Parenting Resource

Developing Thinking Skills From 24-36 Months

May 19, 2016

In this third year, you will see a big jump in your child’s thinking skills. Learn about the many ways you can nurture your 2-year-old’s thinking skills

In this third year, you will see a big jump in your child’s thinking skills. She will start to appreciate humor and jokes. She will be able to come up with solutions to more complex challenges. And she is able to put herself in other people’s shoes. She knows they have thoughts and feelings that are different from hers and she can imagine what these thoughts and feelings might be. She may give you a hug when you are sad. You may see her help another child who is struggling.

Two-year-olds get a bad rap. Some call them “terrible”. But they are not terrible at all. At this stage, children are making a huge leap in their thinking skills as they are now able to use their imagination and develop lots of their own ideas. The problem is that they still do not have all the skills or the control over their world they need to follow through on all of their ideas. This naturally leads to anger, confusion and frustration—feelings they do not yet know how to manage very well. So they have a lot of breakdown, fondly known as tantrums.

The good news is there is a lot you can do to help your child cope, thrive and learn during this exciting year which will be full of lots of No’s from your spirited toddler, but filled with lots of laughter too.

Spend lots of time pretending

The ability to pretend marks a big leap in the development of thinking skills. When children pretend, it means that they understand symbols—that a block can become a car, a shoebox can become a home for stuffed animals, and that a word stands for an object or an idea. Understanding symbols is important for the development of skills such as math, logic, writing, and science.

What you can do to build your child’s imagination:

  • Make the time for pretend play. Let your child be the “director.” This helps him develop his own ideas. It also strengthens his thinking skills as he makes logical connections in his stories: The dog has to go back in his house because it’s raining. You can help him develop his ideas by asking questions: What is the doggy feeling? What is the doggy trying to do? Why? What might happen next?

  • Offer lots of props that help him act out the stories he’s creating—hats, dress-up clothing, toy dishes, child-sized brooms, pads of paper, blocks, play food and household objects like big cardboard boxes, blankets, pillows, etc.

Build your child’s logical thinking skills

As children get closer to age 3, they begin to understand how things are logically connected; for example, that you need to eat in order to grow. They use their increasing language skills to ask questions about what they see, hear, and experience in the world. That’s the reason it seems that every other word 2-year-olds speak is “Why?” The ability to think logically—to put 2 and 2 together—is critical for thinking through problems and being successful in school and life.

What you can do:

  • Don’t answer your child’s questions right away. Ask first what he thinks the answer is. This gets his wheels turning. Listen carefully to his response and acknowledge his ideas. You can then offer the correct answer. For example, if he says he thinks it gets dark at night so people can sleep, you might respond: Yes, it is easier to sleep when it’s dark, and then go on to explain as simply as possible about the sun setting and rising each day.

  • Ask lots of questions during your everyday play and routines. As you go through your day together, ask your child “why” questions. Why do you think the leaves fall from the trees? Why does it snow? This gets your child’s mind working and also lets him know that you are interested in and value his ideas.

Figure out what objects do and how things go together.

Older toddlers go beyond just exploring objects to using them as tools. For example, they might use a shoe box as a garage for toy cars. They also explore the world in more complex and creative ways. You may see your toddler’s active mind at work as he:

  • Digs through the sand to find hidden toys

  • Makes play dough creations

  • Builds elaborate constructions from blocks

  • Acts out stories in his play

  • Takes things apart, stacks, and sorts objects

  • Inspects the parts of toys that move (wheels/doors of a toy truck)

What you can do:

  • Watch your child and see what he is interested in. Ask questions about what you are seeing and experiencing together: What do you think we will find when we dig in the sand? Where do you think the butterfly is flying to? Wonder about things together: I wonder how many legs are on that spider? I wonder how many stairs there are to get up to the front door? I wonder where the rain goes when it lands on the ground? By noticing and building on your child’s natural curiosity, you are nurturing her love of learning.

  • Offer lots of chances to explore in creative ways. Take nature walks. Play with sand and water. Give your child objects he can take apart and investigate. By working with familiar (and not-so-familiar) objects, children figure out how things work. This type of problem-solving is critical for success in school.

Notice patterns and connect ideas.

