Tips for Teaching Toddlers Accompanied By Adults: Part 1

The favorite part of my week is teaching creative movement to my littlest students.

I have taught 1 and 2 year olds for five years and have crafted a class that is progressive, creative, and fun for young dancers accompanied by their adults. I have learned many strategies for my toolbox and thought I would share!

Breaking Down the Ages

18 months – 2 years old
2 years – 3 years

I find these age groups are the most productive to combine as their brains and bodies grow.


I don’t require tights and leotard or shoes at this age. Actually, it’s best if they come to class in bare feet. In their bare feet they can feel the floor.

It’s important for them to just come to class and for me to give them a healthy, happy experience in their comfortable clothes.

IMAGE A tiny dancer in pink IMAGE

Photo by Eric Peacock

Getting Familiar (every week)

I open my door 5-10 minutes before class every week. It’s important for them to get acquainted with the space and you before class begins.

Ever noticed that when kids join class late they don’t perform as well? I have seen it many times and I believe it’s because they didn’t have a chance be in the space before taking direction.

I know sometimes that five minutes is all you have to get a drink of water and prepare for the next class, but you can still take time with your door open.

Keep ’em Moving!

Once the 1 and 2 year olds hit the room, offer play time. I put out balls, hoops, and shakers for them to play with before class begins.

These props are great for conversation starters too! “Oliver, roll me that ball!” or ” Vivian, can you find the yellow shakers?” Use this opportunity to interact with each student and their grown-up, they will love you for it.

When it’s time to end class I put all of the bags and buckets out and sing our clean-up song. Cleaning up is so fun for this age and they are so good at it too!

Circle Up

Making circles includes every dancer and assures that you can see everyone and that they can see you.

Forming lines just makes everyone frustrated and feels unwelcoming. 

I find it helps to give each dancer and their adult a spot. This tells the children exactly where they should sit (or stand) and often they will remind their adults they need to sit on the spot too!

Name Game

If there is nothing that young children like more, it’s hearing their name.

I’m sure that through a 45 minute class I say (or sing) each dancers name 3 times each. It could seem redundant but names are powerful and I believe incorporating every name builds self-esteem and confidence.

Diversify Your Playlist

I love using different types of music, just like you would if you were teaching an adult ballet class.

You should include slow, fast, popular, and an oldie but goodie.

It’s tempting to use directive music and I do use a few, but adding too many directive songs to your playlist doesn’t allow for flexibility or creativity. You are the teacher, not the woman or man on the song. Use your imagination and develop dances that you and your young dancers can create together.

When you are using directive music give directional cues BEFORE the music says what to do. This gives the children (and adults) the cue to what is coming next before it happens in the music. If you sing along with the music, they might miss the direction and then fall behind.

Keeping everyone together and aware is a big part of  your students’ safety. 

Be Ready To Challenge

When I tell people I teach dance to 1 and 2 year olds they look at me all crazy and promptly say “What?”

The truth is, those of us who spend their days playing, dancing, and talking to this young set know what they are capable of. Even then, some days I throw things out and I am completely surprised that can do it.

Try not to get caught up in the “they are just babies” mentality. Offer classes that challenge their bodies and their imaginations. If you see they have mastered a skill or a concept add to it, just like you would in a class for your older students.

I hope you find these tips useful.

Do you teach toddlers classes? What are some ‘go to’ tools you use for success?

Look for next month’s post on tips for directing adults in your toddler classes!

Maria Hanley Blakemore

Maria Hanley Blakemore

Early Childhood Dance Educator at Maria's Movers
A passionate advocate for early childhood dance education, Maria Hanley Blakemore teaches ages 18 months to 6 years, 6 days a week. Maria currently designs and implements ballet programs for the young families and after school division at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. In Brooklyn, Maria teaches creative movement, creative ballet, and parent/toddler classes at Dancewave Center and The Mark Morris Dance Group. Maria holds a Master’s degree in dance education from New York University (2007) and a Bachelor’s degree in dance performance from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania (2005). She also serves on Dance/NYC’s Junior Committee and is a member of the National Dance Education Organization. Maria is the founder of Maria’s Movers, a program that offers dance, movement and yoga classes to boys and girls in their early years. She authors the blog Move. Create. Educate. (, where she shares her creative ideas about teaching young dancers.
Maria Hanley Blakemore
Maria Hanley Blakemore

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  1. I teach this type of class. I find free time at the end with hoops, balls etc works well. By the end of the 45 minute class their attention and focus is gone and they enjoy free time. Do you have any thoughts on free time at the end vs the beginning of a class?

