I'll start with the most important thing:
1.) Make sure your toddler cares about what you're teaching them.
You can either motivate them to care by engaging them in a fun craft, or better yet stick with a topic that naturally interests them. Bugs are a big theme in my house, so I'm always safe starting there and branching off.
2.) Here's the model I use almost every time we have "table time" together
- Engaging Activity- I always start with something that's going to get them sitting at the table. I say something like "Okay! Everyone sit down! Craft Tiiiiime!" That's usually followed by cheers from the crowd. Its a real ego boost, considering I'm going to be grappling for their attention in just a few minutes. For this example, as you can see in the pictures, we created little dragon flies from Popsicle sticks and a clothespin. Pinterest is great for inspiration.
- Books- I keep a well stocked bookshelf of varying topics. I can almost always find something on the shelf that relates to the topic for the day. If I can't, the library is wonderful and close. Again, for this example we read a few books on bugs, especially this one that the kids love.
- Show- Sometimes, okay oftentimes, I find something on Netflix, Youtube, Amazon Prime, etc. Today we watched this BBC doc on Amazon Prime.
- Drawing- Next I pull out either the markers, crayons, chalk boards or paint and we do something else hands on. Today we used chalk boards. This is where I tie in letters. I have them practice drawing the letter of the day- today it's 'D' for 'dragonfly.'
- Alone time- Go outside, go to your room, play with the craft project we made (even if that means it gets destroyed).
Trying to do anything like this with toddlers is going to be messy. So... embrace the mess. It's more work, but parenting is work. You can clean it up when you're done. Something else to note is that I almost NEVER plan out our activity for the day beforehand. I make it a goal to do at least one activity rotation according to my model every day. It keeps the sanity (and at times creates insanity. You're sort of rolling the dice here.)
Most importantly, if no ones having fun, it shouldn't be happening. Make it fun!