Toddlers can use their memories to apply past experiences to the present. They see a cloudy sky and know that this might mean rain is coming. This also helps them understand how the world works–the rain comes from the gray clouds. You see this new ability to detect patterns and connect ideas when your child:

  • Laughs at funny things

  • Asks grandma for a cookie after mom says no.

  • Remembers that Aunt Sheila can’t come to the party because she lives far away

  • Tells you it is raining and that he will need an umbrella

What you can do:

  • Make connections between past and present. Make the logical connections in your child’s life clear to her: She has to wear mittens because her hands get cold if she doesn’t. She needs to bring a towel to the pool so she can dry herself off.

  • Use everyday routines to notice patterns. Using language to explain these patterns helps your child become a logical thinker and increases her vocabulary. “Do you notice that every time the dog whines he has to go out to do his business?” “When the buzzer goes off, the clothes are dry.”

Sort and categorize as you go through your day together.

Older toddlers can sort objects by their characteristics (all the plastic fish in one pile, all the plastic birds in another). They are also beginning to understand more complex concepts of time, space, size and quantity. You will see evidence of these new thinking skills when your child:

  • Tells you her age

  • Organizes objects in a logical way (plate next to cup; car next to dollhouse)

  • Asks questions like how many? or when?

  • Sorts beads by color or size

  • Acts out stories in his play, especially common scenarios he sees at home (like saying good-bye to mommy in the morning)

  • Completing 3- or 4-piece puzzles

What you can do:

  • Sort and categorize through the day. Do laundry together. Your child can separate colors from whites and make piles of socks, shirts, and pants. He can help set the table and organize the forks, plates and spoons. At clean-up time, have him put the cars on one shelf and books on another.

  • Help him grasp a sense of time. Use an egg timer to help him put together the concept of time with the experience of time (to help him know what 5 or 10 minutes feels like.) This also gives him some sense of control over knowing when a change will happen. (He can look at the egg timer and see the arrow moving closer to the “0” which is when he has to stop playing and get in the car.)

Think and talk about feelings.

Two-year-olds are getting better at recognizing their own feelings. Some may even begin to label their own feelings: I’m mad! I’m sad. I’m happy. But they are still learning how to manage them. (Tantrums continue to be very typical at this age.) Two-year-olds also know that other people have their own thoughts and feelings. You see this awareness of themselves and others when your toddler:

  • Uses words to describe feelings—“happy” or “sad”

  • Recognizes and names feelings in pictures from books (sadness, fear, anger)

  • Comforts others when they are upset or hurt

  • Recognizes others’ feelings: Mama sad?

  • Role-plays caregiving and comforting with dolls or stuffed animals

What you can do:

  • Talk about feelings. Help your child develop a feelings vocabulary. Put words to what you think she might be feeling. You are so mad that we have to leave the park. You feel sad when Grandma has to leave. This helps your child understand and cope with her feelings.

  • Talk about what others might be feeling. That little girl is jumping up and down and smiling. Do you think she is happy? When reading books, ask what she thinks the characters might be feeling. Do you think he’s afraid of the dark?

Test out new ideas and concepts to solve problems.

Two-year-olds solve problems by using trial and error. You may see your older toddler solving problems by:

  • Bringing others into her play: “You be the princess”

  • Peeling paper off a crayon that is getting dull in order to continue coloring

  • Turning puzzle pieces in different directions to complete the puzzle

  • Making up words and songs

  • Acting out stories, changing the plot to suit her purposes (not always logically)

What you can do:

  • Help your child test out different solutions to problems. When she is stuck, suggest other ways to approach the problem. For example, suggest she try different openings to fit the shapes into. If she needs a wand for pretend play, ask her what household object she might be able to use.

  • Make up songs. Instead of Rain, Rain Go Away, suggest it can be Snow, Snow Go Away, or, Birthday, Birthday Almost Here. Ask your child what else he wants to make the song about. Change the words to the song to match his ideas. This helps your child learn to think logically and make connections between ideas.

What You Can Do

Make the time for pretend play.

Let your child be the “director.” This helps him develop his own ideas. It also strengthens his thinking skills as he makes logical connections in his stories: The dog has to go back in his house because it’s raining. You can help him develop his ideas by asking questions: What is the doggy feeling? What is the doggy trying to do? Why? What might happen next?

