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Toddler Talk: Tracking Behavior

I often watch parents playing with their children and wonder if they feel comfortable doing so. Many times, parents are sitting with their children on the floor with toys spread out in front of them, but the child is playing and the parent is half-heartedly paying attention. It appears to me that without learning how to engage in a child’s play time effectively, it may be easier to just watch.

Play therapy offers three ways to interact with children while they are playing, giving you go-to options to connect with and communicate with your child. Tracking behavior is the most basic of the three skills, to help you know how to respond as your child plays. Tracking behavior is, essentially, “saying what you see.” This works regardless of whether your child tells you anything about the play or not. This skill is especially helpful for children who are not yet talking, or are not verbal during their play.

So, an example of how you might use this is as follows:

Your child takes out a bucket of blocks and begins stacking them on top of each other one at a time. You tell him what you observe, without interpretation or assessment. You might say, “You are stacking the blocks” or “You are taking them out one at a time.” Notice that you don’t assume that he is making a tower, since it could be rocket. You want to remain neutral in your tracking, only commenting on actions taken by the child.

Here's another example: If your child is drawing on some paper, you could say, “You are coloring with crayons” or “You are using blue.” Again, don’t say that she is making a flower (even if it looks like one). However, if after you track her behavior and she tells you that it is a flower, you can then use that in your tracking. This might sound like, “You are adding more colors to your flower.”

The benefits of tracking behavior are that children know you are in tune with their behaviors, realize that what they are doing is important to you, and can add information to fill in the gaps. Kids love to be experts and to have your undivided attention, so the more you comment about their actions, the more likely they are to disclose more about what they are doing and why in a teaching fashion. You become the student of their play, which in reality is what we want when we play with our kids—to be taught about what matters to them and how they have fun.

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