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From Baby to Big Kid

An e-newsletter that showcases how children learn and grow each month from birth to 3 years. From Baby to Big Kid translates the science of early childhood and offers strategies parents can tailor to their unique family situation and to the needs of their child.
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School Readiness

0-12 Months12-2424-36

Thinking Skills: 24 to 36 months

In this third year, you will see a big jump in your child’s thinking skills. She will start to appreciate humor and jokes.  She will be able to come up with solutions to more complex challenges.  And she is able to put herself in other people’s shoes.  She knows they have thoughts and feelings that are different from hers and she can imagine what these thoughts and feelings might be. She may give you a hug when you are sad. You may see her help another child who is struggling. 

Two-year-olds get a bad rap. Some call them “terrible”.  But they are not terrible at all.  At this stage, children are making a huge leap in their thinking skills as they are now able to use their imagination and develop lots of their own ideas. The problem is that they still do not have all the skills or the control over their world they need to follow through on all of their ideas. This naturally leads to anger, confusion and frustration—feelings they do not yet know how to manage very well. So they have a lot of breakdown, fondly known as tantrums.

The good news is there is a lot you can do to help your child cope, thrive and learn during this exciting year which will be full of lots of No’s from your spirited toddler, but filled with lots of laughter too.

To learn about the many ways you can nurture your 2-year-old’s thinking skills, click on the links below:

Spend lots of time pretending

The ability to pretend marks a big leap in the development of thinking skills. When children pretend, it means that they understand symbols—that a block can become a car, a shoebox can become a home for stuffed animals, and that a word stands for an object or an idea. Understanding symbols is important for the development of skills such as math, logic, writing, and science.

What you can do to build your child’s imagination:

  • Make the time for pretend play.  Let your child be the “director.” This helps him develop his own ideas. It also strengthens his thinking skills as he makes logical connections in his stories: The dog has to go back in his house because it’s raining. You can help him develop his ideas by asking questions:  What is the doggy feeling?  What is the doggy trying to do?  Why?  What might happen next?

  • Offer lots of props that help him act out the stories he’s creating—hats, dress-up clothing, toy dishes, child-sized brooms, pads of paper, blocks, play food and household objects like big cardboard boxes, blankets, pillows, etc.

Build your child’s logical thinking skills

As children get closer to age 3, they begin to understand how things are logically connected; for example, that you need to eat in order to grow. They use their increasing language skills to ask questions about what they see, hear, and experience in the world. That’s the reason it seems that every other word 2-year-olds speak is “Why?”  The ability to think logically—to put 2 and 2 together—is critical for thinking through problems and being successful in school and life.

What you can do:

  • Don’t answer your child’s questions right away. Ask first what he thinks the answer is. This gets his wheels turning.  Listen carefully to his response and acknowledge his ideas.   You can then offer the correct answer.  For example, if he says he thinks it gets dark at night so people can sleep, you might respond: Yes, it is easier to sleep when it’s dark, and then go on to explain as simply as possible about the sun setting and rising each day.

  • Ask lots of questions during your everyday play and routines.  As you go through your day together, ask your child “why” questions.  Why do you think the leaves fall from the trees? Why does it snow?  This gets your child’s mind working and also lets him know that you are interested in and value his ideas.

Figure out what objects do and how things go together. 

Older toddlers go beyond just exploring objects to using them as tools. For example, they might use a shoe box as a garage for toy cars. They also explore the world in more complex and creative ways. You may see your toddler’s active mind at work as he:

  • Digs through the sand to find hidden toys

  • Makes play dough creations

  • Builds elaborate constructions from blocks

  • Acts out stories in his play

  • Takes things apart, stacks, and sorts objects

  • Inspects the parts of toys that move (wheels/doors of a toy truck)

What you can do:

  • Watch your child and see what he is interested in.  Ask questions about what you are seeing and experiencing together:  What do you think we will find when we dig in the sand?  Where do you think the butterfly is flying to?  Wonder about things together:  I wonder how many legs are on that spider?  I wonder how many stairs there are to get up to the front door?  I wonder where the rain goes when it lands on the ground?  By noticing and building on your child’s natural curiosity, you are nurturing her love of learning.

  • Offer lots of chances to explore in creative ways. Take nature walks. Play with sand and water. Give your child objects he can take apart and investigate.  By working with familiar (and not-so-familiar) objects, children figure out how things work.  This type of problem-solving is critical for success in school.

