40 practical life activities for toddlers

Frida is 21 months, and does very little in the way of working with traditional Montessori materials at the moment. She’s outgrown her infant materials, and is still too young for most materials geared towards the 3-6 plane of development. What she does do a lot of, though, is practical life, which I believe to be the real focus of the toddler years. By involving Frida in practical life – real life, purposeful activity – her confidence and independence visibly grows. 

I thought I would share some ideas with you for how to incorporate more of these moments into every day life. These are all wonderful opportunities to slow down, allow your child to learn, and show them that you value them as a capable and helpful member of the household. And whilst practical life is integral to any Montessori family, you don’t have to know anything about Montessori to do these activities! In fact I bet you’re already doing lots of these things every day.

Note: These are all “real-life” activities, as opposed to activities set up on trays such as pouring beans or scooping rice or grating soap. Whilst I have nothing against those activities I have found with Frida that she likes her work to be purposeful and to have meaningful results!

Care of self

Choosing clothes. We have been encouraging Frida to choose her clothes from a young age and have recently set up her wardrobe to maximise her independence. 

Nose wiping. We are in the process of teaching Frida to do this independently, using Nicole at the Kavanaugh Report’s method. 

Putting on a cardigan and/or coat. Show them the Montessori coat flip and you will never look back!

Getting dressed. Every child will learn at different speeds but at 21 months Frida is putting on pants and trousers (with little help), is getting more confident with tights, still struggles a bit with socks and shoes, and helps to pull on her tops and dresses. Providing your child with some time to practice when they are not rushed is key.

Getting undressed. Much easier than getting dressed, as anyone who has tried to keep socks on a baby will know! 

Hair brushing. Frida’s hair has always been quite long so getting her involved with and used to hair brushing has been important for us. 

Washing hands. Most toddlers I have met love doing this. 

Face wiping. After lunch or a snack I offer Frida a damp flannel. She also washes her face in the bath.

Tooth brushing. Although I brush Frida’s teeth for her (it’s important for it to be done thoroughly) she enjoys brushing them herself once I’m done. 

Applying sun-cream. Not so relevant for our family now in January, but Frida does like to be involved in putting her moisturiser on after her bath (we use Waitrose Bottom Butter as a body cream, it’s just olive oil, vanilla, and chamomile). 

Toilet learning. Montessorians tend to believe that children enter a sensitive period for toilet learning between 12-18 months. We started Frida’s learning journey at ten months and at 21 months we are done with the basics – we have very few accidents and she is dry at night. The next step will be Frida telling us every time she needs to use the loo rather than us prompting her, which will come with time. You can read about our journey here. 

Using a nail-brush. Particularly useful after a muddy ramble around the park when your child has dirt under their nails. 

Doing up side-release buckles and using zips on bags. Frida loves clipping buckles together, and has been interested in zips for a while now. Great for fine motor skills too. 

In the kitchen

Pouring water or milk from a jug. Spills are a great opportunity to practice wiping.

Baking. This involves a range of different skills including mixing, transferring, glazing, and kneading. If you don’t bake much, scones are a great starter for both of you!

Using a cookie cutter. It’s also fun to practice with playdough.

Washing dishes. If you are nervous about smashing start with pans or cutlery. 

Mashing. You can start small with bananas and a fork, and move on to vegetables and a potato masher. 

Assembling smoothies. Choosing, chopping, and adding fruit and veg, pouring milk or water, scooping yoghurt or nut butters, adding nuts and seeds. 

Chopping fruit and vegetables using a crinkle cutter. 

Peeling. Bananas, tangerines, and eggs are all great for under-twos. 

Learning to crack eggs. This needs very hands-on parental support! 

Grating cheese. The hard thing for me is preventing Frida from eating it all as she goes!

Spreading condiments on bread or crackers.

Helping to load / unload the dishwasher. The cutlery is a great place to start (just remove any sharp knives first). 

Helping to set the table. We don’t do this with Frida yet as our table is too high for her to reach, though I’d like to think creatively about how I can empower her to help with this soon. 

Care of their environment

Mopping. Cleaning + water play = everyone is happy!

Sweeping. Frida has a Melissa and Doug child-size cleaning set with a broom, mop, duster, dustpan and brush. It’s the perfect size for a toddler. 

Dusting. This is especially helpful if your toddler has low shelves for toys and materials, as they can collect dust easily! 

Helping to load / unload / hang / take down the laundry. 

Sorting dry laundry. You can also turn this into a matching activity, for example pairing socks, or finding all the underwear. 

