Best Practices

Responsive Planning as the Key to Successful Lesson Plans for Toddlers

Read Time: 12 minutes
Teaching Strategies
October 31, 2023

After the first 12 months of their lives, young children enter the toddler stage. They learn to talk, walk, run, and climb, as well as manage their feelings and make their own decisions. You can plan for the time you spend with toddlers by observing, reflecting, and responding to their individual needs. Discover more about responsive planning and how it differs from lesson planning for toddlers so you can maintain a safe and productive learning environment in your day care program.

What does “lesson plan for toddlers” mean? 

Educators who teach older children may use a lesson plan as a template to prepare classroom activities on a weekly or monthly schedule. A traditional lesson plan often includes a list of learning objectives, which describe what the teacher wants students to understand at the end of the lesson, and the activities may align with a particular theme and content area.

Plans for caring for children between 12 and 24 months differ from plans for older children, such as kindergarten students and first graders, but they are not any less intentional or powerful.

Rather than scheduling specific activities on a calendar, caregivers of toddlers create responsive plans, which support toddlers’ everyday routines and experiences. Educators can recognize the unique needs of the toddlers in their care and find ways to meet those needs by crafting a supportive physical environment, partnering with families, and providing meaningful experiences that help young children learn and grow.

Why is responsive planning important?

Developing a plan that responds to the needs of toddlers can make a positive impact on your instruction and the connections that you establish with young children and their families. Here are some of the ways that responsive planning can promote toddlers’ well-being and learning and development in your classroom.

Supports everyday routines and experiences

The first three years of a child’s life are a formative period of development. As toddlers continue to explore new things, they build a foundation for learning that will support them as they become older. Responsive planning guides educators to be intentional in the care they’re providing, meaning they create learning opportunities through everyday interactions and experiences in the classroom.

Daily routines

The child care center and home are two of the most important places to a toddler. Besides their families, young children develop secure attachments to the caregivers who nurture them during daily routines. Toddlers also spend a lot of the day undergoing routines, such as

    • diapering and toileting,
    • hellos and goodbyes,
    • napping,
    • eating meals and snacks, and
    • getting dressed.

A responsive plan supports daily routines, creating opportunities for caregivers to build positive relationships with the children in their care.

Meaningful experiences

Responsive planning also prepares educators to provide experiences in the classroom that are developmentally appropriate for toddlers, such as

    • playing with toys,
    • imitating and pretending,
    • enjoying books and stories,
    • creating with art,
    • tasting and preparing food,
    • exploring sand and water, and
    • spending time outdoors.

Aligns with areas of development

Responsive planning also supports the way toddlers learn and grow. With purposeful play and intentional caregiving, educators can guide children to gain skills within the domains of social–emotional, language, physical, and cognitive development.

Social–emotional development

Social–emotional development refers to a toddler’s abilities to regulate their emotions, form relationships with others, and be a part of a group. Toddlers are gaining more independence, and they’re excited about exploring their surroundings. A responsive plan may include experiences that encourage toddlers to manage their feelings and solve problems while interacting with other children.

Language development

Toddlers demonstrate their language skills by communicating their thoughts, desires, and needs with words. They add words to their vocabulary, and they understand and respond when others speak to them. Caregivers who develop a responsive plan might consider how to incorporate language skills into everyday routines. For example, while helping a child get dressed, a teacher might point out the name of each article of clothing and ask the toddler to repeat the names.

Physical development

Fine-motor and gross-motor skills are all part of a toddler’s physical development. Toddlers learn how to maintain their balance while walking and running. They also gain the ability to grab and hold small objects, such as a paint brush they can use to make markings on a piece of paper or a plastic ball they can throw across the room. With responsive planning, educators might schedule indoor and outdoor activities to allow toddlers to practice their mobility.

Cognitive development

Young children experience cognitive development as they deepen their knowledge of the world and the people around them. Toddlers also experience development in their memory, which heightens their ability to recognize their environment and the steps of their routines. They also learn to solve problems and understand cause and effect. A responsive environment in a child care center might include an area for pretend play, where toddlers can imitate activities that they see in their everyday lives, such as an adult preparing a meal or a family member soothing a child to sleep.

Boost family engagement

It is essential for caregivers to not only form relationships with the children they’re caring for, but with the children’s families.


The more you connect with families, the more they will trust you to care for their children. Toddlers may also trust you more after witnessing the positive interactions you have with their families. Trusting relationships can get toddlers acclimated to the new environment of a child care center.

