on. We would sing the song slowly and I would make four rows with six letters in each spaced out well enough so she could see the letters distinctly. Then we would turn it into a fun game of “can you find?” where I would pretend to think really hard about a letter and ask if perhaps she could find it. It was a fun kinesthetic way for her to develop her knowledge of the shapes of alphabet letters. She was getting around and moving. If she was unsure or struggling for a long time we would sing the alphabet song and point out each letter until we got to the one she was looking for and she would go stand on it and laugh with excitement. It was all about having fun and educating her through play.
Memory is also a great game to start at this age. There is a great easier version where everyone gets a bingo like card that has a set of pictures with words to incorporate letter and word recognition. There are then matching tiles that have those same pictures and you mix all of the tiles together upside down and then try to find your tiles by taking turns turning tiles over. The goal is to cover all the pictures on your board with the matching tiles and this way you only need to remember one tile and not both which is perfect for younger players.
Letter writing is a great toddler game. “Letters” can start when your child is old enough to draw pictures on a piece of paper and go put them under your bedroom door. Your toddler will be so excited to feel like this is something you can both do as you write letters to eachother and drop them off under each other’s bedroom doors and then go pick up our “mail”. You can repeat the cycle many times to their joy and amusement. Their letters will consist of anything form their name, the words I love you and mommy, and pictures and your letters to them should similarly consist of their names, I love you and mommy, and pictures to give them a sense of accomplishment when they can figure out what their letters say. It is simple and repetitious and can grow with your child. As they get older and learns to write incorporating envelopes and addressing them with outlandish silly locations adds to the sense of fun and creativity the letter writing entails.
The bath letter guessing game is a great one to incorporate at bath time. It is basically washing their back and giving them a back rub while drawing shapes, pictures, and letters on their backs, and then words as they get a bit older, and having them guess what you draw or write. This is such a great game because it forces spatial visualization of the letters or pictures that they can’t see being drawn and therefore have to imagine. Like all activities foster your toddler’s current level of development while enabling them to grow without feeling frustrated by starting off with simple shapes like circles and squares and slowly moving up to shapes and letters that are just beyond their ability but they can comfortably guess after several tries.
Puzzles are a wonderful way to introduce an activity that you initially work on together then develops into independent activity time. You can set your toddler up next to you while getting work done and ask them to teach you about the puzzle when they are done making it. Young children love repetition and doing one that you two have done over and over will make them feel empowered in working independently and ensure they struggle only enough to still be able to persevere and get through it. Depending on age and how often you work on puzzles pick ones that have 12–20 pieces. To teach letter and number recognition pick ones that when finished have numbers or are of the alphabet. If that task is beyond their current ability there are also great starter puzzles with 4–6 pieces that have short words and letters on them and there are also matching puzzles with boards on which there is the alphabet and you have to fit the cut out letters into the appropriate slots. Most importantly make it fun and exciting and they will find it fun and exciting too.
Games for learning numbers and math
From a very early age number concepts are incorporated into routines through finger counting but there are so many other ways to incorporate counting and number concepts both through play and every day activities.
Table time is a great opportunity to incorporate number games and math logic for younger toddlers. Cutting food up into pieces for them at the table and having them help you count how many pieces there are. Having them tell you how many pieces they want and then turning that experience into a math equation is a simple, quick way to incorporate math time into food time. Looking on in shock and disbelief when they want it cut down even further turns it into play time and game time and helps them get excited about helping you count how many pieces you have or helps them analyze if you can cut it down even more. Everything can turn into a counting game at this age and help toddlers learn about counting and numbers.
Playing toss and kicking a ball are two favorite games with a very short supply list, a ball. Playing toss or kicking a ball while counting how many times you throw or kick the ball engages children in number sense without realizing it. By starting the counting over from one every time it gets missed or dropped adds to the appeal of the game as kids love to compete with themselves and work to get to a higher number every time they restart the game. As you count with them they learn more and more numbers without ever feeling like they are learning. Just remember that as fun as the kicking and throwing of the ball is it is the counting while doing so that helps them with their math and number skills.
Simplified treasure hunts can also be started at this age and have a short supply list. Get some paper and colored pencils and draw a map for your toddler with pictures of things around the house then help them discover their treasures using the map. Depending on their age and ability you can make it as simple or difficult as you wish with artistic expression, or numbers, or letters and just have fun.
Board games like Candyland and Chutes and Ladders or lesser known ones like the Ladybug game can definitely be incorporated when your child turns two and by three they will be experts at the game and becoming hugely proficient counters. Board games are great facilitators of strengthening number skills and great activities once the chillier weather brings you inside.
The bath guessing game and puzzles which are mentioned above can be just as easily implemented with letter sense and letter sequencing as you draw numbers on your child’s back in the bath or as you do puzzles that incorporate numbers and number sequencing.
Almost anything you do with a toddler can be manipulated to incorporate letters and numbers while also adding a sense of the game element and making it more fun. Incorporating letters and numbers into both daily routines and also playtime experiences will help them build their knowledge without making it feel like anything but fun. So next time you are out buying a toy or a puzzle or looking at boardgames or thinking up fun activities to do at home remember that toddlers are excited by whatever you expose them to. If you expose them to numbers and letters through play and daily activities they will get better at numbers and letters. If you expose them to technology and iPads they will learn more about technology and iPads. So ask yourself how do I want to help my child learn and grow? Right now they are little sponges full of thirst ready to incorporate the knowledge you share through creative, tactile, and kinesthetic play.