Motivating the reluctant toddler

Getting a reluctant infant  to work hard at new tasks requires patience, imagination and most importantly a deep understanding of how games and activities can be adapted to draw the child in, and then changed to make them progressively more difficult.

The point of entrance is gaining the child’s trust and getting her interested in what you are doing.  Then you introduce activities that require very little action from the child – but produce an interesting result.  Little by little you get the child to put more effort into keeping the games going.

Peter is 20 months – he has recently leaned to crawl and is taking great delight in chasing a ball. Balls generally interest Peter – he loves unpacking a box of balls and throwing them all over the room.  But he is not interested in playing games that involve packing away, posting or stacking of toys.

Today is our first  encounter.  He sits close to his mom, Alice, on the floor and eyes me with distrust.  Peter is a cautious, slow to warm child 

I place a box containing several small balls close to him.  I retrieve a ball from the box and from a distance I roll the ball to Peter.  He picks it up and throws it across the room.  I fetch the ball and pop it into a box close to him. To retrieve the ball he needs to stretch our a little and put his hand into the box. He glares at me.  I lean over and look into the box. I take out two balls, place one next to him and retreat a little way.  Peter picks up the ball and throws it away. I throw my ball and wait to see what happens. Peter moves closer to his mom and glares at me.

I look into the box again, comment on the balls, take one out and push the box a little closer to him. Peter’s love of ball get the better of him and he takes one out and throws it a little way. I do the same – I pick up a ball and throw it.

Peter takes another ball out of the box, throws it and then crawls after it.  I also crawl across the room and retrieve a ball. Peter watches me:  “This is interesting – this funny adult is copying me. Adults are not supposed to crawl around.”  He sits down, throws the ball again and watches to see what I will do.

I am pleased – I have engaged his attention, he is taking an interest in me. I am playing alongside him and making no demands. All the while I have made a few comments on what we are doing, but have made no requests for any particular action from Peter.

We play this game a little longer, then I fetch another box containing a mixture of interesting objects – things that can be rattled, a bottle with a few large beads in it, some soft toys, a box that can be opened.

I take out a rattle – give it a few shakes and put it back in the box. Next I take out the bottle with the large beads, tip them out, post them back into the bottle and place it back in the box. Peter is looking interested, but stays close to his mom.

I move away and start chatting to Alice. Peter moves closer to the box. Picks up a toy, inspects it for a few seconds and tosses it aside. I pick up the same toy, inspect it, make a few comments then post it into another box which has a hole in the lid. Peter watches me.

We repeat this sequence several times. Then Peter decides to post a toy into the closed box rather than toss it. I open the lid, peer in and close it again. Now Peter is interested and he opens the box, looks at the toys, then tips all the toys out. I put back the lid and Peter starts to post the toys back into the box through the hole.

I am thrilled with my success. I have managed to engage Peter, and shifted him from tossing toys to posting them through a hole into a box.

Young children love posting things. By 20 months a typically developing child is skilled at posting all sorts of regular shapes through small apertures. Peter has discovered the pleasure of posting – now we need to work on his hand skills to get him posting rods and then disks through small holes.

This scenario illustrates a number of important ideas: get the child’s trust and interest, show that you are interested in what the child wants to do, provide activities that are interesting and that the child can do easily and then change the activity to get the child doing something new.

Peter engaged in a range of activities, because they interested him. Alice and I did  not once say – do this or do that. Instead I have structured the social and physical environment in a way that invites the child to explore a range social and physical actions and interactions.