Toddler Groups

One of the best experiences of my professional career was running a playgroup program for toddlers with communication delays/disorders. I’ve mentioned this several times on my podcast and last month I received a request from a speech-language pathologist to talk more about my program and more importantly, give her some ideas to use in these kinds of small groups with very young children.
On this week’s podcast I tackled this topic. Even if you don’t work in a center-based program, these ideas work for sessions at daycare or preschool and even at home when a child is seen with a group of friends or siblings.

Listen by clicking the link below. Below is an outline of what I discussed as well as the links to the resources I mentioned during the show.

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First things first, develop your own philosophy. Even though this may sound a little goofy for an established program or group, this statement will guide you as you develop your program, plan and implement activities, and interact with parents and other professionals. It may also help you market your group if growing your practice in this area is one of your goals.

Examine your treatment space and consider the needs of the groups you serve. On the podcast I discussed how virtually “empty” rooms promote better attention with toddlers. If you’re using a space that can’t be altered, think about how you can eliminate or at least minimize both visual and auditory distractions (aka clutter and NOISE!) for your little friends during group time.

When planning sessions, consider an overall schedule that you’ll use most sessions. A set schedule provides a nice framework to keep you organized as you plan activities for each week. Of course you should stay flexible and adjust should surprises come your way (and they will!), but a general plan will help you choose tasks that fit into your daily routine. A general schedule will also help children develop expectations of what happens at group. Participation will improve and transitions (especially transitions!)will be easier when kids learn to anticipate what comes next.

I have adapted a “move – sit – move – sit” routine for toddlers, particularly when seeing young children in a group setting. Most children respond very well to this routine, learning to stay seated when there’s a sit down activity because they have been allowed to run around just minutes before. Planning to let a child move as a part of your sessions will, over time, (hopefully!) reduce most children’s tendency to leave during an activity. In practicality this means you’ll plan a movement activity just before you expect a child to sit for an activity like circle time, a snack, a table top craft, etc…

You don’t necessarily need playgroup equipment or a gym for planned movement. Excellent movement activities for toddlers include bubbles, balloons, balls, bowling sets, inflatable bouncers, Elefun, musical instruments for marching, and specific “race” kinds of group games. For a simpler version, dance to a CD or you can have children move from Point A to Point B while pretending to gallop like horses, hop like bunnies, crawl like kitty cats, ANYTHING you can think of to get them moving! You’ll also want to tie in your movement activities to your theme. More about picking themes below…

Before beginning to plan specific themes, be sure to consider individual child goals. Even though all children will be doing roughly the same things, you’ll target different goals for each child. For example, during gross motor play, your goal may be for a child to make eye contact consistently with a peer or an adult. during the same activity, your focus may be for a child to follow directions with simple action words. Another child’s goal may be to imitate vocalizations such as “Whee” and “Uh oh.” Another child may be required to say phrases such as, “I jump!” or “Wanna slide.”

Beyond that, your foremost consideration is choosing developmentally appropriate activities for the themes you’ll select. Even if you’re using a “preschool” model, some activities are not appropriate for toddlers, particularly those with developmental delays. For example, “centers” or requiring a group of young children to play together in only one area of the room without adult support and then move to a new area when cued usually won’t work for our toddler groups.

To determine exactly what you’ll do in group, you may consider using a specific toddler curriculum, but I like to design my own themes based on what I think the children in the group will like. Most of the time I chose a theme and then pulled activities from several different toddler curriculum books I purchased at the bookstore and found on websites. There are some EXCELLENT newer resources on Amazon I’d love to check out, but here are a few older ones I used and recommend:

Toddlers Together

The Complete Resource Book for Toddlers and Twos

Other Websites/Tools helpful for finding themes and activities:

1. Pinterest!! Oh my goodness… If I’d had Pinterest when I ran my program, I probably would not have purchased any book! The ideas are there with a little careful searching!

2. Toddler Blogs ? Search or Google “Toddler Activities” (or “preschool”) plus a key word such as a seasonal activity like “Valentine’s Day” or a topic such as “farm animals.” You’ll likely get more information than you’d ever want!

3. Specific websites:

Another site I routinely used was This site has been around for a long time and is organized by themes with many, many, many activities that can be adapted for toddlers.

Newer blogs I LOVE are,, and You’ll find a host of ideas there for themes and activities.

If you’re working with toddlers who need visual teaching tasks or more structured individual tasks, try searching “TEACCH activities,” “Tot trays,” and Montessori using a search engine like Google or Bing and don’t forget to search Pinterest for these ideas too.

Last week on ASHA’s blog there was a great post on writing goals for themed activities from two bloggers I love, Maria and Tatyana. Here’s the link to that article:

I have several resources that are ideal for helping design effective activities. Here’s a link to an article I’ve written with tips for Making Circle Time Successful. If you need other songs and simple games for toddlers, especially those that struggle with social interaction skills, check out my book Teach Me To Play WITH You.

Seasonal activities are GREAT for toddler groups. For some ideas for winter time, check out this downloadable video and written guide for Winter Activities for Toddlers.

Plan to change activities FREQUENTLY. I never planned for ANY activity to last more than 15 or 20 minutes for toddlers for every single session. This means you’ll need to plan LOTS of things to do in a 2 or 3 hour session. Even typically developing toddlers can’t stay focused for longer than this period of time, so we certainly can’t expect this from toddlers with developmental challenges. Plan, plan, plan!

During individual sessions it’s easy to slip into the habit of not writing formal lessons plans, but this step is critical for effective groups. A written schedule will keep children (and adults!) moving forward and on task. While things will come up and you’ll get off your timetable 10 minutes here or there, completing all of your purposeful activities will be easier if you know what comes next! You’ll also avoid the problem of needing “filler” or pretty useless activities. (I cringe when I read “movie time” on a preschool schedule. Seriously? Surely we can do better than that! Help teachers design better tasks!)

At the end of the show I talked about choosing support staff for your groups. If you get to hire your own people, I talked about what makes most sense for your organization. Some programs require particular qualifications related to reimbursement. What worked best for me was hiring staff to match my philosophy and fit in to my style rather than qualifications. I like the advice: ?Hire for attitude, train for skills.?

For day-to-day planning with staff, it worked best to daily brief everyone with the lesson plan/theme in 15 to 30 minutes before children arrived. As we gathered materials or put finishing touches on activities, we discussed the activities and goals for individual children. During the session we used a template to jot down data about each child. This might include a percentage of accuracy toward a goal or something more specific such as a list of signs a child imitated or words he said spontaneously. After each group time or at the end of the day, we documented progress on a daily note using a template for each child. Sometimes we used a roundtable format and discussed each child, but sometimes we split it up and each person wrote a note for 2 to 3 kids. Each session we made sure to note specific achievements and progress for each child to be sure we were keeping our focus “therapeutic” as opposed to just getting through the day. This also serves to keep support staff motivated and thinking about what we can do during the next session to accomplish a child’s goals.

Involving parents is also critical for group programs. Most of the time, you’ll have an initial meeting with a parent to evaluate a child and make recommendations. During that meeting you’ll want to present your group’s philosophy and explain your program in addition to talking about the child’s specific goals. You’ll want to discuss expectations for parents and rules for participation based on your agency’s requirements as well as a child’s individual needs. In my program many times parents stayed for part of a session or even the entire session if a child needed that support. There was always opportunity for observation during every single session with closed circuit TV. Many programs have observation windows or encourage parents to come for a regular portion of the day such as closing circle time. During pick up time it’s often impractical to discuss everything that occurred during a session with a parent, but I tried to provide very brief updates with a face-to-face at the end of each day. Sending home weekly newsletters may be a time consuming task, but communicating themes to each parent in addition to individual verbal summaries helps families feel informed and connected to your program. These updates also help with carryover with goals at home. Other things you may consider are special programs held monthly or quarterly for parents in addition to a child’s regularly scheduled IFSP or IEP meetings.

I hope you’ve found some ideas to think about and some new resources to make running your toddler groups easier and more importantly, make your therapy time more effective!

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But I just keep watching and learning because we can always learn something new! 
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