Activities that will teach toddlers skills and prepare them for school

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. Founder of

Montreal, Canada.

Flip, Flap, Fly!: A Book for Babies Everywhere Board book

Flip, Flap, Fly!: A Book for Babies Everywhere Board book

Thinking of preparing an 18 month old for school might seem odd at first, however both brain and education research has shown that there are certain skills that can help prepare a child for school, and that these skills need to be developed early on. I previously blogged about the importance of executive function skills in students, but today I thought I would discuss ways we could help toddlers develop these skills by providing you with activities I do with my toddler at home. Keep in mind that there are no apps or battery operated toys that can replace the parent-child interaction. These skills are best developed when we play with our children. 

I recently read an article from the Mind, Brain, and Education journal that stressed the importance of developing executive functions skills (memory, inhibition, problem solving and attention shifting) and emotion regulation in children at a young age in order to help prepare them for school. The following tips and activities focus on toddlers and focus on these emotional regulation and executive function skills. 


My daughter and I love to act out songs we sing, for example: "Head and shoulders, knees and toes", "The wheels on the bus" and "I'm a little teapot". These types of songs with movements are great for memory. After a few repetitions, she begins to incorporate them as I sing. As a bonus, once your child becomes familiar the songs, you can also sing them in the car to keep them occupied if they start to become restless! 

Books like Flip, Flap, Fly! can also help with memory. Before seeing what animal shows up on the next page, you get a partial glimpse on the previous page. So before turning the page, I ask my daughter which animal is coming up. Memory skills, especially working memory skills (this is when you need to keep some information in your head for a short period of time), have been linked to the development of language, spelling, writing, reading comprehension, counting and mathematics (Epsy et al. 2004). They are especially important in math.

Sustained attention

Not only is this a great activity for motor skills, you can also use it to match and sort (beads of the same size or colour) and it helps them learn to stay focused.

Not only is this a great activity for motor skills, you can also use it to match and sort (beads of the same size or colour) and it helps them learn to stay focused.

Children don't automatically know how to stay focused for a long period of time. I often meet parents concerned about their child's trouble focusing and worried it may be an attention disorder. Children need to develop their attention skills. Reading books on a daily basis not only helps with language development but also helps improve their ability to focus. Interactive books such as lift-the-flap books are a great way to maintain their interest. I love using the Elmo collection of lift-the-flap books. There are an abundance of flaps, which keeps my daughter engaged. I also use it as a "search and find" book, asking her to find "Big Bird" or "Grover". If your toddler has difficulty sitting through an entire book, this book might be a good way to start.

Since she is too young for bead and lacing activities, I created my own version with pipe cleaners instead. Using large beads and pipe cleaners, which aren't as flimsy as laces, we create bracelets together (see picture).

Don't forget that sustained attention is not very long for most children. As a rule of thumb, it is estimated to be equivalent to their age in minutes. So if you have a 4 year old that stays put for 4 minutes, you are off to a good start! Build on it and don't forget to congratulate them after they've been focused for a while! 


Emotion regulation  

Ah yes, the toddler years... a time when children express their emotions and parents discover emotions of their own they never knew they had. It is a normal path for children to follow, but as parents, we need to help them deal with their emotions and learn to regulate them. If my daughter is upset about something, I try to help her understand what she is feeling, empathize with her and explain why I am asking her to do something she doesn't want to do. For example, if she cries because she doesn't want to get into her car seat, I would say: "It looks like you are angry, I know it's not always fun to sit in your car seat, but I need you to sit down so that we can go to the grocery store"... sometimes it takes a few attempts before it works, but being consistent with this really helps. As this handout from Harvard University states, going about it this way helps them learn to regulate their emotions and engage their executive function skills. A book that really helped me learn this method is called "No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame" by Janet Lansbury. Interestingly, recent education research has suggested that emotions and social skills also play a large role in school readiness. Children with stronger socio-emotional skills are able to build better relationships at school and have more control over their emotions in the classroom.

Sorting and matching

Placote - Le loto des petites phrases

Placote - Le loto des petites phrases

My daughter is my partner when it comes to house work. I fold the clothes, she tosses them on the floor. I clean the floor and she somehow gets food back on it within 5 minutes. One thing we enjoy doing together is sorting socks. It has become a fun game we play. I pick out 2 socks that are clearly different and ask her if they are the same; or I pick 2 matching socks and ask if they are the same. We also play with beads and buttons I picked up at Dollarama. I have her help me sort them in a muffin tin.

I recently discovered a language development game that requires the child match action cards to pictures. For example, parents can ask the child "Where is the dog that is sleeping?". Once the child finds the appropriate card and places it in the correct spot, the parent can reinforce their understanding by repeating the sentence ("The dog is sleeping") and attempt to also have the child repeat this. The game is called Placote - Le loto des petites phrases, found on


Following directions 

We love playing dancing games where we walk around and I sing "clap your hands", then "stomp your feet" or any action movement you can think of. At some point, I will say "FREEZE" and we need to stop in place.

We also have fun cooking together. I place her on the counter where I am preparing food and give her a task. If I cut some vegetables, I ask her to place them in a bowl. If there are stickers on the tomatoes, I ask her to peel off the stickers and place the tomatoes on the counter. Giving 1 simple instruction or even 2 at a time will develop their executive function skills.

Imaginary play can also help develop these skills. If you are playing with a tea set or play food, you can ask them to "bring the milk and sugar" or "give you a banana and apple". Developing the skill to follow directions also  emotional-social skills?, which I can't stress enough with regards to their importance for school readiness. Children who enter kindergarten with stronger social-emotional skills have more positive attitudes towards school. 

Stay tuned for more activities in our upcoming posts to help toddlers develop all the skills mentioned in this post. Make sure you sign up to our mailing list!