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Preparing for Playing Preschool with Busy Toddler: Skill Building for Tabies and Twos

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

A Prequel to Busy Toddler's Playing Preschool Curriculum

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All suggested activities require adult supervision.

Searching for Answers: What Am I Supposed to Do with My Toddler All Day?

I remember being a first-time mom and the point at which my child had the mobility of a toddler but the attention span of a gnat and thinking "what I am I supposed to DO with him all day?" We went to Mommy and Me gymnastics once a week but that still left a lot of hours to fill. We attempted Story and Craft Time at the library but he was not a member of the captive audience. He would sit in my lap and read with me so we did LOTS of that at home but nothing else held his interest very long.

Me (7 months) and my taby (20 months)

I started searching Pinterest for engaging ideas but half the time I would spend more time prepping the activity than he spent doing it and the other half cleaning up the mess. Looking back, I had no concept of what was developmentally appropriate and no purpose for what I wanted him to learn, other than to play independently for more than five seconds.

At some point I discovered Busy Toddler and started to explore some of her activities, but by that time I was pregnant with my second child and wondering how I was going to handle my life. When the baby arrived, I was desperate. I knew it was going to be hard to leave the house for a while so I purchased Busy Toddler's Playing Preschool program in the hope that it would answer the question "what am I going to do with my two-year-old all day?" And you know what? It totally did!

It gave me a plan for structured learning time and activities I could do with my toddler while the baby napped. I LOVED having a curriculum to follow and a theme to focus on and I finally felt like I was teaching my son something meaningful. Looking back, I did it for ME, not because HE was developmentally ready (the minimum recommended age is 2.5), but because I needed lifeline as I learned to navigate having two children. To hear more of my reflections on my experience, see my post Playing Preschool Lessons Learned: the Do's and Don't's.

Hindsight being what it is, I have no intention of rushing things with my second child. But I do think I have a better idea of what I can do in his second year that will help him develop the skills to be successful in Playing Preschool when the time is right. I include him in the activities his brother is doing whenever possible, but I also want to be intentional about giving him opportunities to play that are more targeted to his age (17 months) and ability. (On the flip side, I have set up activities specifically for him and seen my three-year-old wake up from his nap and immediately gravitate to them. I think it safe to say these activities bridge the age gap effortlessly).

Preparing for Playing Preschool: Skill-Building for Tabies and Twos

Busy Toddler coined the term "Taby" to describe the stage between a baby and a toddler. In her new book Actual Parenting she has this to say:

"Having a name for this middle area feels like a move in the right direction to honoring these kids and their unique needs and skills... It's like finally getting permission to treat these kids as the age group they are - not asking them to play up [toddler] or down [baby] a bracket." - Susie Allison, Actual Parenting

She suggests that we value this stage (one year old, give or take a few months) for what it is: a time to remove the expectations and "let them be and develop on their own path without rushing to hop on the toddler train." Susie also advocates that for all children under the age of 2.5, learning should consist of reading, conversation and play.

"They can just be tabies - little humans who have some growing skills, walk a bit like Frankenstein, and say a few half words. We can honor exactly who they are." -Susie Allison, Actual Parenting

That being said, I know there are other moms (like me) who are craving some structure in their day. As an administrator of the Playing Preschool with Busy Toddler Curriculum Group on Facebook, I have seen the need for something to bridge the gap from a child being "not-quite-ready" to "ready" to begin the curriculum. (For signs of readiness and information about age range visit the Playing Preschool FAQ page on Busy Toddler's website.)

So for all the moms of tabies and two-year-olds, I have put together a "plan" for you to follow, while keeping Susie's ethos of reading, conversation and play at the forefront. I've combined books to read, things to talk about and Busy Toddler taby activities for introducing sensory play or practicing skills to create a curriculum of sorts (although I hate to even call it that, because it is not intended to be academic, but experiential).

Before You Dive In, Let Me Explain

I'd like to point out a few of the "hows" and "whys" of how I designed this unit. It is intended to mirror the basic structure of Playing Preschool, but with the needs and abilities of tabies and two-year-olds in mind. Each day may only take 10-15 minutes (depending on how long your child engages with the activity), and could easily be broken up into smaller increments (song/book/activity). Five minutes is a lot to expect of a taby's attention span but the older they get and the more opportunities they have to practice, the longer they will be able to attend. When possible, leave the activity out so your child can return to it throughout the day or week (see more about repetition below).


