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Toddlers are naturally curious – after all, everything in the world is new to them, whether it's an ant hauling a crumb many times its size or a snail slowly squelching its way across a damp sidewalk.
Your child's natural curiosity can drive you to distraction if it coincides with a deadline, such as getting her to daycare in time for you to make your bus – but it can also remind you of what it was like to live in a world where a snail's journey was more important than yours. Here are some ways to tap into your child's curiosity and have fun doing it.
Turn errands into expeditions
To your toddler, going to a Laundromat isn't a drag – it's a chance to visit an underwater exploration station with round windows into a wet, sudsy world. Stopping by the local thrift store isn't just another errand to cross off the to-do list – it's a wonderful opportunity to sort through piles of silky scarves and old baseball gloves.
So it's raining? Don't fret. Take a rain walk to the grocery store and on the way stomp in puddles, shake branches to make the drops fall, and show your child how to catch raindrops on her tongue.
Look for shapes in the clouds together – she might surprise you with what she sees. Then come home and make cocoa with whipped cream clouds on top or add mashed potato clouds to her dinner menu.
Enhance your toddler's sense of adventure by treating small outings like adventurous journeys. Prepare by dressing for exploration – your toddler can wear her fire hat or carry a flashlight – and coming up with creative ways to pack snacks (like letting her wear a bracelet made of dry cereal strung on yarn). Have her pick out a stuffed animal or doll to bring along as a traveling companion.
And don't forget to bring back souvenirs – a "journey box" is the perfect distraction to pull out on a rainy day.
Working parents are especially likely to feel guilty that they don't have more time for creative outings and projects – "I see my daughter only in the evening, and all we did last night was eat dinner and take a bath!" But with a little imagination, any parent – even a tired one – can turn dinner into a smorgasbord and a bathtub into an ocean. And that's really all your toddler needs.
Slow down and pull apart the roses
As you've probably noticed, toddlers are natural dawdlers. This is because they live in the moment and focus solely on whatever's right in front of them. Of course it isn't always possible to adhere to your toddler's preferred schedule, but when you can, give your toddler the gift of extra time.
Spot a ladybug? Let it walk on his arm (or yours, if he's squeamish). Count its spots. Talk about what it might eat, where it lives, and what it does at night.
If you're gardening and come across a worm or roly-poly bug, point it out to him. Let him play with it (gently, of course) or put it in a jar so he can watch it for a few minutes. Then help him let it go.
If you're on a city walk and pass a mural or billboard, stop for a moment to look. Play an "I spy" game: "Can you find the man with the funny hat? The red car? The big dog?"
Your toddler's fascinations may sometimes be contrary to your own inclinations. "Look at the camel! Look at the elephant!" you urge at the zoo – but your toddler's attention is focused on the pigeons and squirrels raiding the garbage cans.
Let him look. They're closer to his size and not so far away – and his interest in the natural world will be just as stimulated.
Take note of transformations
Toddlers love transformations – probably in part because they're changing so fast themselves. Start with those around her: Watch for the first star to come out and make a wish, or check on the moon every night for a week and talk about how its shape is changing.
But you can easily create your own transformations as well. Plant a fast-growing bean or pea in a pot and count the days until it comes up. Or force bulbs indoors in a clear glass jar so your child can watch the stalks sprout and the roots reach down for water.
Put a stalk of celery in a cup filled with water and red food coloring and see how long it takes the stalk to turn beet-red. Mix cornstarch with water to make a squeaky paste, or pour vinegar onto baking soda and watch it bubble. (Better yet, turn batter into cake – a sure winner with toddlers.)
Many a parent desperate to finish getting dinner ready has resorted to the old gelatin trick: Dissolve an envelope or two of unflavored gelatin in water, letting your toddler stir it as it solidifies. Then let her poke it.
If you can show your toddler a chick pecking its way out of an egg or a butterfly coming out of a chrysalis, you'll be a hero – but if you can't, don't panic. An ice cube melting on a hot sidewalk is just as thrilling.
