When my son was 18 months old, I went along with a friend to pick up her child from preschool. Some of the kids were just a year older, but they were listening to the teacher and following directions. When I imagined my child sitting there on that A-B-C carpet, I felt queasy. Follow directions? Him? After all, if I asked him to pour food from a cup into in the dog bowl, he'd be more likely to pile it into his dump truck instead.
Turns out there wasn't anything wrong with my son; experts say that young toddlers still have trouble focusing on what you're saying and following directions. "Toddlers are inherently distractible. They don't have the ability to stick with one thing as long as an older child can. After a couple of minutes, they're off to other adventures," explains psychologist Rahil Briggs, Psy.D., assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City. In other words, it's perfectly natural for your 15-month-old to wander across the room to the bookshelf halfway through the book you're reading aloud. Another reason your toddler may not comply with your requests: She's taking her first steps toward becoming her own person. "A toddler won't always be willing to do what you want because she's flexing her new independence muscle," says Dr. Briggs. "In fact, she may even be tempted to do exactly the opposite of what you ask."
Fortunately, if you practice now your child will be ready to get with the program in preschool. Capitalize on her natural love of playing games with these ability-boosting activities.
A puppet has an allure that can capture a small child's attention fast -- even if the one you're using is just a sock with a drawn-on smile and googly eyes. Using a goofy voice, have the puppet ask your kid to do various things: clap her hands, stamp her feet, and spin around in circles -- or pick her toys up off the floor.
How It Helps Your child might not be willing to put her stuffed animals away when you ask her to do it, but when the lion puppet makes the request, she'll think it's all in good fun. Why exactly? Your child doesn't see it as listening to Mommy anymore, so going with the flow feels like less of a threat to her budding independence, explains Kimberley Clayton Blaine, author of The Go-To Mom's Parents' Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children. "When you introduce a puppet to your toddler, she'll think she's making a friend -- and she'll be more likely to listen to instructions that her new pal gives." Sure, you might feel a bit silly talking through a puppet, but bottom line: You're avoiding a power struggle, and your child is (willingly) learning to follow directions.
Nothing's more tempting to a curious kid than a search for a hidden prize. Even if the "treasure" is actually a familiar stuffed dog, the mystery of the hunt is irresistible. Hide a toy or even a little treat someplace simple -- like behind a piece of furniture -- then give your child clear directions for how to find it. (For example, "Look under the red chair!")
How It Helps Although your kid is motivated by the game to take your instructions, he's still learning to follow directions and strengthening his memory muscle as he completes the search. You'll probably notice a big difference between how your child plays at 1 year and how he plays at 24 months, so as he grows older, build up your older toddler's focus and recall with more complicated two-step instructions ("Go into the playroom and find the blue ball") or even three steps.
Pick out a sound that's not immediately in front of you, like the dog's bark that's coming from next door. Call your child's attention to it by saying, "Listen! Do you hear that dog barking?" Then, stay very still and quiet, modeling how to pay close attention by carefully listening. Next, ask your little one to copy what she's hearing (if she hesitates, you can prompt her with your own interpretation of the sound).
How It Helps Being able to focus on a sound without a visual cue might be tough for your toddler at first, but over time this activity will help her learn to listen carefully and improve her concentration skills. "Encourage her attempts by saying, 'Wow, I like how you listened to that doggy and tried to sound just like him,'" says Mari Blaustein, director of Early Childhood Initiatives for GrowUpLearning.com.
Whether it's "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" or just a tune about brushing your teeth that you made up yourself, the combination of motions with music is fun for toddlers, says Dr. Briggs -- and the gestures help them remember the words. If there's something your kid needs to do, like clean up or get dressed, make up an interactive song to go along with it. For very young toddlers, sing it at a slower pace and exaggerate the motions.
How It Helps Barking an order at your child makes him more likely to resist. But if you make up a song with motions about, say, washing your hands after using the potty (if Laurie Berkner hasn't already) and then encourage your toddler to sing it with you when you actually need him to do just that, he'll be more willing to cooperate without making a fuss.
In the evening, once it's dark out, cuddle up on the couch in a dimly lit room with your child. Arm yourselves with a couple of flashlights, and then shine yours on different objects around the room, challenging her to follow your lead. You might say, "I'm shining my light at the books on those shelves! Can you do it too?"
How It Helps The novelty of playing with the flashlight will keep your little one engaged while she listens for your next direction, says Blaustein. (Lowering the light in the room will also help her block out other distractions, like her favorite toys.) With an older toddler, see whether she can copy a pattern that you're making, like shining the light in big circles or waving it back and forth in a zigzag. Bonus: This flashlight game may help with fears of the dark too!
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Parents magazine.