Research shows that young children benefit from reading the same book repeatedly for many reasons including vocabulary, fluency and reading comprehension. For this reason, I would advise you to read a single book together for an entire week, or choose 2-3 and repeat. As you read, point to the animals (i.e. "cluck" said the chicken [point to chicken] and her chick [point to chick] said "peep") and emphasize the sounds they make.


Please bear in mind that unlike adults who crave novelty, children enjoy repetition because it is familiar and they need lots of it when learning a new concept. For that reason, I've designed the "lessons" to repeat previous content, then build on it. I encourage you not to rush the process, even if it seems boring to you; they're still learning how to learn.


I chose "Animals" and their sounds/names to be the theme of this unit for several reasons:

  1. Young children can often mimic animals sounds before they can actually form the words. There is a wide age range when it comes to speech development, so depending on where your child falls, he/she can either practice the animal's sound or say its name. (If you have questions about your child's speech development, consult your pediatrician).

  2. The way you teach animals and the sounds they make is the same approach you will use to teach letters and their sounds in Playing Preschool. For example, when you tell your child "This is a cow. The cow says "moo," it employs the same concept as "This is an A. The A says "aaa"."

  3. There is an important pairing of early literacy happening: making the connection between images on the page of a book and real-life objects and their names/sounds.

Some of you may be thinking "but my child already knows all the animals names". Bear with me here and remember that identifying is a Level 1 skill (recall/retell/regurgitate), the most basic type of learning. The skills they are developing as they DO the activities is where the real benefits are: experimenting with cause and effect, categorizing (Level 2), problem solving, critical thinking (Level 3), creativity, imagination (Level 4) not to mention fine motor skills (dexterity, grip) and gross motor skills (balance, spatial awareness) and alllll the benefits of sensory play (self-control, tactile learning).


Materials: Here's What You'll Need

Here is list of common household items or toys used in this unit, but please make substitutions as needed.



Suggested Books

Additional Book Suggestions - Farm

Additional Book Suggestions - Zoo


Week 1: Farm Animals

Sort the magnets and pick out only the animals that would live on a farm. You may want to start with just a few and add more animals as your child masters them. Incorporate these animals into your morning opening song. (Hint: turtles "hiss", rabbits "sniff", fish "glug").

Farm Animals - Day 1

Opening: Sing "Old McDonald Had a Farm"

Read Aloud: Big Red Barn - Brown, Margaret Wise or Little Blue Truck - Schertle, Alice Introduction: What animals live on a farm? Hand your child a magnet (or point to each one individually on the fridge) and tell them its name (i.e. this is a horse).

Skill-Building Activity: Modify Busy Toddler's Card Slot Drop Activity to drop the farm animal magnets into the container! Extension: Let them pull them off of the fridge.

Skills Used: Fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, dexterity

Farm Animals - Day 2

Opening: Sing "Old McDonald Had a Farm"

Read Aloud: Big Red Barn - Brown, Margaret Wise or Little Blue Truck - Schertle, Alice Things to Talk About: What sounds do the animals make? Tell your child the name of the animal and the sound it makes as you show them each magnet (i.e. the cow says moo).

Sensory Activity: Read Busy Toddler's article How to Set Up Your First Sensory Bin. You may want to keep it simple at first. Pour oatmeal or cornmeal in a bin, toss in some toys and/or tools like colanders, funnels, bowls, spoons, or tongs. Model how to play and stay close to teach boundaries. This is something you will want to practice on-going. Change it up by using different (taste-safe) sensory bases or items. Note: If you're still not sure about sensory bins, read Busy Toddler's article Why is Sensory Play Important?

Skills Used: Life skills (pouring) independent play, self-regulation, pre-math skills (capacity, spatial awareness), fine motor skills

Farm Animals - Day 3

Opening: Sing "Old McDonald Had a Farm"

Read Aloud: Big Red Barn - Brown, Margaret Wise or Little Blue Truck - Schertle, Alice Things to Talk About: Can you repeat the animal sounds? Tell your child the name of the animal and the sound it makes and ask them to repeat. (i.e. the cow says moo. Can you make the cow sound?)

