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Toddlers are known to be very busy creatures! Getting them to slow down, look and share attention with you can be a challenge. While it may seem easier to let them occupy themselves and bounce from one activity to another, it is important for learning and future relationships to engage meaningfully with them. Teaching your little one to look at you, use non-verbal gestures like pointing and actively listen will help them to communicate better with others.
Some little ones seem to engage more naturally and don’t need much intentional prompting from an adult, while others are happy to be in their own little world and need help to actively play with others. So how can you, as an adult, draw your child out of their solitary play and entice him to enjoy the give and take of playing with others? As occupational therapists and experts on play, we share some of our best pointers to get you started:
1. pointing – encouraging your little one to point while looking at books or birds flying overhead will illicit shared attention and engagement. If he struggles to isolate his pointing finger, you could gently roll and tug along his finger from the base to the tip with your fingers, like a massage. Also try activities to isolate this finger such as finger painting, poking holes into playdough or planting seeds in the garden by poking holes for them.
2. reading – carve out some time to read at least 2 books a day with your little one. If his attention span is short you don’t have to read each word – rather focus on the pictures and choose books with actions he can do. Read his favourites over and over and see if he can remember the story and “read” it to you.
3. child-led play – imitate what your little one is doing by getting down onto the floor with her and copying the actions, sounds, facial expressions and activities she is doing. If your little one struggles to get started with this you can bring in a few favourite objects and see what she does (e.g. a ball, doll, teddy, mixing bowl and spoon).
4. requesting – many in tune caregivers know what their child wants before she has asked for it. It is important to “play dumb” and create the need for her to actively ask for what she wants. This could be gesturing (e.g. pointing or signing) or using language (e.g. saying “more juice”). You can model how to do this in the beginning if you need to. Look for opportunities during activities for your child to request, for example when colouring you could show her 2 colours and she can request the one she wants to use.
5. waiting for a response – young children in particular take a little time to process information. As adults we often expect them to gather, process and respond as fast as we do. Try to slow down a little and allow your child time to process and decide on a response. If you ask a question give him time to reply (count to 10 in your head if you have to!), if you request a choice from her give her a moment to pick an option, if he is hesitant to start an activity allow him a pause to decide where he wants to begin.
6. eye contact – this is such an important part of engaging with others. Show your child that he has your full attention by giving him eye contact from your side and then ask for his eye contact when he is responding to you. To encourage this you can wait for him to look at you when he is awaiting your response before answering him, gently guide his head up so that he is looking at your face, call his name or ask him to look at you before giving him a response or requesting something from him.
The seemingly “good” child who is easy to manage due to being able to play quietly on their own can seem very convenient, but needs our help to draw them out into meaningful play with others. Relationship is our ultimate goal, which can facilitate friendships, form the basis for learning and create self confidence from which your little one can engage with his world and those around him. Regular short periods of time throughout the day where you as a caregiver, intentionally engage and purposefully connect with your little one will go a long way in helping him on the playground, in class and with his family.