Tot School 2020: The Summer of Exploration 😎

I think everyone’s world was rocked this year. Ours certainly was. And while our traditional tot school schedule and focus board was put on the back burner…the learning never stopped. When the shut down occurred, we (Mommy & Daddy) worked hard to make our backyard a little more fun for Grace, and boy did we explore…not just in our own backyard but we explored rivers, lake life, mountains, waterfalls, the ocean, and we even went on a bear hunt (like all summer long)! So while it was nothing formal there were three themes we did kind of focus on during the extended summer of 2020, and instead of a blog post for each one, I decided to combine them all in to one post and call it the Summer of Exploration. That gets me caught up a little faster and it’s 2020…anything goes right?

A fallen tree in our path was no match for Grace.

After the initial shock and a few days of hunkering in…we busted out to a fun secret gem my husband found off a local river where there were trails, a waterfall, sand and rocks to play with, and all sorts of fun things to look at and discover. Grace preferred the sand and rocks to everything else…HA!…but enjoyed finding a feather or two, smelling flowers, climbing over downed trees and climbing large rocks, discovering moss topped stones that looked suspiciously like the trolls from Frozen, and holding a fish for the first time. We visited this particular spot a few times until it was closed off, and this officially kicked off one of the three unofficial themes of our summer: Nature Exploration.

Nature Pies

After filling our backyard sandbox, we had plenty of sand for Grace to use to make pies and muffins and soups! She loved playing with her outside pots and pans and collecting items for her creations! She also loved to “Bixey, Bixey” (her way of saying mix). I can’t tell you how many pies I had to eat this summer made by Grace and let me tell you they were delicious! 🥰 I did help her collect in the beginning and had to have a little chat or two every once in awhile about not picking items that were currently attached to plants, but other than that Grace was a pretty good scavenger for items and even found a few items in the yard that were new to us! I love that she can incorporate nature into play so easily.

Nature Sorting

Sorting was big too! Grace has always been a sorter so I’m not sure why I was so amazed that she grouped like things together outside as well. We had several different recycled containers we let her use to collect and sort. An egg crate was used in the beginning and as you can see she grouped the acorn tops in one section, bark in one, sticks in another, and so on. She loved collecting things in a small reusable shopping bag too and would explain she was going to the market or the grocery “story”. Her imagination is inspiring.

Grace’s Summer Obsession!

Boy did this girl fall in love with caterpillars (Grace calls them “patamillers”) this year! She loved having them crawl on her, loved picking them up and moving them to a safer home (a leaf) and was so excited when she received her very own bug box!

A new home for “Patamiller”.

So of course one lucky caterpillar got a new home for a few weeks. Luckily the original nest all these little guys came from was visible so I made sure Grace provided “patamiller” leaves to eat from that particular tree. She gladly shoved sticks inside the box for it to climb on and dropped a few rocks in there for good measure. After a few days, suddenly there was a cocoon…and no, Mommy didn’t have to point that out…Grace excitedly exclaimed there was a cocoon while checking the box! Sure enough there was. And so we waited. And waited. And I was trying to figure out how I was going to explain to Grace that sometimes they just don’t make it back out of the cocoon (most of them didn’t when I was a child) and to my surprise and Grace’s delight…a moth appeared in the box one day. After observing it for a few minutes, and explaining to Grace we should let the moth go so it can fly and be happy and do all the things moths like to do, she opened up the door on her bug box all on her own and we helped “Patamiller” to the very same tree it originally came from.

“Patamiller” became a beautiful moth.

And while “Patamiller” was actually a moth, Grace learned about the life cycle of a butterfly this summer. All in her own backyard. The Very Hungary Caterpillar by Eric Carle was read a few dozen times and the animated version on YouTube was also enjoyed as well during this season of learning.

A few of the creatures in our own backyard.

