Activities to Build Your Toddler's Skills

Stop babying your toddler. She's capable of a lot more than you think.

Toddler Tasks

It's easy to think of your 1-year-old as a helpless baby. She still has those chubby cheeks, that round belly, and those dimply little hands. And while she's starting to walk and maybe even talk a bit, she still can't do very much.

Or can she? You might be surprised by how many tasks your child can handle if you give her the chance. "Toddlers have real capabilities," says Tovah Klein, PhD, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, in New York. "By encouraging them to use their skills, you can help nurture their development." So go ahead: Let your child try these activities.

    Being Mommy's Little Helper

    At this age, your child likes to mimic the things you do. Take advantage of this (and instill good habits) by having her help you pick up toys, throw away trash, and wipe up spills with a paper towel. Let your toddler's interest in specific tasks guide you: Abby Ernster, of Novi, Michigan, enjoys emptying the spoons from the dishwasher with her mother, Stephanie. And 18-month-old Luke Landskov makes a game out of dropping dirty clothes into the washing machine. "He loves to help me," says his mom, Leighellen, of Seattle.

      Exploring His Artistic Side

      Art projects don't have to wait until preschool. Toddlers like to create things too, but they need a lot of time to experiment with how art materials work. Finger painting, sponge painting, and drawing with crayons or markers will allow them to accomplish these goals.

      To minimize mess, use washable materials and cover the table and floor. Give your child as much space to work in as possible: At this age, his fine motor skills are fairly limited, so he'll need to use his entire arm -- not just his wrist and hand -- to draw, says Donna Hunt O'Brien, a training manager at Parents as Teachers, a nonprofit education and support program based in St. Louis.

        Introducing Options

        Toddlers get bored eating the same foods every day. And they like trying new tastes, so give them the chance. "A child's food habits form between ages 1 and 2," says Jatinder Bhatia, MD, a nutritionist and chief of neonatology at the Medical College of Georgia, in Augusta. Expose your child to a variety of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy products, and meats. Don't give up if she pushes away her plate. A child may need to see a new food up to a dozen times before she'll try it.

        Eliminate choking hazards by cutting your child's food into small pieces and avoiding peanuts until she's 2. If you have a family history of allergies, it's probably best to stay away from nuts, fish, and shellfish until age 3, says Hugh Sampson, MD, Parents advisor and chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City.

          Allowing Him to Call the Shots

          Around 18 months, your toddler is capable of making simple decisions, such as what color shirt he wants to wear or whether he'd prefer to have pizza or chicken for lunch. Giving him a say in these matters will make him feel important and may reduce his tantrums. "If you don't give your child some control, you'll be battling all the time once he turns 2," says Dr. Klein.

          Offer no more than two choices. When he asks for a book at bedtime, say, "We can read Goodnight Moon or The Runaway Bunny. Which do you want?" If your child feels overwhelmed, such as when he walks into a room filled with toys, steer him toward a couple that he might enjoy ("Do you want to play with that ball or this car?"). If he seems confused or frustrated, it's okay to decide for him.

            Teaching Her to Be Self-Reliant

            Want a happier, more confident toddler? Show her how to put on her shoes, take off her shirt and pants, and slip her arms into a jacket by herself. Boost her self-reliance by asking her to bring you a fresh diaper and some wipes when it's time for a change. And have her grab a hat and mittens when you're going outside on a cold day.

              Letting Him Entertain Himself

              Your toddler always wants you to join in the fun, but this can be exhausting. Here's how you can get a little breather and help him have fun on his own: Start by doing an activity together (such as building with blocks), then slowly back away. Stay within his sight, and smile or wave when he glances at you. But don't treat this exercise as a chance to catch up on housework: At this age, your child will only be able to play on his own for about five minutes.

                Break Baby Habits

                Put a stop to these behaviors now. They'll become even harder to lose later on.

                  Bottle battle. Continued bottle use can lead to cavities and delay speech development. Switch to a sippy cup by 15 months, and have your child try a regular cup too.

                  Pacifier addiction. It's okay to use a binky at bedtime, but sucking on one constantly could delay your child's ability to soothe himself.

                  Rock-a-bye baby. If you cradle your child until she falls asleep, she'll need you to soothe her when she wakes up during the night. Instead, put her down while she's still awake, then leave the room.

                  Feed me! Your child is ready to try a fork and a spoon. She may get frustrated at first, but she'll become more independent over time.

                    Great Toddler Outings

                    Your child is now old enough to appreciate these fun places.

                      • Children's museum. Since your toddler will probably last no more than an hour, study a floor plan beforehand and focus on just one or two age-appropriate activities.
                      • Zoo. Pick exhibits with lots of action (check out the penguins after a feeding), and visit big animals your child can see easily, like elephants and giraffes.
                      • Aquarium. Your toddler will love putting his face right up to the glass. But watch his reactions closely: He may be frightened by sharks and dark displays.