How toddlers learn: Curiosity, experimentation and play

Toddlers' curiosity makes them want to learn how the world works and how they can be part of it. Photo: makelessnoise (Flickr)

SILVER SPRING, Md, February 2, 2013 ― Toddlers are inquisitive by nature. They are becoming more capable and independent every day. Their increased mobility and abilities launch them into a world which they want to explore. Fortunately for them, this curiosity about everything is how they learn. Unfortunately for parents, it means a couple of years of getting into everything, making messes, wandering away, and a complete obliviousness to danger.

Toddlers want to figure out how everything works, and they learn through experimentation. Dropping food off a tray table is not just to test you when you say no, it is learning how gravity works. Knocking down the block tower, button mashing on your laptop, and pushing the big red button on the phone when it is on speaker are all ways a toddler experiments to learn about his world.

But experimentation is not the only way your little one learns. Imitation is part of this learning. When a child imitates you he is trying to figure out how to do that action or say the same word. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. It takes a lot of repetition for a toddler to develop a new skill, whether it is saying a new word, throwing a ball or drinking out of a cup.

Because imitation is a favorite way of learning at this age, it is also the time when dress-up begins. Whether it is stepping into your shoes when you slip them off or trying on your hat, wearing your clothes is a step towards learning.  This is also a good time to try to instill good cleaning habits. Chances are he will want to sweep and dust and put things away if he is copying a parent doing the same thing. It is in the 12-24 month period of their development that children start to use tools. Not hammers or saws, but sticks to poke or move things, forks or spoons to eat and mini-brooms to sweep. Do not shoo him out of the way. Instead give him a handheld dust broom or a dust cloth as you go about your chores.

Young children’s brains develop at an astonishing rate during the early years of life, and improved memory is one of the characteristics of that development. He is learning patterns, sequences, cause and effect and language and all of those things require his memory. To help him learn, talk to him as much as possible. The more he hears a word the sooner he is likely to first understand it, and later say it.  Point out new things and identify them. Ask him what familiar objects are or where they are so he can point to them. Categorize things for him, things like colors, shapes, and animals are all easy to find examples of wherever you may be.

Curiosity also leads to finding solutions. Problem-solving skills are some of the most important we have, but if you always solve your child’s problems for him, he will not learn how to find solutions for himself.  When your child finds a problem or encounters an obstacle, allow him to figure out a way around it. He will experiment with different solutions. These may include climbing on furniture to try to reach something out of reach, trying to open a door when he wants to go outside, or dumping a box of crackers on the floor when he wants a snack.

Try to resist the urge to hand him every out-of-reach toy or pick up dropped objects.  If he accidently turns off the television while playing with the remote during his favorite show, see if he can figure out how to turn it back on. If he struggles, rather than simply turning the television back on, show him what button to push and allow him to do it for himself.  You can also put obstacles in his way to give him problem solving opportunities. Ask them to bring you their cup when he says he is thirsty. See if he can put on his own jacket or shoes if he wants to go outside.

Toddlers can find creative ways to solve problems. Photo by Thomas Tamayo.


Giving your child choices can also help him exercise his growing decision-making skills. Offer him peas or broccoli for dinner. Ask him if he wants to wear the blue shirt or the white shirt. Ask which story he wants you to read. This not only allows you a way to determine his preferences, it also allows him a chance to exercise his personality.

Play during this crucial time is really time for toddlers to practice their emerging skills. To help promote development, create opportunities for your little one to practice and explore all sorts of new things. In our fast paced world it can sometimes be hard to slow down, but taking the time to create opportunities will pay off in the long run. Instead of rushing him out of the tub once you have finished washing him, let him play, experimenting with water using a cup as tool. When you notice you child pretending to talk on the phone, whether it is a toy phone, a real phone or a block held up to his ear, put your hand to your head and talk back.  When you are cooking dinner, let him play with empty pots and lids. Find experiments and tools around the house. Give him rubber spatulas, empty toilet paper rolls, and cardboard boxes. Try hiding a favorite toy by covering it with a cloth and see if he can find it.

Imitation is a way children learn. Toy phones are a favorite way to imitate mom and dad. Photo by Abigail Batchelder.

The sense of wonder that is inherent in young children is often dampened or stamped out entirely as they age, but it is that sense of wonder that keeps us curious about the world around us and perpetuates a lifetime of learning and a desire to know. So, rather than ignoring your child’s curiosity at this crucial stage in his development, encourage it.


Follow Brighid on Twitter a @BrighidMoret and receive updates when new columns post on Facebook or Google+.. Read more about first time parenting issues in Parenting the First Time Through at The Communities at The Washington Times.

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Brighid Moret

Brighid is a freelance writer and first time mother.  She holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.  Find her on Facebook @Brighid Moret


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