Caterpillars weren’t the only creatures Grace learned about this summer though…she discovered lots of creatures in our own backyard and on other adventures. We had a lovely hawk stay in a near by tree to hatch a few babies, that in addition to gliding through our yard frequently, would also just make itself welcome wherever it pleased. Grace enjoyed watching this magnificent bird out the windows from time to time and listening to to the sounds it made. Grace found a few lady bugs too that she liked to inspect closely, and she learned what a roly poly is but likes to refer to them as “pony pony” 🤣 instead. She even managed to spot a few large wood beetles as well, and now proudly yells “look a beetle” at any sight of one. Mommy introduced her to a garden snail, and I swear this chick has found them left and right ever since! And we had to make our new tree frog friend a nice rock and water garden so he could revisit whenever he pleased. Every time we went outside, Grace checked for her little amphibian friend.

Having fun discovering some new creatures!

Grace fed the geese, including the babies on a visit to the lake, and learned about crawfish in a river with her Daddy. Grace was also very interested in the shells left behind by June bugs and very quickly picked up on what sound June bugs make. And not pictured but a major part of our summer of exploration was chasing fireflies. I think that may be one of my favorite activities to watch Grace do, because last year she was chasing fireflies while learning to walk. She even caught a few herself this year, and I love how she is completely unafraid of them crawling on her, as well as other creatures. Like another frog friend in our backyard that decided Grace was a pretty cool tree to hang out on. We also spied a few grasshoppers and crickets throughout our backyard, and Grace can identify their sound as well!

A few more backyard sightings.

Blue tailed lizards were also pretty plentiful in our backyard this year, and her Daddy was able to catch one for Grace to see up close and personal. Unfortunately there are no pictures of this lizard’s release as it was quite fast and decided to not only jump on and crawl up Grace, but Mommy too. 😬 By the time I recovered the lizard was long gone! We had a few other interesting caterpillars to pass by in the yard including the green tomato hornworm pictured above, as well as the almost black wooly worm pictured too…legend has it the darker in color they are the harsher the winter…guess we shall see! And we finally caught a butterfly in our butterfly net. Something Grace had been wanting us to do all summer long. She had a grand time inspecting this butterfly before letting it be on a near by plant in our yard. Also not pictured as far as creatures go are the many times Grace chased bumblebees. At the beginning of the summer that’s all she wanted to do. We quickly introduced her to the song: I’m Bringing Home a Baby Bumblebee, so she would learn that many bees can sting you. She still chased them, but surprisingly never got stung. At one point I legit thought one particular bumblebee was playing right back! Grace has pretty much mastered singing that particular song however.

Grace looking at the mountains.

We visited the mountains a few times as well, and Grace (to our surprise) recognized mountains right away. I love this picture above so much as she was in awe at this particular overlook.

Hiking in the mountains.

We were able to walk some trails as well on our mountain adventures and Grace enjoyed pointing out various wild life, finding treasures, and climbing boulders and stone stairs.

Grace LOVED to help water all the plants!

Grace learned a little bit about gardening as well, and was a tremendous help at keeping things watered. She even helped dig the hole for the plant pictured above!

Smelling the flowers next to our city garden.

We started our first backyard garden, in a raised bed my Dad graciously built us, so we were learning right along with her. Grace especially loved smelling the flowers, but also liked to keep watch on our tomato plant and strawberry plant. We didn’t have the best outcome harvest-wise for other plants (I think we started too late) but I’m excited to revisit gardening next spring. I think by then, Grace will be able to get a little more involved in the planting and stewardship of the garden…and maybe it will inspire her to eat more veggies!

Exploring Waterfalls

We visited a few different waterfalls across our state this past summer as well, and the one pictured above was the only one that we could actually get in and wade around not only in the falls but the river as well. Grace LOVED playing in a waterfall! She climbed the rocks (with help of course) and found really cool rocks. She would grab handfuls of sand and would watch the little fish swim by and was able to see a crawfish for the first time thanks to Daddy. She was fearless. Something I absolutely love about Grace, yet makes me somewhat anxious at the same time…HA!

