It is shocking to me how quickly my toddler learns. We talk about things once or twice, and then he repeats the information a hundred times to me over the next few weeks! It is so important that we capitalize on our children’s love for learning (and quick ability to learn!) in their early years.

However, it is also important to remember that toddlers and preschoolers have short attention spans. Most of them don’t want (or need) to sit down for a long lesson and significant bookwork. Fortunately, the environment that you create is all that your child needs at this age to learn!

Here are some of our family’s favorite ways to encourage learning in the early years.

1. The Stairs (and other daily routines)

Our first child started counting to 13 around 16 months old. Initially, that seems like a strange number, but it’s how many stairs are between our basement and our ground floor! Every time we would walk up and down the stairs, we would count out loud together. I was shocked how fast he had all the numbers memorized. If you don’t have stairs, there are many other ways to do this—from counting blueberries at lunch, to the number of toys in the bathtub, to books on their bookshelf!

2. Educational Placemats

Mealtimes can be a great opportunity for learning, just by placing something educational in front of your kids!

By the time my son was two and a half, he knew more than half of the states that make up the United States because every time we sat down for a meal, he would ask for his state placemat. What started informally (“Do you know what state daddy is from?”) quickly became an easy way for him to learn. He learns fun facts about each state, such as where different family members are from, state nicknames, or places we have traveled to. Using those clues, he has learned to identify the state name and where it is located on the map. He loves it!

Other favorite placemats include the solar system, the alphabet, and beginning phonics and math. And, of course, this doesn’t only go for placemats—set up your home to be an environment for learning with engaging and educational art, posters, books, and more.

3. Puzzles and Games

Puzzles provide another engaging way to incorporate educational concepts while having fun. My kids love doing our United States map, alphabet train, numbers, and solar system puzzles. Since you can get puzzles at all different skill levels, they provide a great way to work with kids of multiple ages. As a plus, they can also reinforce thematic lessons your kids are learning (i.e., geography, animals, letters).

We also love playing games like Concentration (for matching like items), Candy Land (for color identification and counting), and Go Fish (for pattern recognition and hand-eye coordination skills). For more educational game ideas, check out this blog post!

4. The Great Outdoors

My kids’ favorite place to learn is outdoors. This year we are attempting the 1000 Hours Outside challenge, which is opening even more opportunities to learn than previously. Science for littles is so easy to do outdoors!

Every time we go on a walk, we talk about what is going on seasonally. In the spring, we get to learn about how flowers blossom, examine the buds on the trees, and discuss the water cycle when it rains. The summer gives us time in the garden to learn all about how fruits and vegetables grow, how compost adds nutrients back into the soil, and why we need those pesky spiders around. In the fall, we learn about how the leaves change color, why they fall off the trees, and how plants prepare for the cold. In the winter, we discuss God’s intricate design of the snowflake, learn which animals hibernate and how they prepare, and discover the value of hot chocolate for the human soul. . . (okay, so maybe the last one is a little less educational).

Another unforeseen advantage of increasing our time outdoors has been getting to know more of our neighbors, especially some of the elderly. My children are learning empathy, patience, and how to relate to others through these experiences, a skill that no classroom can teach them!

5. Songs

Learning through songs can be one of the best ways to teach! Catchy rhythms keep your child engaged while providing an easy way to remember what they are learning. I still remember some of the things my mom taught me through song when I was a young child!

Some songs are classics, like the ABCs and BINGO. Some of our favorites for fact memorization are Days of the Week, Months of the Year, and the Shapes Song. My preschoolers also love songs like Wheels on the Bus and I’m In the Lord’s Army when they need to get their wiggles out. Get creative—there are a ton of ideas and resources available on YouTube!

6. Bathtime

The bath was where visual letter and number recognition started. Foam bath toys with letters and numbers became a favorite toy as we identified them, tried making words with them, and stuck them on the side of the bathtub in order. This type of play-based learning stimulates their brain academically while keeping them engaged and improving their fine motor skills.

As you work on learning with your toddlers and preschoolers, I encourage you to make learning fun! They don’t need workbooks and sit-down learning time to absorb educational materials. Environmental learning provides a fun way for children to absorb information while playing and exploring—the perfect combination!