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The Wonderful World of Toddler Play

Give a baby an empty tissue box, and he'll chew on it, maybe even toss it off his high chair to watch it fall to the ground. Give the same box to an 18-month-old, and he'll fill it with little treasures he's found around the house. A 2-year-old will proudly try to wear the box as a hat, and by the time he's nearing 3, it will have turned into a mailbox, a speedboat, a barn, and innumerable other objects we could never identify.

What's going on? Between 18 months and 3 years is a magical period of development for a toddler. He's beyond the rattle and working hard to master skills he'll need later. "Play is how kids are trying to understand the world around them," says Lydia Soifer, Ph.D., executive director of Children's Development and Education Foundation. "It's linked to many other abilities that are developing at the same time  -- social and language skills, cognitive and emotional growth."

Indeed, play isn't merely a game  -- it's a job that consumes your toddler's every waking hour. Here's what you can expect:

Julie Tilsner is the author of Planet Parenthood, out next month.

She'll start pretending.

One day, your toddler will delight you by drinking imaginary juice out of an empty cup or diapering her doll. Between 18 and 24 months, pretend play to her isn't all that different from imitation: It usually involves a single activity  -- like feeding  -- and mimics her daily routine.

By her second birthday, she'll probably be able to add more steps and re-enact an experience in fairly logical order  -- she'll make a toy phone ring, answer it, have a conversation, then say "bye-bye" and hang up. A few months later, any prop will do  -- she'll happily substitute a block for a telephone or find that a box is an ideal phone booth.

After age 2, a toddler's games will also become more elaborate. Instead of just feeding her dolls, she may cook up some pizza or have a picnic for them. This reflects her growing ability to organize and make sense of all the new experiences she's having.

How to encourage your toddler's budding imagination? "Follow her lead and make suggestions, but don't impose," says Soifer. If you see her giving her bear a bottle, ask her if her teddy wants to eat some applesauce too (instead of just telling her it's time for teddy's lunch, for instance).

He'll start having very creative conversations.

A toddler's blossoming language skills and imagination will entertain everyone  -- including him. Take Laura Mazza's 27-month-old son, Devin Plumb, who thinks he's a horse. "He comes galloping into the room to remind me, 'Mom! I'm a baby horse! Neighhhhh!'" says Mazza, of New York City. Devin also plays with his many toy horses, who talk and neigh to one another constantly.

Feel free to offer your child some running commentary of your own. Though your toddler is light-years away from the nonverbal baby he once was, he's still expanding his vocabulary. "If your toddler says he's cooking some shoes, expand upon that," says Soifer. "Say, 'Yikes! Those shoes are so big they're sticking out of the pot!' or 'Gee, I wonder if cooked shoes taste like cookies or peas?'"

She'll imitate her pals.

Though it may seem as if they're passing one another like ships in the night, toddlers actually play together in a loose, imitative way, says Patricia Henderson Shimm, associate director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, in New York City, and the author of Parenting Your Toddler. In fact, researchers have found that 2-year-olds learn many skills better from just observing their peers.

I can see this with my own 2-year-old, Annie. She and her friend Melissa have stopped snatching the coveted Winnie the Pooh stuffed doll from each other at daycare and have started to take turns playing with it. One of the girls will put it down for a nap, and the other will cover it with a blanket. Melissa, 2 1/2, will turn to Annie and put her finger to her mouth: "Shhh. Pooh's asleep." Annie nods vigorously before agreeing: "Shhh. Pooh sleep!" The slightly older Melissa sets the tone of this charade, but Annie eagerly strives to keep up.

Many kids won't share well with others until they're 3 or so. Still, it's important to let your child interact with kids her own age. "While they're playing, they're learning how to negotiate," says Henderson Shimm  -- the best way for tots to learn valuable social skills, like turn-taking and compromise.

She'll be inflexible.

Toddlers are notoriously persnickety  -- especially when it comes to play. I ruined a whole tea party for Annie when I put the round blocks on the plates for cakes. "No! No! No!" she screamed, and swept the entire set away before throwing herself on the floor. I guess she wanted eclairs instead?

If you think you're baffled, your child's equally mystified. Toddlers think a parent's job is to do everything for them, including read their mind, says Meg Zweiback, a nurse-practitioner and the author of Keys to Parenting Your Two-Year-Old. Of course, this is impossible, but your child hasn't learned that yet  -- so expect a meltdown when she realizes that you don't always know what she wants. "The painful lesson every child needs to learn is that she can cope with disappointment," says Zweiback.