Savor the seasons
Help your toddler understand the changing seasons by focusing on what he can see, hear, touch, and smell. Sweep the leaves off the sidewalk on your way home from daycare, and count how many have fallen when you come outside in the morning.
Blow bubbles and see which way the wind is blowing. Put a bucket outside and use a stick or ruler to measure how much rain or snow falls. Help him listen for the first spring peepers and watch for the first fireflies of summer.
Seasons, of course, are notable not just for the changes they bring, but also because they mark special occasions and activities. Summer brings the Fourth of July and fireworks. Early fall means carving pumpkins (and, of course, the dreaded plastic pumpkin full of candy), and late fall brings Thanksgiving.
Your toddler may not be old enough to remember what you did last year, but kids love traditions, and many experts believe memory begins early. Reading books and singing songs together will help your toddler learn about and celebrate the seasonal traditions you observe, whether it's Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Ramadan. And seasonal foods will spark his curiosity about a whole new range of smells, textures, and tastes.
Let it be a small world
Toddlers love small things: buttons, beads, pebbles. Who knows why – maybe it's a result of living in a world where you can't see the tabletop. Too small, of course, is dangerous: Federal regulations warn that anything smaller than 1 1/4 by 2 1/4 inches (or about the size of your child's mouth) is a choking hazard.
But as long as there's no danger, counting and sorting large wooden beads or plastic buttons into containers (or, outside, rocks or shells into buckets) may fascinate your child for quite a while.
You may also have noticed that your child loves small, cozy spaces that give her a sense of privacy and ownership. Hang blankets from the top bunk to turn the bottom bunk into a cave, drape a king-size sheet over the kitchen table to make a tent, or (outside) clip away a few low-hanging branches to create a hidey-hole beneath a tree or bush.
Then let your toddler furnish her hideout with some scaled-down dishes or tools. Toddlers love child-size things they can manipulate easily, and these may lead to all sorts of culinary experiments and construction projects.
Follow up on fascinations
"Cowboys (or baseball players, or trains, or horses) again?" you ask yourself wearily. Who are you? The parent of a toddler, of course.
No one really knows why toddler obsessions happen the way they do, but they're common – and they provide perfect opportunities for learning.
Got a toddler who can't stop talking about firefighters? Take a tour of a local firehouse, go to your local fire department's pancake breakfast and watch them demonstrate the equipment, or provide a fire hat and a garden hose for summer play. Factories often offer tours, as do many farms and businesses – even private groups such as model train clubs.
If the first thing your toddler does every morning is put on her tutu, encourage her fascination by visiting a ballet studio during rehearsal time or attending a local dance recital so your child can watch older children doing what she dreams of. (While local performances can seem amateurish to adult eyes, they're often better for young children because they can get closer and really see what's going on.)
There are also great picture books that tell a toddler everything she could want to know about the life of a dancer – or a firefighter, for that matter. And if there's no toddler-appropriate book available about your child's personal obsession, don't worry: Any book with big, colorful pictures will do.
If your toddler is nuts about whales, for example, look for a nature book with dramatic photos of spyhopping orcas – or a picture book with reproductions of seafaring art. Or just listen to Baby Beluga yet again.
Turn questions into quests
From why the sky is blue to why steam comes out of the kettle when it boils, toddlers ask a surprising number of questions that parents can't answer.
If your tot stumps you, don't worry: Tell him that the two of you will find out together. Keep a running list, and let him see you writing it down. Then take your list with you to the library or bookstore.
Children's museums are often designed to answer the kinds of questions children ask. And you're likely to find answers on the Web.
Toddlers ask so many how and why questions that there are lots of books especially for helping parents answer them. Catherine Ripley's Why?: The Best Ever Question and Answer Book About Nature, Science, and the World Around You is aimed at toddlers, as is The National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of Why. Richard Scarry's classic What Do People Do All Day? offers a quick course on everything from how houses are built to how economies work.
There's even an entire series of early science and nature books called Let's-Read-and-Find-Out-Science. Level one books, with titles such as What's It Like to Be a Fish? and My Feet, are perfect for toddlers curious about the most mundane aspects of the world.