Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Interacting (13 - 24 Months) – Exploring and Experimentingclick to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Carrie Gotzke and Heather Sample Gosse, University of Alberta

In their second year, children busily explore and experiment with objects, people and their own actions as they learn about their world around them. Their play becomes more complex and they show interest in a wider variety of objects including books. Young toddlers use their increasing self-awareness and expanding ability to communicate through gestures, imitation, and words to direct the course of interactions. They are developing a better understanding of the rules of conversation. Routines and play help young toddlers develop their interaction skills.

Toddlers’ Interests and Abilities That Support Interaction

Twelve- to twenty-four-month-old children have a wide variety of interests and abilities that support their interactions – even apart from their expanding verbal skills. They continue to show interest in people and objects and are more interested in books. Their expanding self-awareness also influences how they interact with others. Gestures and imitation continue to play an important role in their interactions with caregivers.

Interest in People

By 15 months of age, children look for adults when left alone. If her parents left her alone in her room even briefly, fifteen-month-old Avery quickly came toddling out to find them. By 18 months of age, children explore the reactions of people around them. Max repeatedly threw his sippy cup on the floor when his extended family was visiting. He seemed to be deliberately testing to see what everyone’s reaction would be. He quickly learned that his nan and poppy happily picked it up for him.

Around 21 months of age, children often show a decided preference for their caregivers. They may tightly hold onto caregivers around strangers. When 23-month-old Avery met her great-aunts for the first time, she clung tightly to her dad. It took some time before she was willing to sit and play with her great-aunts.

During their second years, children also begin to look for new ways to interact with their friends and family. Max developed a variety of new ways of interacting with others. Sometimes he would bring the person a favorite toy as an invitation to play. Other times he would tug on their pant leg and say “hey” to get their attention. Occasionally he would even run up and hug them!

Interest in Objects

Exploration is an important part of learning. During the 12 to 24 month period, children explore their environment by touching, pushing, pulling, and lifting. They may seem like they’re into everything!

Twelve to Eighteen Months

Between 12 and 18 months of age, children explore the properties of objects and experiment with different ways of using them. They use a trial-and-error approach while experimenting. For example, at 15 months, Avery received a new shape-sorting toy where each piece fits through different holes. Avery spent several minutes trying to put the ball in each of the holes before she was finally successful. Later, she brought the ball to the bathtub with her where she discovered that it would float!

Fifteen-month-olds explore by fingering objects. These young toddlers are now able to pick up small objects using a “pincer grasp” (with thumb and forefinger). As they can also deliberately let go of objects, a favorite activity may be picking things up and giving them to caregivers. When outside, Max loved to pick up small pebbles and give them to his mom. Sticks also become objects of interest and may be used for retrieving and exploring. Young toddlers may also push toys and use toy phones appropriately. Avery thought her mom’s cell phone was also a toy. She loved to press the buttons, hold the phone to her ear, and say, “Hi. Hi.”

Eighteen to Twenty-Four Months

Around 18 months, many children become able to carry objects with one hand, while throwing objects with the other. They also begin to show an interest in fitting objects together and filling containers. Before this time, they were typically interested in separating objects and emptying containers. While Max once enjoyed dumping out the laundry baskets, at 18 months he tried to fill them with all of his toys! Eighteen-month-olds may also show an interest in feeding dolls and imitating caregiver object use. Avery had a toy broom that she uses just like her mom – to “sweep” the floor. Eighteen-month-olds have also developed object permanence - the awareness that objects exist even when they cannot see them. As a result, they will continue to search for an object even after it has been hidden or moved multiple times. After his parents put his new music toy away, Max looked and looked for it. His mom finally gave it to him when she realized he was starting to get frustrated.

Twenty-one-month-old children may enjoy matching objects with their owners. When Avery found one of her dad’s hats lying around the house, she would take it to him. Toy telephones, dolls and trucks are favorite objects for play at this age. These young toddlers will also pull caregivers over to show them things. When playing at friends’ houses, Max frequently pulled his dad over to show him the new toys.