Clear communication

As a caregiver, you might consider yourself to be in a partnership with families to provide the best care for the toddlers in your daycare program. Initiating conversations with families allows you to share and learn information that will inform your instruction in the classroom. For example, you might share that a toddler does well sharing with others during group activities, while the family may explain to you that the toddler has developed new preferences for food.

Consistency in care

Using the insights that families offer about their children, you can better individualize care for every child. Toddlers can benefit from receiving nurturing that’s consistent with what they receive from their families at home.


How to create a responsive plan for toddlers 

The following steps show the process of creating responsive plans for toddlers.


Make observations

The first step to responsive planning is to get to know the toddlers in your care. Observations can help you determine their unique needs, strengths, and interests. Then, you can coordinate a plan for responding to them.

Categorize your thoughts into the four domains for toddlers’ learning and development: social–emotional, physical, language, and cognitive. For example, you might notice that one toddler uses their hands and fingers to pick up objects, which relate to physical development.

After listing the skills you’ve observed, you can reflect on what you can do to better support the children. Reflection at this stage will influence how you structure your day and set up the physical space, as well as what materials you’ll use to promote toddlers’ learning.

Adapt your physical surroundings

A physical environment that’s organized and welcoming will make a positive impression on young children and their families as they enter your classroom. Once you’ve identified the individual needs of the children you’re supervising, you can adapt your space to enable toddlers to learn, explore, and interact with others in safe ways.

Designated areas

Adhering to daily routines and providing meaningful experiences are essential to responsive planning. That’s why it’s helpful to designate areas in your classroom for leading everyday interactions with toddlers. For example, you might devote one section to diaper changes, where you can store sanitation products and access diapers, pull-ups, and wipes when you need them. Older toddlers in your classroom might be potty training, so you can consider how to organize the bathroom to accommodate children’s learning.

You can also think about how you want to adjust your space for purposeful play and group activities. For instance, the large table that toddlers eat snacks at may come in handy when you’re supervising them as they paint or play with different toys.


The areas that you choose for routines and experiences also need to allow you to supervise every child in your classroom. For example, an ideal diaper changing location gives you a clear view of the rest of your space.

Gather the materials you need

A responsive environment requires materials that enhance learning experiences. Find items that are developmentally appropriate for toddlers to use for purposeful play. Your observations can inform you of the types of toys that are best for young children to practice their physical, cognitive, language, and social–emotional skills. For example, toddlers may appreciate a play kitchen, allowing them to use their imagination when preparing pretend meals with plastic food items and dishes.

Your observations can also offer insights into the range of skills among the toddlers in your care. Select materials that cater to the individual needs of every child. For instance, a toddler at 13 months may have a different interest in toys than a toddler who is closer to 2 years old.

Consider reading books aloud and encouraging toddlers to respond to engaging stories for a large-group activity. You can also think about the materials you’ll need for toddlers to engage in safe play outdoors. Then, you can display the items around your classroom, showing children and their families that you’ve created an environment that considers the toddlers’ best interests.


Reflect on the day

Devote a section in your lesson plan to reflection, which helps you identify the plan’s strengths and weaknesses. Create a list of steps that will guide you in reflecting on how you’ve engaged the toddlers in your care. Consider inserting questions to ask yourself at the end of the day that will consider the strengths of your plan and where you can make improvements.


Identify activities from your plan that the toddlers found particularly exciting or enjoyable. Think about what made those activities successful. Perhaps they took place outside, allowing the children to run around and expend their energy, or maybe it was a sensory activity that included materials that were fun for the toddlers to feel and grip. Tracking the strengths of your plan allows you to repeat those teaching methods in the future.

Areas for improvement

Pinpoint areas of your plan that you can improve for next time. If you want to boost classroom engagement, brainstorm changes to the activities that will get toddlers more excited about learning. Assess the unique needs of the children in your care so you can individualize instruction in the future.

You can also evaluate the structure of your day. Reflect on whether you had enough time to organize your activities without disrupting the toddlers’ daily routines. Contemplate changes you can make so your schedule flows more smoothly for the next day.

Coordinating play-based activities doesn’t have to stop with responsive planning. With The Creative Curriculum for Infants, Toddlers & Twos, you’ll have access to research-based content that guides your instruction for children from birth to age three.

Discover resources that prioritize school readiness for infants, and toddlers, and twos.

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