What is Tot School {and How Can I Do It at Home}?

What is Tot School?  And how can I do it at home?  Questions I am often asked.  We have been having a wonderful time with in-home Tot School for over a year now and I wanted to share some tips on how easy it can be! Quite simply, Tot School is intentionally reading and playing with your child during the formative years of 1 to 3.  This is before more official “Preschool” can take its place.

What is Tot School {and how can I do it at home}? - Hip Homeschool Moms

So, therefore, Tot School can be accomplished in two easy, intentional steps:

  1. Reading with your child
  2. Playing with your child


Reading books with your child is the best you can do for them to establish a strong foundation in literacy and learning.  I like to make the rule in my house that I read with my children together and a part — for at least 15 minutes.  We also have the rule that if one of our children wants to read a book, we drop everything and read!

What is Tot School {and how can I do it at home}? - Hip Homeschool Moms

Reading can also include introducing letters and numbers in a fun and un-intimidating way.  We choose to start with uppercase letters first.  Check out my Early Literacy Stages series to read more about the developmental periods of literacy learning for young children.  They include:


Playing = learning.  Every child deserves time to play.  As a former kindergarten teacher who taught full-day kindergarten, I am a strong advocate against structured “in your seat” learning (or all day school) for young children.  I know this is impossible for many families who utilize day care, etc., however, I believe in allowing children the freedom to play during these early formidable years.

The young days of play will not last forever.  Children will grow up and leave our nests long before we are ever ready.  So let’s not push them into reading and writing letters before they are ready!  There are some children who will crave holding a crayon or marker or pencil and will write letters very early, but there are still some 4 and 5 year olds who have yet to recognize, or write, their first set of letters (upper or lowercase).  Every child learns at a different pace.  We need to teach without pushing.

Instruction should last for no more than an hour before the age of 5.  The rest of their time should be spent playing.  And of course this can include arts and crafts, independent play, coloring, structured activities, sensory play time, outdoor & nature play, boredom, all of the above.  But don’t force reading and writing and “school” — real school and curriculums — until at least 5 years of age.

How to encourage learning through play?

  • You can use toys you already have and items from around your home to further your child’s learning time.  Melissa & Doug toys are wonderful for unstructured play.  Think wooden toys, stackable items, chunky lacing beads, shapes, non-electronic, incorporating letter work.  The below toys are Melissa & Doug Shape Puzzles and Lauri Alphabet Pegs.

What is Tot School {and how can I do it at home}? - Hip Homeschool Moms

  • Sensory play can include bins with bases of beans or rice or corn, or simpler activities like using shaving cream or a bowl of water or a shallow tray of salt.  Sensory play can teach children important concepts of transferring, straining, pouring, scooping, drawing with a finger.

What is Tot School {and how can I do it at home}? - Hip Homeschool Moms

  • Using activities on Tot Trays are a unique way to present activities and foster development of fine and gross motor skills.  Some of the learning choices for this type of organized play are: Numbers, Lacing, Magnets, Colors, Shapes, Letter review, and Practical Life Tot Tray ideas.

What is Tot School {and how can I do it at home}? - Hip Homeschool Moms

You can set up any number of activities on a tot tray for your child.  Some activities could include:

  • Cutting out number cards and using with a math manipulative (teddy bear countersunifix cubes, any other small block or toy)
  • Include a lacing card with either a lace card and string or a homemade one with some neat clip links.
  • Magnet page for that week’s letter (from Homeschool CreationsMaking Learning Fun, or Confessions of a Homeschooler) with magnets or pom pom magnets
  • Color tray:  Set out a color sensory bowl (to play hide and seek with a cloth on top) or put out crayons and little pictures to practice early coloring skills.
  • Shape tray: Matching shapes with printables or finding shape objects around the house.
  • Letter review: There are many alternatives to simply “coloring” while learning letters and numbers — such as using Do a Dot markers, using stickers, stamping, placing various objects on letters, there are so many options!  You can also have fun with magnet letters or various alphabet games.  For some fun ideas visit this post on Teaching Children to Read without Reading.

What is Tot School {and how can I do it at home}? - Hip Homeschool Moms

Using free printables

**Remember — some children don’t want to sit and “do school” or “color” — and that’s okay!  My son is one of those — he likes to “do school” for a couple minutes, and I won’t push him to do more than that until he is around 5 years old.  As homeschooling parents, we can connect to our children in many different ways, so follow your child’s interests!

There are so many free printables out there to utilize from various places.  Here are the places I go to find free learning materials.


Further Resources:

5 Tips for Establishing Tot School

What has helped you to have a successful Tot School?  

What additional questions do you have about establishing a Tot School?

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  1. Thanks for this fantastic article! My daughter just turned two, and I can tell that she’s bored; she went from happy as a clam with all of her baby books and toys to completely bored out of her mind with 80% of it in two weeks flat! This article is SUPER helpful to me, right now, and I can’t wait to put together Tot School for my girl!

    1. I’m so happy to hear that this will be helpful to you!! Please let me know if you have any specific questions <3 Enjoy your time with your little girl!!

  2. this is an amazing article. I’m a stay at home mum with a 1&2 year old. I feel like we are just letting the days go by and not doing anything really structured to help them progress and learn and so in turn I feel like I’m letting them down. But I can’t wait to start doing some of these things 🙂 I’ll def be coming back to this article a lot. Thank you 🙂

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the article! We try to provide a variety of articles on homeschooling from preschool all the way through high school. You might like to look for other articles on our site that relate to homeschooling preschool and/or kindergarten. Look in the right-hand sidebar where it says “Looking for something?” and type in “preschool.” We hope you have lots of fun with your little ones!

    1. Oops! I (Wendy) do most of the editing for the posts on the HHM site, and I just missed that! It should have said “formative.” Thanks for pointing that out so I could correct it! 🙂

  3. Great read. I’ve done Tot the Schooling with all of my girls and I think it helps them to be a little more confident in their skills and shows them that learning is fun. I love that we do it at our pace and it seems that they have always picked up better when things are done in a moderate time and not everything being forced.

  4. Mine was most successful when I planned themes and then made the same types of activities you listed match it. It helped that I was blogging about it, bc it made me more focused and wanting to do it well to help other people too. 🙂

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