Everything is new to a toddler. Sure, they experienced things as a baby, but now they are super MOBILE. They can now interact with the world on their own. They are thirsty to learn.
They do things we don’t want them to. Then run headlong into danger. They are unable to assess their surroundings. They want to touch and explore everything, except when they don’t want to.
Living with a little explorer is equal parts terrifying, delightful, and frustrating.
I think it’s because they are little humans. They are capable of so much. We may think that because they can make a mess, they can clean it up, too. I know my husband often presumes our toddler can do what a, say, 7 year old can do. But that’s not true. Even though he might be able to, he might not know how.
I find it easiest to deal with my son when I remember the world is new to him and he is only exploring. He is testing his environment and his limits. As hard and scary as this can be, I have to let him. He needs to learn on his own.
Of course, there are things he absolutely cannot explore or explore on his own. Like he cannot play in the streets for obvious reasons. Sharp objects are out of the question. He must stay at least 3 feet away when I open the oven. I watch him like a hawk at the stove. The list goes on.
But when we are at a park, I let him run, as long as it’s virtually empty. I let him go far, but always within visual and shouting distance. But if he no longer sees me, he knows he has gone too far. This is scary, too. Who knows who is out there watching him. But I also cannot stifle his desire to explore and test his limits. He HAS to do this. He needs to learn for himself. I am, of course, never far from him. And he’s learned to stop when I yell “Stop,” otherwise we go straight home and he doesn’t like that.
Toddlers want to try everything. That is the explorer in them. This is a delightful time and I love looking at the world through his eyes. I keep the dangers in mind and let him be free.
Just like anyone else, toddlers resent being told what they can and cannot do. Don’t you? I know I hate being told what to do or what I should have done. I give my son the same courtesy I desire. Scary, yes. Of course I’m terrified sometimes.
But he will never learn unless I let him explore.
He will never know what he is capable of unless I let him explore.
If I don’t have a good reason for him to not do something, I let him go. And I always explain why my answer had to be “No.”
I want what’s best for my child. Sometimes that means things get a little messy or scary. But he’s my little explorer and there’s nothing I can about it. My toddler needs to explore. So I let him. Within reason.
What I Do
- I have boundaries. I make them clear and understandable at his level and constantly reinforce them, with lots and lots of reminders.
- I don’t direct his play play. I let him tell me what to do. He is learning what he is capable of doing every day.
- I mix open and closed ended activities. Doing a drawing or making a paper hat have an ending. Playing with blocks ends when he is done (still waiting for this). Both kinds of activities give him the opportunity to try something new and explore what he can do.
- I have ample free play opportunities. He learns best when he is allowed to just play, when he doesn’t have too many scheduled activities. So, sometimes, I just set him up with some toys and watch him go. For five minutes, then he wants me to play again.
- When things start getting out of hand or he becomes too excitable, I start cleaning up toys he isn’t playing with or move them further away, keep calm while telling him what I am doing, and let him ask questions so he can calm down.
- I remember mess comes with a toddler, but frustration doesn’t have to. If it becomes too much or too messy, I just clean up until it’s a more manageable mess.
Just remember toddlers want to explore, it’s your job to keep them safe, and have fun with them. They need to learn to be autonomous, like Erikson tells us. If we don’t let them explore and be on their own for anything, how will they learn they can do something? Vygotsky tells us we can help, but we also have to pull back on that help otherwise risk dependence that we really don’t want. And Piaget reminds us that toddlers need to learn to manipulate their environments, need to explore through symbolic play, and if they can do imaginative play at home, well, that’s safer than out on the sidewalk!
What do you love best about this age? What has helped you?
In Part 4, I will discuss when this can be too much and they start to test boundaries and push against you.
Surviving Toddlerhood series
- Surviving Toddlerhood, Part 1: Have Some Psychology
- Surviving Toddlerhood, Part 2: What Being a Behavior Interventionist Taught Me
- Surviving Toddlerhood Guest: Not Toddler Advice by Kristy of Coffee & PJs
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