My 3-year-old daughter is very eager to "do school" like her big sister, and likes to do worksheets at her desk. Not for very long, however. My 2-year-old son has even less of an attention span, and can't be trusted to color only on paper, or to keep crayons (and everything else) out of his mouth (though he is getting better). Thus, I knew I needed something to keep them busy while I tried to teach my oldest. Something that kept them busy as well as helped teach them would be even better.
Fortunately, there are a lot of vendors who make just such toys and activities. I found a lot of them at Timberdoodle's website, and they even have kits full of educational toys specifically for babies, toddlers, or preschoolers. That's how I found their website, actually, when I searched for home-school curriculum kits for toddlers. I didn't buy one of their kits, but I did buy quite a few individual items from them.
One thing I bought was the bambinoLuk. It took me a while to understand what it was, but basically, it's a puzzle for matching or correlating one thing to another - like a generic shape to a specific object with the same shape, or a piece of a vehicle with the entire vehicle, or one view of an object with a different view of the same object. The game has 6 tiles which you have to place in the right position to form the correct pattern on the back of the tiles. Once they get the hang of it, the child can check by themselves and see if their "solution" is correct. It's for 3-5 or 6 year olds (there's another version with 12 tiles for older kids), so my 2-year-old doesn't get it yet, but my 3-year-old really likes it, as does my 5-year-old. The 3-year-old I have to help from time to time, but she knows how to do most of it herself. My 5-year-old gets very excited when she gets it right, and gets very focused when she's playing with it (teaching focus and concentration is good!.
I also got some Lauri puzzles - upper-case alphabet, lower-case alphabet, and cars. My 2-year-old absolutely loves the cars puzzle, and that keeps him happy for a good 20 minutes or so at least! It teaches better discrimination too, as the cars are very similar and have to be observed carefully to make sure they get put in the right place. The alphabet ones have some smaller pieces which the 2-year-old has tried to eat, but the 3-year-old loves those puzzles.
I got 2 jumbo floor puzzles too (35 pieces each), which the kids like looking at when they're done, but they need help until at least half of the puzzle is put together. But they were on sale!
Several years ago, I got a set of large, interlocking, foam floor letters (and numbers), which are like a second carpet in whatever room we've put them. These have been great for teaching. They can try and put them in alphabetical order, or when they're out of order, the kids jump from letter to letter, in order. A new game we just tried out is calling out a sound or letter and having the other person find and jump on that letter. All 3 kids like playing that together, with one doing the "calling" and the others finding the right letter. Even my 2-year-old is pretty good at it.
Speaking of letters, I also got a magnetic letter tracing toy which is really quite cool. A magnetic pen is used to trace the capital letters drawn on the front, snapping up the little metal balls behind the front panel. The noise and motion and feeling make it a very hands-on, kinesthetic toy, and it seems to be good for teaching them how to write their letters. I don't know yet how well it teaches that, since we just got it, but I would think it will help.
Finally, I got a shape sorting, color matching game, called Beleduc Rondo Vario. I wasn't sure if it would be entertaining to the kids or not, but it has turned out to be quite popular with them. It has 4 "caterpillar heads" with string "tails" on which you are supposed to string beads of a specific shape and color. You can do it however you want, or you can roll the 2 dice and take turns picking out the matching colored and shaped piece. My 2-year-old still is a little young for it, as he tries to eat the caterpillars and tosses the beads every which way when he gets bored. My 3-year-old likes it quite a bit though, especially when her big sister plays with her.
I think my 3-year-old will be ready for more structured school pretty soon. She is eager to do "work" and knows all her letters and sounds and can count up to 25. I've started doing some phonics/reading work with her, and I'm not sure she's ready yet, but she will be soon. Since her birthday is in November, she wouldn't be allowed to start kindergarten until fall of 2013, but I'm sure she'll be ready by at least late fall of 2012. That's one great thing about homeschooling - I can start our school year any time I want, and can start my kids at whatever grade they are ready for!
My 2-year-old also has a November birthday, but I'm not sure he'll be ready as young as my 3-year-old. He is a boy, and I've heard they mature more slowly.... I'll wait and see, though. He also knows all his letters already, and a few numbers. He just can be very rambunctious, and doesn't like to listen very much! Maybe some of these activity-based learning toys will help him along the way, without causing too much distress!