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    Structure with Toddlers

    May 6, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    I was wondering if you could give me your insight on a scheduled day for toddlers…I need to know what to do with them all day.

    The above is a comment from my very talented friend Jennifer. I told her I’d reply in a post in hopes of getting ideas from mommies who have done a better job than I have. It also makes it easier to link to various resources. I really wish that I had made better use of my time during my first three or four years of motherhood. I look back and see a lot of things I could have done better.

    So, I suppose the question is more, “What would the more experienced me have done differently? And what would that actually look like?”

    Where to Start

    The only problem is, I can’t know exactly what that would look like for anyone else. So, I did a little research. I think the best advice I found was from Kendra at Preschoolers and Peace in her post It Feels Like I’m Killing Time. There is also good advice in the comments, so scroll down.

    Kendra really has the perfect starting place: goals. And I think that is where I’d start. What are my dreams? For myself, for my family, for my children, and so on. I’d write them all out. Then I would circle everything that could be done together. This doesn’t mean we don’t do the things that are better done alone, but rather we save them for naptime.

    If you feel stuck, a great place to get ideas is the Bluedorns now-famous article Ten Things to do Before Age Ten. Not everything on the list is appropriate for toddlers, but it is still a starting place. If you want to really get creative, look at the DHM’s post Homeschooling, Interrupted for a variety of things she did to keep her toddler busy and learning.

    Something that has helped me tackle the school year is to look at the sheet of goals and then come up with themes for each day. For instance, Monday we learn manners, Tuesday we learn to sing new songs, Wednesday my son works on fine motors using origami and kirigami activities, Thursday we study an artist and also the catechism, and Friday we study a composer. Then I also had the things we do daily: read the Bible, sing a song, read a poem, read a story, memory work, and so on.

    Creating a Chart

    Next, make a chart. The chart is what you do whenever you don’t have something better to do. Most of your summer, for instance, might actually be running in the sprinklers, with just a bit of Bible reading. But if you don’t have anything to do, you do the chart.

    There are many ways to build a chart. I use a simple spreadsheet on my computer and make each row equal to half an hour. I only plan the hours when Daddy is gone on my chart. Then I add in all the immovables. For instance, we always rise at a certain time and eat lunch at a certain time. There are naps that happen at a certain time. So I enter all of that in and then see what I have to work with. This is when you glance at that list of goals and plug, plug, plug them in until you fill the chart. If everything doesn’t fit, decide on some favorites, or ask your husband what his preferences are. The chart can always be revised at a later date to take some things out and add in other goals.

    Then, try it for a week and make changes in light of what worked and what didn’t. Do this until you have a chart that matches up with real life.

    My only fear in helping others create a chart is that they will feel like the chart is a dictator. The chart is a friend and ally, not The Boss. Don’t be a slave to the chart. Don’t be afraid to be spontaneous. The chart is there to give structure when at home. It will keep you from wandering aimlessly. It will “tell” you what to do when you are too tired to think something up. It will lend a happy rhythm to the days. It will probably help you do more.

    Afterthought: Don’t Forget Chores!

    One other thing to remember is that now is the time to train your children to work. This part is easier when you don’t have big kids. I am focusing part of the summer on chore training, as there is less focused time for this during the school year.

    Having them always work with you will build good habits. I separate laundry into piles {lights, darks, sheets, whatever} and then point to a pile and have whoever is with me put it in the basket, even though I can easily do this myself. When switching from the washer to the dryer, I grab a toddler and hand the toddler each item and have the toddler put it in the washer. Four-year-olds always empty the dryer and bring the basket to me for folding. In this way, all of the children are participating in the process.

    I did this from the very beginning because I met a wise woman who told me a secret: Contributing to the work of the family makes children of all ages happy. Now, I have one child for sure who doesn’t like to work, but I realized lately that what this woman meant is that it feels good to contribute. Especially when Mommy tells you what a good job you did, or tells Daddy what a good job you did and you overhear that. Even children prone to sloth take satisfaction in a job well done. They also feel “big” when they can do “important” jobs. Competence leads to confidence.

    Helpful Hints, Anyone? Anyone?

    I know there are lots of moms of toddlers out there with good ideas, and some of you read this blog. There are others of you who have friends whose methods you hope to emulate when your turn comes. Please share your hints in the comments! Feel free to link to resources that have assisted you.

