It's easy to tell when your toddler's proud of herself. She'll fit a triangle into the shape sorter, bang the balls through the holes in her toy castle, or yank off both socks by herself. Then she'll squeal with delight.
Such moments of mastery aren't just satisfying for your little one (and gratifying for you). They also help her build self-confidence. "Feeling in control of her world motivates your child to keep exploring and trying new things," says Andrew Meltzoff, Ph.D., a Parents adviser and coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind.
While every parent wants to raise a self-assured kid, it's easy to go about it the wrong way. Teaching a baby skills that are beyond her ability can dampen her natural love of learning. And boring a toddler with exercises that no longer challenge her can do the same. The trick is finding the right diversions for the right age.
This activity guide makes it fun to foster a can-do attitude during your child's first two years. The age recommendations are approximate, so follow her cues -- and feel free to create your own variations.
Let the games begin!
How to play: Make a silly noise, and see whether your baby imitates it. If he responds with a different sound, mimic it.
Why it's great right now: Around this age, a baby realizes he can move his lips and tongue to make a variety of sounds. Starting a dialogue teaches him that language is fun and stimulates his desire to speak and listen.
The next step: Try to connect your baby's babble with specific needs. Responding appropriately to his coos and grunts will confirm that his message got through.
How to play: Prop pillows to support your baby in a seated position. Place a colorful toy or a comfort object nearby, and watch her lunge for it.
Why it's great right now: This activity develops your child's trunk muscles as well as the balance and confidence she needs to stay upright on her own.
How to play: Make a tower with soft blocks, and let your child knock it down. If she doesn't, topple it yourself. Then rebuild it, and see whether she follows your lead.
Why it's great right now: This exercise fine-tunes your baby's hand-eye coordination. It also lets her feel in control of you and the game.
The next step: Encourage your child to construct her own tower. Most 1-year-olds can stack two or three blocks without help.
How to play: With your baby watching, hide behind the couch, then pop up and say, "Boo!" Then duck down again and reappear in another spot.
Why it's great right now: At around 12 months, a baby begins to understand that when an object leaves his sight, it hasn't really vanished but merely moved. Peekaboo builds confidence because your child learns that you're not gone for good.
The next step: Instead of popping up, stay hidden and keep calling his name until he crawls or toddles toward you. He'll be excited to "find" you, and doing so will help him connect your voice with your face.
How to play: Set up a toy farm, garage, or dollhouse. (Find one that has kid-safe little animals, parts, or people.) Then act out a story until your toddler takes over.
Why it's great right now: "This type of play gives your child a sense of mastery," says Claire B. Kopp, Ph.D., author of Baby Steps: A Guide to Your Child's Social, Physical, and Emotional Development in the First Two Years. It also helps him understand how people interact.
The next step: Introduce a new player to the scene, like a pet dog. Then spark your child's imagination by asking questions such as, "Where will the doggie sleep?" "Where will he eat?" and "Will he get along with the other animals?"
How to play: Cover a shoe box with construction paper of a single color. Then fill it with kid-safe objects (such as a plastic cup, ball, block, and board book) of the same color. Set the box in front of your child, and identify each item as she takes it out ("That's a red ball").
Why it's great right now: Toddlers love to empty and refill things, and this exercise is a good way to broaden their vocabulary and teach them about colors.
The next step: Count the items as you put them back into the box. Also try introducing a box -- and objects -- of a different color. Then see whether she can sort the items into their correct containers.
How to play: Lay out several pairs of postcards or photos from places you've been with your child. Talk to him about each image, then mix them up and see whether he can match them. You can help by asking questions like, "See the boat on this one? Where's the other card that has a boat?"
Why it's great right now: "A 2-year-old has the skill to differentiate between visual images," says Sally Goldberg, Ph.D., author of Baby and Toddler Learning Fun. Your toddler will feel proud of himself each time he makes a match.
The next step: Ask your child whether he recognizes a particular picture and, if so, what he remembers about it (but don't expect more than a single word, like "splash" for a lake you've visited). This will bolster his language skills and long-term memory.
How to play: Fill a basket with funny hats, adult shoes, necklaces, and props such as a toy stethoscope, camera, and telephone. Then watch your child enter the world of make-believe. If she doesn't dive in right away, you might say, "This is an awfully silly chef's hat," and put it on your head to get her started.
Why it's great right now: Kids this age have a knack for pretending. Your job is simply to provide the raw materials, then delight in her budding creativity.
The next step: Make up a story using objects in the box. Although your child isn't ready to narrate her own drama, getting her to participate in yours will encourage her imaginative impulses.