Category Archives: Early Learning / Preschool

(Re)Adapting to In-Person Classes

This fall, many young children may be returning to in-person classes or preschool after a long time away, and some toddlers may be joining their first group activities with peers. Parents may worry about how their child will adapt. We can support the transition by: getting ourselves ready, choosing the right program for the moment, preparing children by teaching social skills and self-help skills at home plus talking to them about what to expect and what will be expected of them, then supporting them through all the new experiences in the first few weeks of class. We should expect that it will not all go smoothly and all children will have some rough days at school – because that has always been the case!

I know this feels like an unprecedented situation, and yes, COVID is unprecedented. But parents have always worried about sending their child off to school and wondered how they can help with the process. Those steps that parents have been following for decades all apply here, and we’ll throw in a couple COVID specific tips in our suggestions about what you can do to increase the chances that the transition to in-person learning will go smoothly.

Prepare Yourself

If you are anxious, your child will pick up on that, and they’ll be anxious too. So, before you start talking to them about going to classes, do whatever you need to do to build your own confidence that it will be OK. Get support from others if needed.

If you’re worried about COVID – remind yourself that even if children catch COVD, they typically have mild cases. (Yes, there are exceptions – some children who get very sick – but the chances are small.) The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a return to in-person school. You can also think about layers of protection – all the things you can do to reduce the risk for your child. [If you’re evaluating whether or not to return to in-person classes, here are factors to consider.]

If you’re worried your child won’t adapt well to being around other children, listening to other adults, or being away from you, keep in mind that children are very resilient – they often adapt to things much easier than adults do.

Ideally, you should work on your worries out of sight of your child. But, if your child notices your anxiety, then trying to pretend it’s not there can actually cause them more worry than if you just calmly say “I’m feeling worried now – here’s what I’m doing to calm myself.”

Planning for Success

Jumping from social isolation at home to a full-time program could be overwhelming for some children. Some parents are choosing to start small with a program that meets for only a few hours a week, and gradually build up to more. Some are choosing to start with a parent-child class or a cooperative preschool where they can stay with their child in the new setting to help make the transition to being with other kids and adults easier. Some will choose full-time school but simplify the rest of the child’s schedule to keep things manageable.

When looking at programs, I would consider their COVID protocols: Vaccines for the adults, masking for everyone over age 2, increased ventilation / more outside time, and social distancing can all reduce the risk.

I would also look more broadly at their approach to scheduling and rules. I would look for one that has a nice balance between providing structure with predictable routines and a little flexibility to adapt to your child’s needs of the moment. Our children really need both predictable routines at this time and responsiveness to their needs as they re-adapt.

Preparing Your Child

While returning from COVID is new, asking kids to adapt to new situations is not new. So there are a lot of things we know to do to ease transitions into toddler classes, daycare or preschool.

  • Teach self-help skills. Help your child learn how to put on their coat, take off their coat and hang it up. Help them learn how to open their string cheese or yogurt containers by themselves. Teach handwashing skills, and also practice how to use hand sanitizer.
    • During COVID, teach them how to wear a mask, how to take it off to eat, and put it back on, and what to do if their mask gets wet or dirty. (Early in COVID, many parents wondered if they could ever teach their child to do something “as weird” as wearing a mask – but remember, that’s not weird to a kid. It’s no weirder or harder to learn than how to wear pants in public.)
  • Teach and practice social skills: how to make friends, how to invite someone to play with you, how to ask to play with a toy someone else is using, taking turns, and so on. Set up playdates where your child can practice these skills.
    • During COVID, teach them about “giving space” around them rather than crowding other kids. In dance classes and sports classes, teachers have long used the idea of “bubbles” – imagine you have a big invisible bubble around you and so does everyone else and you can’t bump inside anyone else’s bubble. You can teach and practice this. Be careful not to give your child the message that it will always be dangerous / scary to be close to other people. Just say that right now with COVID we need to make extra space.
    • It always helps to teach emotional literacy skills – how you can tell how someone else is feeling. During COVID, be sure teach your child to watch for body language and tone of voice since they can’t see facial expression for people who are masked.
  • Create routines. What routines can you establish at home to make it easier to get out the door in the morning? If you’ll need to be up earlier in the morning than you’re used to, do you need to adjust bedtime? Learn about what routines they use at school and try to have similar practices at home. (For example, washing hands before snack time.) If your child will use new tools at school – like a backpack or a lunchbox or water bottle – get them early and practice.

