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Play With Me, Sing to Me, Read to Me, Me, Me: Fostering the Development of Toddlers
By Shelley Butler

Teachers, caregivers, and parents never fail to get a thrill each time they witness a baby taking a first step; few milestones in early childhood are as dramatic, significant, and exciting for all involved as learning to walk. Once a baby becomes fully mobile on two feet, usually sometime after the first birthday, life is never the same. Though wobbly and still preferring to crawl at times, this baby turns into a new kind of being: a toddler!

Toddlerhood is that stage of life that falls roughly between 14 - 36 months in which energy is high, separation is desired but difficult, the need to explore and experiment is great, and most everything is new and exciting. “I appreciate toddlers’ enthusiasm for life,” says Ohio mom, Cindy Meunier.

Yet, let’s face it, teaching, caring for, and raising a toddler can be challenging and perhaps more difficult than any other stage of childhood, but why is that? According to Dr. Robbie Roberts, Director of Harris Early Learning Center of Birmingham (an affiliate of Auburn University): “Toddlerhood is the age and stage best characterized by the explosion of mobility, language, and independence. Outward frustrations are often exhibited due to their ability to comprehend and understand much more than they are able to verbalize, and due to their desire for ‘me do it’ when they are often not physically capable to do for themselves, which can result in fits, tantrums, and other forms of frustration.”


The Myth of the “Terrible” Toddler

Toddlers may get nettled more often and quickly than older kids and adults, but do they really deserve the label of “terrible?” When you consider that the major social, emotional, intellectual, and physical developmental tasks of toddlerhood include independence, separation, mastering control of the body, toilet learning, significant acquisition of speech and language, as well as learning to think, solve problems, interact with peers, and more, then “tough” or “tenacious” may be better choices to describe toddlers. 


Building Up Confidence While Cutting Down Frustration

Toddlers burst with energy, yet they possess far fewer skills than adults, and as a result it’s not surprising that toddlers need help, and lots of it, in managing to grow and develop with ease. You can cut down on toddlers’ frustration while helping to build their confidence and here’s how:

  • Greet and meet each toddler’s development separately. Keep in mind that while development follows a predictable pattern that includes regression then growth, each child develops at an individual pace that is impacted by many factors such as individual temperament.
  • Play with, supervise, and always keep toddlers in sight. When nearby or actively involved, you can prevent many struggles between toddlers and head off some individual frustrations.
  • Set up the environment so that toddlers can move and explore independently, yet safely. Toddlers need space and freedom to practice motor skills, interact with others, use their senses, and learn language by themselves.
  • Communicate to toddlers that they are capable. Offer ways to practice skills that are meaningful to them, such as taking toys off and putting toys back on a shelf. Focus on what toddlers can do over and above what they can’t.
  • ENJOY toddlerhood. Unique and special toddlers say and do the cutest things!


Activities to Keep Toddlers Happy, Busy, and Developing

Each time you play, sing, talk, or interact with a toddler, you are helping that child grow and mature in a myriad of ways. While no one area of skills develops independently of another, toddlers do benefit from a wide variety of experiences that focus on language, experimentation, physical movement, social interaction, or exploration. Here are a few activities that touch on these areas of development that are proven to be winners with toddlers.


Creepy Crawler  

(For ages 18 – 24 months) 


Objective: To foster gross motor, social/emotional, and problem-solving skills



  • Pillows, cushions, stuffed animals, blankets, and other soft obstacles
  • A large floor space


What to Do:

1.         Fill a large floor space with soft obstacles to challenge your crawler.

2.         Place your baby on her hands and knees at one side of the room.

3.         Get on your hands and knees behind her. Say, “Here comes creepy crawler,” as you start to chase her while crawling.

4.         Encourage your baby to crawl away and maneuver around the obstacles as you continue to chase her.

5.         When she gets tired of playing, let her chase you!


©1999 by Penny Warner. Reprinted from Baby Play & Learn with permission from Meadowbrook Press.

