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Learning, Play, and Your 1- to 2-Year-Old

What Is My Toddler Learning?

Kids transition from babies to toddlers during the second year of life. Shaky first steps give way to confident walking. Your toddler will be on the move, so be sure to childproof your home to prevent household accidents.

Kids this age make major strides in understanding language and figuring out how to communicate. At 12 months, most say their first words and use hand gestures and point to things.

During year two, vocabulary increases slowly over the first 6 months and then expands quickly during the second 6 months. Their vocabulary will grow from one or two words to 50 words or more. By 2 years old, most toddlers are using simple two-word sentences and can follow a two-step command ("pick up your toy and give it to me").

Understanding language also improves, and toddlers understand much more than they can express. This can be frustrating for your child and may lead to tantrums.

Hand–eye coordination and manual dexterity continues to improve. With better control over fingers and hands, toddlers can explore toys and surroundings more than before. Choose age-appropriate toys and games that let toddlers gain a sense of mastery before moving on to more challenging tasks.

As an infant, your child "played" with toys by shaking, banging, or throwing them. Your toddler now is aware of the function of objects, so is more likely to stack blocks, listen or talk into a toy phone, or push a toy car. The concept of pretend play also starts. Your little one may pretend to drink from an empty cup, use a banana as a phone, or imagine a block is a car.

Emotions at Play

Many toddlers are in daycare or parents may introduce play dates now. Toddlers enjoy having other kids around, but don't expect them to "play" cooperatively with each other or to be thrilled about sharing toys. Have plenty of toys for everyone and be prepared to step in when they don't want to share. Older siblings can be role models when it comes to teaching, sharing, and taking turns.

Tantrums are more common during the toddler years, so expect your child to get frustrated from time to time. If you see a tantrum coming on, try to create a distraction with a book or interesting toy. Avoid letting your child get too tired or hungry, particularly while learning new tasks. This can set the stage for tantrums.

Toddlers seek more independence, but expect your toddler to go from wanting freedom to clinging to you for comfort and reassurance, and back again. Allow the freedom to explore but be there when you're needed.

If it hasn't come up yet, your child may cry and cling to you when you try to leave and resist attention from others. This is called separation anxiety. It often starts around 9 months of age, but can be later. It lets up as kids develop the language and social skills needed to cope with strange situations. As they get older, they learn that the separation from you is not permanent.

How Can I Help My Toddler Learn?

Once toddlers learn to walk, there's no turning back. Yours will want to keep moving and build on this newfound skill. Provide lots of chances to be active and to learn and explore in safe surroundings.

Games that your child might enjoy include peekaboo, pat-a-cake, and chasing games. Toddlers love to imitate adults and are fascinated with housework. Provide age-appropriate toys that will encourage this, such as a toy vacuum to use while you're cleaning or pots, pans, and spoons to play with while you're cooking.

Other toys that toddlers enjoy include:

  • brightly colored balls
  • blocks, stacking and nesting toys
  • fat crayons or markers
  • age-appropriate animal or people figures and dolls
  • toy cars and trains
  • shape sorters, peg boards
  • simple puzzles
  • push, pull, and riding toys

Reading continues to be important. Your toddler can follow along with a story and point to objects in the pictures as you name them. Encourage your little one to name things he or she recognizes.

Chat about the books you read together and the things you did that day. Ask questions and encourage your toddler to reply by waiting for a response, then expand on those replies.

Keep in mind that toddlers develop at different rates, and there is a wide range of normal development. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about your toddler's development.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: July 2019