Backyard Fun!

Grace had a blast exploring our backyard as well…rain or shine! From climbing and swinging (swings were a late addition but still just as loved), to jumping and running, and of course dressing up like a fairy princess…this chick played hard. It is said playing is the work of the child, and let me tell you Grace worked her tail off all summer long!

Our Backyard Playground

We were able to snag quite a few freebies and low cost items this summer to add to what we call the backyard playground. I think it turned out pretty magical! We have a few more things on our wishlist but this particular space in our yard was a HUGE transformation from what it used to be, and has been enjoyed all summer long by Grace!

Getting Dirty!

And we got dirty! Well as much dirt as Grace could handle…for some reason as much exploring as this chick likes to do…being messy is not quite her thing. But she loves digging in sand, and mixing dirt in water. The unfortunate, yet quite comical, accident pictured above was when she attempted to give me a cup of “tea” she poured. I was unaware there was dirt mixed in and tapped the cup towards her thinking it was just water. It certainly made for an awesome picture! Grace loved rolling around in the grass as well, and Mommy made her a dinosaur garden by repurposing a smaller water table so she could dig around and arrange the rocks and dinosaurs however she pleased. The dinosaur garden was added to our backyard playground mentioned above.

Living her best lake life

We also enjoyed lake life a few times as well this past summer, swimming and floating the day a way, enjoying sun set cruises, ice cream, and looking up at the stars at night. Grace even “drove” the boat a few times! I do believe anything water related is this girl’s jam!

I See a Brown Bear Looking at Me!

One of the only “formal” themes I attempted this summer was based on the book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen. It was in my original plans for our Tot School Themes for 2020 before any shutdowns began. We don’t actually own a copy of the book, and our local library wasn’t open at the time we started exploring this theme, but there is a great animated retelling on YouTube that we not only watched at home but also listened to in the car, in addition to the Kidboomer’s song by the same name. Grace instantly fell in love with this story! I think most kids find this particular story appealing, and it’s a classic, as I remember this book from my childhood as well. We made a paper plate bear mask to go along with the story. I just had Grace sponge paint a paper plate with brown paint. Once dried, I cut out the center and attached two ears I cut from brown cardstock. I had planned to attach a popsicle stick as a handle but didn’t end up doing so at the time. Grace loved pretending to be a bear and roaring with this mask!

STEAM Activity: Making Binoculars

When it started making rounds on the news about neighborhoods collectively participating in a bear hunt for kids, I hopped on our neighborhood app and inquired if any one was interested. Many families were and bears started to appear throughout our neighborhood! So we started to prepare for our bear hunt, and Grace made binoculars. While not in the original story, the Kidboomer’s song with the same name talks about binoculars, and Grace was already pretending to use them with her hands, so we made a pair! This was actually a great STEAM and fine motor activity for Grace! I took a paper towel roll and cut it in half and used some tape wrapped around both halves to hold them together. I punched a hole on the outside of each tube on one end, and used a huge rubber band I had cut to make the lanyard. I then let Grace decorate her binoculars (to this day she still calls them “nocklers”) with stickers. I placed the stickers around the outside of a small paper plate to make it a little easier for Grace to grab the stickers, as at the time Grace couldn’t quite get them off the original sticker sheet.

Going on a Bear Hunt

Then we went hunting for bears. Our neighborhood really showed up for this activity with many windows full of bears and even more bears sitting on porches. Grace loved walking around the neighborhood and finding all the bears. She also loved pointing them out in the car anytime we were able to break out of the house. So much fun for little kids to do and during the craziness of 2020, this activity was so heartwarming. Especially when we would hear about a ton of neighborhoods around the country that participated by displaying bears as well. I said in the beginning of this post that we hunted bears all summer and we did! Grace continued to want to go on a bear hunt throughout the summer and a local church even had a free drive through bear hunt we took advantage of, where Grace found more bears than Mommy did all from the comfort of her car seat.

