Not long ago, I took my son shopping for a birthday present to give to my friend's little girl. Trying to keep Leo, who is 2, entertained in the store, I held a frilly outfit up to his chest and said, "Oh, don't you look pretty in this dress!" Instead of giving me the simple smile that I'd been expecting, he erupted into hysterics. I was floored. Before then, he'd giggled when I tickled him or made silly faces, but this was a different response: Leo could understand that he's a boy who doesn't wear dresses -- and knowing that was what made the scenario so laugh-out-loud funny to him.
Don't be surprised if your toddler suddenly starts getting a major kick out of all kinds of kidding around, whether it's the giggles from having "raspberries" blown on her belly or truly cracking up over a more complex situational joke. Your child's budding sense of humor may just seem like fun and games to you, but it's serious for her development. "When kids this age laugh at the things around them, and try to make others laugh, it's a sign of social and cognitive growth," explains Dale Grubb, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Baldwin-Wallace College, in Berea, Ohio.
While your child's newfound humor shows that he's developing normally, it's also a pretty good indication that you're on the right track to raising a happy, confident kid. Laughter not only relieves stress, it can also boost creative thinking, foster communication, and help kids make new friends. So it's important for you to encourage humorous play at home -- and to laugh at your child's earliest attempts at joking (even if you don't think that putting a diaper on his head for the eighth time in a row is particularly funny). Need some comedic inspiration? Try testing out these tot-approved gut-busters.
Physical humor is one of the first ways you can poke at your child's funny bone, says Carol Kessler, Ph.D., associate professor of education at Cabrini College, in Radnor, Pennsylvania. Ever since your toddler was a baby, tickling has probably guaranteed you a chuckle or two. But now you can take it to the next level by adding suspense. For example, try this classic game: Walk two fingers slowly toward her, and then run them quickly along her arm up to her neck. The next time you wiggle your two fingers and say, "Tickle spider!" she'll laugh in anticipation. Another tried-and-true tactic: Yell, "I'm going to get you!" as you run after your child and grab her. Let her have a turn chasing you, and fall to the ground when she catches up. Just make sure you give it a rest if she starts getting fussy. "It probably means that she's feeling overstimulated and it's time to take a break from the roughhousing," says Dr. Grubb.
Show Your Silly Side At this age, kids are the perfect audience for over-the-top slapstick comedy, says Parents advisor Harvey Karp, M.D., author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block. They particularly love it when you're the butt of the joke, so pretend you don't have control of your feet and stumble around, or close your eyes as if you're asleep and snore loudly. Your child will find it hilarious when he taps you and you suddenly "wake up" confused. You can also try to drink from your child's sippy cup, cuddle his blanket, or struggle to "fit" into his T-shirt; he's so used to being the little one that switching roles is sure to get him to giggle. This can even help you out when he's not being cooperative. If he's fussy about getting dressed, for instance, act like you don't know where his coat goes and try to put it on his legs. He'll think, "Mom is silly -- this is how it's done!" and will show you himself. "Toddlers know they're not the fastest, strongest, or smartest in the room. So if you can give them a few wins, they'll feel proud and be more willing to help you out in return," says Dr. Karp.
Bust a Move
Most toddlers simply can't resist bopping along to a good beat, so join the fun by boogying down with your craziest dance moves. Your kid will delight in seeing you twist and shake in unexpected ways -- and he just might pick up a step or two. "Children are kinesthetic learners, so they not only have fun dancing, but they also learn by moving their body," explains Dr. Kessler. If you or your spouse is musical, create your own silly songs. "My 22-month-old son, Henry, loves it when my husband plays the guitar. We take a melody he likes, such as 'La Bamba,' and then change the lyrics using words that he thinks are funny -- like pepperoni," says Rachel Marshman, of Louisville, Kentucky. Not feeling that creative? Pull together a CD mix of kid songs for some impromptu dance sessions, add his name into "Old MacDonald," or sing his favorite tune while switching from a low to a high voice.
Play With Words and Images As early as 18 months, children can recognize (and laugh at) things that don't look or sound the way they should, like a picture of a dog in shoes or a cow that "oinks." By 24 months, toddlers know the correct names for objects, so your child might find it funny if you put a banana to your ear and try to use it like a telephone. Or call your husband "Mommy." Spotting these simple visual and language variations enhances your child's memory and increases her ability to focus, says Dr. Kessler, which will come in handy when she starts school.
At this age, toddlers are the perfect audience for over-the-top slapstick comedy. They particularly love it when you become the butt of the joke.
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"One surefire way to make my son laugh: I'll place one of his toys on top of my head and then 'accidentally' sneeze, sending it flying!" -- Tami N., Pennsylvania
"I'll pretend I'm looking for my daughter when she's already there in front of me. I'll scan the room like I don't see her, and she'll crack up and say, 'Mommy, I'm right here!'?" -- Christa E., Indiana
"If my son's arms are in the air, I go, 'Uh, what's that?' while looking at his armpit. Then I say, 'Don't worry, I'll get it' and tickle him like crazy." -- Samantha P., Oklahoma
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Parents magazine.