The toddler stage is packed with developmental growth at astonishing rates. A toddler’s expanding imagination is remarkable, yet struggles arise because toddlers lack skills, the ability to regulate strong emotions, and control of their world. Adults can help augment toddler learning by having meaningful interactions and providing many opportunities for self-directed, unstructured play to fuel creativity and critical thinking skills.
The Center for Childhood Creativity (CCC), the research and advisory division of the Bay Area Discovery Museum, categorized findings from early learning studies into 3 key areas in which parents and caregivers can influence a child’s development:
Talk & Play – social-emotional skills and adult-child conversations, questions, and experiences boost learning and cognitive development.
Science & Math – are critical to early learning: science is important for higher-order thinking, and math contributes to the growth of conceptual thinking skills.
Body & Brain – executive functions (EFs) and creativity flourish when basic needs are met and low stress is maintained. EFs include cognitive flexibility (the ability to see different perspectives and find new solutions), working memory (the capacity to retain and manipulate information), and self-control (the capability to ignore distractions and resist impulsive actions).
Talk & Play
Use complex words and check for understanding through inquiry.
Listen well and ask lots of open-ended questions, even though your toddler may not reply (e.g., “How do you think this works?” or “How can you find out?”)
Allow plenty of time for thinking and honor any response (even if not correct) before sharing information.
Encourage exploration – promote natural curiosity about how things work and increase your toddler’s appetite for learning.
Play alongside toddler during play time – try new things, do pretend play, and be silly! Let your child develop her own ideas. Offer props to act out stories (e.g. dress-up clothes, cardboard boxes, pillows, etc.)
Let your child assist with meaningful tasks – putting away toys or helping to clean up after finishing an activity can be empowering (e.g., “Where do you think this goes?”)
Talk about how others may have different thoughts and feelings – make conversation with puppets, dolls, or stuffed animals. When reading books aloud together, ask how the characters might be feeling.
Science & Math
Introduce cause and effect reasoning – guide experimental play with inquiry (e.g., “What happens to the ball if the table is tipped down?”) Explain logical connections and patterns in everyday routines (e.g., “You need to bring a towel to the pool so you can dry off after swimming.”)
Use spatial talk – describe space between objects when talking to toddlers (e.g., above, below, behind, through, in front of, etc.)
Help to gain a concept of time – use a kitchen timer to help your toddler transition from one task to another and understand the notion of what 5 or 10 minutes feels like (e.g., “We’ll leave the house in 5 minutes.”)
Sort and categorize items while doing routine tasks such as laundry (e.g., sort socks into a pile, or whites from colors).
Encourage experimentation and let your child intiate projects fueled by her own interests.
Body & Brain
Play serve-and-return activities to nurture social-emotional learning (e.g., rolling a ball back and forth).
Model reciprocal interactions to teach the concept that people who respond to each other’s needs can help one another.
Allow your child to wrestle with difficult tasks to boost persistence and problem-solving abilities. Ask questions to trigger possible solutions and suggest testing for answers.
Give opportunities to assist with daily chores to foster a tendency to help others.
Use games to make learning fun – turn tasks into a game, or make up a song by changing the words to a tune your toddler enjoys.
Limit instructions to 1-2 steps – simple directions increase her ability to hold information in memory.
Offer choice and control to cultivate executive function skills by eliciting ideas from your toddler.
Activities to stimulate thinking skills
Treasure hunt – make large, cardboard x-shapes and build a path around your house or yard leading to a small treat. In turn, ask your toddler if she would like to make her own treasure map for you to follow.
Rainy days – put a small bowl outside the house to catch rainwater. Watch the rain fall into the bowl. Ask your child about the amount of rain you caught: A lot? A little? Does it fit into a big cup or small one? Let her play with small objects in the bowl such as bottle caps as boats. Play a guessing game: what will happen if you place a leaf in the water? A pebble?
Plant seeds – and let your child water the plant. Cross off days on a calendar until a tiny shoot appears in the soil. Take a photo. Talk about how the plant is growing. Ask what will happen next. Will the plant be tall or short? Take more photos and make a book about the plant.
Mystery boxes – cut a hand-sized hole in the top of 5-7 boxes. Place one common household item in each box (e.g., a crayon, a spoon, a sock, etc.) Let your toddler put her hand in the box (without looking) and guess the object. Ask descriptive questions such as “What does it feel like? Is it soft or hard?” Let her take off the lid to see if her guess was correct!
Be mindful that each child is unique and typical development encompasses a wide variety of formative patterns. These suggestions are intended to be merely a guide to building applicable skills for toddlers between the age of 18-36 months.
Stay tuned for the next post Skills for Preschoolers 3-5 years in the School Readiness series on Kidsblog!
Center for Childhood Creativity (CCC) at the Bay Area Discovery Museum. Promising Practices: A Guide for Library Staff [aligned with Reimagining school readiness: a position paper with key findings]
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2014). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu [website]
Eisenmann, Amy. (2019, March 21). Part 3: Practical Implications from Research. Bay Area Discovery Museum, Center for Childhood Creativity. [Infopeople webinar]