The Toddler

By Bernice Callahan, past Board Member and Founder of California Parenting Institute

As we move forward in the planning and preparation of various exhibits and activities for the Children’s Museum we are constantly reviewing what we know about young children and how they learn about their world.

The Children’s Museum of Sonoma County is geared to the learning styles and needs of young children from toddlerhood to school age.  That doesn’t mean that infants and older children won’t find wonderful things to see and experience in our beautiful environment (especially when we have our permanent home).  It does mean that exhibits and activities found in a children’s museum must have multiple possibilities for exploration, investigation, manipulation, and enjoyment.

The  Children’s Museum of Sonoma County keeps a clear picture of how children learn at each stage of their development, and acts as a guardian as well as a facilitator of childhood’s propensity for hands on learning.

We’d like to share with you, our supporters and parents of our target population, the information we’re using to guarantee our Museum is bringing the most beneficial services and activities to the families of Sonoma County.  We’ll begin that process with an overview of cognitive and sensory development of Toddlers.  Look for the information about Preschoolers, and School Age children in subsequent issues of our newsletter.

The Toddler

Toddlers are consumed with curiosity. Their boundless energy and insatiable inquisitiveness provide them with resources for the tremendous cognitive growth that occurs during this period. Toddlers between 12-18 months are in Piaget’s sensorimotor period. Learning in this stage occurs mainly by trial an error. Toddlers spend most of their busy day experimenting to see what will happen as they dump, fill, empty, and explore every accessible area of their environment. Between 19-24 months, the child enters the final stage of the sensorimotor period. Object permanence is firmly established by this age. The child has a beginning ability to use symbols and words when referring to absent people or objects and begins to solve problems mentally rather than by repeating an action over and over.  A toddler at this stage is often seen imitating the parent of the same gender performing household tasks. They also imitate the parent who has left for work by putting on make-up or shaving when the parent is absent.

Many hours each day are spent putting objects into holes and smaller objects into each other as the child experiments with sizes, shapes, and spatial relations.  Toddlers enjoy opening drawers and doors, exploring the contents of cabinets and closets, and generally wreaking havoc throughout the house.

According to Piaget, the preoperational stage of cognitive development characterizes the second half of early childhood.  This stage is divided into two phases: the preconceptual phase (2 to 4 years) and the intuitive phase (4 to 7 years).  During the preconception phase, the child is beginning to use symbolic thought—the ability to allow a mental image (words) to represent objects or ideas.  Mental symbols allow the child to remember the past and to describe events that happened in the past.  At around 24 months, children enter the preconceptual phase, which ends at age 4 years.  Children begin to think and reason at a primitive level.  Two –year-olds have a beginning ability to retain mental images.  This ability allows them to internalize what they see and experience.  Symbols in the form of words can be used to represent ideas. This is true even if the child is not himself speaking words yet. His/her ability to understand words precedes speaking sometimes by quite a lengthy span.  Increasing amounts of play time are spent pretending.  A box may become a spaceship or a hat; pebbles may be money or popcorn, and adults must be vigilant in their supervision of this play..  The child’s rapidly increasing vocabulary enhances symbolic play.  The toddler can even consider the consequences of an action without carrying it out (touching a hot stove, running too fast on a slippery sidewalk).

The toddler’s thinking is immature, limited in its logic, and bound to the present.  Egocentrism, animism, irreversibility, magical thinking, and centration, characterize the preoperational thought of the toddler.  The predominant words in the toddler’s language repertoire are “me”, “I”, and “mine”.

To summarize, the toddler fills and empties containers, begins dramatic play, has increased use of motor skills, enjoys feeling different textures, enjoys manipulating small objects such as toy people, cars and animals, explores the home environment, imitates orders, likes to be read to and to look at books.

We hope you will join us next time as we look at the cognitive development of preschool age children.