Toddlers — it's hard to imagine a more fitting name for this stage of development. Between the ages of 1 and 3, toddlers are literally scooting away from babyhood in search of new adventures. They're learning to talk, to walk and run, and to assert their independence. For many in this age group, "outside" and "play" are becoming common requests.
As a parent, you're focused on keeping your little one safe. Supervision and safety precautions, such as gates and electrical outlet covers, are important.
But you'll also want to offer your toddler chances to explore. That means close supervision but with opportunities to enjoy different environments. From a walk in the woods to a trip to a museum, parents can give kids the space and freedom to investigate, which is an important part of helping them grow.
Exploring the inside and outside world — with supervision, of course — is important for toddlers' emotional, social, and physical development. They learn more about the world and how it works. It's one thing to see an orange, but it's another to hold it in your hand, feel its cool, smooth surface, smell its fragrance, maybe even taste it. That development is all the better if you ask questions: What color is it? Is it big or little?
Exploring also gives toddlers a chance to work on important motor skills. Whether it's kicking a ball or climbing stairs, they can persist until they get it right. Doing so not only adds skills, it boosts their sense of confidence and competence. In other words, they begin to think: "I can do it!"
Letting kids explore is one way to see that toddlers get enough daily physical activity. Exploring fits well in that free-play category below. For kids 12- to 36-months-old, current guidelines from the National Association for Sports & Physical Education (NASPE) recommend:
Possibilities for indoor amusement are endless; here are just a few:
Supervise, but step back. Pay attention to your urges to help. After providing the materials your child needs, fight the urge to overmanage the activity. If your child wants to bang blocks together, don't intervene unless there's the chance that someone might get hurt.
Correct, when necessary. If your child does something dangerous, unhealthy, or destructive — walking with pens, eating crayons, or throwing stones, for example — gently instruct him or her about the proper use of the object: "Chairs are for sitting, not standing" or "You can bang the spoon on the pot, but it's not for hitting other things or people." Try not to react more strongly than the situation calls for. Toddlers often will push the boundaries and ignore your initial request. If gently dissuading them doesn't work, try to distract them with other activities and items.
Remember: "It's all about the journey." Anyone who's tried walking a child to the library or a friend's house knows that the journey there is full of distractions and stops. Kids often want to examine everyday items most of us overlook. Bugs, rocks, lawn ornaments, fallen leaves, parked cars — they're all fascinating to toddlers. Encourage them to touch bark, examine twigs, watch spiders, or look at the colors of lights and shop signs, watch doors opening and closing, trucks idling, and people boarding buses.
As parents, you might feel impatient to get busy and get your child to the activity you've planned. You want to get started "doing something." But to kids, this exploration is doing something. Rather than rushing along, take a deep breath and make new discoveries together.
Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: February 2012
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