    • I teach a Mommy and Me Ballet class (16 months-2.5 y/o) and I always have music playing when my dancers and caregivers enter the room. I don’t have objects or toys in the room for them to play with in the beginning but the kids move and dance around with each other. They know that when the music stops that means it’s time to start class. The last 10 minutes of class is spent passing out tutu’s and magic wands for the “Magic Ball”, we put on the disco lights and they dance with either Myself or their Mommy! I always choose a faster pace song to encourage everyone to keep up and move! The kids know to clean up the tutu’s and wands when the song is over and we end class laying on our tummies, resting our heads with the lights off, followed by a courtesy and stickers! Hope this helps! 🙂

  2. @T.G. I think it really depends on the space, the time you have with the students and the students themselves. There have been times I have brought out free stuff in the middle of class because I thought the students needed it. For such young students, giving a little free time at the beginning works best for me. They come in, get comfortable and connect with me after a whole week has past. I find they trust me much better when I have time to connect with them as they are coming in. I can talk with the parents too, which I like.

    Sneaky Trick: I also do this because when people are late it isn’t as disruptive to the class if they are coming in during the circle. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true!

    If doing free time works best at the end for you, keep doing it! I might also try it and see what the difference is! Thank you for your comment. 🙂

  3. Hi!! I am teaching a 2 year old class and was wondering if you ever use the barre at this age, and I use many props( scarfs, horses, bean bags, ect..) is there any other props that work well?

  4. I never use the barre for little ones, they don’t have the attention for it and often need more creative moment than technique. Hoops are another great prop to use!

  5. Hi JLC,

    I agree with T.G. I do not use a barre with 2 year olds. I don’t even use one with 3 or 4’s. With 2 year olds it’s more about the movement than teaching them specific technique. Sing songs, make up stories and use props. This will be more enjoyable for you and for them. You are likely to get frustrated if you expect a 2 year old to stand at the barre and listen to directions.

    Also know that with 2 year olds they will come in and out of class. If my little ones start to wander I know they just need a break from the structure. They will always come back if your material is engaging. Also at this age key to a great class is repetition. Even though it seems repetitive to you, they will get so much more out of it if you keep it consistent.

    As T.G. said hoops are great to use, I also use ribbons and balls. You can use a parachute and shakers too!

    I hope this helps! 🙂

    • Just wanted to jump in and share this piece at The Healthy Dancer:

      I completely agree with Maria that young students rarely stay engaged at the barre. Beyond that, I’ve long thought that perhaps the barre was overrated in its effectiveness for training dancers. It has its uses certainly but I’ve felt in my own body that I learned/absorbed more about dancing while working in centre. This article points to studies that seem to reinforce that the barre may not always be the best tool for training. Also it can’t be underestimated that really young children develop important skills when experimenting with movement… something that’s not very easy to do at the barre. Particularly for younger students (and to some degree older ones too), spinning, hopping, balancing in unorthodox poses, and other experimentation prepares students for things like pirouettes, entrechat quatre, and arabesque. So giving time and space to experiment in classes is helping them develop an internal awareness of their moving body – invaluable when it comes to dancing in a technical way!

    • I introduce our little ones to the barre as early as possible. I have a great pop up ballet book called the ‘Dance-o-rama’ that I use to introduce my 18mos-2 1/2 year olds to barre work. They see a pop up picture of the dancers doing pique, plie, releve, coupe, passe. I ask them to come look in the book for the step and then they run to the barre and show me with their bodies. My assistant also has a copy so every child can see and point out the step. Usually with 6-8 weeks they are able to locate the step we’re looking for, repeat it back to me and show us at the barre. Within 3 months, they are able to do plies and releves, piques and sutenues at the barre. By the end of the school year they know facing right from facing left with the help of a sticker on their hand and are ready for barre work in pre-ballet. (We do go through at least 2 copies of the book a year, their little fingers tear the pop ups quickly!).

  6. Thanks for sharing your insight and experience. I tried doing “Mommy & Me” classes a few years ago, but stopped when I realized I didn’t like mommies! They were so controlling – always trying to make their little dancer do everything. I am about to give it another go after learning a tip from a Music Together teacher. She has a meeting with the adults first to give them an idea of how class will be run: they need to follow my lead AND their child’s lead. If they child is reticent to do some of the activities, it is okay. One question for you. Do you run your class in short sessions or is it for the full year or semester?

  7. Hi Leslie. At the studio where I work we run an 8 week session for our Mommy and Me classes. During each class I try and reassure parents that it is OK to not follow every direction, that it is OK to make up their oen move or way of exploring the prop. It helps when they know I don’t expect the kids to follow everything and participate 100%.

  8. Hi Leslie, I teach my class both ways. 8 weeks and semesters depending on the place. The benefit of running a semester class is that you and the grown ups can see the progress of these young students. 8 weeks is so short since it takes about 2-3 weeks for some of the students to get comfortable. It really is amazing!

    T.G. is right. I have to explain it every class. I have a little speech. Just like I say the same thing to the kids every week. I do the same for the adults.

    One thing I feel helps a lot is that if the dancer has wandered off during a dance it’s ok, but in the next transition or as you start the next thing invite them back in. Its ok if they don’t come but it’s good for the child (and the grown-up) to see that you recognize it and you want them to join back in. Most of the time it works!

    As for specific things to do, try to have a balance of doing what you want them to do (specific movements) and doing the dancing they wAnt to do. Give open ended instructions so they have the chance to create.

    I love this discussion! 🙂

  9. Thanks for the tips!!! Im looking foward to my classes starting!!!

  10. OMG!!!!! thanks! it helped my class and my own child!

  11. Hi- do you know any CD’s or downloads of directive warm up music that is fun and fast to engage kids?? Thanks for any info.

  12. Hi Shelia,

    Fast warm-up music? Hmmm I would use Laurie Berkner. She has a song called ‘My Energy’ that could be a great warm up song. It directs in warming up the body parts and give music for them to free dance.

    If you are looking for non-directive music I would search The Hit Crew on Itunes. There are lots of popular music in kids versions. I have used the music for various stage dances and warm-ups.

    Hope that helps!

  13. Angela Bougher says:

    I just started a Mommy and Me dance class with my 2.5 year old son. He loves music and seems to have pretty good rythm. He dances all day long at home. However, sometimes during class he just starts to run at full speed in a circle. I don’t mind if he does his own moves but running like crazy does upset me. Any advice to get him to use his “dancing feet” and not his “running feet”? He has only gone to 3 classes so it might just be over stimulation? This week we started practicing at home hoping that will make him feel more comfortable…

  14. Hi Angela,

    What you are experiencing with your son is completely normal especially if it’s one of his first classes. I always tell my grown-ups that even if it doesn’t look like they are paying attention they are still picking things in class. You are seeing the results of that since he is dancing at home.

    My best advice would be to talk to him as much as you can about follow the directions in the class. Talking to him outside with give him a bigger sense of what needs to happen while you are actually in class. Sometimes, as the teacher if the grown-up can’t get their child to stop running, I step in and use my voice. It usually works for a short time. If you and the teacher can get on the same page and work together I think it can be a really successful class for you and your son.

    Also, when he runs, I would advise for you to just keep following what the teacher is doing. Sometimes if he sees you just continuing with the dancing, he will want to join you.

    I hope this helps. Getting your son into a movement class is so great for him, just be patient and give him some time to get used to it. 🙂

    I’m happy to answer any other questions you have. Good Luck!


  15. Hi, I run a toddler dance class and am struggling with nw ideas! I’ve taught ages 5-21 for years and thought toddlers would be much easier! I couldn’t have been more wrong! What sort of dances/exercises would you use for this age group (18mth – 3yrs)?

  16. I am in the same boat as Jenny. However, I have not yet started my classes but expect it will be different & I need ideas!