The first three years of life are a developmental sprint and an emotional rollercoaster.

They learn to use their bodies, their words and their wills rapidly and, at times, unexpectedly. Holding a two-year-old in a reverent and loving light is not always easy, but understanding the amazing transformation taking place in their brains can help parents empathize. For example, consider that the brain of a three year old is two-and-a-half times more active than an adult’s. So is it any wonder a toddler melts down after 10 minutes in the grocery cart?

How Young Minds Develop

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard explains the basic tenets of the toddler brain in this way, “Brains are built over time, from the bottom up.” Meaning simpler neural connections and skills form first, followed by more complex circuits and skills. The first three years of life is marked by a rapid proliferation of neural connections — 700 to 1,000 every second — and these connections are shaped and pruned by genes and experiences such as repeated use. They further explain that the role of nature and nurture on the developing brain are complex and intertwined, with the major nurturing influence being, “the serve and return interaction between children and their parents and other caregivers in the family or community.” It is through these experiences that toddlers establish their “emotional well-being and social competence.” In fact a recent study from Georgia State University, shows a child’s behavior and temperament in toddlerhood directly correlates to their well-being and success as an adult.

Facts and Fiction of the Toddler Brain

IMG_2805Because science tells us this age is important, often labeled a “critical window,” there is no shortage of advice, hype and marketing to parents about how to best stimulate and shape a child’s brain to ensure success.

Before you start teaching your baby to read, consider this. The brain is built from the bottom up, layering skills and connections in different brain areas and ending with those higher functioning areas of cognition. Meaning teaching babies and toddler skills that are developmentally inappropriate, like reading, is futile long term, since the underlying neural circuitry necessary to master the particular skill has not developed.

It’s also important to note that scientific studies on the toddler brain and its importance are mostly based on evidence of the negative impacts of deprivation on brain circuitry.  That does not translate into an endorsement for any type of excessive enrichment or prove that enrichment techniques like specialized videos, music or programs enhance brain architecture.

And finally, experts emphasize that “critical window” is terminology used in the context of at-risk children who need, for example, to hear language regularly by a particular age. It does not imply that all windows of opportunity for brain development close on a child’s third birthday.

Activities that Help Toddlers Thrive

Parents are a huge factor in the child’s developing brain, but luckily, our instincts as nurturing caregivers offer the best guidance on how to enrich our children’s lives. Babies need touching, holding, comforting, rocking, singing and talking to, in order to stimulate their growing brains. Normal, loving, responsive caregiving provides the best environment, advanced only by efforts to converse, listen to and read to babies and toddlers, which has been proven to enhance language skills.

However, if you’re looking for fun activities for your toddler that will enrich their lives, The National Center for Infants, Toddler and Families offers worksheets with ideas for keeping little hands and minds busy.

Age 1-2: Problem Solving

  • Water, sand and block play helps develop sensory skills and make relational connections between objects.
  • Open ended simple toys, like nested cups, buckets and spoons encourage exploration.
  • Games of “ring around the rosy,” chase or side-by-side sand play can introduce little ones to socialization with one or two friends.
  • Modeling communication, “Thank you, my turn, can I play?” that children will need to use with peers is helpful.
  • Give your child one and eventually two-step requests to help with direction following.
  • Keep them moving with large motor play outside, in nature when possible, with balls, push toys, tunnels, etc.

Age 2-4: Imagination

  • Toys now should encourage children to “play pretend,” with good examples being simple items such as blankets, scarves, boxes, dolls and toy versions of everyday items like kitchen dishes and appliances.
  • Use your own imagination when playing with your little one. As an example, offer them a round pillow and ask if they’d like some pizza.
  • Older toddlers still like solving problems, so simple puzzles, interlocking blocks and memory games are good stimulation.
  • Reading, songs and stories will all bolster language skills, so read often to your 2-4 year old.
  • Continue much large motor outdoor play, but also add in small motor work such as Play doh, beads and other manipulatives (only after the age of placing items in mouth).

Most importantly, remember to relax and have fun! Consider this wise advice from the Dalai Lama –


“Your love – your openness to truly listen; being there for your child when he or she needs you – is more important than your knowledge or skill or doing the textbook-perfect thing.”