The Right Moves

Why do Patti and Larry Anderson keep a giant plastic slide and fort in their living room? “Our son Joe got it for his first birthday, and since it’s cold where we live, we figured he’d get more use from it if we kept it inside,” explains Patti, who lives in Cincinnati. When their daughter Louisa came along, the structure continued to be used every day.

“Young toddlers need a safe space,” says Crystal Branta, Ph.D., associate professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University, “a room or a corner of a room where they can move freely-to climb and explore every day, not just twice a week at the park.”

You can easily encourage your child’s emerging motor skills in your own home.

  • Climbing stairs. Most toddlers crawl up the stairs, then scoot down while sitting on their bottom. Around 15 to 18 months, they start trying to walk upright down the stairs. Practice with your child. And be sure to install safety gates at the top and bottom-so he won’t attempt it alone-along with a soft rug at the bottom for cushier landings.
  • Toddlers aren’t strong enough to get airborne, but they love to bounce while attempting to jump. It’s easier for them to jump down from a low surface than to lift their feet off the floor.
  • If you’re not comfortable with your toddler speeding down indoor hallways, give her opportunities for some wilder running outside: playing tag, racing and so on.
  • Toddlers love kicking beach balls, playground balls-even a wad of newspaper wrapped in duct tape. Slightly deflate balls so they don’t roll far away.
  • Play a CD with some lively music-rock, reggae, country, whatever’s popular in your home-and let your toddler dance to her heart’s content.
  • “Expect your child to toss crackers over his high chair. He’s practicing throwing as well as learning cause and effect,” says Branta. When throwing or playing catch, instead of using hard balls, consider giving your child rolled-up socks, yarn balls or beanbags to safely toss indoors. Likewise, medium-sized soft objects such as beach balls, slightly-deflated playground balls or a favorite stuffed toy are easier to catch than very large or extremely small objects,” according to Branta.
  • Pounding, holding and manipulating:Shape sorters and pop-up toys with lots of large, safe pieces to operate are ideal toys for toddlers. “It doesn’t have to be a commercial toy,” Branta says. “Objects with different sizes, weights and parts-like pots and pans, stacking cups or plastic storage containers-require different kinds of hand movements, which help develop fine motor skills.”