Tidying up after themselves. We have encouraged Frida to do this from a young age. It’s helpful that all of her toys / materials / clothes / books have a set place, so she knows where everything goes. 

Wiping the table or work surface with a damp cloth after their art and craft / cooking / meal. If your child has a blackboard they can also wash this down regularly. 

Watering and dusting indoor plants. A lovely way of teaching children gentleness, concentration, and control. 

Watering outdoor plants. With a hose or watering can. 

Sowing seeds and growing plants. We will start germinating some seeds soon indoors – I need to get organised! 

Out and about 

Sticking stamps on letters and posting them. I have never met a toddler who doesn’t love to post. This is a lovely extension to art activities as your toddler can post one of their pieces to a friend or relative. 

Ordering in a cafe or restaurant. If your toddler would like to, encourage them to order their drink, snack or meal from the barista or waiter! A lovely way to build confidence. 

Food shopping. Involve your toddler – let them choose some food, for example which pasta shape to buy or what sort of apples. Let them put things in the basket or trolley, and talk about what food you will cook. They may even enjoy to carry something home. 

Care of animals

Topping up pet food and water dishes. Decant pet food into larger containers and let them top up your pet’s bowl. We are going to start doing this with Frida.

Grooming. If you have a pet which needs grooming, your toddler can be involved. 

Phew! 

I hope this has given you some ideas, and show that Montessori parenting doesn’t have to be complicated, or involve lots of fancy furniture or expensive materials. 

What are your favourite practical life activities? 

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Toddler craft: making a jar lantern 

Last week at Frida’s playgroup we made a jar lantern together, and it was such a lovely and simple craft to do that I wanted to encourage you to have a go! 

To make the simplest jar lantern, all you need is: 

  • a clean jar;
  • some tissue paper; 
  • some clear drying (child safe!) glue; and
  • a tea light candle. 

Tear your tissue paper before you begin sticking as it’s very hard to do once you have sticky fingers! Tearing paper is a great activity in itself for toddlers, as it helps to build their fine motor skills. You could even present this as a separate activity then keep the torn pieces ready to make your jar.

Once your paper is ready, use liberal amounts of clear glue to cover the jar, and demonstrate sticking the paper onto the jar. Then your toddler is good to go! It’s good to leave a layer of glue on the top once all the paper is stuck down to leave a nice shiny finish.

You could also provide glitter, sequins, or paper and scissors to cut out shapes (for older children). I’m really keen to make some pressed-leaf jar lanterns with Frida before Autumn is out too. 

We were supposed to be going on a lantern walk this evening with Frida’s playgroup, but she’s still not feeling 100 per cent better so we decided not to go. 

It will instead sit on our dining table – just as I think it’s important for Frida to have her paintings and drawings displayed, I also think it’s lovely for her to have something she helped make take pride of place on the table. 

Practical life: mopping 

We’ve all been laid up indoors for the last few days as the whole family has caught a nasty bug that’s been going round. My mum and my mother-in-law have both been a huge help, looking after Frida whilst my husband and I were stuck in bed, making me feel very lucky that we have family relatively close by. 

This afternoon I wanted some simple activities to do with Frida, as I am still too unwell to take her out. She is starting to show a real interest in “practical life” work such as sweeping (we bought her a small cleaning set so she has materials her own size) so I thought we would try mopping today – anything which leads to a cleaner house has got to be good! 

I moved her rug out of the way, gave her a bowl of water, and demonstrated what to do. Frida seemed to enjoy the process of mopping, though of course the real joy came from having a bowl of water to play with.

The kitten was also very interested in what was happening! He is not at all scared of water and likes to look over the edge of the tub when I have a bath.

Evolving space: a toddler-friendly Montessori dining room

Back in January I wrote a blog post about trying to make the space in our dining room more baby-friendly. I’ve made more changes to the room since – I painted a blackboard wall in April, and slowly the shelves in the dining room were given over solely to art materials as her toys moved into her room (video here of the most recent set-up). 

Yesterday, whilst Frida napped, I decided to make a further change to the space. One corner of the dining room had always frustrated me – we didn’t really use it, the space felt cluttered, the cabinet was filled with things we didn’t use. It felt like a visual drain on my energy, and a waste of perfectly good space (well – perfectly good if you ignore the paintwork that needs touching up, and the old fireplace with broken tiles which we still haven’t gotten round to renovating, and and and…). 

This is what it looked like before:

Before: not a very inspiring space at all

Frida has a tiny play kitchen which was stuck behind the dining room door, and I was also wondering if the reason she didn’t really use it was because of its location. 

