Toddlers (15-24 months) to Three Years

One of the most obvious developmental changes in a baby is from being a non-walker to walking. His very evident satisfaction and enjoyment are infectious and his whole family share his pleasure. All mothers at some time will say ‘ I shall be glad when he can talk/feed himself/bath himself/dress himself/is clean and dry/ play by himself more’ but most of them see walking as one of the most desirable achievements. Perhaps, although there is still a long period of pushchairs, carrying when too tired and limiting excursions to suit his limited toddling, they see learning to walk as the beginning of the end of humping about the baby’s increasing size and weight – which can be a great relief. From the toddler’s point of view once he can stand he can see more, reach more, use both hands more freely and once he can walk the next stage is often climbing, which again gives more scope for reaching, seeing, doing and thereby learning.

Although spoken vocabulary may not appear to increase very much he is absorbing words very rapidly so that when he really does start to talk more (often when efficient walking has been accomplished) it may seem to happen in a very short space of time. It is important for adults to keep on talking and explaining to children of this age even if they have not yet reached the ‘What dat’ stage. This was brought home to me very vividly by having a third child who learned to talk relatively early. Just as other toddlers do, he did very undesirable things too numerous and commonplace to list – and just as other mothers do (and as I had done before with two older children) I would respond to a situation such as seeing a very beautiful and expensive teddy bear being bathed in the lavatory by saying ‘Oh Matthew! No!/ That’s not nice/That’s a naughty thing to do.’ He would respond as the earlier children had done by giving me that rather startled, questioning look but because he could also talk would say’ What I do den?’ Not till then did I realize how easy it is to fall into the trap of not giving enough information simply because children are not yet able to ask for it.

During this period hand and eye coordination improves and manipulative skills, though they will still be limited even at three years, start to develop. Fat crayons and paint brushes, more bricks, the larger, simpler fitting and construction toys, jigsaw puzzles with large pieces, push-and-pull floor toys, dolls and dolls’ cots, old clothes to dress up in, will all be needed as this stage progresses. Hammer pegs, more picture books, and a post-box type toy would be a good start. Ordinary household items (even extraordinary ones such as a piece of vacuum cleaner which was a constant favourite with one child) are useful. Some of these may be provided for him, some he will find for himself. A sandpit, some means of water play, the simplest kind of pedal-less tricycle, something to climb on, something to hide in, are desirable features of outside playing which becomes possible when children can walk. This seems a very long list and indeed it is – largely because it covers a long span of time and a wide span of increasing ability, but also because this is a stage at which children are interested in anything and everything but only for a short spell at a time. They are easily distracted and quickly bored which, although it can be inconvenient, merely reflects the fact that at this stage learning is wide rather than deep, gathering information rather than understanding it.

One of the most important aspects of learning concerns other children. The toddler of eighteen months will quite happily ‘explore’ other children just as he would an interesting object, poking, pushing and watching their reactions. Should the other child cry or retaliate he is surprised and often distressed. He did not mean to hurt them nor even realize he could do so. In a few months he will be a little more wary and may have learned that other children will poke him. He also learns that other children may take his toys but does not yet relate this to how they may feel if he takes their playthings. We can find ourselves still saying to five-year-olds and having to remind seven-year-olds ‘How would you feel if someone did that to you?’ Mothers often become concerned that their children ‘ won’t share’. In fact until a child has been allowed to keep his own possessions in the face of social disapproval from other mothers and repeated onslaughts from persistent would-be borrowers, he is not able to learn ‘That is mine and you can’t have it’ which in time will lead him to accept ‘And that is yours so I mustn’t touch it.’

Between two and a half to three years is usually the stage at which children will superficially play together with the same materials although each has his own separate little game. They may watch and imitate each other, sometimes laughing, occasionally speaking to each other, sometimes restricting their own play in order not to interfere with the other. This is a very necessary step in learning to play positively ‘with’ rather than ‘alongside’ and can only take place if there is another child with whom to learn. The only child who for some reason is not able to be with other children may not learn this lesson until he goes to school.

The three-year-old has made great progress. His speech has increased rapidly, he is able to get more information simply because he can ask for it. He is intently interested in watching adults and other children and although tremendous frustration often results from him trying to do the same things he learns a lot from this observation. He can reach more materials and experiment with them. Because he is a little more independent in feeding himself, being clean and dry, his mother may have to spend less time on doing the chores associated with total dependence and if he is lucky she may be able to spend the extra time she gains (always assuming there has not been another baby in the meantime) in taking him out, reading books, telling stories, going to a Mother and Toddler Club or One O’Clock Club and taking a little longer over the shopping to let him have a good look at the fish on the fishmonger’s slab or the vegetables in the greengrocer’s. These early experiences may well be played out in simple pretend games with very ordinary ‘props’. Because he is still unable to play well with other children and yet is not able to sustain the dual roles that such games involve, his mother may well find herself used as a partner in these games. One of the earliest repeated experiences outside the home is shopping. The two-and-a-half-year-old will ask his mother if she needs some tea, pedal off furiously on his tricycle round the garden and come back, plonk imaginary tea in her hand and say ‘There you are -do you want some sugar now?’ and off he goes again. After doing this for a time or two, or even a week or two, one of the usual progressions of the game is when he comes back saying ‘All sold out. Do you want some eggs instead?’ and giggles helplessly at this’ trick’ he is playing on her.

Many mothers find their two-and-a-half-year-old children very tiring to be with all day every day. They want to do so much they are not really able to do, they can demand an endless succession of playthings and activities and yet still go looking for mischief – which they find usually in potentially dangerous situations – and they get tired but will not give up. Many of them are not yet out of the ‘What’s that’ phase which started much earlier, perhaps a year ago, and because they are older, stronger and do not sleep so much their demand for information can be difficult to keep patience and pace with. They need more space, more toys and other children with whom to experiment rather than play and yet are still dependent on their mother’s support and presence. A two-and-a-half-year-old may accept a babysitter for a short while if it is someone he knows well, and may be willing to go somewhere else to be looked after without his mother for a short time, but it is often a question of him forgetting about his mother rather than positively being able to manage without her. If he becomes distressed or needs adult help he very soon remembers her and will not accept the necessary comfort or assistance from someone else. It is tempting to think we should ‘break’ him of this ‘for his own good’. If we leave it a little longer however he will gradually work out of this stage quite naturally, especially if he is introduced to new situations and people with his mother’s support and presence in the background. This is why Toddler Clubs and One O’Clock Clubs can be particularly valuable at this age.