What Does A Two Year Old Need?

Dr. Corinne Masur

In a recent Dear Prudence column, a mother asked if she needed to move her 2 year old from the day care the child was currently attending. It was a daycare the mother had chosen – a small in-home day care with a loving director and two warm assistants, where the children played all day with the exception of some organized story time and song time. The mother’s mother-in-law was insisting that the child was not getting enough academic stimulation.

Well, what DOES a two year old need? Does a toddler need academic stimulation? And for that matter, does a toddler need socialization with other children? Is it better for a toddler to be at home with a caregiver or, as some people think, is it best to be in day care or pre-school where socialization with other children is a part of every day?

From a developmental point of view, the 2- or 2.5-year-old needs a few things: love, attention, limits to keep him or her safe, and the opportunity play freely.

A two year old does not NEED to be with peers all day.

A two year old does not need academic instruction.

The job of a two year old is to explore his or her little world, to get to play with different materials, whether they are pots, pans, toy cars, baby dolls, duplo blocks, sand, dirt, rocks, water, crayons and paper, stuffed animals or whatever else is available. The two year old can be stimulated by a walk down the sidewalk or a trip to the grocery store. A two year old likes to help clean the house or to stir the cake batter. As long as the toddler is with a loving, caring adult who keeps in mind what is best for that toddler, the two year old is fine.

Anyone who holds that two year olds NEED preschool is wrong. The attention of a mother or a father or a loving caretaker is sufficient for a toddler. Occasional get-togethers with other children are nice. But at age two, a child is not capable of real reciprocal play. A two year cannot REALLY play with someone else. They cannot share. They should not be EXPECTED to share. They cannot LEARN to share. They are just not ready. They can play next to another child. They are interested in other children, especially older children, but they cannot be expected to share toys or space.

At two, a child needs a parent or a caretaker present to help him or her protect him/herself from the advances of other children. If a two year old is playing in the sandbox with a beloved toy car and another child comes along and wants to play with that car, the best response is NOT, “oh why don’t you let this nice little girl play with your car? It’s GOOD to share.” The best response is, “I’m sorry, Jodi is playing with her car right now, maybe you can find something else you’d like to play with!” The two year old is territorial. He or she KNOWS what is hers/his and will want to hang onto it.

Often, grandparents – and even parents – think that their toddler NEEDS certain things to get ahead in life and to be prepared to excel in school later on. Some people think these things include early literacy training, early math training, and early socialization.

But let me set the record straight. From the point of view of a child psychologist, familiar with child development: If you talk to your child frequently during the day, if you read to your child several times a day, if you take your child to different places and talk to your child about these experiences, if you keep in mind how your child feels and if you allow your child to play freely some each day and to play with you some each day with the child leading the play, your child is getting what he or she needs. Preschool with an academic program is NOT necessary at two. Preschool in general is not necessary at two. If it works for you to have your child in preschool because you work or because you need a break, that’s perfectly fine. But your child does not NEED to be there – no matter WHAT grandma says!

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