Toddlers are stepping out of baby booties and into walking shoes. They are no longer infants, but are still in the early childhood years. They are learning to explore the sights, sounds, and textures of a whole new world. We now know that children begin learning from the moment they are born, and the environment we create lays the foundation for their development throughout life. When a child first enters a child care setting, parents may feel both excited and sad. By finding a caring place for your toddler, you help him grow to feel good about himself and to thrive.

During the early childhood years, all areas of development—thinking, feeling, moving, and getting along with others—are connected. Newly mobile toddlers want to take off in every direction at once and experience every sensation. But toddlers also need to feel safe and secure so they can develop a love of learning that will be an asset during school years and beyond. Relationships with caring adults give toddlers the confidence to experiment as they grow, step by step, into people who are ready to meet the challenges of life.

How toddlers learn

Toddler curriculum starts with effective teachers and a developmentally appropriate program—one that provides safe, challenging, and meaningful materials and experiences that support children’s development and learning.

Toddlers learn best…

  • when they feel secure. Children thrive in a warm, safe, loving environment that gives them the confidence to explore. That’s why it’s so important for teachers to be responsive and nurturing. The more secure children feel, the more they are willing to take risks, try new things, and build friendships with others.
  • through play, exploration and observation. Like all children, toddlers learn while engaged in meaningful activities that provide just enough challenges to encourage learning. Often they pretend to do what adults do. They may play dress-up or pretend to drive a car or build a house. Toddlers learn “how the world works” by observing and interacting with objects around them.
  • at their own pace. Skilled teachers know there will be a wide range of abilities in children in the first three years of life. Children will reach developmental milestones when they are confident and ready. For example, before young children can deal with tasks such as giving up their bottles and learning to use the toilet, they must feel secure enough to take on these new challenges.

What makes a good program for toddlers?

Today’s busy families need support and services in addition to what they can offer their children. Good teachers give children the stimulation they need, and at the same time show them that the world is a safe, friendly place. Nothing compares to the relationship between a child and a parent, but strong bonds with a few teachers help a child become more confident and emotionally secure.

Group care for toddlers presents special challenges and opportunities. During this period, children’s needs may change rapidly. That’s why it’s important for teachers to be warm and nurturing, knowledgeable about child development, and understanding of the fact that each child will learn and grow at his own pace.

Toddler development

Toddlers are beginning to wonder who’s in charge. After all, they are growing more inquisitive about the world around them. Their strong sense of self is evident when they begin to say No! to adults. They move constantly and are always on the lookout for new and interesting sights. What may appear as misbehavior is usually evidence of a toddler’s struggle to understand what adults say he can and cannot do.

Children at this stage are more aware of themselves and how others see them. They can usually distinguish boys and girls. They begin to recognize appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Toddlers face some of life’s biggest challenges: how to be safe, how to get what they need without taking from others, and how to express themselves using words, instead of aggression. These are accomplished through learning how to regulate their own behavior. Toddlers may falter at times, slipping back into babyhood; they alternate between fits of frustration and pride in their discoveries.

Lots of exciting developments occur between 12 months and 3 years. Children can turn the pages of a book (sometimes “reading” to you), scribble with crayons or markers, thread large beads through holes, and handle puzzle pieces. Many toddlers walk up stairs one foot at a time, kick and throw a ball, begin to eat with a spoon and fork, enjoy pretend play, and love to divide things into categories by shape, size, color, or type. Home and child care settings should provide many opportunities to do these activities, alone, with a friend, or in a small group. It’s important to offer simple choices (“Would you like a banana or an apple?”) and opportunities to practice sharing and getting along with others.

Good teachers support toddler development

Teachers are partners in children’s learning, there to respond to children’s interests and introduce new objects and ideas. Not only do teachers need to have a strong knowledge of child development, but they also need to take the time to get to know a child’s individual characteristics and preferences. Is a toddler having a hard time learning to feed himself? Is a child particularly cranky before she goes to sleep? Tuning into these patterns and stages helps teachers give children the individual support they need.

Teachers should set and communicate clear and consistent limits for toddlers. These children may want to be independent, but they still don’t always know how to be safe. Toddlers are constantly testing the waters and pushing things to see how far they can go. They need a few simple rules—and sometimes a few gentle reminders!

Toddlers strive to be self-reliant, and they count on the understanding and attentiveness of the adults in their lives. Children at this age are wavering between babyhood and childhood. One minute, a toddler may want to act like a grown-up and read to herself. The next minute, she may climb up in her teacher’s lap with book in hand and ask for a story. Toddlers are beginning to understand what’s expected of them, although they might not always comply. It takes a patient teacher to sense the shifts in children’s moods and needs. It also takes a perceptive one to make the best out of this exciting time for learning.

At Laura Jackson’s Family Child Care Home

Knowing how toddlers love to “fill and dump,” Laura collects a large assortment of empty cereal boxes and smaller food boxes with the help of the children’s parents. She places them on the floor along with a supply of small Lego blocks. The children find lots of things to do with them. Chloe carefully puts blocks into a large cornflake box and then empties them out. Jorge and Janine, almost 3, build a tower with the blocks and laugh with delight when it falls. Eighteen-month-old Sam first put the boxes into two piles, big and little, and now he is lays the small boxes end to end in a long winding chain—a wall, a road, or perhaps simply a chain? Laura isn’t sure until she sees him carefully steering a small car along the road. “Your car has a long way to go!” she exclaims. “Go slow. Not fall,” Sam says.

The teacher-family partnership

Think of a good program for toddlers as a partnership between families and teachers. Look for a teacher whose views on discipline, weaning, and toileting are compatible with your own. Continuity between home and the child care setting helps toddlers learn positive behavior. It also helps them gain independence. Toddlers are growing rapidly, so parents and teachers should communicate daily about how to address the child’s changing interests, skills, and needs.

Young children’s identities are rooted in their families. Naturally, children feel more confident when they see that their parents trust and are comfortable with their teachers. It’s not a competition for children’s affection—strong bonds with one or two teachers can never replace the love of a parent. But it’s important for your child to be attached to the person who takes care of him when you’re not around so he will feel secure enough to learn and thrive.

In a good teacher-family partnership, each offers the other support and insight. The goal is to reach mutual understanding, even when views about child rearing differ. Experienced teachers know that families are a constant and powerful influence in a child’s life. Strong listening skills and respect for different perspectives allow teachers to work with parents to create the best environment for an individual child.

At the Great Beginnings Child Care Center

Two-year-old Suki watches an older toddler drink from a regular cup and pour water from a pitcher. Michelle, her teacher, knows that Suki yearns to do the same, so she lets her experiment and get a little messy. Michelle knows that Suki is developing her eye-hand coordination and becoming more independent.

At home, Suki cries, “Me! Me!” when her mother pours the milk. She refuses her sippy cup. Suki’s parents want her to learn new skills, but they voice their concern. “We can’t have Suki making a mess like that or wasting food at home,” Suki’s father tells Michelle.

Together, Suki’s parents and her teacher brainstorm about ways for Suki to develop self-help skills without making a mess or wasting food. “Maybe,” Michelle suggests, “you could allow Suki to pour water over a towel or pan until she becomes more adept.”

Suki’s mother says, “Yes, that‘s a good idea. And maybe I’ll offer her more finger foods—the kind she can handle herself. That will help her feel more independent.”

© National Association for the Education of Young Children — Promoting excellence in early childhood education