Once I had decided I wanted to change the space, I had to do it immediately – I’m not very good at being patient! As soon as Frida fell asleep I set to emptying the cabinet, putting aside charity shop piles. I roped my husband into moving the cabinet into the garden, then moved some of her toys and rugs around to create what I hope is a more inviting space. 

This is how it looks now:

The new set up – I hope you’ll agree it’s much more toddler friendly

So far Frida seems to really enjoy her “new” space, and the room feels lighter and bigger. 

I’m very conscious that our home is so important to Frida, especially as she doesn’t go to nursery or anything – our space needs to fill all her needs as well as being conducive to the practicalities of daily life. 

The following photo gives you an idea of how our dining room space joins up. Her blackboard wall is on the left, and to the right is another red cabinet which we do actually use! 

(Looking at this photo I should definitely have moved the cabinet and the chair in the garden so they were out of view… oh well, chalk it up to “real life” and not having the time to stage photos!)

I’ve found that I change our spaces around a lot; it feels like I’m always trying to tweak one area or another of our home to suit Frida’s growing needs. 

Gentle night-weaning at 18 months

It probably won’t surprise you to know that I am a big fan of attachment parenting – and more generally, doing what feels instinctively “right” to me. As such, we have bed-shared with Frida from birth (genuinely from birth – the midwives in hospital were horrified at my shunning the cold plastic crib in order to have my new baby sleep on my chest).

Our aim with Frida has always been to be as child-led as possible. Breastfeeding, weaning and eating, sleep-routines, play – since day one we have endeavoured to let Frida guide us as to her needs and truly “follow the child”. She is still breastfed, with no plans to stop until she is ready or I decide I don’t want to do it anymore.

That’s why the decision to night-wean Frida (rather than waiting for her to give up night time boob by herself) wasn’t an easy or quick one. But I am so pleased that I decided a week ago that it was the right time for us, as it’s been such a genuinely smooth process. I thought I’d share a little bit about our journey with you, in case anyone finds it reassuring or helpful or normalising in any way.

As a newborn Frida’s sleep was fantastic. Oh how smug I felt to have a three month old who woke only once or twice a night! What an amazing mother I must be to have such a great sleeper! Pat on the back. Then the four-month sleep regression hit us and Oh. My. God.  Her sleep never really recovered from it. At its worst, she was waking every 20-30 minutes all night, and at best I would maybe get a two or three hour stretch, if I was really lucky. I was exhausted, permanently (still am actually). During the worst times, I got ill, picked up every bug going, triggered my labyrinthitis, and generally sported coldsore after coldsore, accessorised with lovely eye bags and grey skin. Frida would spend huge parts of the night latched on, sucking, not for milk but for comfort, and I kept waiting for the magic day when her sleep would improve. Except it didn’t.

I think it’s important to say here, I don’t think there is anything wrong with comfort sucking or feeding – what could be more vital to a baby or toddler than comfort? I also don’t believe that babies or young children can “self-soothe”, or that they are physically capable of “sleeping through” the night, and I am not a fan of “sleep training” of any kind. The Gentle Parenting Facebook group I’m a member of definitely kept me sane at the times that I questioned myself, as did Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s writing on infant sleep.

Despite this, and despite my initial hope that night weaning would just happen naturally for us, I was starting to feel like breastfeeding was definitely hindering our nights rather than helping them. A week ago, after a particularly exhausting night, I decided I needed to take the next step and night wean.

After reading up on night weaning, I decided not to go for any structured method – they looked like too much work – and that I would just explain to Frida that we no longer breastfed at nighttime. One of the factors in deciding to wean was that I felt that Frida’s understanding is so good that she would understand me telling her that night-time boob was no more, and quickly adapt to the new norm. Cuddles, water, singing, soft taking – whatever she needed, I would give her, but breastmilk after bedtime was no longer on the cards.

The first night went much better than I had expected – she woke a lot, but wasn’t sad, and was ok with being cuddled to sleep. Since then, things have just gotten better and better – she has stopped asking for milk in the night, and has even mostly stopped asking to be cuddled back to sleep, often sitting up and then lying herself back down and closing her eyes again. She totally understands that we no longer have “mummy booboo” at night time now, and we often talk about it.

She is still waking a few times in the night, but no where near as much. I honestly can’t quite believe how much of an improvement I’ve seen in her sleep already. It’s also had a knock on effect on bedtime, and for the last two nights my husband has put her to bed – a huge milestone for a toddler who until a week ago would always boob to sleep (unless in a sling). My mum was also able to babysit for us meaning we could go out all evening and not worry about rushing back for bedtime.