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  • Reply Abby June 7, 2016 at 9:52 pm

    Any advice for when your 4 year old HATES to help? My little girl shifted sometime this past year and now every morning is a fight to help unload the dishwasher, tidy toys/room…basically anything that isn’t playing. My two year old is starting to pick up on it too and throw fits now. Frustrating, especially since everyone else’s children seem to love helping at this age! I tried charts and paid money for completed chores, but it didn’t work. She can be a tough cookie, so any tips would be appreciated πŸ™‚

  • Reply Mystie May 8, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    I actually don’t like librivox very much because most of the readers aren’t all that good, and readers changing every chapter drives me crazy. I’m spoiled by our library’s large collection of professionally recorded books and their willingness to buy almost anything you ask them to. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Brandy May 7, 2009 at 11:03 pm


    What a scandal! πŸ˜‰

    I am exactly the opposite. I cannot bear to listen to someone else read aloud. I am so poor at audio learning that I might as well be deaf. I am convinced that when we are in the teen years I will be buying two copies of books so that I can read along while others read aloud, otherwise I’d be totally lost!

    You must love librovox then?

    ps. I checked my girls’ drawers today and they were…a complete disaster! You are in good company.

  • Reply Mystie May 7, 2009 at 5:30 am

    I’m even worse. Get this — I hate reading aloud!

    I just started having my boys (3&5) always put away their own laundry. They get themselves dressed already, so their drawers are always a wreck anyhow. Not that mine are much better, actually.

  • Reply Brandy May 7, 2009 at 4:00 am


    I like this that you said:

    I like to think of the list or chart or schedule as the “calm, rational, good me” telling my “slacking, lazy bum me” what to do.I feel the same way! I also think it is a help to the Uninspired Me, the Sickly Me, and the Tired Me, all of which share a common need: direction.


    The DHM is a very eclectic blogger. When I first started reading her blog, she was doing a lot of education blogging and was very knowledgeable about Charlotte Mason’s methods. Now, she is more focused on politics. She is very prolific, but I find most of what she writes to be interesting. I hope you enjoy her!


    I used to despise shared chores, too! And I still find myself tensing up whenever my four-year-old wants to rinse dishes. It is horrible of me–all I can think of is how I can’t afford for her to break another bowl! But…I disciplined myself to do it early on because I felt convicted that I should. This paid off way sooner than I expected. When I was struggling with early labor in a pregnancy, my children were able to help with laundry so much that I could get it done without outside help! It was a bonding time for all of us to need each other in that way, and the children were proud that they could do necessary jobs. All of that is to say, that it is worth it in ways that we don’t always anticipate.


    You know I love you! And I have been thinking about you and praying for you for a while now. As my mom always says, “This, too, shall pass.” And you know what? It really does. Give yourself some grace, my friend, for you are an excellent mommy and I know you will let God file down your rough edges. I often wish my heart was as teachable as yours is.

  • Reply Jennifer May 7, 2009 at 2:07 am

    THANK YOU, faithful friend. I hope to be able to sit down with some tea and read all of the links. For now, I will try the chart! I am so grateful for your insight and the time you spent helping me!

  • Reply Kansas Mom May 7, 2009 at 1:52 am

    I was just recently thinking we’d need to impose some structure when we start homeschooling kindergarten in the fall. I tend to the unstructured playtime myself and think there’s a big place for that in the preschooler set, but that doesn’t mean it should all be unstructured (which it is now).

    I hate having my kids help me with chores. Sometimes I sigh and let them, because I know I should. But I still hate it. They love it, though. Especially my 2.5 year old girl. She’d move laundry and put it away (horribly) all day long, if there was enough of it (and sometimes it’s a little surprising that there isn’t).

    Thanks for this post. I’ll definitely be coming back to these resources!

  • Reply Wendi May 6, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    I love to get ideas from both Preschoolers and Peace and Mom of Littles. I’ve never seen DHM’s blog, I’ll definitely have to check that one out. Right now I have a very busy 2yo boy who definitely needs a little more structure to his days…

  • Reply Mystie May 6, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    Yes, yes, to having them work! By at least 2 I have had mine pick up their own toys. It takes longer, and you do have to point out each and every thing to them (which is frustrating!) but it is worth it that they are learning to be responsible for themselves.

    I like to think of the list or chart or schedule as the “calm, rational, good me” telling my “slacking, lazy bum me” what to do. πŸ™‚ If I’m a “handling the unexpected” or “purposefully changed direction for the day” me, then I don’t feel guilty, but the slacker-me sometimes needs to be guilty! πŸ™‚

    Great post, Brandy. Thanks for the links! I am looking forward to school imposing some structure for the younger set. πŸ™‚

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