When we visited my sister's family, my kids were thrilled to hang out with their adorable 16-month-old cousin. He did one thing in particular that we couldn't get enough of: dance. Okay, it was more like dropping into a squat and bouncing, but he loved putting on a show.
While walking is a big step, other toddler advances -- from climbing stairs to jumping -- are equally noteworthy. "These breakthroughs mean your child's muscles are getting stronger and his coordination is improving," explains Laura Prosser, Ph.D., a pediatric physical therapist at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Read on for six toddler feats of athleticism that should make you stand up and cheer.
Don't underestimate this subtle skill, in which your toddler stops, stoops down to pick something up, and then resumes walking. "It means that your child is steady on his feet, which requires considerable balance," says Claire McCarthy, M.D., a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital. It's also a major move toward independence, since your child no longer needs you to grab toys for him. Toddlers tend to master the technique within three months of learning to walk, but there's no need to teach it. Simple play should do the trick. "Keep the TV off and cover the floor with lots of toys that provide inspiration," suggests Dr. McCarthy.
Each time your child picks up a ball and throws it (an action that usually begins between 15 and 18 months), she's testing her balance and agility while simultaneously honing her hand-eye coordination. Take note of which hand she uses to toss it. "At around age 2, children start to show left- or right-handed dominance," observes Raymond Tervo, M.D., a neurodevelopmental pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. To help your child master this skill, it's best to think small -- even a tennis ball may be too large for a toddler's tiny hands. Instead, play catch with beanbags, sensory balls (their nubby texture makes them easy to grasp), or a Wiffle ball. Looking to raise a soccer player instead of a pitcher? The ability to kick (which requires a child to balance on one leg) develops closer to age 2.
Moving to the beat means your child has discovered a fun way to challenge his body and is learning to integrate a variety of movements into sequences, notes Dr. Prosser. Typically, a toddler will start dancing between 15 and 20 months. Encourage your child by playing a variety of music in your home and returning to the tunes he likes best. You can also introduce toddler-friendly instruments like an egg shaker, a maraca, or a tambourine, which will help him boogie to the beat. Note: Kids this age like to imitate what they see, so don't be afraid to do some dancing yourself.
This movement is surprisingly difficult for a toddler to master, largely because it engages the glutes and the quadriceps (which normal walking doesn't). Your toddler may figure out how to do it as early as 15 months, but don't worry if it hasn't happened by the time she turns 2. One fun way to encourage backward walking is by giving her a pull toy. "It's hard to walk and pull a dog on a string correctly beside you, so your child will likely have to turn around and pull it toward her body," says Dr. Prosser. She'll soon start walking backward naturally as the toy comes to her.
This challenging activity engages a child's large muscle groups, and it requires strength and balance to shift from one leg to another. Most toddlers begin learning to climb stairs by bending forward and putting their hands on the step above them, eventually advancing to holding onto a railing (or your hand) at around 18 to 22 months. Your child will need to scoot down the stairs on his bottom until he learns how to descend on two feet, which will likely occur sometime after his second birthday. Safety on the stairs is a high priority. Use gates at the top and bottom, and never allow your child to practice unsupervised. If the possibility of a tumble makes you nervous, try this safer alternative: Let him experiment on the stairs of a small slide at a toddler playground.
Between age 2 and 3, your child will start jumping in place. At first she'll barely get both feet off the ground, but over time she'll spring higher and farther. It takes significant muscle power to get into the air and both agility and balance to land on her feet. Provide a safe, soft surface (such as carpeting or a yoga mat) to practice. Another unconventional place to work on this skill: the water. "Swimming lessons help improve muscle tone and coordination, which are key for jumping and all sorts of gross motor skills," says Dr. Tervo. Once your child learns to jump in place, the sky's the limit. Soon she'll be hopping and skipping down the street with ease.