Health and Ages/Stages

Toddler Play

As children emerge from the first year of life and become toddlers, their world expands in a multitude of exciting and challenging ways. They are up and moving under their own volition and between 18 months and three years their gait will become smooth and increasingly purposeful. They will begin to run, climb, squat, feed themselves with some accuracy, and begin to learn a few socially acceptable behaviors. Some will learn to use the toilet, and some will not! Some will speak fluently in full sentences and with descriptive phrases, while others continue to use single words, short phrases or brief sentences. Occasionally frustration at not being able to express themselves clearly can become frustrating, forcing them into what parents refer to as a “melt down”. Most temper tantrums seem to result from their inability to establish mastery over an episode or need that to them is overwhelming. Toddlers are explorers and almost everything they see, hear, touch, taste or smell becomes subject to their examination and experimentation. Opportunities forthese sensory explorations provides fuel for their rapidly developing brains, so that by three years of age a child is almost breathtakingly more physically and cognitively advanced than he or she was at 18 months.

Erik Erikson has described the developmental challenge of toddlerhood as one of realizing that one is a person, separate and apart from beloved caregivers and parents and able, both physically and psychologically, to stand alone. Erikson defined this process as establishing “autonomy”. Struggling to become a person in one’s own right is both thrilling and frightening. Toddlers swing between moments of being independent and competent to moments of seeming to regress to an earlier stage of dependence. These swings make it hard for adults to know what will happen next. One minute a toddler will be happily engaged in a finger play or simple game—and the next she is either walking away from what has engaged her, or loudly protesting that the activity is not proceeding in precisely the way that pleases her. To call these protests manifestations of “spoiled” behavior, or indications that the child simply “wants her own way” is to fail to recognize that toddlers are working hard to understand the world and all its complexities, and that sometimes what appears simple to adults is mysterious, sometimes deeply troubling, to a child.

A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play

Chapter one: young children

The first time I heard that “play is the work of children” was in 1949 from Rena Wilson, director of the Newcomb Nursery School in New Orleans. She was describing her “Introduction to Young Children” course at Sophie Newcomb College. As a newly arrived senior in the college, I was completing the undergraduate studies I had interrupted by getting married and moving to New Orleans. I hadn’t yet decided to become a teacher but it seemed a good idea to learn something about little children, and Miss Wilson promised us a view into the very heart of early childhood. After the children went home, our class sat on the child-sized chairs in the nursery school, our minds still puzzling over what we had observed there earlier in the day. Miss Wilson had told us, “You are watching the only age group in school that is always busy making up its own work assignments. It looks and sounds like play, yet we properly call this play the work of children. Why? That is what you are here to find out.”

None of us thought the task was easy. As soon as we began to record one set of events, our subjects were off pretending something else, giving each other information and clues we often could not decipher. But we collected anecdotes, samples of conversation, sketches of block constructions, and drippy paintings and tried to see what the children were learning. What we couldn’t capture was the intensity and intentionality that accompanied everything the children said and did – until Miss Wilson gently persuaded us to add our imagination to the mix.

“Pretend you are the children who are playing,” she said. “What are you trying to accomplish and what stands in your way? Act out what you’ve seen and fill in the blanks. Remind yourselves of what it was like to be a child.”

In time we discovered that play was indeed work. First there was the business of deciding who to be and who the others must be and what the environment is to look like and when it is time to change the scene. Then there was the even bigger problem of getting others to listen to you and accept your point of view while keeping the integrity of the make-believe, the commitment of the other players, and perhaps the loyalty of a best friend. Oddly enough, the hardest part of the play for us to reproduce or invent were the fantasies themselves. Ours were never as convincing or interesting as the children’s; it took us a great deal of practice to do what was, well, child’s play in the nursery.

Great Places to be a Baby

Infants and Toddlers’ Learning Environments

The baby’s first place is a person. When young infants enter child care, they have come from a place of flesh and fluid; first inside that place, and subsequently, almost always attached to adjacent to that place — mother. Physical and emotional contact between the baby and the mother/place is the territory of the infant’s development. Babies enter the world with four big jobs:

  • To make sense of the world. Through exploring the sensoryscape of the places they enter, infants progress from seeing to looking, smelling to sniffing, hearing to listening, feeling to touching, and from being moved about to moving.
  • Discover and develop all their bodily powers. The landscapes they inhabit help or inhibit their efforts to move from laying around to roll over to pull up, from creeping to crawling to stepping to toddling, from grasping to holding to dropping to tossing, from finding to searching, from poking to digging, from doing to thinking and planning.
  • To fully connect with others. Through coming to deeply know others and be known and prized, babies move from the womb to the world, from mothers to others, to “I” to “we” to “us,” from instinct to basic trust, from total dependancy to autonomy, from only I want to I want to give.
  • To learn to communicate fully: Through conversation, babies go from cries and gurgles to many vocalizations; from : Ma or Da to hundreds of words; from: “I want” to “please pass the potatoes”; from talk to drawing to writing.

What do they do?

If those are the important jobs of infants and toddlers, what do they actually do? Infants and toddlers are extraordinarily competent sensory motor scientists who systematically investigate their world using their scientific tools: mouth, eyes, skin, ears, and their developing muscles. Toddlers are babies determined to get into things, use their new mobility to explore with their whole bodies, their mouths, their skin, all their senses and soon their newly competent hands, fingers and feet.

Some of the main things a young baby does: see; watch; look; inspect; hear; listen; smell; taste; feel; touch; mouth; eat; reach out; reach for; knock away; grasp; hold; squeeze; pinch; drop; transfer hand to hand; shake; bang; tear; clap together; put in; take out; find; look for; kick; turn; roll; lift their heads up; sit up; pull up; crawl to, in, out, over; creep around, in, and under; swing; rock; coo; babble; imitate sounds; react to others; accommodate to others; solicit from others; and experiment endlessly.

In addition to doing many of the above, older babies: walk in, out, up down, over, under, around, though; climb in, up, over, on top; slide; swing; hang; jump; tumble; take apart; put together; stack; pile; nest; set up; knock over; collect; gather; fill; dump; inspect; examine; select; sort; match ; order; carry; transport; rearrange; put in; take out; hide; discover; investigate by trial and error; explore with each sense; imitate familiar acts; try adult behavior; doll play; paint; smear; draw; mix; separate; pour; sift; splash; make sounds and words; label; “read” symbols; converse; follow directions; cuddle; hug; kiss; test others; accommodate to others; and help themselves wash, eat, dress.

A word about toddlers and young twos: Neither infants nor preschoolers, toddlers and young twos are furiously becoming: increasingly mobile, autonomous, social creatures armed with new language and insatiable urges to test and experiment. They embody contradictions: anarchists with an instinct to herd and cluster, assertive and independent now, passive and completely dependent moments later. These restless mobile characters have a drive to take apart the existing order and rearrange it, by force if necessary, to suit their own whimsically logical view of the universe. (The label terrible twos speaks to the lack of appreciation for the toddler mode of being.)

Used with permission from Exchange Magazine,


What is developmentally appropriate?

Tooth arrival chart


Best foods for your baby

Language development

Aggressive behavior 


Potty Training