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What a Toddler Learns in a Day

One recent morning, 22-month-old Lucy Brancazio got dressed all by herself. Never mind that her outfit consisted of two T-shirts, pink underpants pulled over her diaper, and rain boots. Judging by her pleased expression and proud swagger, she felt ready for the Paris runways. "It's like this every day," says her mom, Liz Berman of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. "She goes nuts if I try to help her, but if I don't get involved, she shows up in something pink, frilly, and totally inappropriate." Welcome to the wonderful world of toddlers, where even a simple routine like getting dressed becomes a sacred ritual with complicated rules. In Toddlerland, food is for smearing, toys are for hoarding, walks are for dawdling, and the only thing better than a bedtime story is that same story read over and over again.

But despite the bizarre local customs, Toddlerland's small citizens find it a rich and instructive place. "Between twelve months and two and a half years, children have an extraordinary hunger for hands-on experience," says Stefanie Powers, a child-development specialist with Zero to Three, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization devoted to infant and toddler development. "They're learning all of the time, often when we adults don't even realize it."

Case in point: Getting dressed gives Lucy an excellent chance to practice her fine motor skills  -- especially if buttons, buckles, or zippers are involved. "Even putting on a pair of sweatpants is challenging for a toddler," says Powers. "She has to ask herself, 'Do I stand on one foot and balance or sit down and put both feet in at once? And which holes do I put my legs in, anyway?'"

Lucy's passion for pink frills is also rooted in newfound knowledge: "Just as she's learning to sort and categorize animals and shoes, she's distinguishing among people and genders," says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. In other words, an attachment to a tutu merely shows she's figured out that she's a girl  -- and in her mind, girls wear pink satin and tulle.

Perhaps most important, Lucy's getting comfortable making decisions (albeit not always well-thought-out ones), which boosts her self-confidence and reinforces the relatively new idea that she's her own person  -- entirely separate from her mom and dad. So it's no wonder that Lucy feels triumphant when she finally manages to get into her favorite ensemble. And that she'll defend her selection with a tantrum should a well-meaning adult try to interrupt and guide her careful dressing process.

Slow Strolls to Nowhere
Amanda Palmquist used to relish a brisk morning walk around her Berkeley, California, neighborhood with her daughter, Kiara, who just turned 2. But these days, the pair rarely makes it to the corner and back before lunchtime. "She doesn't like sitting in the stroller, and once she's out, she stops just about every five seconds. If there's a dandelion, we have to pick it and smell it and talk about it. If a bird lands in a tree overhead, Kiara stops to watch until something else distracts her."

Few among us have the time or the patience to always dawdle at a toddler's preferred pace. But to Kiara, a walk spent picking flowers, watching birds, and indulging in lengthy chitchat about both is more than just a lesson in botany or biology. She's also learning how to make comparisons (figuring out, for instance, that birds fly but ants don't, and that trees grow much taller than dandelions); making associations (the squirrels seem to scatter whenever she gets near); discovering what the objects around her smell, sound, feel, and sometimes even taste like; and building her vocabulary as her mom talks to her about all of this.

Though Palmquist may sometimes find her patience taxed, slowing down to Kiara's pace when they don't have to be somewhere fast is critical to the little girl's learning process. Being able to stroke a silky-smooth flower petal helps Kiara grasp the concept of "soft" a thousand times better than if her mother only described it to her as they whizzed by.

Fernanda Moore writes for both PARENTING and The New York Times Magazine. She was expecting her second child at press time.

A Wonderful Mess

Kylie Patterson, 23 months, flings a bowl of yogurt onto the floor, paints his face and high-chair tray with applesauce, and pounds several saltines into a paste, which he then devours. Lunch is now officially over. Fortunately, the Pattersons share their Villerica, Massachusetts, home with their dog, Salem, who immediately gets to work on the floor while Kylie's mom gingerly carries him to the sink to hose him down.

Kylie has just experienced mealtime, art class, and science lab all at once. He's figuring out things that aren't readily apparent to an almost 2-year-old: Peas roll, Cheerios float, and mashed potatoes can be sculpted into a tower; mixing milk and grape juice produces an entirely new shade of purple; and crackers have a very different texture when they're wet. The spattered floor is testament to his ongoing experiments with gravity; his hands, hair, and clothes bear witness to his extensive investigations into the properties of liquids and solids.

This is also an ideal time for a toddler to test the limits of what he can get away with, revealing the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Kylie's sneaky glance at his mom before he dumps out his apple juice gives his game away: He wants to know just how far his lunchtime antics will be permitted to go.

The Art of Imitation

When his mom takes him on a playdate, 15-month-old Dante Manocchio of Albuquerque seems to spend all of his time ignoring his friend. "The kids sit near each other, and while one of them bangs on a workbench, the other one does a simple puzzle," says Regina Manocchio. "Occasionally, they kind of look over at each other, but they don't play together or even try to take each other's toys."

Though Manocchio sometimes wonders whether Dante's getting anything out of these rendezvous, those sidelong looks are a dead giveaway that he's taking in a great deal. "Typically, even a toddler who appears to be indifferent quietly files away everything he sees his friends doing," says Lise Eliot. Later, through a process known as deferred imitation, he'll incorporate what he saw into his own routine  -- maybe pounding the "nails" on his own workbench or trying to sort his blocks by color for the first time.

Soon, Dante and his friends will begin to show one another what they're working on and even join forces on projects. There'll also be the inevitable squabbles over toys and tearful confrontations over taking turns, all of which will give them their first lessons in sharing and other social skills.

Do Over, and Over

"Again! Again!" Two-year-old Liam Coen of San Francisco pounds on the table, insisting that his dad help him  -- for the umpteenth time  -- put together an eight-piece wooden puzzle with a picture of a dalmatian on it. "Sometimes I worry he's stuck in a rut," confides his father, John, as a beaming Liam fits the first two pieces together. "At the park, he won't play on anything but the slide; he begs us to sing songs over and over again; and when we settle down with his favorite book at bedtime, sometimes he wants us to read and reread a single page."

Actually, Liam isn't stuck in a rut at all. Repetition and routines bring toddlers a great deal of comfort, since both provide a sense of stability and control over their surroundings. But they're also among the primary ways toddlers absorb information and master skills. "Most learning happens at the unconscious level, and unconscious learning requires repeated exposure," says Eliot. "Doing an activity over and over is the best way to become proficient at anything  -- whether it's building language, motor skills, or a wooden dalmatian puzzle." And since Liam gets a little bit better at his puzzle every time he assembles it, this helps him feel more confident.

He's also learning to predict what will happen next, whether in his favorite book or during his bedtime routine, and is beginning to understand sequences (first Dad buckles me into my car seat, then we can drive to the park, then I can get out and play). And he's performing subtle experiments all the while: Each time he makes a beeline for the playground slide, he's testing to see what, if anything, has changed since his last visit. Is it covered in sand or hot from the sun? And what happens when he sends a rock careening down that steep slope? Will a stick behave any differently?

Toddlers are, as Powers puts it, "gobbling up the world" in ways that can be challenging for the adults who love and care for them. But knowing that a toddler's environment is quite literally a classroom makes it easier to understand these tireless little scholars. "Whenever you can, ask yourself, 'What would I like my child to learn from this experience?'" says Powers. "Who knows? You may even learn a thing or two yourself."