Offer lots of props that help him act out the stories he’s creating

Such as hats, dress-up clothing, toy dishes, child-sized brooms, pads of paper, blocks, play food and household objects like big cardboard boxes, blankets, pillows, etc.

Don’t answer your child’s questions right away.

Ask first what he thinks the answer is. This gets his wheels turning. Listen carefully to and acknowledge his response and then you can offer the correct answer. For example, if he says he thinks it gets dark at night so people can sleep, you might respond: Yes, it is easier to sleep when it’s dark, and then go on to explain as simply as possible about the sun setting and rising each day.

Ask lots of questions during your everyday play and routines.

As you go through your day together, ask your child “why” questions. Why do you think the leaves fall from the trees? Why does it snow? This gets your child’s mind working and also lets him know that you are interested in and value his ideas.

Watch your child and see what he is interested in.

Ask questions about what you are seeing and experiencing together: What do you think we will find when we dig in the sand? Where do you think the butterfly is flying to? Wonder about things together: I wonder how many legs are on that spider? I wonder how many stairs there are to get up to the front door? I wonder where the rain goes when it lands on the ground? By noticing and building on your child’s natural curiosity, you are nurturing her love of learning.

Offer lots of chances to explore in creative ways.

Take nature walks. Play with sand and water. Give your child objects he can take apart and investigate. By working with familiar (and not-so-familiar) objects, children figure out how things work. This type of problem-solving is critical for success in school.

Make connections between past and present.

Make the logical connections in your child’s life clear to her: She has to wear mittens because her hands get cold if she doesn’t. She needs to bring a towel to the pool so she can dry herself off.

Use everyday routines to notice patterns.

Using language to explain these patterns helps your child become a logical thinker and increases her vocabulary. “Do you notice that every time the dog whines he has to go out to do his business?” “When the buzzer goes off, the clothes are dry.”

Sort and categorize through the day.

Do laundry together. Your child can separate colors from whites and make piles of socks, shirts, and pants. He can help set the table and organize the forks, plates and spoons. At clean-up time, have him put the cars on one shelf and books on another.

Help him grasp a sense of time.

Use an egg timer to help him put together the concept of time with the experience of time (to help him know what 5 or 10 minutes feels like.) This also gives him some sense of control over knowing when a change will happen. (He can look at the egg timer and see the arrow moving closer to the “0” which is when he has to stop playing and get in the car.)

Talk about feelings.

Help your child develop a feelings vocabulary. Put words to what you think she might be feeling. You are so mad that we have to leave the park. You feel sad when Grandma has to leave. This helps your child understand and cope with her feelings.

Talk about what others might be feeling.

That little girl is jumping up and down and smiling. Do you think she is happy? When reading books, ask what she thinks the characters might be feeling. Do you think he’s afraid of the dark?

Help your child test out different solutions to problems.

When she is stuck, suggest other ways to approach the problem. For example, suggest she try different openings to fit the shapes into. If she needs a wand for pretend play, ask her what household object she might be able to use.

Make up songs.

Instead of Rain, Rain Go Away, suggest it can be Snow, Snow Go Away, or, Birthday, Birthday Almost Here. Ask your child what else he wants to make the song about. Change the words to the song to match his ideas. This helps your child learn to think logically and make connections between ideas.

Parent-Child Activities That Promote Thinking Skills

Play pirates and create a treasure map of “x’s” for your child to follow.

Cut 5-10 large x-shapes from colored paper and lay them in a path leading through your house or yard. Have the path end at a “treasure”—a small snack or sticker. Does your child want to lay down the x’s next time?

It’s raining pompoms.

Fill a shoebox with pompoms and sing Rain, rain go away, come again another day and toss the pompoms into the air. See what other ways your child can think of to use the pompoms. She may put them in a bowl and pretend they are cereal or mound them into a ball and pretend they’re snow.

Paint without brushes.

Let your child be creative with art by using unusual objects to paint with. Try painting with sponges, the wheels of a toy car, dipping a plastic basket in paint, or using a paint-covered leaf.

Transform a box.

Ask your local appliance store if you can have one of their large boxes. Take it home and cut a door and a few windows out. You can decorate the box in different ways to transform it into: a castle, a house, a barn, a doghouse, a hospital, a lemonade stand. The possibilities are endless.

Keep track of the rain.

Put a small plastic bowl outside the house to catch the rain. Watch the rain fall into your bowl. When it’s done raining, bring the bowl inside. Talk with your child about how much rain you caught: A lot? A little? Will it fit into a big cup or a small cup? Let your child pour the rain out.

Plant some seeds together (grass seeds work well).

Watch the plant grow. Let your child water his plant and put the pot in a sunny place. Watch the calendar, marking off days until you see a tiny shoot peeking through the soil. Take a photo! Talk with your child about how he sees the plant growing. Take more pictures as the plant grows. Put the photos together in a book about your plant.

Smell the smells!

Spray 5 cotton balls with different scents—perfume or other essential oils work well. Let your child sniff each one and tell you whether she likes it. She can glue the ones she likes on a piece of cardboard where you have drawn a smiling face at the top. She can glue the smells she doesn’t like on a piece of cardboard where you have drawn a frowning face on the top. How many cotton balls are on each piece of cardboard?

Make some mystery boxes.

Cut a hand-sized hole in the top of 5-7 shoe boxes. Inside each box put a common household object that your child is familiar with: a mitten, some dry pasta, a crayon, a spoon, etc. Let your child put his hand in each box (without looking) and guess what is inside. Ask him: “What does it feel like? Is it soft or hard? Do you feel round edges or square edges?” Then let him lift the top to see if he is right!

Frequently Asked Questions

When can you start using logic with a child? I try to explain to my three-year-old the reason why we have certain rules (like no touching the TV) or why we can’t go to the park right now, and she will just throw a tantrum.

Between approximately 2 and 3, children begin to understand the logical connection between ideas, which is the reason they start to ask “Why?” about almost everything! It is a major milestone in their overall development and in their understanding of how the world works.

However, this stage can also be very confusing and exasperating for parents. The inconsistency you’ve described in your daughter’s behavior is a perfect example and is due to the fact that 3-year-olds’ grasp of logic is still pretty shaky. One minute they seem very reasonable and wise and the next act totally irrational. This is coupled with the fact that 3-year-olds are still working hard on managing their strong emotions which can interfere with, and often trump, their ability to act as rational beings.

Sometimes my 3-year-old seems to really understand complicated ideas so I don’t see why she can’t understand (or remember!) the reasons I give her for rules. When do children really “get” logic?

There are several variables that can strain your child’s ability to accept your logical explanations: being tired or hungry; having eagerly anticipated the thing or activity she is not being allowed to have or do; or being a temperamentally intense, persistent child by nature.

So when you tell your daughter she can’t have cake for lunch because her body needs healthy foods to grow strong, she may quickly comply. But when you tell her she can’t go to the playground before bed, she might completely lose it. You’re left feeling confused—why is one explanation harder to understand than the other? The answer is: It’s not. It’s just how a three-year-old processes the world.

Just wait for the déjà vu you’ll feel in 15 years when you try to explain curfews. Until then, enjoy your passionate three-year-old and rest assured that understanding logical connections and family rules is a skill that gradually unfolds over the next few years.

Why does my toddler ask “why” so many times? She’ll ask “why do you have to go to work?” and I’ll answer that I work so I can get money to help our family, and then she’ll ask “but why do you have to get money?”

Because between ages 2 and 3, children develop the cognitive ability to make logical connections between things–to understand why things happen. This is a critical skill that helps them gain a much more complex understanding of how the world works.. When they ask, “why?” they are showing a thirst for knowledge. They want more information. So asking “why” is critical for your child. The more she asks, “why?”, the more she learns.

The short answer is to try to be patient with your daughter’s many questions. You are feeding her natural curiosity and increasing her appetite for learning. You are also helping her better understand the meaning of the words she hears and uses in daily conversations, book sharing, and stories.

As your child gets older, you can also try answering some “why” questions with “What do you think?” This gets her wheels turning and nurtures her logical thinking and language skills. Remember to wait patiently for her to think about and share her ideas before rushing in with your “answer.” It is also important to honor her response, even if it’s not correct, and then share the information you have. For example, if she says she thinks that the water in the pot is bubbling because you put bubble bath in it, you might say, “Bubble bath does make bubbles in the water in the tub. But when water bubbles in a pot on the stove like this, it means that it is very, very hot. We call that boiling.”

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