David Hall knew his 20-month-old daughter, Karenna, had moved beyond babyhood when he leaned over her crib one afternoon as she woke from a nap. Karenna grabbed his finger, looked him in the eye, and said: "Nice to meet you!" "Suddenly, she just seemed so much more in touch with the world," he says.
When a child is between one and two, her capacity for connecting with and figuring out the world around her develops at an astounding rate. Her busy brain is mastering a series of essential cognitive skills—the building blocks of intelligence and sociability. Here's a look at the leaps in awareness and understanding that toddlers experience during this exciting year.
Smart Step: He's Making Important Memories
What's New: Your child's increasingly powerful memory fosters many major developments in this second year—including talking, imitating, and taking part in pretend play. "Toddlers are able to remember more and more for longer periods of time," says Patricia Bauer, Ph.D., professor at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis. For example, they are able to picture incidents that are not happening at that moment. This gradual movement toward abstract thinking enables kids to develop a more sophisticated relationship to the world.
Brain-Boosting Move: Reread favorite books and sing songs over and over again. "Repetitive activities support memory development," says Stefanie Powers, a child-development specialist at Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.
Smart Step: She's Speaking Your Language
What's New: Vocabulary develops dramatically in the second year, Dr. Bauer says. "It goes from a word or two in the beginning of the year to 50 six months later, growing exponentially from there." She'll start to combine words to make sentences. Know that comprehension far outpaces speech; if you think your child understands something, she probably does. Mention going shopping, and she might grab her shoes. At age two, she can follow simple instructions, such as "Get your book."
Brain-Boosting Move: Keep up a running commentary of your activities. "Describing what you're doing introduces your child to a rich vocabulary," Powers says.
Smart Step: He's Noticing Differences
What's New: To a one-year-old, the furry creature that barks and the fuzzy creature that meows seem very much alike. By the end of his second year, your child will be able to distinguish the difference between cats and dogs, trucks and buses. Toddlers can match an item with its purpose, such as the lid and the pot. Your child's more sophisticated play will reflect this more specific understanding of categories. "Putting a yarn necklace on a toy doll is a cognitive achievement," Dr. Bauer says. "That means your child recognizes that the doll belongs to a class of things that wear necklaces."
Brain-Boosting Move: Name items and identify them as a part of a group. Tidy up together and sort toys by shape, color, or function. "Your child may not be able to do this on his own," Powers explains, "but he understands what you're saying and will learn to distinguish what is the same and what is different."
Smart Step: She's Thinking About Numbers
What's New: At this age, your child can tell the difference between a few Cheerios and many. But she is just beginning to understand that number words refer to quantities. By the end of the year, she may know that the word "one" refers to just one object and that all other number words indicate more than one. But true counting won't happen until later.
Brain-Boosting Move: Talk numbers with your child as you set the table together, counting out four bowls and matching a spoon to each, says Elizabeth Brannon, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Duke University. Count aloud as you fasten buttons or pass out snacks. Try to use quantity words such as "one," "many," and "less."
Smart Step: He's Learning About Spatial Relationships
What's New: If you give your 12-month-old two blocks, he's likely to bang them together. "Over the year, kids explore and develop a more complicated understanding of how objects relate," Powers says. They'll stack blocks and drop them into containers. By age two, most toddlers can fit a circle or square into the correct hole on a shape sorter.
Brain-Boosting Move: "Allow your child to experiment with how his body moves in space," Powers says. "He'll learn concepts like over and under and through." Filling and dumping containers or playing with simple puzzles and blocks will also delight your child and give him plenty of chances to show off his new skills.