Six steps to creating a themed learning unit for my toddler

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My mentor and supervisor once provided game-changing feedback in a post-observation meeting. He said, “Every great lesson has an invisible thread – a theme that ties it all together.”

In four years of teaching, I hadn’t received as valuable feedback as I did in that year, and truly in that moment. That’s when I began switching gears to using literature as a springboard for learning. I targeted areas to teach (grammar, writing, reading, science, math) and built activities around a chosen piece of literature. After making this switch, I’ve found much supporting research on why deeply exploring a theme boosts vocabulary and deep learning.

As I have embarked on the at-home teaching journey with Mon Cœur (MC), I have continued to embrace this idea of thematic learning through literature. Luckily, for the preschool aged audience, practically all the resources I’ve found are naturally organized into themes, since at this stage, toddlers are learning all about the world around them.

At the beginning of the year, I had reorganized MC’s bookshelves by theme to facilitate this. As I strive to bring more structure and learning opportunities, I am trying to plan more activities and lessons around these themes, too.

How am I doing this, and what resources have helped me? Read below for my six steps on how I am making this work. I am just starting to assemble themes, and so I am still learning as I go what works for us. I will continue to revisit this topic on the blog and share themes and resources that have been successful for us.

1. Choose a theme

When thinking of themes, I thought, “What is MC interested in right now: unicorns? dinosaurs? the farm?”… Additionally, I think ahead about any upcoming trips, events, seasons or holidays.

We are between beach trips right now, and before we left for our first trip, I began the theme of the beach.  I knew this would be a fun unit, and a perfect theme for summer.  

After our first trip, she now understands the beach better- having played in the water, felt the sand between her fingers, found shells, and observed crabs, fish, and jellyfish.  She asks to go back to the beach every day! We talk a lot about the experiences she had on her first trip, as well as what she will want to do when we are back at the beach.

2. Collect and assemble materials

I searched MC’s bookshelves for any books that have to do with the theme. I also looked through all of the maternelle (preschool) workbooks I purchased while we were in France.  

For our theme of the ocean, I had a surprisingly good stash of books:

  • The Underwater Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta has wonderful drawings and some excellent specimens of underwater creatures – from Angel Fish to Zebra Pipefish. This book has amazing illustrations and is chock full of ocean facts for MC and me!
  • Ballyhoo Bay by Judy Sierra is a personal favorite – it incorporates art and all manner of sea creatures, and the rhythm and rhyme of the story is catchy, too.
  • Two books from a boxed set found at Goodwill: Les petits animaux de la mer, which gives a few facts about four small ocean animals (clownfish, seahorses, octopus, and starfish); and Les grands animaux de la mer, which gives a few facts about four large ocean animals (dolphins, whales, orcas, and sea turtles).

Other books had a few pages that complemented our learning of all things ocean and sea:

  • A to Z animals coloring book: This coloring book had a few pages (Narwhal, Shark, Whale) that tied into the theme, and allowed for a little down time (coloring) as well as a learning conversation (I would read the short facts, and MC would ask a question that would require some research on my part).
  • Je découvre et j’apprends en images!: This is one of the preschool workbooks I found while in France. Each spread in the book covers a different theme – the farm, the beach, at the market, the bath, pirates, in the forest, etc. I love that there is one huge picture for discussion and then just a few activities to do. This book has been a great starting point for different themes, and allows MC to practice language, math, and writing skills. Plus, she loves the stickers that come with the book, making the experience fun and more interactive for her.
  • Raconte-moi des histoires d’animaux: This is a cute book that is intended to be read together with your child. The parent reads most of the text, however there are images throughout, that are meant to be “read” by the child. There is one story in the book (below) about a crab and a girl who hides her “treasures” in the sand.

3.  Search online for additional materials

I bookmarked a list of tried/true websites using keywords for my theme and “preschool.”  I included a list of keywords and thought of any possible synonyms.

I focused on resources en français (in French) for this theme because I knew we would be discussing and talking about the beach a lot in English with our family, and I wanted MC to have dual language input.  

At first, I was just searching using the keywords: maternelle petit section (pre-school, 3 years old), activités (activities), and plage (beach) and not coming up with much.  When I widened my search to include mer (sea) and océan (ocean), then I found many more resources. It was astounding to see how much more was available in resources when I used different keywords with similar meanings.

Any resources I found to use, I downloaded and saved to my computer in a folder labeled with the name of the theme. I renamed files as necessary, adding the type of resource (writing, reading, math, song) to help when I was searching for them again.

4.  Find a way to incorporate lots of different activities

I thought of all the different activities I wanted MC to do: art, numeracy, literacy, songs, physical activities, etc.

I found comptines (children’s songs), craft ideas, and coloring book pages to do alongside with the theme of the ocean. On the first day, we made a crab with half a paper plate, google eyes, paint, and pre-cut construction paper arms. We sang a comptine, Le Crabe, with hand movements that I made up to go with it.

The pictures above show the coloring pages we’ve completed from the A to Z coloring book. The coloring activity has been a good, creative break, and lends to learning as the book includes a few short facts for each animal. MC has had questions about each animal – I like to write down her question, then we look for an answer together, and I write that down, too. For the shark, I found some sandpaper in the house and had her tape it on the shark, so she could understand the texture mentioned in the first fact about sharks.

Other activities we’ve completed with the ocean theme include:

  • Art: creating a shell garden with sand and shells brought back from the beach,
  • Art: tracing MC on a piece of butcher paper and adding a mermaid tail – she added shell stickers and colored in her outline,
  • Math: practicing one-to-one counting using resources from dans le sac de maitresse Claire
  • Math: complete the pattern/ what comes next? with sea themed stickers
  • Literacy: practicing matching text and reading pictures of different sea animals using resources from dans le sac de mattresses Claire
  • Music: listening to various songs from the Vive les Vacances CD of le Top des Tout-p’tits
  • Music: Singing comptines such as Le Crabe and Le Coquillage magique
  • Play: Fishing game with magnetized poles & fish
  • Play: Water table with plastic fish, net

5. Whenever possible plan ahead

I kept all resources that could be used for the theme together in our kitchen (where we do our work). I tried to choose a few activities everyday to do with MC, and I often revisited activities that MC liked or I wanted to practice more.

One resource which has been helpful in creating an overall game plan for the themed unit is Guidepost’s Family Framework. The website is a *free* Montessori resource website for parents. I like their weekly activity planner, and they have great ideas for age-appropriate, stimulating, meaningful activities for toddlers.

I completed the activity planner in the beginning with potential activities, and have been checking them as we have been completing them – this has been a great resource to help keep me organized and see the overall big picture.

6.  Have a predictable routine, remain flexible

I have pockets of time I dedicate to the theme sprinkled throughout the day: morning, late morning, and early afternoon.

Above: a morning activity with fish. I drew different types of fish, then added colored dots in each fish – one color per fish. The colors correspond to the dot stickers we have, and MC had to place a sticker on each dot. Then she practiced one-to-one counting with the stickers.

I have been working to create a morning activity MC can complete independently while I have coffee and prepare breakfast, and then we usually have a time to read or sing together later in the morning and do a craft, math or reading in the afternoon.

Sometimes activities get switched around or skipped, other times we end up spending more or less time on an activity depending on MC’s attention that day.

I have attempted before to have a “schedule,” however, I have found a flexible routine without time restraints (other than fixed meal, nap, and bed times) works better for me.

MC and I have had a lot of fun with learning about the sea, and it’s been an opportunity for us to use French more. Switching gears from planning for secondary students to an empty slate with one preschool student has been a definite change of pace and a welcome challenge.

I am still working through how best to organize our days in general to fit in learning, as well as everything else. Planning has been my biggest challenge so far.  However, it’s summer, and right now, I am trying to balance play and learning (I need to work on not trying to make everything a lesson!). I have decided not to truly “buckle down” until fall.

We have just been going with the flow every day, navigating days, moods, to-do lists, and life as each new day comes. We are making it work one day at a time, staying flexible, and enjoying the journey as we go.


Resources:

These are just some of the websites I’ve found to be helpful while creating themed units for MC. Some are in English, others are in French.

Happy Tot Shelf: Fynn has some great themes with activities around each theme. Ice cream, farm, garden, apples, ocean, and weather are just a few of the themes for which she has created shelves and learning activities.

Family Framework by Guidepost Montessori: This is an amazing, free resource to help parents to establish routines, make kids more independent, and plan activities for kids to learn. I love their Activity Planner and they have sample plans as well as activity banks to help parents get started.

Orphée école: I have had this site bookmarked for years, and frequently visit for ideas. There are so many resources for pre-k through elementary, and with a plethora of themes and lessons, I can’t list them all here. Wonderfully organized resources.

Dans le sac de maitresse Claire: This is an excellent site with French resources organized by theme: the farm, the sea, insects, back to school, etc.

Les docs d’Estelle: Another fabulous site with French resources and themes such as spiders, snails, hedgehogs, and ladybugs!

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