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The Secret to Your Crazy, Adorable Toddler

Spatial Relationships

Tripping on their own feet, walking into walls, getting fingers stuck in the VCR: Toddlers are pretty fuzzy when it comes to spatial relations. Much of this fuzziness occurs because motor pathways in the brain and spinal cord haven't yet matured -- the head doesn't always know what the feet are doing. Until neural pathways develop enough to allow information to flow quickly -- and muscles become strong -- toddlers have no choice but to lurch around. Typically, their coordination and timing start to improve between 18 and 24 months.

While they're navigating across the carpet, they're also trying to make sense of three-dimensional space. That's why they need to drive their toy minivan into the edge of the couch over and over: They have to keep testing whether the minivan is taller than the opening under the couch. Repetition strengthens neural connections, letting toddlers eventually figure out what's taller and smaller and what's in back and in front.

As toddlers grow from 12 months to 24 months to nearly 36 months, they become quite skilled at focusing on a single object or thought. But most of the time, they can't think about two ideas at once. Getting to a cupcake or a new truck is so completely absorbing that other essential information, such as how to walk down the stairs, is blocked out.

"When a fifteen-month-old is paying attention to going down the stairs, watching where she's going, putting one foot down and bringing the other foot to meet it, she can climb down," says Kathy Fitzgerald, a mom of one girl and director of the Child Development Laboratories at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. "But a half hour later, she might just walk into the air. If what she's thinking about is her sister with a toy she wants down at the bottom of the stairs, the stairs are of no importance," says Fitzgerald.

Among the leading distractions is getting attention from Mom or Dad. Jennifer Davis-Kay of Arlington Heights, Massachusetts, often sees her son, Will, 2, chase his sister around the house, shrieking for his mom to watch him in action. "He'll run, gleefully looking over his shoulder to see if I'm watching," she says, "and bump smack-dab into the doorjamb."