Backyard Water Works

In addition to visiting waterfalls, playing in rivers and creeks, and enjoying lake life, we were definitely not short on water activities in our back yard either! A few new additions made for a splashing good summer including a water table, inflatable pool, and slip and slide. We had a few cousins come join in on the water fun from time to time as well!

Beach Bum

We were fortunate enough to visit the beach towards the end of summer, and wouldn’t you know it? A hurricane attempted to ruin our plans…par for 2020 I guess. But we rescheduled and just like any other thing that involves water…Grace LOVED the beach! She chased seagulls, built sand castles, walked the pier and saw a baby shark (doo doo doo), jumped in tide pools, dug up clams, simply laid in the surf, and got to see a sting ray up close! Our plans may have been altered, but you wouldn’t know it from the memories we made, and I’m so grateful we were able to make a beach trip happen this year.

Up and Down: Outside Opposite Fun!

Another reoccurring theme we had going during our summer of exploration was opposites. We worked semi hard on explaining that concept to Grace through a book she fell in love with, a fun song, and doing simple activities like the one pictured above to drive home what opposites meant. One day Grace picked out the book Big Fish Little Fish by J. Litton from her bookshelf. It is literally the very first book Grace ever received because the day I found out I was pregnant, I went to Target, found that book, and put it in a gift bag along with the positive pregnancy test for my husband to open when he got home from work. He’s an avid fisherman so I figured that particular book was appropriate. We have read this book all summer long. And it’s a great book for teaching opposites! In addition to the book, one of our favorite YouTube channels: Juicebox Jukebox has a song called The Opposite Song that we listen to all the time! So anytime there was a teaching moment for opposites we took it…going up and down the stairs, turning a light on and off, driving forwards and backwards, talking quietly or loudly, etc. Anything that could resonate with Grace as an opposite we pointed out and she started to point opposites out to us as well!

Fire Pit & S’mores…another much loved summer activity for all three of us!

All the adventures and non formal themes we were able to do during our summer of exploration were pretty amazing when looking back. Until I sat down and gathered all the photos for this post and really thought about what all we did (and what Grace actually learned) I was quite honestly feeling guilty for letting all the craziness of 2020 stop us in our tracks. But here’s the thing…I don’t think we ever stopped. We just learned a little differently and possibly a little more freely than we had before. And boy did we learn a lot! Just goes to show you don’t have to have specific well laid plans to provide learning opportunities for your little one(s). Grace was the one who was in charge of her own learning path here, what she was interested in is what we did…and I think that’s pretty awesome. I also think the summer of 2020 – The Summer of Exploration – might be a favorite of mine for years to come, despite all the crazy this year has dealt. As I finished writing this post and reflected on our year thus far, I was reminded of a quote I’ve loved for quite some time:

I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars make me dream.

Vincent Van Gogh

There was nothing certain about what was thrown at any of us this year, but we chose to live in the moment despite all the anxiety we felt, taking advantage of the good that was right in front of our eyes. And maybe, just maybe that was the best lesson our family has learned this year.

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If you’d like to see a sample of how I currently plan out themes for a week check out the Tot School Schedule 🍒 v2.0 page!

You can see a list of our 2020 Tot School Themes 🐝 here.

Interested in purchasing plans or printables for your at home Tot School / Preschool ? Visit our Etsy Shop 🛍 today!

You can still see our original Tot School Schedule by visiting the Tot School Schedule 🍍 v1.0 page.

You can also see a list of last year’s themes on the 2019 Tot School Themes ☂️ page.

You can find all our daily songs, their tunes and lyrics by visiting our Tot School Songs 🎵 page.

Want even more resources for Tot School? Check out our Tot School Resources Page 📚 for some of our favorites!

EVERYDAY a little Grace 🌷

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