Understanding toddlers can be challenging. These fascinating creatures, who seemingly overnight transform from cuddly lumps of baby into walking, talking people with so many feelings about the world!
No longer are they content to be carried all day as comfortable observers; now, they like to actively participate in life. Learning through play and direct involvement are how they decipher everything from the inner workings of the cat’s tail to what happens when dishes hit the floor. Toddlers are among the most dedicated and focused life scientists on the planet.
Aside from in utero, their brains are changing in more significant ways than at any other time in their lives:
Although development continues into early adult years, early childhood represents a period particularly important to the development of a healthy brain. The foundations of sensory and perceptual systems that are critical to language, social behavior, and emotion are formed in the early years and are strongly influenced by experiences during this time. (source)
As parents and caregivers, however, it can feel overwhelming as we wonder how to nurture the budding brains of our children. It’s only when we’ve just finally “figured out” what they needed as babies (“Oh, THAT’S the perfect schedule”); they change everything on us. It’s all part of normal toddler development.
What kind of experiences are best to foster a toddler’s growth?
Where’s that parenting manual again?
Although that might not exist, plenty of research does exist about child development. The more we invest our time into learning about their current and forthcoming changes, the better equipped we’ll be to provide them with exactly what they require from us.
The way to a toddler’s heart (or rather, brain) is primarily through play.
It might be tempting to enrich a toddler’s life by substantially increasing their structured academic training through early childhood classes and the like, particularly at the urging of family or child care workers who might not understand the neuroscience of childhood. To the contrary, however, what their brains need most is unstructured time to engage in child-directed play.
[It] is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children. Despite the benefits derived from play for both children and parents, time for free play has been markedly reduced for some children. (source)
A number of factors have contributed to the decline of free time (source), but the bottom line is this: changes to family dynamics have had direct implications on our resources as parents. In a nutshell, we’re busy. We’d like to be able to drop our kids off at a class sometimes and get things done.
To a point, that’s reasonable – and outside activities help lighten our proverbial load. Further, many parents see lots of newfound energy and capabilities sprouting forth from their children, so their assumption is to fill their toddlers’ schedules accordingly.
What happens when their free time is reduced or overly adult-directed?
All of this activity naturally lends itself to less time for our toddlers to feel bored. While that might sound like a good thing, boredom does serve an important purpose: it “serves to encourage people to seek new goals and experiences” (source).
Adults might worry that the child’s “goal” might be to learn how to magically pull the tablecloth from the kitchen table (along with the aforementioned dishes). However, the child’s goal is almost invariably to learn about how life works (in this example, gravity). They try new things because they simply want to understand.
Unstructured, child-directed activities help them develop at their own pace. With that development comes the executive function skills that they need to assimilate what they learn as they grow (source). Unstructured time is an investment in the skills they’ll need throughout their lives.
So yes, we’re busy, and filling their time with adult-led activities can make our lives feel easier. To the extent that we can, however, we need to balance that with our little ones’ need to explore life at their own pace – even if it means more involvement from us.
Understanding toddlers requires teaching them in ways that are truly enriching.
Many parents assume – correctly – that technology is going to be a part of their children’s lives as they grow up. As such, and with the best of intentions, they outfit their little ones with gadgets to help them learn. Be it a child’s version of a computer that features a foreign language, to an app for early math or reading skills, it’s all marketed to enhance the experience of the developing child.
What we know from science, however, is that not all technology is created equal. Further, the effects of the content within the technology can vary greatly:
In the same way that there is no single effect of “eating food,” there is also no single effect of “watching television” or “playing video games”. Different foods contain different chemical components and thus lead to different physiological effects; different kinds of media have different content, task requirements, and attentional demands and thus lead to different behavioral effects. Even products that seem on the surface to be extremely similar, for instance, the children’s television shows ‘Dora the Explorer’ and ‘Teletubbies’, can lead to markedly different effects (e.g. – exposure to ‘Dora the Explorer’ is associated with an increase in vocabulary and expressive language skills in two year olds, while exposure to ‘Teletubbies’ is associated with a decrease in both measures). (source)
Going back to the notion that parents are busy, it’s indeed tempting to have electronic help guiding and holding our children’s attention. While there may be instances where that’s reasonable, the parent should carefully consider what the child is viewing and for how long. Further, technology use should be in line with the World Health Organization’s recommendations.
When it comes to understanding toddlers, what do you do then?
Circle back to imaginative and child-led activities, with human interaction at the core, as your main resource.
Toddlers want to learn emotional regulation.
They don’t put it in those terms, of course. However, in this incredible stage of development, they like to share in your experiences; to understand all these feelings they’re having about them. They want to try whatever you’re doing exactly the way you’re doing it. When little kids are attempting things that aren’t appropriate or feasible for them, however, parents start saying “no” more often. Toddlers start to mimic it back, hence some of the reputation of toddlerhood being a difficult phase. To be clear, parenting this age isn’t necessarily difficult. Parents simply require a different toolset, ideally using a warm and authoritative style.
When things don’t go their way, it can be immensely frustrating for kids. That’s part of the reason tantrums start to become more prevalent at this age. Parenting in this phase isn’t simply about teaching kids how to share, how to count, and all of the other “standard” tasks; they’re also learning how to deal with emotions. All of them – big and small – like them or not. Part of helping toddlers thrive is teaching them about emotional regulation.
After babyhood, kids change more during the next couple of years of their lives than during any other stage of development.
Parenting kids this age requires an understanding of the importance of play and allowing enough opportunity for it each day. It requires finding the right balance of technology and other tools to foster cognitive growth. Understanding toddlers also requires that we model emotional regulation and guide our children through their development in this area.
Above all, as we keep learning what our toddlers require for optimal growth, we share our lives with them. That, more than anything, is exactly the enrichment they need.