A few months ago, I decided that I wanted to do a curriculum with my son beginning in the fall. He is only two and I have no plans to send him to preschool at any point but I started to think that maybe I needed to provide him with more "structured" activities. As the time got closer to purchase the curriculum I had chosen, I just couldn't bring myself to do it. At two years old, it just felt way too early to do introduce any kind of curriculum to my son. I did some research and decided not to go the route of curriculum but instead to keep on doing what we do best... play! (This is an excellent article about delaying academics.)
The basic idea of "play-based" learning is that the child chooses activities based on his current interest. This differs from "academic" learning in that academic consists of a teacher/parent directed activities. Meaning, there is more of a plan and structure.
The closest we get to "structure" is that I do crafts with my son based on the theme he is learning at his weekly church club. However, even though we do have these themes, I still offer it to him in a play based way. If he isn't interested, we don't do it. I do also have a checklist of activities that I want to make available to him each day. This list is really intended to make sure I stay on track with presenting him with important developmental activities, not to give him structure.
Here are some ways that I provide a play-based learning environment for my toddler:
1) I keep books out for him to grab at any time.
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"Put your books away" is not something you will hear me say during the day. Ever. Sure, at night we put all of our toys to "sleep" but during the day it is not at all uncommon for my son to have books on the floor, on the table, on the couch and in his bed!
2) I prepare a themed craft or activity.
I do provide a daily craft or activity for my son but, again, he does not have to do it. Though, it's extremely rare that he doesn't want to. He's usually following me around saying "project, project" while I'm getting the supplies ready to set out on his table.
3) Most cupboards in the kitchen are fair game.
With the exception of the pantry and the cupboard with glass, I don't prohibit my son from opening cupboards and pulling things out to play with. I do this because many of the items in a kitchen promote imaginative or sensory play.
5) I intentionally group toys by color.
I try very hard to be as child centered as possible when teaching my son. One thing I do to help him learn his colors is, I group toys together by color. For example, I recently noticed that my son had red and orange down pat and the others not as much. So, I grouped his ball bit balls and blocks by color, only leaving one color out for a few days and then switching them. He had no clue that I was trying to teach him his colors, he just played as usual!
5) I carefully select my son's toys.
I have tried really hard to keep a good handle on my son's toys, making sure they serve a purpose. Every Christmas and birthday, I create a wish list on Amazon that family members can order from or at the very least get an idea of the types of toys he could use. On occasion, someone will go rogue but it doesn't happen too often at all!
6) All toys are easily accessible.
With the exception of toys that just take up too much space (like his ball pit and tunnel), all of my son's toys are easily accessible to him. As of right now, we don't have any shelves. The majority of his toys are in buckets on the ground. His trains are in the drawer of his train table and stuffed animals and costumes are in a toy bin that he can get things our of on his own.