Help your toddler develop and have fun at the same time

Let’s face it—parents can get pretty uptight about their child’s development. It’s hard to resist comparing your child’s achievements with other kids of the same age. While there are milestones your toddler is expected to be reaching (see box), the truth is, all kids develop differently and on their own timelines.

With that said, keeping a watchful eye never hurts. If you find your toddler is a bit behind on a few things, don’t worry. Likely, she just needs a chance to practice those things. If she is behind on most items on the list, you might want to get her evaluated. But don’t stress. Life with all its activity and interaction tends to prepare kids just fine. However, if you want to enhance your toddler’s growth, here are some ways to do so in each of the five main developmental areas: gross motor, fine motor, language, intellectual and social.

“Each child’s development is different and individual, and each child meets his milestones at his own pace,” says Elizabeth Teschler, OTR/L, CNT, CLC, Senior Pediatric Occupational Therapist at UC Health Children’s Therapy Services in Fort Collins.

Big movement for better growth

Learning to operate their bodies is an important developmental job for babies and toddlers. Did you know that mastering large movements helps toddlers’ master small movements? One of the best ways to help them grow is simple physical play.

“The first years of life are like a natural Pilates or yoga program that focuses on core stability and strength. Core stability lays the foundation for achieving the gross motor milestones but also for achieving fine motor coordination,” Teschler explains.

She recommends simply going to the park and playing on the playground. Between the swings that strengthen your child’s vestibular balance to the jungle gym that helps develop his core muscles, your toddler is not only having fun, but also developing.

“Playing at the park is so much more than playing at the park. It’s not just gross motor skills that are enhanced. Add in interacting with other kids and learning to take turns and your toddler is also getting speech and language development as well,” Teschler says.

Fine motor for school readiness

When your toddler gets to preschool or kindergarten, they’ll start handwriting—a skill that demands finger dexterity. You can develop that early on by doing crafts that demand your child use and develop her hand strength.

“A child might struggle with handwriting, but the root of what’s going on is core stability—something little boys tend to have more trouble with than girls. A good line of defense is to sit down and do crafts with your toddler,” Teschler advises.

Teschler recommends painting, finger painting and scribbling with your toddler. A fun idea is buying picture frames at the dollar store and letting your toddler paint the frame or glue items on it that demand cutting, snipping, tearing paper, peeling stickers and more.  Baking—rolling out cookies and cutting them out—is also a good lesson in dexterity.

Language development

Is your toddler always chattering or is he relatively quiet? To help develop language skills, the best thing you can do is talk to your toddler and include her in your conversations.

“Talk to your toddler not like a baby but like a tiny human. Ask questions, give details,” Teschler advises.

You can help your toddler gain skills by giving her one to two step directions, as in: “Pick up your toy truck and put it in the box.’ Remember, kids understand things better than they can express them.

“There’s a difference between how toddlers speak and how they receptively listen to you and process your directions. Toddlers receptively understand a lot more than they can express at that age. That’s why it’s important to talk with them even if it seems beyond what they can understand,” Teschler says.

Stimulating your toddler’s brain

Are you smarter than a toddler? You may be, but your little tyke has more brain power than you. Right now, your 2-year-old’s brain is rapidly growing. When she turns three, she’ll have about 1,000 trillion pathways or synapses—twice as many as you have as an adult. Research shows that your child’s head circumference dramatically increases to accommodate language centers in the brain between 2 and 3 years of age.

“Every experience sends and creates a pathway in a toddler’s brain. The more experiences you give, the more pathways you create. The more pathways you create, the more opportunity you give your toddler for success,” Teschler says.

As you most likely know, toddlers love repetition. They like to hear a favorite book over and over again. They can become obsessed with one topic and want to talk, read or play with objects on only that topic—like cars or dinosaurs. Repetition is a way toddlers learn. When they do the same thing over and over again, they are processing information.

Other ways to enhance your toddler’s brain development and promote early math skills is to do activities that promote sequencing, teach cause-and-effect and identify shapes and sizes. You can do this by playing board games, card games or memory games.

Growing social and emotional skills

Experts agree that active interaction through playing, talking and activities is vital to a toddler’s brain development. Research shows that the more a child is talked with, the easier he will have later on learning and making connections in his world.

“As a parent, oftentimes you know what your child wants before he asks. Give him the time to use his language and ask,” she adds.

Getting along with others is necessary for a successful life. To promote good communication skills in your young child, teach manners. This may sound like strange advice, but the same skills come in handy while communicating. Teach kids how to take turns, politely negotiate differences and listen while someone else is talking.

“If your toddler is having a hard time mastering a skill, work on it for a few months. If you are still concerned, talk to your doctor or ask to see an occupational therapist for an assessment,” Teschler concludes. “It’s not a bad thing to get a baseline done. You may be surprised. Your occupational therapist may say she is doing just fine. If she needs extra help, research shows early intervention really makes a difference.”


Resources, for when you need a second opinion

If your gut says your child isn’t where she needs to be, ask your doctor for a referral to have her assessed. Here are some resources for getting that second opinion, and peace of mind.

Be Ready Larimer County
School readiness services, birth to age 5
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Bright by Three
Tools to promote lifelong learning and success

Child Find, Larimer County
Early learning and school readiness
Poudre R-1, 970-490-3040
Thompson R-2J, 970-613-5762

Early Intervention Colorado/Colorado Office of Early Childhood
Support for infants, toddlers and families

Poudre School District, Early Childhood Assessment Teams
School readiness and services for preschoolers
Barton Early Childhood Assessment Team, 970-490-3119
Fullana Early Childhood Assessment Team, 970-490-3160

UCHealth – Children’s Therapy Services  
OT/PT and speech therapies

Ages and Stages for Two Year Olds

The American Academy of Pediatrics maps out the following milestones for toddlers. If your 2-year old isn’t able to perform some of these, don’t worry. Everything takes practice. Simply make a note to encourage activities and opportunities for your toddler to practice these activities.

Movement milestones

  • Walks alone
  • Pulls toys behind her while walking
  • Carries a large toy or several toys while walking
  • Begins to run
  • Stands on tiptoe
  • Kicks a ball
  • Climbs onto and down from furniture unassisted
  • Walks up and down stairs holding on to support
  • Milestones in hand and finger skills
  • Scribbles spontaneously
  • Turns over container to pour out contents
  • Builds tower of four blocks or more
  • Might use one hand more frequently than the other

Language milestones

  • Points to object or picture when it’s named for him
  • Recognizes names of familiar people, objects, and body parts
  • Says several single words (by fifteen to eighteen months)
  • Uses simple phrases (by eighteen to twenty-four months)
  • Uses two- to four-word sentences
  • Follows simple instructions
  • Repeats words overheard in conversation
  • Cognitive milestones
  • Finds objects even when hidden under two or three covers
  • Begins to sort by shapes and colors
  • Begins make-believe play
  • Social and emotional milestones
  • Imitates behavior of others, especially adults and older children
  • Increasingly aware of herself as separate from others
  • Increasingly enthusiastic about company of other children
  • Demonstrates increasing independence
  • Begins to show defiant behavior
  • Increasing episodes of separation anxiety toward midyear, then they fade