• autonomy: ability to make decisions for oneself and direct one’s own behavior
  • empathy: ability to recognize, share, understand, and consider another person’s feelings
  • positive guidance: helping a child learn good behaviors and self control

Help Toddlers Explore How Things Relate to Each Other

Before watching this video, read the text below. When instructed, watch the segment of video beginning at 4:51 and ending at 7:25.

To start the video in the middle, click the play arrow. Then move your cursor along the progress bar. Click the progress bar when you reach the time you'd like to start.

As they play with toys, tools, containers, and interesting materials, young toddlers explore and discover relationships. They might notice that a small pan can fit inside a large pan and that the larger pan can hold more plastic eggs than the smaller pan. They might discover that two paint colors combine to make a third color.

Following their own agendas, young toddlers may line up all of the toy cars or group stuffed animals into families with parents and babies. As they fit simple puzzles together or figure out how to cover a large interlocking block with smaller ones, they discover and confirm how things can be whole, in pieces, and back together again. They are learning how the world works. You can support these discoveries by providing appropriate materials, noticing what toddlers focus on, talking with them about what they are doing or trying to figure out, asking questions to guide their exploration and thinking, and occasionally offering guidance or a new challenge.

  • Offer opportunities for children to fit, compare, sort, combine, and count things. Provide puzzles such as shape sorters, ring stackers, nesting cups, and pots with lids. Help toddlers notice what is bigger or smaller, what fits inside what, and what can hold more. Offer interesting combinations of materials, tools, and containers, and talk about what toddlers do with them, how they solve problems they encounter, and what they discover. Let them mix materials, such as different colored paints or sand and water, and discover what new things they can make. Help them notice relationships by talking about how things are alike or go to together. (For example, “Daffodils and buttercups are yellow flowers.” Or, “You found a big truck and a smaller one. Can you drive them to the garage?”)
  • Celebrate children’s discoveries. The praise you give toddlers can feel empty when the agenda is yours and the goal is following directions or finding a right answer. But young toddlers beam with delight when you share their pride and excitement at something they have done or discovered themselves. Experiences like these build toddlers’ sense of themselves as competent explorers and communicators and confident, self-directed, intentional learners.

In this segment, you’ll see how Kathy, Kristin, and their colleagues offer children interesting items and materials to explore and combine; help them discover mathematical, spatial, and causal relationships; and celebrate their discoveries with them.

Now watch the video segment. Begin at 4:51 when Kathy and the children begin to explore with plastic eggs and watch to the end. As you watch, look for effective strategies used by the educators in the video and jot down answers to this viewing question in your Learning Log.

  • What do you notice about how Kathy helps a child understand the concepts of bigger and smaller and more and less as she plays with objects from the sensory bin?
  • What do you notice about how the educators expand children’s language as they support their explorations of how objects and materials can relate and combine?
  • What do you notice about how the educators let children take the lead and help them feel good about themselves and what they can do?


How can you help young toddlers to explore science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts and to make discoveries about how the world works?

  • You can:
    • Offer toys and materials that behave in interesting ways when acted upon; for example, by winding up, pushing buttons, combining, scooping, sifting, blowing, pounding, stretching, rolling, and so on.
    • Put out a few materials that enable children to explore a particular idea, such as motion and propulsion, color mixing, emptying and filling, size and shape, quantity, floating and sinking, or how materials can change states.
    • Display learning materials in an attractive, orderly way so that children can find what they want to use and get things themselves.
    • Use outdoor time for focused exploration as well as for active play. For example, toddlers might make “mud soup,” drop pebbles in puddles, send different objects down a slide, or walk across surfaces such as leaf piles, snow, and soft sand.

How can you use language to support and extend young toddlers’ discoveries, without interrupting their autonomous exploration?

  • You can:
    • Approach children’s explorations with curiosity to find out what they might be thinking.
    • Watch, wait, and wonder. Ask, “What is this child trying to do or find out?” Then find a way to join the play that builds on the child’s agenda.
    • Take care not to impose an agenda when offering help or starting conversation. For example, don’t quiz a child about the color of the cups that he is stacking or using to “feed” his dinosaur.
    • Put words to what children communicate with actions or signs, and expand their single and simplified sentences with a bit more language and information.
    • Use specific and interesting vocabulary to refer to objects and actions.
    • Encourage and answer children’s questions.
    • Ask genuine questions, whose answers you really want to know, about what children are doing, trying to do, creating, or finding out, even if children can only answer with actions or single words.
    • Offer an additional challenge or material; show children how to use tools.
    • Celebrate children’s discoveries with them. Show pride in their accomplishments and use specific language to describe what they did.

How can you help young toddlers feel good about themselves?

  • You can:
    • Show that you value children’s opinions as you engage them in conversation.
    • Show that you share delight in children’s discoveries and accomplishments.
    • Give children time to master self-chosen tasks and skills as they repeat activities that they find engaging over and over again.
    • Offer challenges that are just a step above what children can do, so that they can succeed through their own efforts.
    • Give children opportunities to be helpful, such as getting an item for another child or helping to clean up a spill.
    • Be specific with praise, and focus on what children have done on their own initiative rather than at your request.
    • Use positive guidance strategies to build children’s self-control, language, and social skills, along with their confidence and self-esteem.


Think about the toddlers in your own program as you answer these reflection questions in your Learning Log.

  • What opportunities do you provide for children to learn how the world works by exploring spatial and cause-and-effect relationships, seeing what happens when they combine materials, and fitting things together?
  • What did you learn that you will take back to your learning environment and put into practice?
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