Process Art Activity: Peel the husk off ears of corn to create prints by rolling the corn in washable tempura paint, then rolling onto a sheet of white paper or card stock. Put a sheet tray underneath to catch the mess.

Skills Used: Hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, abstract thinking/creativity

Farm Animals - Day 4

Opening: Sing "Old McDonald Had a Farm"

Read Aloud: Big Red Barn - Brown, Margaret Wise or Little Blue Truck - Schertle, Alice Things to Talk About: Can you make the animal sounds? This time take away your part in the exchange (what we call the "scaffolding") and add wait time (i.e. What does the cow say?) Give lots of praise, help and encouragement. This shouldn't feel like a quiz.

Skill-Building Activity Set up Busy Toddler's Animal Tape Rescue with magnets, chunky puzzle pieces or animal figurines. Stay close by so they can hand you the tape! Extension: Have them do the puzzle as they free the pieces.

Skills Used: Hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, vocabulary

Farm Animals - Day 5

Opening: Sing "Old McDonald Had a Farm"

Read Aloud: Big Red Barn - Brown, Margaret Wise or Little Blue Truck - Schertle, Alice Things to Talk About: Rhyming sounds is an important part of learning language and developing fluency. As you read, pause to let your child to fill in the rhyming word (hay/play, goats/throats, field/squealed, high/sky OR truck/stuck, duck/truck, load/toad, rump/dump). If your child isn't verbalizing words yet, still pause and ask them to point when appropriate.

Critical Thinking Activity: Create a DIY Magnet Puzzle with magnets on your refrigerator. At 17 months, my child wasn't quite ready for this. He understood that an animal should go in each space, but the rest was beyond him and that's okay. It turned into a gross-motor activity instead as walked back and forth to get the magnets.

Skills Used: Spatial awareness, problem solving, hand-eye coordination


Week 2: Farm + Zoo Animals

Combine your farm animal magnets with other zoo or jungle animal magnets. Your child will expand their vocabulary by identifying more animals and their sounds and do very basic classifying of farm vs. zoo animals. Incorporate zoo animals into your morning opening song a few at a time, then add more for variety.

Farm + Zoo Animals - Day 1

Opening: Sing Raffi’s We’re Going to the Zoo or view Super Simple Songs: Let's Go to the Zoo and incorporate gross motor skills by imitating animals.

Read Aloud: Oink, Moo, Meow (Say & Play) Things to Talk About: This book introduces children to more animals and their animals sounds for the purpose of building vocabulary. As you read, ask them to recall which animals live on a farm (i.e. does a monkey? a cow? a bear?)

Sensory Activity: Set up a quick Busy Toddler Hide the Animals Sensory Bin. Pour a taste-safe filler like oatmeal, cornmeal or rice (we used Rice Krispies) in a smaller storage container, then "hide" the animals. Put the small container and some tools inside a larger bin and show your child how to find them (i.e. "I wonder what's in here? What did we find?")

Skills Used: Hand-eye coordination, life skills (scooping), fine motor skills, pre-math skills (capacity, estimating).

Farm + Zoo Animals - Day 2

Opening: Sing Raffi’s We’re Going to the Zoo or view Super Simple Songs: Let's Go to the Zoo and incorporate gross motor skills by imitating animals.

Read Aloud: Oink, Moo, Meow (Say & Play) or First 100 Animals Things to Talk About: Start to make connections between books and objects. Can you find a magnet that matches the picture (i.e. the monkey, the frog, the rooster)? Note: skip the question for those that don't have a match.

Critical Thinking Activity: Wrap your puzzle pieces in tin foil or gift paper and let your child discover them, then let curiosity be their guide as they open the "presents" to do the puzzle like in Busy Toddler's Puzzle Unwrap. Extension: combine two or more puzzles to mix and match.

Skills Used: Fine motor skills, spatial awareness, cause and effect, hand eye coordination

Farm + Zoo Animals - Day 3

Opening: Sing Raffi’s We’re Going to the Zoo or view Super Simple Songs: Let's Go to the Zoo and incorporate gross motor skills by imitating animals.

Read Aloud: Oink, Moo, Meow (Say & Play) or First 100 Animals Things to Talk About: Practice transferring knowledge from book to objects. Make an animal sound and ask your child to find the corresponding magnet or figurine.

Process Art Activity: Draw a scene with simple outlines of animals, nature, etc. on a piece of kraft paper and tape it to the floor. Give your child washable tempera paint or fingerpaint to fill in the shapes like Busy Toddler's Giant Painting Art Project. The blue tape should serve as a visual boundary for your child but you may have to teach them that paint stays inside the lines, on the paper, etc.

Skills Used: Hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness, fine motor skills, creativity

Farm + Zoo Animals - Day 4

Opening: Sing Raffi’s We’re Going to the Zoo or view Super Simple Songs: Let's Go to the Zoo and incorporate gross motor skills by imitating animals.

Read Aloud: Oink, Moo, Meow (Say & Play) or First 100 Animals Things to Talk About: Build on knowledge about animal sounds, but this time model conversation by making the animals "talk" to each other using animal sounds (i.e. The horse says "Hello, neighbor! The cow says "good moooorning!") using the magnets or figurines.

Skill-Building Activity: Use chunky puzzle pieces and animal figurines in Busy Toddler's Animal Line-Up activity to line them "head-to-head and rump-to-rump."

Skills Used: Hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, balance, concentration

Farm + Zoo Animals - Day 5

Opening: Sing Raffi’s We’re Going to the Zoo or view Super Simple Songs: Let's Go to the Zoo and incorporate gross motor skills by imitating animals.

Read Aloud: Oink, Moo, Meow (Say & Play) or First 100 Animals Things to Talk About: Let your child "read" the book to you! They may skip around or ask you for help, but the important thing here is to give them the confidence that they are a "reader" and know what the book "says". You may have to prompt them by pointing and asking them (what's that?" or "what does it say?")

Sensory Play: Make Busy Toddler's Taby Cloud Dough, then add animal figurines. Cloud dough is taste-safe, super soft and sooo much fun but can get messy fast so make sure to supervise (pro-tip: don't get it wet). I know it doesn't look like much, but the appeal is all in the texture.

Skills Used: Tactile learning, imagination, fine motor skills.

I made cloud dough with both my boys one rainy morning and sat down with them to play. I put everyone in the laundry room, put a rug underneath the bin and shut the door. Yes, there was white flour on my black mom leggings, but it wiped right off. When we were done I threw the boys' clothes directly in the washing machine and ran the Roomba. No biggie. I put the lid on the bin and they played with it outside later in the week.


Tips for Modifying for Your Child's Ability

Bearing in mind that there is a wide range of ability when it comes to verbal and motor skills (and development is often asynchronous) between ages 18 months and 2.5 years, you may need to simplify or make certain aspects more challenging. Here are a few ways to do this:

  1. Match the reading level of the books to your child's comprehension. In general, younger children need simple words and images while older children can follow a story line or engage with lengthier texts. I would encourage you to choose books that

  2. Reduce or increase the number of manipulatives (in this case, animals) that you are working with to make the lesson easier or harder. For some children, this may mean introducing only 3-4 animals at a time. Others may be ready for all of them at once.

  3. Adjust the complexity to suit your child. If your child already knows the sounds, focus on pronouncing the names. Another way is to make it more challenging is to combine the pieces from multiple puzzles. Some children may be ready to move beyond the chunky puzzles to something like these The Learning Journey: My First Match It - On the Farm - Self-Correcting Puzzles or even bump up to a 24 piece jumbo puzzle like this Melissa and Doug Safari Social Puzzle.

  4. Go off script if necessary. If you don't think your child would benefit from working with farm and zoo animals, feel free to substitute something else to practice the skills (dinosaurs? sea creatures? vehicles? Latin names?) Find something that matches their interest and ability level. Remember, it's not as much about identifying the animal as much as it is the skills developed using the animals.


Additional Resources: Educational Toys


I hope you enjoyed this example of how to combine reading, conversation and play in a meaningful way. If you know someone else with a taby or two-year-old who would be interested in learning how to prepare their child for Playing Preschool (when the time is right), please share and subscribe to be notified of future posts or visit my website to discover more books based on your child's age or interest.


  • Allison, Susie. Actual Parenting. Seattle, Washington, The Innovation Press, 2020

  • various articles (hyperlinked in blog post).

See Also: Playing Preschool with Busy Toddler: Lessons Learned, Playing Preschool with Busy Toddler Halloween Unit: 7 Days of Booo-kish Play, An Introduction to Playing Preschool with Busy Toddler, A Day in the Life of Raising a Reader

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