Sometimes engaging toddlers and preschoolers might seem as complicated as herding cats. Not only do they have tons of energy, but they’re also very opinionated. How do you engage a child whose favorite word is “no” and favorite question is “why?” Believe it or not, it can be done. The key is to use their energy and opinionated nature to your advantage. Whether you’re working with one child or a group of children, we’ve discovered some ways to help harness the energy of young learners and maximize their ability to learn.
1. Keep it short
The average attention span for a two-year-old is 3-6 minutes. For three and four-year-olds, it’s around 8-10 minutes. Because young children can’t focus for very long, it’s important to make the most of the time you have. As a general rule, plan to switch activities every 10-15 minutes. If you need to complete a longer activity, break it up into smaller steps and take breaks in between the steps to keep children focused. Keep in mind that children’s attention spans vary from activity to activity too. For some activities, a few minutes may be all they can handle, while others will hold their attention for half an hour. Be flexible in your planning to allow for changing attention spans.
One way to keep young children’s attention is to show them a short video. Most of Help Teaching’s videos for young learners, such as this Namimg Shapes video, are 1-3 minutes in length to make it easy for kids to focus.
2. Make it hands-on
Young children love to get their hands on everything. Touch is one of the ways they experience the world. They’re also still developing their motor skills and using their hands can help them build key skills. When working with young children, given them plenty of opportunities to complete hands-on activities, be it molding shapes out of clay, feeling plastic letters, or even moving a clothespin to the correct answer on a clip card.
3. Get moving
The parts of the body are all connected. As children spin in circles, jump up and down, and move their bodies in other ways, they’re making important connections in their brain. Sometimes children need to move their bodies to help them process information. By incorporating movement into learning activities, you help children focus and experience the lesson on multiple levels.
4. Repeat it
Have you ever noticed that young children love to watch the same shows and sing the same songs over and over again? While this may drive you nuts, it’s actually an important part of their development. Not only does repeating information help children learn, it helps them build confidence in their knowledge and feel like they have mastered something. Repeat patterns, sound, expressions, and bits of information to help children gain the confidence they need to learn new things.
5. Involve rhythm
Adding rhythm to an activity is another way to help young children take in information on multiple levels and make crucial connections in their brain. After all, the ability to connect rhythm to sound and movement is a cognitive skill. Just patting your hands in a rhythm while you recite the alphabet or explain an important concept can be enough to help children remember it.
6. Offer guidance
Young children are just beginning to gain confidence. As an adult, you want them to learn and explore on their own, but many children need to know that you’re there to help them. You can offer guidance by asking leading questions, giving them subtle hints, or starting the activity with them and then letting them finish it on their own.
For example, in this How Many, video, children are shown how to count, and then given the opportunity to try on their own.
7. Include their interests
Sometimes young children are so focused on on television show or one type of animal that it’s hard to get them interested in anything else. When it comes to getting children involved in other activities, use what they love to your advantage. Count dinosaurs, practice colors with princess dresses, or role play a popular fairy tale using their favorite stuffed animals. Think of creative ways to bring children’s interests into activities to help get them interested in something new.
8. Give them a task to do
Children love to feel important. Giving children a task to do helps them feel like they have an important role to play and encourages them to take ownership of their learning. You can do this by turning an activity into a game, giving kids a puzzle to solve, or creating a process that children have to work through.
9. Offer a choice
Another thing children love is choices. Even the most headstrong children are often likely to comply when given choices. Design learning activities so that children can make choices. The choices may be as simple as what color of crayon to use or you may offer a choice of completely different activities that all cover the same skill.
10. Tell a story
Sometimes children have a difficult time remembering individual facts or bits of information. However, if you put that information into a story, children will often hear the message loud and clear. You can tell stories about specific bits of information, such as the letters of the alphabet or the names of shapes, or you can tell a story to illustrate character-centered skills, such as saying please or learning the difference between tattling and telling. Plenty of authors have written books designed to do just this, but you can also make up a story of your own or print out a simple mini book to help get the message across.
11. Use color
Color makes learning exciting. Fill learning activities with brightly colored pictures, words and objects. Give children coloring pages related to basic concepts, letters, or numbers, and allow them to fill them with colors of their own.
12. Follow a routine
Young children thrive on routine. Every day, they’re taking in new information and learning all about the world around them. With all of this new information coming in, it can cause them to feel like they’re losing control. Routines help children feel like they have some control. They know what to expect so they’re more willing to focus on new information when it comes in.
13. Offer positive reinforcement
Some toddlers and preschoolers may seem like they have big egos, but in reality, most young children are slowly building confidence in themselves and their abilities. By offering positive reinforcement, you help young children build confidence in themselves and their abilities. This makes them more willing to learn new things. Positive reinforcement is not the same as praising children for everything they do. Instead, it involves specific positive phrases, such as “You can do it” or “I like the way you cut out the circle with the scissors.”
14. Be enthusiastic
Have you ever noticed how young children tend to feed of the enthusiasm of others? If you’re excited about something, toddlers and preschoolers will be too. So even if you’re not all that excited about counting to 10 or singing the alphabet song, paste a smile on your face and pretend like it’s your favorite thing in the world. The more enthusiastic you are, the more likely children will buy in to what you’re selling.
15. Let them rest
Growing is hard work. While it’s tempting to pack children’s days full of highly engaging activities, they also need time to rest. The average toddler needs 12-14 hours of sleep for day and the average preschooler needs 10-12 hours of sleep a day. While you might not be successful at putting them down for a nap in the middle of the day, you can enjoy some quiet rest time throughout the day. Play some soft music or listen to a story. This will allow children to recharge and be ready to learn even more when rest time is over.
What are some of your favorite strategies for engaging love learners? Share them with us in the comments. Also don’t forget to check out Help Teacher’s Early Education page full of printables, coloring pages, and other resources to use with toddlers and preschoolers.