Nurturing the Lively Mind of your Toddler


There has been to a great deal of attention given to the importance of brain development in toddlers in the media and reports of the research on early development. Yet the learning that toddlers are pursuing at this stage of development is filled with small, discrete elements that adults acquired long ago, so we don’t easily recognize or remember them.

It’s easy to dismiss toddlers’ explorations of the world around them because they move quickly, make messes, and put themselves in seemingly risky situations. Seeing the significance of what toddlers are learning requires that adults develop the practice of waiting before jumping into a situation to notice the small details and determine what thinking might be going on underneath a child’s behavior. When you do this you will come to see that with most everything they do, these very young children have something in mind. Whether they are conscious of it or not, they have a purpose or question they are pursuing. When you take even their smallest actions seriously, you will be astonished by children’s deep engagement with the simple wonders around them.

Offer Toddlers Engaging Activities

When you examine typical toys that are designed for toddlers you come to see how limited they are for engaging the lively minds of these amazing people. The typical materials are primarily made with bright, primary colored, hard plastic surfaces, and commercial cartoon figures that were meant to capture children’s attention or entertain them. They usually have a cause-and-effect component where the child stumbles upon or is shown a button or knob that rings a bell, whistles, beeps or lights up when you push it. Once the child figures out the simple command for using the toy, there is not much else to engage them.

What do these materials say about how these young children learn? Inherent in these toys is the view that toddlers have limited capabilities or inner resources and therefore require attention-grabbing, over-stimulating, external experiences in order to stay interested in something. These materials do little to engage children’s extraordinary sensory capabilities or lively minds, tap into their deep desires to learn, hone their skills and abilities or cultivate sustained attention to their explorations.

You can find more engaging and unusual materials in your garage, kitchen cabinet or local thrift store and then offer them in careful combination. Your child may focus more easily if you set the materials out in an engaging way on a particular rug signifying a special time for exploration, or bring a bag or box to the rug and invite your child to slowly empty the contents, examining all of the interesting objects inside.

Here is a list of a few engaging collections for exploration:

  • Massage Tools
    You can find various shapes and sizes of these wooden treasures in thrift shops. They have a lovely natural wood color and texture, with various grooves and indentations that are intriguing to look at, touch and study. The most interesting aspects are the wheels and other moving parts.
  • Fur and Fabric
    Offer a variety of faux-fur pieces and fabric that are soft, shaggy and have different colors and textures, and interesting animal prints.  Offer these as a collection with stuffed animals that match the prints and fur pieces. Include some brushes for your child to use with the fur.
  • Tubes and Balls
    Collect a variety of clear plastic and hard cardboard tubes of varying widths and lengths. Along with these provide numerous kinds of balls, small and large—craft balls, cotton balls, wiffle balls, ping-pong balls, golf balls, tennis balls and balls with rolling eyes. Add containers with lids or cardboard tubes for your child to put in the balls and watch them roll out.
  • Natural Items
    Gather a variety of gorgeous seashells, pine cones, rocks, gourds and pods, along with boxes and baskets for sorting and hiding.
  • Coaster Sets and Napkin Rings
    These make wonderful “toys” for exploration and manipulation. Coasters come in all shapes and sizes and often come with matching boxes that the coasters fit in. Napkin rings are great for stacking and rolling as well as stringing when offered with lengths of ribbon.
  • Light and Color Explorations
    Offer an array of flashlights, color paddles, prisms and other colorful translucent objects that your child can use to look through, build with or make colorful shadow patterns.

Observe Your Child Exploring Interesting Materials
As they play with the materials, observe to see if your child may be pursuing the following questions:

Exploration of Sensory Elements

  • What does this look like?
  • What does this feel like?
  • What does this sound like?
  • What does this smell like?
  • What does this taste like?

Exploration of Function and Relationship

  • How does this move?
  • What can this do?
  • What can I do with this?
  • How do these things work together?
  • How can I use this to connect with others?
  • What can this be?
  • How can I use this in a game or drama?

As you observed your child, what did you discover? Do your observations give you more ideas of what other materials to look for? Finding interesting materials for your child can begin to feel like a hunt for treasures and gifts to offer them. As you look for more engaging materials, use these questions as your guide.

  1. Will my child be drawn to the textures, shapes and colors of the collections of materials?
  2. Will he enjoy manipulating the various props for investigation and discovery?
  3. Will the materials help her focus, use purposeful actions and stay with an investigation for long periods of times?
  4. Will the materials support my child’s explorations of ideas and theories and fuel his intense passion to learn?

When you study your child and observe her exploring interesting materials you capture the significance of her investigations. Rather than responding with quick judgments and reactions, you are motivated to find the moments that capture your heart and mind and offer her more engaging activities. As she works you respond to enhance her explorations.

What you give attention to in turn supports your child’s attention and communicates that his pursuits have value. When you offer him engaging activities to capture his lively mind and share new words and phrases to describe what you see him doing and thinking you help him build vocabulary as well as attach his experiences to mental images.

When you study your child’s actions for their larger significance you become intellectually engaged, side by side with her in her pursuits; you see more clearly her lively mind at work and respond in ways that enhance her identity as a serious thinker and learner.  Stop next time you are with your child as she plays.  Watch the way she immerses herself in the rich and magical world around her. Notice the great skill she brings to exploration and discovery. Share in the joy of being alert and alive. You will witness complex learning at work for your child and, if you open yourself to it, you will learn from her to see the world in a new and wondrous way.


Deb Curtis is a passionate advocate for children and childhood. She has spent the past 35 years working with children and teachers in early childhood programs, observing and studying children and child development. She is the co-author of 7 books related to working with young children. Deb will be teaching a toddler class at Crescent Park Child Development Program in Palo Alto starting in January 2012.

Image provided by Melissa Miller & Vinnie Fernandez, PAMP’s Lead Photographers and co-owners of C’est Jolie Photography

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