Open Ended Questions for Toddler Learning: How to Talk to A Toddler

Page content

The Independent Toddler

Sometime after a baby’s first birthday, the world opens up and that baby becomes a toddler. Toddlerhood begins with the urge to walk and along with it, independence. This period of independence can often be a trying time for parents and teachers of toddlers, as well as the child herself. Never has the link between motor development and emotional development been as evident as it is in the toddler years.

The time period between a child’s first birthday and their second birthday is chock full of motor and language development milestones. During this period, open ended questions for toddlers are just one way a teacher can ease the transition from babyhood to the toddler years. Toddlers are capable of understanding more complex language, yet not quite ready for higher level preschool communication. Keeping these subtle differences in language development in your mind when speaking with toddlers will ensure that the activities you provide for language will be developmentally appropriate.

Toddler Language Development

It is important to understand basic toddler language development when discussing open ended questions for toddler learning. At one year, toddlers will be able to understand and respond to one-step requests. Asking a toddler for a toy may result in a pointing gesture, or the child glancing in the direction of the toy. Other appropriate responses may be a nod, or even clear refusal to get the toy in question. All of these responses show that he clearly understands what you are asking, and all are developmentally appropriate ways to respond to a question.

Toddlers begin speaking by repeating words and phrases. Usually, many toddler words are indistinguishable until the child is closer to his second birthday. Pointing and vocalizing are important ways for toddlers to communicate. When a parent or teacher responds by saying the word of the object the child is pointing at, the child may repeat the word. This is a very important first step to clear spoken language.

Speaking Toddlerese

Much toddler language learning is best achieved in a one on one situation. This does not mean that learning does not take place in a toddler classroom. Quite the opposite is true. Toddlers in a classroom with their peers will often mimic older children’s speech patterns and phrases.

When reading a book to a toddler, it is best to choose a book with very short sentences. Toddler attention spans are somewhere in the vicinity of three minutes or less, and many toddlers will balk at the idea of sitting still for that long. It is important that adults pay attention to toddler cues that they are becoming restless and need to move their bodies. Not doing so can result in frustration for both teacher and toddler alike.

Find teachable moments during the day. If a child is involved with turning the pages of a board book, observe for a minute. If the toddler pauses on a page, you may say “Wow, Logan, what do you see on this page?” The child may answer with a grunt or a point. In this instance you will need to provide the words for him. “That’s a strawberry! I see the strawberry, too! What else is on this page?” He may respond with another point or vocalization. This is an invitation to continue the game. If the child becomes disinterested, do not push. This is his way of saying “I played the game with you one time. I don’t feel like playing anymore, please.” As the child matures and gets closer to his second birthday, their answers may become more involved than just a point or a short vocalization. Be sure to take your cues from the child. Give him a chance to respond either verbally or through gestures.

Creating inviting spaces for toddlers to explore will make them comfortable with their environment. When toddlers are used to their surroundings and feel safe there, they are free to explore and develop at their own pace. As toddlers become comfortable with their caregivers, their use of vocalizations and spoken language increases. Use these milestones in development as building blocks for creating enticing activities for toddlers to participate in.

The key to open ended questions for toddlers is patience. With a baby close to his first birthday, you may be doing most of the talking. As the child matures, though, their language and understanding will increase, opening up a whole new world for him and you.


“Touchpoints: Birth To Three”; T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.; 1992