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Giant Steps - Expectations and Challenges in the Toddler Years - Part 1: Expectations

Giant Steps - Expectations in the Toddler Years is the first of a two-part article.

Part 2—Common Challenges and What To Do About Them presents common challenges faced by parents and caregivers during this developmental stage.


As the infant moves into toddlerhood, he masters new capabilities which help expand his horizon. Able to move around more independently, he becomes an active explorer. He can observe his surroundings from different viewpoints and gain a new sense of himself in relation to the world. His cognitive skills are growing by leaps and bounds. He can use language to make his needs and reactions known and to relate to adults and children in new ways. Along with language comes the ability to use imagination and to engage in pretend play, often playing out scenes he’s seen at home or on television.

The milestones listed below are approximate times when certain abilities are observable. There is no fixed timetable for acquiring abilities or confronting different challenges, and there’s a wide range of what’s considered “normal.” Every child grows and adjusts to the world at his or her own pace. Particular issues that confront parents, such as helping the child adjust to limits and to master fears should be understood in the light of the developing child.

Social and Emotional Growth

Kids come in all shapes, sizes and temperaments. Inborn characteristics such as mood, soothability and adaptability affect the way they learn to regulate their emotional responses; some are eager, some are cautious in unfamiliar situations; some are more fearful than others. Children’s temperamental styles are reflected in their approach to new situations.

Eloise, 1 1/2 years old, is cautious. She remains on the sidelines in her play group, but after she gets used to the situation, she joins in.

Two-year-old Andy, eager for novel experiences and for interaction with other children, rushes into new situations, but then is apt to become overstimulated and end up in tears.

Lucy, just over 2 years of age, turns away and clings to her mother, and after a considerable time, she joins in the situation. However, she becomes distressed if her mother leaves.

As parents become attuned to their child’s temperament they are better able to provide a safe base for him to explore and to develop a secure sense of self.


By the end of the first year of life, the toddler smiles easily and shows affection for others by hugging, kissing and snuggling. He

  • enjoys being around other children; babbles or talks into a play phone and makes pretend conversation
  • can play simple interactive games such as chase me/catch me
  • imitates simple acts, such as hugging or fondling a doll and can play interactive games such as peek-a-boo, so-big, and pat-a-cake
  • initiates interactions such as reaching out to be picked up
  • responds to limits set by parents voice or gesture

By 15 months the child

  • kisses and greets people
  • loves to imitate activities she sees around the house, such as cooking, dusting, hammering

By 18 months the child

  • seeks help from adults
  • protests or shows anger by using voice and gesture

By two years the child

  • is learning that what she does has an impact on the world; she can make things happen
  • is becoming aware of herself as an individual
  • is developing visual self-recognition (in a mirror) and verbal self-reference (Susie big)
  • wants to assert her own independent style. She wants to do things for herself and takes pride in accomplishment. When she falls short however, she can become frustrated and resort to crying or tantrums
  • is becoming sensitive to events that violate her sense of the way things are “supposed to be,” such as a doll missing an arm or dirt on clothes
  • imitates adults in her play, for example, using a hammer to bang and a spoon to feed herself.
  • is beginning to imitate her parents’ tone of voice and gender specific behavior

Between ages 2 and 3 the child

  • begins to interact with his environment in new ways. He is becoming aware that the feelings and wishes of others may be different than his own and develops the capacity for empathy. His imagination is flourishing and his world is filled with make-believe
  • is learning to master fears through play
  • is often assertive, refuses assistance and insists on doing things himself
  • is able to explore the world without the physical presence of his mother as he becomes more automonous
  • can engage directly with other children, unlike a younger child who tends to enjoy playing side by side with other children (parallel play)
  • may have difficulty with sharing and taking turns

Between the years one and three the child’s emotional repertoire broadens beyond the basic emotions of infancy; she can experience emotions like pride in accomplishment, guilt over doing something provocative, and embarrassment in social situations.

Motor development - exploring the world

The child’s growing motor skills enable him to view the world from different spatial perspectives and to navigate more independently. This new mobility allows him to take more physical risks and to learn more about his physical power and limitations.