Preparing them for Class

Talk about what to expect at their class, and what will be expected of them.

  • There are lots of great books and TV episodes about starting preschool. Some good book options include “Rosie goes to Preschool” by Karen Katz. (video) “Maisy Goes to Preschool” by Lucy Cousins (video), Lola Goes to School by McQuinn (video), Pete the Kitty’s First Day of Preschool by James Dean (video). Or watch “Learn what happens when Sadie starts school.” These provide good starting points for conversations and for pretend play.
    • Note: Many books address separation anxiety and other fears. If your child is already fearful, these can be reassuring. But if your child is feeling confident, don’t read these books – you don’t want to introduce anxiety! Some examples: Bye Bye Time by Verdick (video) is great for kids who are just a little anxious – it helps you develop a ritual for goodbye time and a plan for them for what to do if things are hard. “Llama Llama Misses Mama” by Anna Dewdney (video) is about a llama who has a really rough first day at school – it’s a perfect book to read after your child has a rough day. “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn (video) is about a raccoon child who is very reluctant to go to school – if your child is already reluctant, it offers good tools. Or watch Daniel Tiger Goes to School.
    • Here are recommendations for kids starting kindergarten or first grade: https://www.thoughtco.com/childrens-picture-books-about-starting-school-627520
  • Talk about what to expect at their school. Visit the school, if possible. Or, at least look at pictures or a video tour if available. Visit the outside of the building and walk around. Show your child pictures of the teacher. Get some materials like they’ll have in the classroom – like markers – and practice using them at home. There’s an idea called a social story which was created for kids with autism – where you create your own little book with pictures that clearly describes what to expect, what’s expected of them, and what they’ll do if something is challenging – I find these can benefit any child, so you could create one for your child.
  • Teach and practice how to interact with a teacher. Explain that the teacher is there to help them and will take care of them. Explain that the teacher is in charge. Teach how to get the teacher’s attention and how to ask for help. Teach them that sometimes they have to wait for a grown-up to be available to help them. Play listening games (like Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, or Copy the Rhythm I Clap).
  • Pretend play. Pretend to be going to school – who will play the parent? The child? The teacher? Play at things like: waiting in line (with stuffed animals), doing circle time, taking turns, asking the teacher for help, saying goodbye at drop-off time.

When Classes Begin

  • Don’t make too big a deal of the first day. That anticipation and excitement can turn into anxiety.
  • Don’t introduce all new clothes and shoes and backpack on the first day. Let them wear familiar and comfortable items. Pack their favorite foods, and pack the exact same lunch for the first several days so they know exactly what to expect. Ask your school’s policy about “transitional objects” – for some children, having a toy from home or a picture of family or favorite book, can help them adjust to all the new things around them.
    • Note: pre-COVID, this was often a stuffed animal, but during COVID, only send things to school that can be easily cleaned.
  • Allow extra time to get there – you want time to relax beforehand, remind your child what to expect, and get there with everyone calm. (Note: this is especially true if you have a child you think of as shy – I call them “slow to warm up.” These children do best when they can arrive a little early, before most of the other children and settle in. They don’t do well running in frantic and late to a full and busy classroom.
  • Build a relationship with the teacher(s), other kids, and other parents. When your child sees that you feel comfortable interacting with them all, they will feel comfortable too. Let the teacher know what things most engage and calm your child. (When my child was three, I told his teacher(s) that any time Ben was feeling worried, all they had to do was ask him about the planets, and give him nine objects to line up to show which was closest to the sun and which was furthest… it was guaranteed to calm him any time!)
  • For drop-off programs, ask if it’s possible to stay a while at drop off time in the early days. (It may not be possible during COVID.)
  • When it’s time to leave, keep your goodbyes brief, radiate confidence that they will be OK. Do say goodbye – don’t try to sneak our when they’re not looking. Tell them what they will be doing while you’re gone, and when you’ll return. (Be sure to honor that promise, and be prompt and predictable for your return.)
  • Make your goodbye ritual simple and sweet. Make sure your child is either settled into an activity or knows that to do next, or hand them off to an adult for care so that when you walk out the door, your child has something else they’re focused on other than your absence.
  • Remember that fear of strangers is developmentally normal for all children 7 months and up, and that separation anxiety is common in all toddlers around 18 months. If you see them, they’re likely not due to coronavirus or anything you did or didn’t do. And any advice that you can find for separation anxiety at any time will apply, whether or not it’s COVID specific.
  • Resist the rescue. If your child is sad/crying when it’s time for you to go, be caring and validate their feelings but stick to the plan and leave. Trust the teachers to be the professionals they are and manage the common challenges of separation anxiety. Typically a child who cries at drop off times cries only briefly and will soon calm down.
  • After class, give your child a chance to debrief and talk about how the day went.

Handling the Challenges

You may be one of the lucky few parents that everything goes well for and your child sails on through with no challenges. Or you may have a toddler who bites his classmates. If that happens, it’s not your fault and it’s not because of COVID isolation – it’s because sometimes toddlers bite their classmates. If your seven month old cries when strangers hold them, it’s good to know that 7 month olds have always been prone to fear of strangers. If you have a child who has a hard time sitting still for story time – maybe it’s because they didn’t have to sit still during quarantine… however, there have always been children who had a hard time sitting still! And the teachers will work with your family through the challenges, as they always have.

Be careful not to catastrophize. If your response to every setback is stress, anxiety, and “why does everything always go wrong?” that makes it worse. Try to have a resilience approach – “this is hard right now, but we’ve faced hard things in the past, and we’ve made it through, and look how much we learned.”

Some things to be aware of: if your child is having big feelings, it’s important to acknowledge them, not just try to distract them away. Regression is normal – for example, a child who was potty trained may have accidents – don’t punish or shame, just acknowledge the issue and say “let’s try to do better tomorrow.” If your child is really clingy, maybe they just need more snuggling for a while – soothe and reassure them. If they are misbehaving, remind yourself: children who are loved will always try to do well if they can. If they are misbehaving, ask yourself – is there a skill or support that they are lacking? If so, help them build it. Ask yourself – could it be that they have an underlying need that is driving the misbehavior? If so, meeting that need may resolve the issue.

Be patient and remember that any challenges are just a phase. Just keep doing your best every day and encourage them to do their best, and you’ll make your way through to the other side of this challenging time.

More Ideas

Should I push my child ahead in school?

I often have parents ask questions like:

  • can I enroll my 2.5 year old child in a preschool that’s for ages 3 and up?
  • my child will turn 5 in October – should I apply for early entrance into kindergarten?
  • my child is a few months younger than the requirement for the camp – can I sign them up anyway?
  • my child is gifted – should they skip a grade?

I also see in classes my children take that if the class is for ages 5 to 7, it’s filled with 5 year olds, because all the 6 year olds are in the class that’s for ages 6 to 8, and so on.

It seems as if many parents believe that “the best” education is the most advanced education that they can possibly squeeze their children into.

I know that as a parent, we want what is best for our children. It may seem like starting on skills earlier will benefit them, but that is often not the case. If we push a child up a level in classes, that means they will be the youngest child there. They may be developmentally ready in some areas, but they may be behind in others – they may end up successful in some ways, but perhaps also feeling like they’re always the smallest, slowest or least socially skilled. It is so much better to place them in an age appropriate class that is still able to challenge them. In that setting, it is easier for them to feel successful, easier to feel like they fit in, and easier to develop in all areas into a well-rounded individual.

When we push kids faster along a certain track, they may succeed at that track, but that focus can mean they miss out on other learning opportunities. For example, a child enrolled in academic preschool may move further ahead on reading and writing, but may not have the opportunity to fully develop the social skills and independent decision making they would gain at a play-based preschool. A child whose time is all focused on moving forward in baseball never has the opportunity to learn the physical skills they would learn in swimming or gymnastics classes, or the emotional intelligence that could be learned in a theater class.

Rather than trying to jump your child forward to the next level (the accelerated approach), try to think about what other opportunities there are to broaden their learning at their current level (the horizontal or enrichment approach.)

For example, if you have a toddler or preschooler who is doing well with language and literacy type skills, think of ways to enhance their other intelligences:

  • Could they take music classes? There are a lot of learning benefits to music that go far beyond that realm.
  • Could they spend more time in free play outdoors? Learn about the benefits of nature play, and about outdoor preschool.
  • Could they spend more time learning social and emotional skills through pretend play? Or go to a theatre preschool? Or have more playdates to practice their social skills?
  • Could they build their small motor skills and creativity in art classes?
  • Could they build their knowledge of how to use their body (which will help in all sports, or dance, or just moving through the world) by taking aikido classes? Or dance? Or climbing trees and clambering on rocks?
  • Could you choose play-based classes (like co-op preschools) that offer a wide range of experiences and let your child choose the ones that most engage them at the moment? The most learning will occur when your child is fully engaged in an activity of their choice.

You can find lots more ideas for activities to enhance all types of intelligence in this post on Toys and Activities to Build Young Brains.

At whatever level your child is at, there is always more to learn, without needing to push them ahead to an older level.

As a teacher, I also have to say that when I have let children who are younger than the designated age into my class, it has rarely been the best fit for them, or for us. Not that the children “failed.” They were able to participate in class, and learn from it. But not as much as they could have learned if they had waited a year. Also, I had to leave some projects out of my class that wouldn’t have been safe for the little ones, and I had to choose simpler books to read aloud so the little ones would understand, and I had to do more classroom management to keep the little ones focused, and my older children missed out on some learning they could have gotten if all the children in the class were fully developmentally ready for the content.

So, I would encourage most parents, in most circumstances, to trust the teachers when they tell you what age children their program is the best fit for. Your child will learn best when they are in an environment where all the aspects are age appropriate.

Learn More

These articles are all about starting kindergarten, but the concepts could apply to starting preschool early, skipping grades in school, and so on.

Also, be sure to check out my post on acceleration vs. enrichment.

Choosing the Best School / Preschool

On a regular basis, I see posts on social media from parents asking for advice on choosing “the best” preschool, or the best private school in the area, or asking which is the best public school as they plan a move. (And, of course, parents of older children agonize over what is the best college.)

There truly is not a “best” school. There are LOTS of great schools, and some mediocre ones, and a very few bad ones. What’s best is the school that best meets your family’s unique needs and goals, and best suits your child’s unique learning style.

Here are some steps to take to figuring out YOUR best option:

Step 1 – Needs Assessment

Before you bother researching all the options, and before you fall in love with an option that won’t meet your needs, let’s start with the pure nitty gritty essentials:

  • Schedule: Are you looking for full-time or part-time, or are you flexible? If the regular school day isn’t long enough, do they offer extended day care? What days do you need? What wouldn’t work?
  • What times could work for you and what just doesn’t work? (e.g. if you’re not a morning person, choosing an early morning program may not be a realistic bet)
  • Location: really think through the commute and whether it will work – I can’t tell you how many parents have chosen what they thought was a great school, but by October were miserable about having a cranky kid in the car in never-ending traffic)
  • Cost: there is a wide range in costs – be realistic about what’s affordable for you. If you stretch your budget, then it can make any little frustration with the school really stressful as you think – “I can’t believe we’re paying this much and this is happening!”
  • Drop-off or stay? For younger children, there are often parent-child options where you always stay, or co-ops that are drop off some days and have you work in the classroom on other days. These are generally cheaper than drop-off programs and also allow you to be closely involved in your child’s education.

Step 2 – Goal Setting

What do you hope your child will get out of the experience? Are you hoping for academic development? Social-emotional skill building? Art? Music? Physical education? Science? Religious education?

Are there things that you know you could do a great job of teaching your kids? Then you may not need the school to cover that well. Is there something you think you won’t be good at teaching? Choose a school that does it well.

Do you prefer a very structured teacher-led program? Or more of a play-based or inquiry-based program where the teacher works the lesson plans around the children’s interests? How do you feel about homework – are you happy to guide practice time at home for them to improve on their skills? Or would you like out of school time to be free choice for your family?

Is the school’s approach to learning compatible with yours? When our oldest was little, we looked at one school which discouraged use of technology and screens, and actually discouraged reading before age 7, instead focusing on things like oral story-telling. This did not work for our tech-heavy family and also didn’t make sense because my kids all learn to read by age 3 or 4. (Not because we drill them… but because we love books so much in our family that they couldn’t wait to read themselves.) We looked at another school where there were only non-fiction books on the shelf in the kindergarten classroom, and I asked “where are the story books?” They disdainfully said “they have plenty of time for that sort of reading at home…” I knew that wasn’t the school for us!

Take a good look at your child’s temperament and learning style. I had a very social chatty child, and we looked at one school where the children were expected to work quietly and independently and not chat with each other. Not a good match for that child. I had a high energy child who tended to get overstimulated in indoor classrooms, but stayed calm and happy outdoors, so we sent him to outdoor preschool. You want to choose a school where your child will feel competent and valued, not one where they never fit in.

During goal setting, it’s also worth asking: What do you hope to get out of their school experience? Some preschools and schools offer parent education and support. Some actively work to encourage community building amongst families. Cooperative preschools and home school coops are the ultimate example of involving parents in school in meaningful ways. On the other hand, some parents may prefer to outsource school, and have a pretty hands-off approach, and there are certainly schools that will also support that.

Step 3 – Learn about Your Options

OK, now it’s time to turn to the internet and social media.

In Facebook groups for parents, you probably don’t even need to ask a question – you can typically search the archives for preschool or school, because probably 50 people before you have asked “what’s the best school” and you can just read through all those answers!

You can look at Yelp and Google reviews and such – but, as always with reviews, you’ll see a lot of 5 stars and a lot of 1 stars and nothing in between. People only bother to write reviews when they’re really happy or really mad. So, reviews never tell the whole story. But, they can give you some hints of what to watch for.

Look for directories, and look for school fairs and preschool fairs, or special issues of local parenting magazines. For example, in the Seattle area, for preschools, you’ll find the directory for the ParentMap preschool fair and the preschool night at Lake WA Toddler Group. For private schools, here is the directory for NW Association of Independent Schools and Puget Sound Independent Schools. Search online for ratings of local public schools.

Once you’ve got the names of schools, it’s easy to do lots of internet research on them. Check out their websites. Don’t just read the words, but also look for what’s NOT said. (For example, in my experience, if they don’t tell you the tuition up front, it’s probably high.) Look for what the pictures show, and what’s missing in the pictures. (For example, many schools try to portray diversity in their photographs to let folks know that everyone is welcome, but I’ve been involved in schools where we didn’t yet have a lot of racial diversity, and so we had the same few kids appearing over and over in several photos. I believe that we were welcoming, but when BIPOC kids came, there would not yet be many peers for them.)

Look at ads. But note: you may see a ton of ads for one school that make you think they’re great, but it could just be a big school with a big marketing budget (and likely high tuition to support that). Some really great small schools never run ads, because they’re trying to keep costs low to increase accessibility for families. They count on word of mouth – current and alumni families who had great experiences and tell their friends and family.

So, that leads to your best source of options: word of mouth. Ask friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, parents at the park! If you ask on social media, instead of just saying “what’s a great school”, say “we’re looking for a part-time, play-based, affordable preschool – what do you recommend?” Or whatever other criteria you want to state. That makes sure the recommendations you get are relevant to you.

Step 4 – Questions to Research

What do they teach? What would your child learn there?

What is the daily schedule? How is time divided between activities? Play time? Quiet time? Outdoors? Snack? Young children have short attention spans for structured activity, so it’s best in short doses, with plenty of unstructured time in between to explore and discover, and quiet time to process what they’ve learned.

How do they teach it?

A couple big picture ideas: A teacher-led curriculum means the teacher always prepares the lessons in advance (and may use a standardized curriculum) and sticks to them. A child-led curriculum (a.k.a. emergent or constructivist) follows the children’s interests and adapts to what the children want to do.

A structured class might use group time, worksheets, and formal instruction to teach particular skills. Students may be drilled in the basics, or asked to practice things over and over. A play-based class typically has multiple stations set up and allows children to move between things when they choose. The teacher moves around the room, making suggestions and observations, and asking questions to further the learning.

Who are the students?

  • How many students? How many teachers? The number of kids matters as much as student to teacher ratio. A 8 student class with 1 teacher (8:1 ratio) feels very different from a 16 student class with 2 teachers (8:1). And a 24 kid class is really different from a 6 kid class no matter the ratios.
  • What is the age range of the class? Some parents prefer that all the kids be as close as possible in age, but many programs tout the benefits of multi-age classrooms. The oldest kids have a chance to lead and mentor, and the younger ones benefit by the presence of an older role model.
  • What are the cut-off dates for age? Your child will do best when they’re in the middle of the recommended age range. If your child is a fall baby (born in September or October), I do NOT recommend trying to push them ahead… if they’re the youngest child in their class, they’ll always feel small, slow, and socially behind, even if they can keep up academically. Let them be the oldest – it’s a confidence booster. If they need more academic challenge than their classmates, most teachers are happy to give extra challenges to kids who can handle it.

Who are the teachers?

  • Training and experience: Where and how did they learn the content that they are teaching in the class? Where did they learn about how to teach? Do they participate in continuing education?
  • Longevity / turnover. As a general rule, the longer the teachers have been there the better. (Unless you get the sense that they’re burned out and only there due to inertia….)
  • Do they enjoy kids? Do they sit on the floor with the kids, smile, and engage with them? Or are they standing on the edges talking to other adults, occasionally calling out instructions to a child?
  • How do they handle discipline?What are their rules and how do they reinforce them?

What is the learning environment like?

  • Is the environment clean? Safe?
  • Is there a wide range of materials and supplies? Are materials in good condition?
  • Vibe:  The most important thing you’re “looking” for is something you can’t see. How does it feel? Is it warm, nurturing, full of exciting learning experiences, and full of happy children and teachers? Or is it cold, institutional, uninvolved?

What is the parent experience?

OK, now it’s time to go back to social media with specific questions: “We’re trying to decide between X School and Y School. We’d love to connect to parents who have recent experience with them – we’re especially curious about _____.”

Step 5 – Go With Your Gut

We know from the science of brain development that children learn best when they feel safe and are happy, so look for a place where they will be happy and engaged. Look for a place where you would feel great every time you drop them off to spend time there. Our family has been lucky to participate in some schools where I just felt blessed to have found that environment for my child.

So, all the steps above are logical and focus on practical evaluations. But I think this final decision point often comes down to what feels right to you? That’s the best school.

Learn more:

Can Online Preschool Work?

pexels-photo-3975663

Lots of early childhood programs are moving online for fall of 2020. When parents hear that toddler classes or preschools are meeting online, they may have questions about whether it could be an effective method for learning. It is definitely not the same as in-person learning, and we would rather be in-person, hands-on, with lots of happy children interacting in the same room. However, there are lots of great benefits still to be gained in an online preschool or toddler program.

  • Routines: having a predictable activity in your weekly schedule helps to keep them (and you) oriented to external schedules even in coronavirus haze. It provides an event to look forward to and reflect on.
  • Other Faces and Voices: seeing other children and a teacher can be delightful, your child will learn by observing their peers, class can also expose them to diversity and broaden their world, plus we know that children learn language better when they hear a wide variety of adult speakers.
  • A Listening Ear: for classes where they offer sharing time, children will have someone else to share their exciting ideas with, and will have a chance to practice their expressive language skills
  • A Chance to Practice Manners and Classroom Skills: one of the important aspects of an early childhood experience, whether that’s story time at the library, Sunday school at church, or preschool is that children get to practice sitting still, listening to someone else, participating in a group activity, and taking turns – they can practice all these things in an interactive call on Zoom.
  • Learning New Things: whatever the content of the class – music, stories, dance, art, or science, your child can easily learn new ideas from an online teacher, and if you’re listening in, you can reinforce the learning much more effectively than you could have reinforced what they were taught at a drop-off preschool.
  • New Inspiration: your child will get new ideas and you will get new ideas for things to try out at home and explore and learn from – you don’t have to feel responsible for coming up with all the learning ideas on your own.

Here is a handout where I offer lots of tips on help child succeed on Zoom and get the most benefit from an online program.

Child-Directed Play: Floortime

floortime

Child-directed play is an intentional practice where you sit and play with a child, allowing them to guide the play, as  you follow along. The Greenspan Floortime approach describes this as:

  • Follow your child’s lead, i.e. enter the child’s world and join in their emotional flow;
  • Challenge her to be creative and spontaneous; and
  • Expand the action and interaction to include all or most of her senses and motor skills as well as different emotions

Floortime was created by Dr. Stanley Greenspan for children on the autism spectrum and those with developmental delays. It can also be used with typically developing children. It is helpful for any parent or caregiver who wants new ways to interact and have fun with a child, wants to feel more engaged with and connected to a child, and wants to know how best to interact with a child to foster communication skills, social-emotional development and cognitive learning.

How Floortime works:

Set the Stage

  • Find a time when you can focus on play, when you and your child are both well-rested and fed.
  • Be present – set aside your mobile devices and other distractions, relax, and stay focused on the interaction.
  • Gather items that interest your child and have them available, but not so many that it’s overwhelming.
  • Your position is important. Be in front of them – that’s better for connecting than it is to be side by side or for you to be behind them. Get down to their level – typically on the floor. Your physical nearness, affectionate touch, and eye contact help them to stay engaged.

Follow their Lead

  • Let them choose the activity. Offer toys that they love. It doesn’t matter what you play, it matters how you play.
  • Join in their play. Match their level of play – if they’re low key, you are too. If they’re very energetic, match that (without escalating up to wild.)
  • Don’t feel like you have to teach them. Just let them explore and discover. Copy the way that they play. If they signal that they want your help doing something, then help them, but don’t just jump in and do things they haven’t asked for.
  • Measuring intent. Watch their gaze, expressions and body language. Where is their attention? Let them know it’s OK to take initiative and start an activity.
  • If they are motivated, don’t change the activity. It’s OK to do the same thing over and over again.
  • Be playful! Find joy in your interaction. Their current interest may not be inherently interesting to you. But tune into how it gives them joy.
  • Look for the gleam in their eye. That’s a great sign that it’s working.

If it’s not working: Are you trying to control the play too much – do you need to step back? Are you being too passive and aimlessly following them around – how can you join them in interactive play? (Learn more about following their lead.)

Narration

If you feel tempted to ask a lot of questions, or do a lot of teaching, or you’re just over-talking, try observing silently, or responding to their play with simple reactions “uh oh!”, “what’s that?”, “hurray”.

If you want to talk, try narrating what they are doing. “You’re putting the toys in the basket. You noticed there’s only one toy left on the floor. Whoa, you dumped all the toys back on the floor so you can do it again!”

This narration tells them that you’re paying attention and that what they’re doing is important to you. You’re also building their language skills by giving them words to describe the things they do.

Use Emotional Expression and Responses to Engage

  • Expression – Use your eyes, facial expression, tone of voice and body language to connect and communicate. Your emotions (especially anticipation, surprise, and delight) help to attract their attention and keep them engaged. When you pair your words with emotional expression, it gives your child a better understanding of both the words and the emotions.
  • Observation and Response – Can you read their emotional cues? Do your expressions engage them more? If so, keep it up. If they’re seeming overwhelmed by you, back down a little – you’re following their lead.

Circles of communication

When Floortime is working well, it’s like a game of volleyball or ping pong. You know your child’s interests, so you “serve” by offering a toy. They “bounce back” to you by taking the toy. You talk to them about the toy. This back and forth interaction is where all the magic learning takes place. A young toddler, or a child with autism or delays, may only be able to go back and forth a few times before disconnecting. The older they are and the more play experience they have, the better they’ll get at this. The goal of Floortime is to build persistence – more of these circles of connection.

Once it’s working well, you settle into a flow of play – Floortime calls this “getting it cooking.”

If it’s not working: Are you waiting long enough for them to respond? Are they overwhelmed – are you talking too much or moving too fast? Are you following their interests and joining them where they are? (Watch for any expression, sound, or gesture that might invite you into their play.)

Stretch the Play

Once you’re “cooking” – you’re connected and have a nice back-and-forth pattern established, then you can work to take their play up a level.

Expand the play by adding in some new toy or new aspect of play, or offering some choices. For example, if they’ve been using blocks to make a stable for their toy horses, you can put a “roof” on one of the “stalls.” If they’ve served you the toy pizza over and over, ask for a drink to go with it. If you were playing peek a boo, drop the scarf and pretend to have a hard time finding it.

Expand just enough, but not too much. Your goal is sustained engagement – we want to keep out back-and-forth exchange going as long as we can. So, if your new extension keeps them engaged, and you’ve got that gleam, keep it up. If you lose their attention, back up a little.

If it’s not working: Some parents try to intervene too much. Some are too passive and don’t help child stretch.  Try to find the balance between following their lead and challenging them to interact, communicate, and think.

Tailoring to the Individual Child

Some children have sensory preferences – they really respond to sounds or to touch or to movement. Some children are easily overwhelmed by certain kinds of stimulation – sound or touch or smell might be too intense for them. Children may also prefer different speed of interaction – some like things to move slowly, some like fast moving play. This worksheet may be helpful if you feel like there are sensory or timing issues involved.

Benefits of Floortime

Some parents wonder – if I’m just playing the same simple game over and over, is my child actually learning anything? According to Autism Speaks, the back and forth play of Floortime “builds the foundation for shared attention, engagement and problem solving. Parents and therapists help the child maintain focus to sharpen interactions and abstract, logical thinking.” They also note these key aims: self-regulation, engagement in relationships, communication skills, and emotional learning.

Learn more

Learn more about tips for Floortime sessions, and see videos of parents and caregivers demonstrating these skills: