Toddler Playtime 101
What’s in Store
No doubt about it: You will need immense patience and humor at this stage of development. Your toddler will often approach tasks in an unconventional way that may challenge your view of how things should be done. She will want to repeat what she does more times than you would have believed possible.
Do spend lots of time with her and show her how things work and what to do; your involvement and encouragement are vital to developing her future potential. You will also need the tolerance to allow her to make her own discoveries, without too much direction and correction.
Playtime, at this age, is all about the development of your toddler’s senses, and exploration, which is why she will love playing with sand and water, finger paints, play dough, and other messy substances. The texture, shape, sound, feel, and movement of the objects she is playing with are completely absorbing.
Your toddler’s agenda is different from yours. She may not be interested in making things look perfect, or learning how to do things “properly” as you would see it, but is more fascinated by repetition, cause and effect, and discovering what she can make happen. You needn’t fear that her progress is slow. She will figure things out and learn more complex reasoning skills as the brain develops.
Remember, it is not all about control:
- Let your toddler choose the activity or toy.
- Let your toddler start the talking or activity.
- Let your toddler lead the play most of the time.
- Resist the temptation to correct what she is doing.
- Don’t worry about mess and resist the temptation to keep tidying up.
See life through your toddler’s eyes:
- Play on the floor at your toddler’s level, where you can make eye contact.
- Let your toddler finish her turn before you start.
- Allow time for taking turns in play and talking.
- Make the object of your toddler’s focus, your focus, too—so that you are talking about or sharing the same experience, not just playing side by side.
- Accept her way of doing things.
- Being “right” is not the main priority at this age.
Give your toddler your full attention:
- Show you are listening and attending to what she is doing by watching, and echoing speech and action.
- Create a commentary of what your toddler is doing, and accept the way she is doing it. Avoid asking lots of questions or correcting her behavior.
- Praise what your toddler is doing as often as possible.
Adapt your style of language:
- Use short, simple words, to encourage development and understanding.
- Don’t contradict what she is telling you, but echo back to her what she is saying, to show you are listening.
- Be very positive, affirmative, and enthusiastic in your responses.
Learning to Take Turns
At this age, your toddler is still very self-centered and is too young to understand that another child is a potential playmate. She may, however, be happy to play next to another child and they may watch each other intently, or copy each other. This stage is known as parallel play and will soon lead to cooperative play and sharing. (Read more about the stages of toddler play here.)
In the meantime, any interaction at this stage is likely to involve some minor scrapping. Toddlers of this age have a strong sense of ownership—everything is “mine!”
You can help your toddler to begin to learn about “taking turns” by joining her in play and making it into a game. This is a far more effective technique than intervening when there is an upset.
Remember that your toddler is still developing her social skills. She finds it hard to manage her feelings, and can feel frustrated at being unable to express herself. It is an explosive combination that can often get physical. Hitting and biting is not unusual between toddlers. You will need to be watchful and intervene fast when things turn angry, before anyone gets too hurt or upset. Do not try to reason with a disruptive child. A simple “No!” before removing her from the situation is most effective at this age. (Read on for more discipline tips.)
Taking turns can be introduced as a part of almost every game and activity, from putting plastic bricks into separate pots, to sharing food, to catching a ball, to turning the pages of a book. Your toddler is too young at the moment to be able to cope with taking turns with another child of her own age, but may well enjoy playing with an older child or brother or sister who can show patience and negotiate turns in a calm way.
The Value of Repetition
Your toddler may repeat a simple action again and again, watching how something falls, moves, or lights up. This repetition may be challenging for you, but is about your child consolidating learning skills and is also a sign of her increasing attention span. She is also developing the ability to lead her own play, and if the signs are there, encourage it as much as possible.
Toddlers become more aware of change and transitions at this age. Action songs that describe a sequence of events such as, “This is the way we brush our teeth/comb our hair… early in the morning” help them rehearse and practice a series of actions in a safe and fun way, and help them to adjust more readily to the range of skills and instructions that their developing brain is having to take on board.
How to Restore the Peace
All parents of toddlers need to become referees as well as skillful mediators at playtime. Sally, aged 23 months, and Malik, 14 months, are making music with wooden spoons and empty pans. Sally abandons her spoon in favor of a saucepan lid, at which point Malik picks up the spoon. Sally screams in frustration and drops the lid with a loud clang. She tries to wrench the spoon from Malik. Both children start to cry.
Dad says, “Sally! Stop that immediately. Malik is smaller than you. How do you think he feels when you do that?”
Sally is too young to understand another person’s feelings. She wails and tugs at the spoon.”Mine! Give me now!” “Sally…” (Dad speaks slowly and calmly). “Let go of the spoon. It’s Malik’s turn. You can have it back in a minute. Come and play with this special shaker instead.”
Excerpted from Your Toddler Month by Month by Dr. Tanya Byron, reprinted with permission from DK Publishing.
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