Fortunately, toddlers are distractable. When the screaming starts, either hand her something else to play with or try to continue with the game calmly. Another solution: Let her boss you around when you're playing. "A toddler has so little control in the real world  -- letting her set the tone of the game gives her the pretense of control," says Henderson Shimm.

He'll strike you as obsessive.

What happens if your toddler wants to spend most afternoons making Play-Doh cakes? Or "clean" the house with a real vacuum, like Will Gorham, 2, of Lodi, CA? Or park his toy cars in the garage, like 3-year-old Elias Thayer? "I can't tell you how many hours I've spent going 'Vroom! Vroom!'" says his mom, Linda, of Rollinsford, NH.

Don't worry about it, say the experts. Toddlers will often become intensely interested in one activity for a week or so before moving on to something else. It's a child's way of mastering a skill or a concept, or simply making sense of events. The world is a new and exciting place, but sometimes it's too exciting. That's why toddlers retreat to what's familiar  -- it's their way of regaining control.

She'll amuse herself.

"After she eats, my daughter heads for her train set," says Joel Suben, of Hoboken, NJ, father of 2 1/2-year-old Anna. "We can hear her talking and singing to herself while we get to finish dinner and have a conversation in peace."

A child's budding imagination is one reason she can now play by herself for longer stretches of time. Another: a feeling of security  -- she can lose herself in her private world, knowing you'll still be there when she needs you.

Of course, you'll want to encourage this behavior. (After all, this is what you've been waiting for!) Take cues from your child: If she wants her space, monitor her from afar; if she calls, answer promptly and show her you're still there. This builds confidence, which will foster more independence.

Most toddlers, given such space, will play by themselves for longer periods of time from that point on. The length of time will vary with the child, depending on everything from temperament and her ability to focus, to whether she's had her lunch yet.

If she does invite you to join in, try to give her your undivided attention for at least 10 minutes, advises Zweiback. "Kids know when you're not all there. Make an effort to focus on whatever she's doing, even if it's not terribly interesting to you."

How can you exit without provoking a flood of tears? A toddler is old enough to learn her boundaries. "If parents are clear about setting limits, a child is able to understand there are times that she has to play by herself," says Zweiback. Simply explain to your child that you have to make dinner. Then invite her to join you in the kitchen. (Just keep an eye out for her when you're cooking.)

He'll never want to stop.

A toddler's antics are driven by his personality. And yours might spend far more time perusing his books than the tot down the block, who never seems to sit down. But whatever their energy level, it's not uncommon for most little kids to become so engrossed in their play that they don't want to come in for lunch, or go to the store, or do anything but continue playing.

Experts recommend parents make a five-minute heads-up routine when playtime is coming to a close. "Not that a toddler will understand the concept of five minutes," says Zweiback. "But he'll grasp that it's a cue for him to wrap up his game." But be consistent: If you try a new trick every day to get your child to do something he doesn't want to do, it'll backfire.

It may seem as if your toddler never tires out, that he plays from the moment he wakes in the morning to the time he's put to bed at night. But that's exactly what he's supposed to be doing. Just remember, his spontaneous, constant play is the best sign there is that he's thriving.

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Imagination Boosters

  • TOYS THAT LOOK LIKE THE REAL THING:
  • A kitchen, a shopping cart, a tool chest, a doctor's kit.

  • REENACTING FAMILIAR EVENTS: Have a birthday party with pretend cakes, or a "shopping trip" with some favorite stuffed animals.

  • ACTING: Your toddler is bound to join you. Be a plumber fixing a leak or a zookeeper feeding the lion.

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Time for Class?

With their burgeoning vocabulary and newfound abilities, many toddlers can really start to enjoy an organized class. But you'll get something out of it too. "Probably the number-one reason moms enroll their kids in a class is to meet others with kids their age," says Suzy Palmer, a coordinator for the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, which hosts a number of toddler classes. "Number two is that it's fun."

To find the best class for your child, keep in mind that:

  • Little kids learn best through open, unstructured play. You can't expect a toddler to sit still and listen to a whole story. A playgroup may be more to his liking than the story hour at your local bookstore.

  • An ideal place is one that allows your toddler chances to explore different types of materials. So, for instance, look for art classes that don't limit the amount of paint that your tot can splash on her "picture."

  • The person leading the class shouldn't expect little kids to follow all the directions. Chances are your child won't clap along with the group. (He'll do it later, when you're back in the car.)

  • One class a week is usually enough for a small child. Beware of the modern compulsion to overschedule: Enroll her in too many activities, and you run the risk of making her feel tired, withdrawn, or overwhelmed.
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