I think that waiting until the time was “right” for us made a huge difference; I am sure that even a few months ago she would have found night-weaning upsetting and difficult. I do wonder if we should have tried sooner, but I have to trust in my gut feeling and hope that we have done the right thing at the right time.

Frida is still sleeping in our bed, so the next step will be to move her into her own room. I don’t feel a huge rush to move her though – I really, really love co-sleeping – so I think we will just wait and see what feels right for our family. I will miss her when we move her, although I will also relish having more space to sleep in! And she will always be welcome back into our bed if she wants to.

If you have got to the end of this post – well done! How was your night-weaning journey? Did you co-sleep?  Have you struggled with sleep, or were you lucky to have a baby who settled easily and slept long stretches?

Three matching activities with Schleich animals 

Frida uses her Schleich farm animals a lot – it’s rare that a day goes past without them being pulled out. They are great for imaginative play, small world play, sorting and categorising, and for developing her vocabulary. I love how realistic they are too. 

Without really thinking about it I’d realised that we use them a lot for matching work, so I thought I would share some ideas with you. 

Matching is a great activity for little ones. How We Montessori have an excellent post on why matching is good for their brain development here.  

These are very simple activities, so perfect for older babies and younger toddlers, but also very satisfying. They don’t take long to set up either which is a bonus for busy parents! 

Adult to baby animal matching 

Although Frida can do this easily she still enjoys a game of “where’s my baby?” matching. She also loves making the babies breastfeed from their “parent” animals. 

Animal to photo card matching 

This is a lovely simple activity for younger toddlers. I made Frida some matching cards by taking a photo of each animal, printing and laminating it. 

Schleich animal to other style of animal

You can match a Schleich animal with its  counterpart wooden animal, or a photo of the real-life animal, or a drawing of it in a book… Again this is so simple, but helps foster the understanding that the same thing (eg. a pig) can be depicted in many different ways. 

Of course, you don’t need to use Schleich animals to do this sort of matching, you could use almost anything. Matching cards with pictures of household furniture to items in your home, or photo cards of adult and children animals, or matching a teddy to a teddy in a book – the list is endless, and as children get older the categories of things to match can get wider and wider (for example for an older child you could have two insects / two sea creatures / two mammals). 

What are your favourite matching activities? 

Muddy Fingers! Setting up an outdoor playgroup

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I am a big believer in going outside as much as possible. We try and get outside at least once a day, whatever the weather, to a park or playground or common or farm, or even just for an exploratory walk around the block.

Last week after a particularly lovely morning in a local park, I decided on the spur-of-the-moment to set up a free outdoor playgroup for local parents and children, and so it was born. I announced this on a couple of local parent Facebook groups and was overwhelmed at the number of positive responses I received – so much so that I had to ask people to register via email and have had to start a waiting list, for fear of fifty mums and kiddos all turning up at once! 

Around 13 mums and 17 children turned up, as well as two grandmothers (one being Frida’s), which felt quite manageable as some engaged with the activities I had set up whilst some chased squirrels and kicked leaves and ran about in the autumn sunshine. 

I brought along a big saucepan, a small tin roasting dish and a few play-size pans along with some utensils and spoons. I’ve found that Frida enjoys “cooking” and hoped some of the other children would too. In a nod to the season I also took two  baby pumpkins which were small enough for even the littlest of hands to pick up and handle. 

I also packed some paper and our trusty Stockmar crayons for leaf and bark rubbing, and general drawing. 

I don’t think children really need materials or planned activities outdoors – there is so much to touch and play with and see outside as it is, with squirrels and leaves and sticks and stones and mud. I especially loved seeing a scrummy seven-month old exploring twigs and leaves and conkers with her mama. But I do think some simple play prompts can be a nice addition. 

In future weeks I might make some playdough to bring, or pack some cupcake papers to make mud cakes on rainy days, or a tray for simple water play, or bring tape and paper for leaf collages. 

We had really beautiful weather for it today with golden sunshine warming us – no need for coats! That said, I’m almost looking forward to our first wet session, as mud is such a brilliant and fun thing to play in.

I enjoyed seeing some familiar faces and meeting lots of new ones, and am so glad I took the plunge and decided to step out of my comfort zone and organise something. 

Does your child attend an outdoor playgroup? If there’s not one locally, why not set one up? All you need is a green space and a few people (and a willingness to get grubby). 

If you are interested in outdoor play and getting mucky, here are some books you might be interested in: