Planning for Infants and Toddlers

Rapid development during the first 3 years of life requires adults to pay special attention to how they respond to and care for infants and toddlers. The short answer to the question, “What do infants and toddlers need in group care?” is that they need close, caring relationships. The longer, more complex answer is that infants and toddlers in group care need well-prepared teachers and environments that allow them to learn, rather than teachers who try to give them lessons to master or extra motivation to learn.

“During routine care, infants and toddlers have adults’ undivided attention as they focus on meeting children’s needs and getting to know them.

Koralek, Dombro, & Dodge, 2005, p. 113

Planning for individual infants and toddlers in groups involves paying close attention and finding ways to tune in to individual children to learn from them what they need, think, and feel. This tuning in to each child within a group is the core of high-quality care. Connecting with families helps teachers build trust and understanding as well as learn about the family’s culture and home language. Conscious preparing of the environment, engaging in responsive care routines, and providing opportunities for exploration based on young children’s interests, curiosity, and motivation are all important pieces of high-quality infant and toddler group care (Lally & Mangione, 2006).

When teachers understand how infants and toddlers are different from older children in their needs and learning, they can more easily support their learning and development in daily interactions. So, you may wonder, what are the main areas in which infants differ from older children and how does this affect your role as a teacher?

The following are some key ideas for infant and toddler teachers to consider as they build close, caring relationships with each child in their care. The ideas are based on four main areas in which infants and toddlers differ from older children, as described by J. Ronald Lally and Peter Mangione in their article, “The Uniqueness of Infancy Demands a Responsive Approach to Care.”

Facilitate Learning

Even with very different early experiences, across cultures and circumstances, human infants are born preprogrammed or naturally motivated to learn certain things, such as language and muscle control. Other areas in which babies are genetically wired to learn are seeking out human relationships for protection and learning from others about socially acceptable behavior. Infants with disabilities or other special needs will develop these skills within their capabilities as well. What this means for you as a teacher is that the built-in learning agenda of infants and toddlers serves as a natural curriculum that needs facilitation, not direction. By carefully observing an infant, you can learn from the child what he or she is interested in and requires at any given time.

Keep a Wide Lens

Since infants learn things in a continuous, natural, and fluid way, mostly at the same time or holistically (rather than in separate lessons), there is no need to break down lessons for them. It is not until children are a bit older that they can tell the difference between subject areas, such as physical, emotional, intellectual, social, and language development. In other words, with infants and toddlers, there is no need to divide curriculum into segments such as blocks of learning about language or shapes. In fact, if you do that, you may get so stuck on the topic you want to teach that you miss what a child is learning. You may think children are learning about a triangle or other shape because that is what you are teaching them, when in fact they are learning more about how they feel being around you or all the new things they can see now that they are able to sit up on their own. It is best to stay away from a narrow focus and instead let infants absorb all there is to learn as they experience the environment and the people within it.

This care teacher and baby have some extended one-on-one time to explore books before the other children arrive.

How is the teacher showing her interest in the infant?

What do you notice about the infant’s and teacher’s pace as they sit together?

What kind of comments is the teacher making as the infant explores?

Please note: All programs filmed in this project are in full compliance with licensing regulations at the time of filming. In each video, the required adult-to-child ratio is met and all children are supervised, even if other adults are not visible on the screen.

Prepare for the Developmental Task of Each Stage of Infancy

There are predictable stages of infancy in which children focus on a developmental task. Teachers can learn and anticipate these stages and use them to support growth and learning. The main stages are as follows:

  • Young infants: During the first 6 to 8 months of life, most young infants focus on developing a sense of security—the feeling that they are safe and secure in the world.
  • Mobile infants: As they grow toward 7 months of age, infants begin to turn their attention to exploration through movement, touching, and looking at things around them. Although mobile infants need and seek safety, they do so as their bodies explore.
  • Older infants: Starting close to 16 months of age, infants change their focus to make the separation between themselves and others and to distinguish between what is good and not so good. While they still need to feel secure and are motivated to explore, older infants become almost preoccupied with defining themselves as independent beings, often by being contrary, saying “me do it” or “no.”

Support Infants’ Developing Sense of Who They Are—Their “Sense of Self”

During their first 2 years, infants learn about who they are through repeated experiences with their parents, and with you, as their teacher. They also learn through body experiences. Through relationships, infants learn their first ideas about whether they are listened to or not, whether what they choose to do is valued or not, whether how they express their emotions is accepted or is not, whether they can explore or not, and whether their needs are mostly met. In contrast, preschoolers and school-age children have a more developed image of who they are. It is important for teachers to know that although our sense of self develops throughout our lifetime, how we treat infants and what we allow and expect them to do and not do has a great influence on who they become.

Through responsive, individualized care, you can show respect for each child’s family culture, home language, and individual learning style, which encourages overall healthy development (Virmani & Mangione, 2013). Care that is responsive to individual needs supports the development of a strong sense of self, social skills, and overall well-being (Anhert, Pinquart, & Lamb, 2006). Through individualized care, infants and toddlers can learn that they are important to you and that their needs will be met. They also learn that their choices, interests, and preferences will be respected (Lally & Mangione, 2006).

This chapter is about providing high-quality infant and toddler care in family child care and center-based programs. It focuses on the three key topic areas:

  • Understanding and adapting to individual temperaments;
  • Individualized care routines and daily schedules; and
  • Observation, documentation, and reflection.
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