As most moms can attest, "toddlers" and "listening" don't exactly go together like peanut butter and jelly. Toddlers focus on learning, growing and becoming more independent -- and being "all ears" isn't always a top priority for this set. Games that require listening provide a means for your toddler to boost this essential skill. "The key is to make a game interactive, hands-on and fun," says Lee Rushton, an early childhood educator in Roslindale, Mass.
Rushton suggests playing "Freeze Dance" with your toddler and a few buddies or sibs. How to play: Choose a song on your MP3 player or the radio and have the kids dance. Hit pause or turn down the sound every so often, and have everyone hold still when the music stops. When the music starts up again, this is a signal to the kids that they can start to boogie once more. "Sneaking a lesson into a fun activity allows for easy teaching and quick learning," notes Rushton. "This is a great game with simple directions for children who may have difficulty attending to or following along with social games." Something to keep in mind: "Freeze Dance" can cause little ones to get a bit wild in their excitement, so consider alternating fast and slow songs to keep the dancing frenzy at bay, she suggests.
Another appropriate choice for toddlers is to play sorting games, which teach attention, a key component of learning to listen, Rushton notes. "Set the child up at a table with different-colored beads, foam shapes or stickers, the cards from the classic game Memory, or even just pieces of construction paper cut into kid-friendly squares," she suggests. "You can set out paper plates with a visual cue for sorting. Mark the middle of the plate with a color, shape, or category clue -- think waves for an ocean, a barn for farm animals, etc., and then give a verbal cue such as, "OK, can you put all the red beads and stickers where they go?' or 'I see you put the police car, monkey and elephant together. Can you show or tell me which one doesn't belong?'" If you'd like to make a sorting game more interactive, Rushton recommends setting up bins or baskets around the room with a visual category cue on them and having tots run around to each as they sort.
The Hat Song
If you're looking for an excuse to exercise your pipes, try singing "The Hat Song," with your toddler and a few others, which naturally makes kids want to tune in and listen. All you need: a hat, but preferably one toddlers will find enticing, such as a play fireman's hat or a colorful sombrero. To play the "The Hat Song" game sing: "Mommy has a hat, whaddaya think of that? She takes off her hat and gives it to... ." Here you insert the name of a child in the group. This simple song keeps kids listening and attentive because they all want a turn with the hat. It can get a bit boring for adults, but toddlers can keep playing this forever.
"Red Light, Green Light" is also an effective listening game for toddlers. A quick refresher on this schoolyard favorite: Have toddlers line up at a designated point. When you say "green light," they run forward, and when you say "red light," they have to stop, requiring them to listen closely for the key words "green" and "red" that tell them what to do with their little legs. "If you use visual cues -- a red and green piece of paper will do -- it has an added social component since the child has to actually look at the person giving the directions. Kids also tend to love this game because they can all take turns being 'leaders' and 'followers,'" Rushton notes. Another similar game toddlers can't get enough of: Taking a walk together around the yard or neighborhood and singing "March, march, march, we're marching our feet, March, march, march, we're marching down the street, and then ... we ... STOP!" This marching game helps toddlers learn to listen for cues to stop at intersections or for cars going by, she observers.