 Texture Walk


(For ages 14 – 24 months)


Objective: To foster gross motor, sensory, and social/emotional development


  • Tape
  • A variety of different textures such as foil, sandpaper, fur, silk, corduroy, cotton batting, and yarn


What to Do:

1.         Tape a variety of materials to the floor.

2.         Help toddlers remove their shoes and socks.

3.         Lead them on a walk around the area.

4.         Talk about the different textures that they are feeling with their feet. 

5.         Let the toddlers explore the textured floor.


Reprinted from The Complete Learning Spaces Book for Infants and Toddlers ($29.95), ©2003. Available from Gryphon House, Inc., PO Box 207, Beltsville MD, 20704, 800-638-0928, www.gryphonhouse.com.Hop a Little


(For ages 30 – 36 months)


Objective: To foster gross motor and social/emotional development


What to Do:      

1.         Recite this poem with the children. Show them how to act out the movements with you.


            Hop a Little

            Hop a little, jump a little,

            One, two, three.

            Run a little, clap a little,

            Tap one knee.

            Bend a little, stretch a little,

            Wiggle your head.

            Hop a little, jump a little.


2.         Talk to the children: “Corey, hop on two feet! You did it!”


Reprinted from Innovations:  The Comprehensive Toddler Curriculum ($39.95), ©2000. Available from Gryphon House, Inc., PO Box 207, Beltsville MD, 20704, 800-638-0928, www.gryphonhouse.com.


Glad, Sad, Mad

(For ages 24 – 30 months)


Objective: To foster cognitive, social/emotional, and language skills



  • Paper plates
  • Felt-tip pens
  • Tongue depressors (optional)
  • Cellophane tape
  • Picture book


What to Do:

  1. Draw a variety of faces on paper plates. Each face should express a different feeling, such as glad, sad, mad, happy, sleepy, scared, and so on.
  2. Tape a tongue depressor to the bottom of each plate to make a handle, if you like.
  3. Hold your toddler in your lap and read him a story that expresses some emotions. When an emotion arises in the book, pull out the appropriate paper plate face and hold it up to your face.
  4. Explain what vocabulary words go with the emotion and let your toddler make a similar face.


©1999 by Penny Warner. Reprinted from Baby Play & Learn with permission from Meadowbrook Press.


Hide and Find

(For ages 14 – 24 months)   


Objective: To foster cognitive, problem-solving, language, and social development



  • A piece of cloth or box
  • Stuffed animals, toy cars and trucks, blocks spoons or any toy familiar to toddlers that fits under the cloth or box.


What to Do:

1.         Pick one toy or object and hide it under the cloth or box as your child watches.

2.         Ask him to find it. Point out to the child where things are located: “The car is under the cloth. The bear is on the box.”

3.         Experiment with hiding and finding different objects together.


Reprinted with permission from The Field Guide to Parenting by Shelley Butler and Deb Kratz, Chandler House Press, 2000.

 Rubber Mat Prints


(For all ages)


Objective: To foster fine motor and social/emotional development



  • Rubber bathtub mat
  • Scissors
  • Paint
  • Paper


What to Do:

1.         Cut a rubber bath mat in several small pieces.

2.         Show children how to dip the piece of mat into paint and make prints on the paper with the suction cup side of the piece.

3.         Talk about the prints as children continue to cover the paper with paint: “Look at the prints on the paper. You made four blue prints, Ali!”

4.         When the paint is dry, you may want to cut large moons or suns from the paper to decorate the room.


Reprinted from Innovations: The Comprehensive Toddler Curriculum ($39.95), ©2000. Available from Gryphon House, Inc., PO Box 207, Beltsville MD, 20704, 800-638-0928, www.gryphonhouse.com.



Shelley Butler is co-author with Deb Kratz of the award-winning book, The Field Guide to Parenting.