When we look at child development, we always want to look at the whole child, not just one set of skills, so experts have divided developmental milestones into the 5 categories below.
Children develop skills on a fairly predictable timeline, but can have uneven development – for example, a 24 month old may have the motor skills we expect of a 30 month old, and the communication skills typical of an 18 month old… if you look at that same child 6 months later, they may have surged in their communication skills. Temperament and interest levels have big effects on which skills they focus most on, but parents can also ensure they have opportunities and encouragement to develop in all these areas.
It is helpful for parents to have a good working knowledge of typical development (see the resources post for great information) so they know if their child is on track, and children may also benefit from occasional screenings (see resources) to make sure children are progressing well.
Gross Motor (aka Large Motor)
These skills include: running, jumping, throwing, kicking, climbing, and dancing.
To build these skills, ensure that your child has plenty of time and opportunity to move: playgrounds, indoor gyms, hikes in the woods where they can balance on logs, going up and down stairs, tumbling on a mat. Try for a mixture of free play time where they explore movement on their own, and playing together. Kids love wrestling with parents, dancing, chasing around the house together, kicking a ball together. You can teach basic skills of any sport – just don’t expect them to follow rules yet!
Fine motor skills allow a child to pick up and manipulate small objects. These skills help them to feed themselves, dress themselves, hold a pencil, and other essential skills for independence.
You can help build these skills with activities like: coloring / drawing / painting, threading beads onto a pipe cleaner, threading pipe cleaners through the holes on a colander, putting dried beans inside a bottle, taking lids on and off containers, feeding them small and slippery finger foods (like diced peaches), letting them feed themselves with a fork or a spoon, and stacking blocks.
If your child tends to still mouth small objects, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let them use small items… but you should supervise them when they play, and put small items away when you’re done.
These skills can be seen when your child copies your actions, notices the emotions of other people, shows empathy for others, or plays games where they are pretending to be/do something.
These skills are primarily built in interaction with others. However, children can also learn a lot about social interaction and emotions by reading books or watching TV. When you read to your child, talk about what emotions the characters may be feeling. Talk about the ways they are interacting with each other – are they being nice? Mean? How does their behavior make the other characters feel?
Language & Communication
Communication is not just saying words out loud. Especially for a young toddler, we want to know: do they seem to understand the words that are said to them (e.g. Can they follow simple directions – like ‘close the door’? If asked to point at a picture of a cat, can they do so? Do they point/gesture to indicate what they want? Do they follow your gestures? Can they name a few familiar objects?)
The best way to build language skills is to follow your child’s lead… rather than throwing language at them about what you see around you, first watch them. What are they looking at? What has their attention at the moment? Talk to them about that, giving them words to describe what they see.
Cognitive Development: Problem-Solving
This is about using tools, and solving challenges. For example, a child who sees a toy you put on the counter out of reach, then gets a stool and pushes it over to the counter and climbs up on the stool to get the toy is a great problem-solver! (And a frustrating child to parent!)
To build problem-solving skills, give them challenges: puzzles, shape sorters, tasks that require multiple steps (first you take the lid off the box, then you put the toy in, then you put the lid back on the box), sorting objects by color or size or other characteristics, and putting toys away in their proper places. Allow your child to become frustrated without always “rescuing” them from that frustration. Notice their triggers, and signs that frustration is building, and move in for a little extra support, but don’t just take over and do the task for them – they can learn through those challenges. You can sit with your child and provide emotional support for their feelings of frustration while still encouraging them to keep trying to solve the puzzle. You may suggest things they could try, but don’t do it for them.
It can be helpful to watch other children at the playground in your child’s classes to get a sense of typical development, but try not to compare your child too much to other children. They all develop in their own way at their own pace.
I still remember something that happened when my now 20-year-old was a toddler. I was very proud that she was stringing together simple 2 to 3 word phrases – ‘throw the ball’, ‘more crackers’, and ‘doggy book’. Then I talked with a friend who had a child the same age… she said her child had said the day before ‘Grandma, Grandpa, come downstairs, breakfast ready.’ I was devastated, feeling like there was something wrong with my child. But then later in that conversation, I shared how my daughter had played at the park that week, climbing up the ladder on the slide, sliding down, then climbing up the slide itself and sliding back down. The other mom sheepishly admitted that her child could barely climb on and off the couch!
That’s when it became clear that at that moment in time, my child was working on physical skills and hers was working on verbal skills. Developmental theorists will tell you it all evens out in time, and I can also tell you the same from my experience. Those two girls are now a sophomore at Oberlin College and a sophomore at Reed, and both very bright independent young adults with solid skills in all developmental areas. It all works out in the end…