The Toddler Years: Exploring the Big World
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Published on September 26, 2014

child looking at a globe

The Toddler Years: Exploring the Big World 

Maya is sitting at the table coloring with crayons, humming softly and talking to mom who is nearby. In flies 18-month-old Joey. He grabs the crayons and starts coloring on the nearest chair. Mom manages to get them out of his hand but not before he knocks the chair over. He runs to the pantry and starts throwing cans of food on the floor. Then he runs to the window and bangs on it yelling, “Birds! Birds!” Next he reaches up onto the desk and grabs mom’s cell phone and starts punching buttons. He drops it and heads for the stairs. He jumps off the second step five times. All this happens in a matter of 10 minutes! What is going on here?

At age 5, Maya has developed enough self-control to continue an activity for 10 minutes or more. She already knows about food cans, birds, cell phones and jumping. Joey, on the other hand, needs to test and figure out everything in the world. As a toddler, he’ll do it with energy, passion and sometimes destructiveness.

Watching a toddler learn and develop is fascinating. It also can be physically and emotionally exhausting for parents.

A Few Things to Remember About Toddlers

  • Toddlers Learn by Watching, Helping and Doing Things Themselves
    Sit your child nearby as you cook and talk about what you’re doing. Let your child tear lettuce. Give your child washcloths to fold as you fold the rest of the laundry. Let your toddler hand you things when you’re doing a fix-it project. Things like this give a toddler the feeling of belonging in the world and a sense of importance. Make sure the activities you share are safe.
  • Toddlers Need to Explore
    Toddlers need to explore their environment without having their hands slapped, being yelled at or hearing too many “no’s.” This means adults have to arrange a safe, child-friendly environment. Temporarily put away the coffee table or remove breakable objects. Exploring freely is a wonderful gift to give your child.
  • Toddlers Need to Talk About Their Experiences
    This might only be two words like “big dog!” but it’s important for toddlers to use words to describe their world and get a response. It means adults must turn off their screens and devices to give full attention to the child. This is hard in our technology-focused world, but for a toddler, it’s essential!

Characteristics of a Toddler

Let’s look at some specific characteristics of toddler development. Understanding how a toddler thinks and learns may help parents relax and enjoy this stage a little bit more.

Toddlers Have Limited Language

Toddlers have very definite ideas about what they want, but can’t quite express these ideas with words yet. Attempts to communicate aren’t always understandable. When people don’t understand them, toddlers get frustrated.

Eighteen-month-old Jason is lying on the floor in front of the refrigerator — kicking, screaming and yelling something that sounds like “pocketful” to dad. Dad is trying to figure out what his son wants. Jason’s older brother walks by, takes in the scene and says, “Dad, he wants a popsicle.”

Your child wants and needs to hear language. He or she may work to get you to talk.

Here’s what you can do to help your child navigate the world of language. Talk about what you’re doing (self-talk) and what your child is doing (parallel talk). Minimize the number of questions you ask and make statements instead. Rather than saying, “What are you doing?” “What do you have?” “What color is that?” say instead, “You have a ball. You’re rolling the ball. It’s a red ball.”

Here’s the hard part. If you respond to your child while looking at a screen, you’re not helping your child. Children need to have eye contact, see your facial expressions and watch your mouth move to learn language.

Toddlers Lack Experience with the Physical Properties of the World

Fifteen-month-old Lucy is systematically flushing things down the toilet: a wash cloth, a toy, mom’s car keys…

Mom gives 14-month-old Micah his first juice box. She instructs him, “Now don’t squeeze it.” Guess what Micah does? Aghast when she sees the juice stain on the carpet, mom says, “Micah! Don’t squeeze that again!” Guess what Micah does next?

Some people think these toddlers are being naughty, but what they’re really doing is testing out their hypotheses in order to understand the world. If I put objects in the toilet, will they disappear every time? When I squeeze the juice box, will it squirt out of the straw and make a lovely design on the carpet every time?

Toddlers don’t have any understanding of property value. They don’t realize that the things they flush down the toilet are gone forever or that a juice stain is hard to get out of the carpet. They’re programmed to explore the world in order to load information into their brains, and often do this destructively!

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