By 15 months the child can

  • walk alone
  • stoop down and stand back without help
  • climb on furniture
  • control his fingers better; can hold a crayon and scribble

By 2 years the child can

  • jump in place
  • jump from a low step with both feet together at the same time
  • kick a ball and momentarily balance on one leg while swinging the other to kick an object
  • run forward
  • stand up easily from a sitting position
  • throw a ball overhand

Between 25 and 30 months the child can

  • walk up and down stairs alone. May use a handrail or wall for support, but walks up and down stairs without help, even if she puts both feet on a step at the same time
  • jump in place 2 or more times with feet landing at the same time
  • run or walk on tiptoe
  • climb on a jungle gym
  • walk backward 10 or more feet to pull toys, arrange things or to move out of the way

By 3 years the child can

  • jump forward with both feet together
  • stand on one foot unsupported for 2 or more seconds
  • steer and pedal a tricycle
  • throw a ball underhand
  • walk upstairs one foot on each step

Communication - connections and conversations

As toddlers develop a sense of themselves as individuals, they learn to use words in addition to, or instead of, action to express their needs and reactions. By the end of toddlerhood the child uses language to express his needs and feelings and to interact with others in more diverse ways. Whereas behavior and crying were the main avenue for communication in infancy, the toddler is now able to use words that have universal meaning.


Between 14 – 18 months the child can

  • say four or more words clearly
  • name a few objects if someone points
  • label pictures of common animals and objects
  • use at least one word to express an idea. For example, she may say “eat”
  • ask for things by name
  • make up own meaningful words
  • babble or talk into a play phone and makes pretend conversations
  • follow simple commands

Between 17 – 20 months the child can

  • listen to stories or music for 3 or more minutes
  • use l0 or more different words
  • follow relatively complex verbal instructions, such as put the pencil on the table

At 2 years the child can

  • use simple sentences
  • put words together into noun-verb sentences (want cookie, see car)
  • understand language and follow relatively complicated instructions
  • name six body parts
  • follow two-step commands
  • comprehend terms that are opposites
  • use the word ‘no,’ which signals a shift in the child’s sense of self in relation to others and in his desire for independence

Between 2 and 3 the child can:

  • take part in conversation
  • answer who, where, and when questions
  • add many new words each month
  • tell what to do when hungry, thirsty, sleepy, etc.
  • use prepositions such as in, on, empty, full
  • put words together in simple sentences of three or four words
  • name one color and recites nursery rhymes
  • master simple grammatical rules


During the toddler years the child progresses from merely exploring objects by manipulating them to being capable of solving simple problems (how to get something out of reach), categorizing objects (think about similarities and differences), and symbolic thought. The child can “think” about things in very simple ways without actually needing them to be present and visible, an ability which leads the way to the development and use of imagination.


At 16 months the child can

  • use simple puzzles or formboards
  • place an object into a bottle and dump it out
  • scribble spontaneously
  • point to body parts

At 21 months the child can

  • know what to do with common objects, such as a hammer, etc. and knows their purpose
  • play imaginatively; pretend to cook, dust, wash dishes, play “mommy” or “daddy” etc.
  • point to four or more body parts
  • put together a simple two-piece puzzle
  • use chairs to reach things

The two-year-old can

  • categorize faces, animals, and birds according to their individual characteristics
  • draw a circle, line or V after watching
  • look for ways to work new toys
  • name pictures of familiar objects
  • nest boxes, cups or stacking rings
  • put together simple puzzles
  • show a basic sense of time when told ‘later” “soon” “not now”
  • understand consequences of actions – physical (if I push a button, the light goes on) and behavioral (if I cry, my mother will come)
  • understand the concept of one

By three the child can

  • draw a person
  • build with blocks in all directions with the intent of making towers, trains, buildings, etc
  • understand in, out, in front of, under, over, etc.
  • turn pages of a book one by one
  • make inferences about new members of a category
  • remember personally meaningful experiences
  • enjoy displaying his new knowledge

Giant Steps—Expectations in the Toddler Years is the first of a two-part series.
Go to Part 2.

References and Related Books

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (1998). Your Child: What Every Parent Needs to Know. Harper Collins
American Academy of Pediatrics. (1999). Caring for Your Baby and Young Child (Revised Edition)

Websites of interest:
National Parent Information Network
American Academy of Pediatrics
American Psychological Association
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry