Toys can act as tools of inspiring autonomy.

Activities for Building Initiative in Toddlers

by Damon Verial

Have you ever met a toddler who insists that mommy help him tie his shoes when he is totally capable of doing it himself? Is his reason for doing so to save time for the group in a sort of pseudo-communist-ideological fashion? Likely not. It’s more likely that this child lacks initiative -- the motivation to actively and spontaneously engage in behavior himself. Luckily for moms of such children, engaging your toddler in certain activities can help him grow his initiative.

Activities for Inspiring Improvement

When a toddler learns something new, she loves to show her new skill off to mommy. While the pride she takes in her capacity can drive self-esteem, you may soon find her addicted to doing the same activity over and over. One aspect of initiative is wanting to overcome new challenges and grow your skill. Engage your toddler in activities that are actually challenges, increasing the difficulty as she completes them. An easy activity of this sort is a set of puzzles of increasing difficulty. Give your toddler a simple puzzle to complete, giving her harder puzzles after the simple ones. Show her that you’re proud of her improvement each time she completes a puzzle of a new level. You may soon find her asking for new puzzles, implicitly knowing she’s looking for a new challenge.

Activities of Personal Relevance

Toddlers are naturally passive in terms of achieving personal goals. As most moms know, toddlers are 99 percent reliant on having mommy do everything for them. Part of encouraging initiative is showing that certain actions lead to goals of personal relevance. Although puzzles and other tasks may challenge a child, the completion of a puzzle does not change the toddler’s obvious environment. Show your child that upon completing a goal, he can obtain something important for him. An easy way to do this is by showing your toddler a toy he loves or a new toy. Cover the toy up or hide it -- whatever is more age appropriate. Encourage your child to uncover the toy, and upon his doing so, allow him to play with the toy. This activity shows the toddler that he cannot always rely on mommy for what he wants.

Activities for Inciting Effort

Initiative and effort are as intimately related as mother and child. Without effort, initiation means nothing. Moms perhaps understand this more than any living demographic. Activities that allow a child to exert effort to achieve a goal can help the child realize that actively pursuing a goal is more effective than giving up. Engage your toddler in an activity that encourages effort. Many of these activities can be simple motor skill activities. Fill an empty milk jug with clothespins. Demonstrate to your toddler that by shaking the milk jug enough, clothespins will fall out. Ask your child for help in emptying the milk jug and continue the activity until the milk jug is empty. You can start out with just a few clothespins and add more in future activities, increasing the difficulty this way.

Activities for Boosting Autonomy

Sometimes a toddler just needs to act without limits. Activities designed by mom are great for encouraging initiation within a certain set of boundaries, but initiation for individual decision-making is an integral part of a growing toddler. Let toddlers develop their sense of autonomy by designing activities that look like they were not designed by mommy. Put your toddler in a situation in which you know she will spontaneously start playing, pretending or using her creativity. Something as simple as bringing a child into a playroom filled with toy telephones and puppets is enough to animate her. As she walks away from mom and toward the toys, know she’s doing so of her own accord. Smile, knowing that you’re engaging your child in an activity that requires no effort on your part -- sometimes moms just need a break!


  • The Nature and Nurture of Learners; Meryl Englander
  • Intentional Teaching; Ronnie Dawkins, et al.

About the Author

Having obtained a Master of Science in psychology in East Asia, Damon Verial has been applying his knowledge to related topics since 2010. Having written professionally since 2001, he has been featured in financial publications such as SafeHaven and the McMillian Portfolio. He also runs a financial newsletter at Stock Barometer.

Photo Credits

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