Notice patterns and connect ideas.   
Toddlers can use their memories to apply past experiences to the present.  They see a cloudy sky and know that this might mean rain is coming.  This also helps them understand how the world works--the rain comes from the gray clouds.  You see this new ability to detect patterns and connect ideas when your child

  • Laughs at funny things

  • Asks grandma for a cookie after mom says no.

  • Remembers that Aunt Sheila can’t come to the party because she lives far away

  • Tells you it is raining and that he will need an umbrella

What you can do:

  • Make connections between past and present.  Make the logical connections in your child’s life clear to her: She has to wear mittens because her hands get cold if she doesn’t.  She needs to bring a towel to the pool so she can dry herself off. 

  • Use everyday routines to notice patterns.  Using language to explain these patterns helps your child become a logical thinker and increases her vocabulary.  “Do you notice that every time the dog whines he has to go out to do his business?”  “When the buzzer goes off, the clothes are dry.” 

Sort and categorize as you go through your day together.
Older toddlers can sort objects by their characteristics (all the plastic fish in one pile, all the plastic birds in another).  They are also beginning to understand more complex concepts of time, space, size and quantity.  You will see evidence of these new thinking skills when your child:

  • Tells you her age

  • Organizes objects in a logical way (plate next to cup; car next to dollhouse)

  • Asks questions like how many? or when?

  • Sorts beads by color or size

  • Acts out stories in his play, especially common scenarios he sees at home (like saying good-bye to mommy in the morning)

  • Completing 3- or 4-piece puzzles

What you can do:

  • Sort and categorize through the day. Do laundry together.  Your child can separate colors from whites and make piles of socks, shirts, and pants.  He can help set the table and organize the forks, plates and spoons.  At clean-up time, have him put the cars on one shelf and books on another.

  • Help him grasp a sense of time.  Use an egg timer to help him put together the concept of time with the experience of time (to help him know what 5 or 10 minutes feels like.) This also gives him some sense of control over knowing when a change will happen. (He can look at the egg timer and see the arrow moving closer to the “0” which is when he has to stop playing and get in the car.)

Think and talk about feelings. Two-year-olds are getting better at recognizing their own feelings. Some may even begin to label their own feelings:  I’m mad!  I’m sad. I’m happy.  But they are still learning how to manage them. (Tantrums continue to be very typical at this age.) Two-year-olds also know that other people have their own thoughts and feelings. You see this awareness of themselves and others when your toddler:

  • Uses words to describe feelings—“happy” or “sad”

  • Recognizes and names feelings in pictures from books (sadness, fear, anger)

  • Comforts others when they are upset or hurt

  • Recognizes others’ feelings: Mama sad?

  • Role-plays caregiving and comforting with dolls or stuffed animals

What you can do:

  • Talk about feelings.  Help your child develop a feelings vocabulary. Put words to what you think she might be feeling. You are so mad that we have to leave the park.  You feel sad when Grandma has to leave. This helps your child understand and cope with her feelings.

  • Talk about what others might be feeling. That little girl is jumping up and down and smiling.  Do you think she is happy?  When reading books, ask what she thinks the characters might be feeling.  Do you think he’s afraid of the dark?

Test out new ideas and concepts to solve problems.
Two-year-olds solve problems by using trial and error.  You may see your older toddler solving problems by:

  • Bringing others into her play: “You be the princess”

  • Peeling paper off a crayon that is getting dull in order to continue coloring

  • Turning puzzle pieces in different directions to complete the puzzle

  • Making up words and songs

  • Acting out stories, changing the plot to suit her purposes (not always logically)

What you can do:

  • Help your child test out different solutions to problems. When she is stuck, suggest other ways to approach the problem.  For example, suggest she try different openings to fit the shapes into. If she needs a wand for pretend play, ask her what household object she might be able to use.

  • Make up songs.  Instead of Rain, Rain Go Away, suggest it can be Snow, Snow Go Away, or, Birthday, Birthday Almost Here. Ask your child what else he wants to make the song about.  Change the words to the song to match his ideas.  This helps your child learn to think logically and make connections between ideas.


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The most important thing about the activities you do with your baby is that they're fun for both of you.  But sometimes these activities can also help babies learn new things.  Are there any games or songs that your baby loves, and that also help him build on his growing thinking skills?  Please share them with us!  We'd love to post a few of our visitor's ideas on this site.


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