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Recommended reading Problem-solving Stages: 19 to 24 months


Solving problems is all part of the growing independence common to this stage of development. It is also common for toddlers to show their frustration in response to an adult’s attempts to help them. ‘Me do it’ is a phrase whānau might be starting to hear often. And if their toddler isn’t able to explain themselves it is highly likely they will express their message loud and clear through their behaviour.

These little budding engineers and mechanics are very capable problem-solvers. Opening gates, climbing, squeezing through small spaces and finding escape routes are common exploits. Whānau need to be one step ahead of them all the time. It can be helpful for parents to understand that if their child feels ‘nobody is listening to me or meeting my needs’, they will sort things for themselves.

They won’t wait for whānau to get out of bed. If they want a drink, or breakfast, and nobody is getting up to get it for them, they will try themselves. Many a tired parent has entered the kitchen to see the results of a 2-year-old problem-solver at large.

Although solving problems is second nature at this stage, it doesn’t come with the ability to think through the effects of their actions. Parents and whānau need to be there for that role.

For example, a set of car keys left where the child can get them may result in them attempting to ‘drive the car’. They know which keys they are and where the keys go — but obviously have no idea of the impacts that could result if they were to get to test their problem-solving skills out in the vehicle.

Exploring and testing is natural. Curiosity is the child’s primary driving force and they will explore anything they can reach — and if they can’t reach it, they will problem-solve to do so.

They will test how far they can go with the whānau to see if they mean what they say.

Letting them explore in safe places with constant supervision is the ultimate goal — however, this is not always easy to apply. Planning ahead can be a helpful strategy for meeting the needs of both parents and their toddler.

For example, if planning an outdoor excursion it may be preferable to leave the buggy and walk. This gives the child an opportunity to explore more freely and have some exercise at the same time. If dad or mum think their little one may tire and don’t like the prospect of carrying them home, the buggy could be pushed along to ‘carry the water bottle’ but is at hand should it be needed.

Suitable toys and activities for this age are important to allow a toddler to explore and experiment using their problem-solving skills. If there aren’t appropriate resources available to the child, they will seek them out. The risk is that what they find may be inappropriate and/or dangerous.

The child may continue to test things with their mouths. This method has worked very well for them for the last 18 months, and many will continue with this approach. Sometimes this type of exploration will be unsafe — for example, poisonous plants, bugs, coins and batteries may be toxic or pose a choking risk.

Toy libraries are available in many communities and are well worth investigating. The value in accessing toy library resources is that some toys or activities may only be of interest to the child for a short period of time. So, rather than buying toys that their child may quickly lose interest in, whānau might prefer to invest their money in a toy library membership. This will give them access to a wide variety of toys for 50 weeks of the year.

Play groups are another appropriate setting for parents and their children to experience play and exploration, with the added opportunity of social interactions.

Clever hands and fingers

With their ever increasing fine motor skills and abilities, young children at this age will be showing whānau just how clever they are. Using utensils, spoons, forks, pencils, or tapping cell phones or computer keyboards may be intriguing to their parents. However, those same clever hands and fingers will also be trying to open and close cupboards, drawers and gates, and wanting to take lids off containers and bottles to see what’s inside.

Access to medications, especially bottles without childproof lids, pose a real risk. Colourful pills may look like lollies that mum is not sharing. A determined toddler may use all their problem-solving skills to access them. Safety around medicines is something whānau really need to be aware of, as well as not getting angry with their toddler for their natural curiosity.

Again, the role of whānau is to try and find ‘acceptable’ activities to develop the child’s fine motor skills. Options include balancing blocks, playing catch with a lightweight ball or balloon, and giving them empty containers with lids to practise opening and replacing safely. Toddlers will also enjoy drawing and writing, so have some chunky chalk or crayons for outside and for supervised use inside.

The other area where toddlers may need guidance is to learn about ‘gentle hands’. Hands are for picking things up, playing with toys, patting pets, holding when crossing roads and giving cuddles and other positive activities.

Noticing details

The heightened awareness of this stage will be recognisable when children show they’ve noticed details within the environment. They may start to get excited showing they recognise familiar places, the homes of friends or family, their ECE centre or even the golden arches of McDonald’s. This ability to identify signs and symbols is the very beginning of literacy skills and can be celebrated.

A toddler can be quietly observing the world around them and surprise their parents with how much they are taking in. One example is a parent wandering the house looking for car keys saying out loud ‘Where did I put my keys?’, to which their toddler appears with the keys in hand. Memory and observations are starting to work together.

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