By 24 months, children can match familiar objects and are increasingly able to predict where familiar objects may be located. Avery liked to put all of her hairbrushes on a little table in her room. If one of Avery’s hairbrushes was missing, she would check the bathroom and the diaper bag to find it. Twenty-four-month-olds also like toys that create a lot of action. Max loved to play with a ball, running and trying to kick and roll it. These young toddlers will also engage in pretend play using objects. Avery took an old shoebox from her mom’s closet and used it as a bed for her doll. Two-year-olds have quite a well-developed understanding of object permanence. They will search for objects even if they don’t see them being hidden. Max knew that his dad had paperclips somewhere in his office because he’d found them before and had them taken away. Whenever he was at his dad’s office, Max tried to get into each drawer and container, searching for the paperclips that he found so interesting.

Interest in Books

As their fine motor skills develop and their attention spans increase, young toddlers begin to show more interest in books. Their activities with books are important first steps towards learning to read. By 18 months of age, children are able to recognize pictures in books. Like many other toddlers this age, Max enjoyed pointing to a picture in a book and saying “Wassat?” to his caregiver.

By 24 months of age, children may pretend to read books and are able to turn pages independently. Avery would sit down with a book and turn the pages as she “read” aloud using a mixture of real words and jargon. These young toddlers may also recognize when pictures in a book are upside-down. If Avery sits down with a book and opens it upside down, she will turn the book around until the pictures are right side up. Twenty-four-month-olds are also able to hold crayons and scribble circles and lines. Using crayons to make scribbles is an important early step towards learning to write. Avery enjoys “writing” on birthday cards for family members with a mixture of scribbled circles and lines.

Increasing Self-Awareness

When they were babies, children learned that they can influence others’ behaviors. At 16 months of age, they explore this ability by ignoring or delaying their responses to requests from their parents. When Max’s parents told him it was time to go upstairs, he would go for one last run around the living room before heading to the bottom of the stairs.

Young toddlers’ self-awareness is also expressed in their growing understanding that objects have owners. Eighteen-month-olds become possessive of their toys. Avery, at eighteen months, now says “mine” when other children try to play with her toys. By 22 months of age, children use more words when trying to defend their toys from others. For example, twenty-two-month-old Max tells his younger friends, “Not for you,” when they try to touch his favorite train.

With their increasing independence, young toddlers may refuse help with many self-care activities such as undressing or feeding themselves. Max used to allow his mom to feed him most of his applesauce. At 18 months of age, he insisted on feeding himself - even though he didn’t get much of the applesauce into his mouth!

By 21 months of age, children will often reply, “no”, to parental requests. The use of no may become an automatic response, with young toddlers saying “no”even when they want what is being offered. At this age, Avery became very caught up in saying“no to everything. She got quite upset when something she actually wanted was taken away.

Use of Gestures

In the 12 to 24 month period, gestures may be used in association with words for specific purposes. To indicate a request or demand, young toddlers often reach and vocalize. For example, at 16 months, Avery would raise her arms towards her mom and say, “Up,” to ask for help going up stairs. To name something around them, young toddlers often point and vocalize. For example, on walks, 17-month-old Max would point to things he saw and name them – like, “Car!” and “Doggie!”

Between 12 and 18 months of age, children become better able to put gaze, gesture and vocalization together. Beginning at 12 months, children gesture while looking at the object of interest. They do not look at their communication partner. On walks, 14-month-old Max looked intently at the thing he was pointing at and didn’t look to his mom. Gradually, young toddlers change this pattern and look at their partner after gesturing and vocalizing. This pattern of behavior helps toddlers make sure that their communication has been received. By 16 months, Max followed his gesture and vocalization with a look back to his mom to make sure she was paying attention. By 18 months of age, children look at their partner while either gesturing and vocalizing or performing two coordinated gestures, like waving and pointing. On a trip to zoo when he was 20 months old, Max looked back at his parents when he saw each new animal, pointing at the animal and saying, “Oh! Oh!” These types of behaviors suggest that young toddlers have learned that they need to get their partner’s attention and to consider both the topic and their partner for communication to be successful.

During their second years, children develop symbolic gestures, such as panting like a dog, and functional gestures, such as eating from an empty spoon. They will also use more typical gestures like pointing. Gestures are used to support young toddlers’ speech and in place of words that are not in their vocabularies. Functional gestures also demonstrate young toddlers’ understanding of an object’s use. Avery developed a functional gesture to request that her mom turn on the CD player. Avery would point to the CD player and then do a little dance. Although young toddlers vary in the frequency and type of gestures they use, they all gesture during interactions.


In their second years, children develop new ways of gaining their caregivers’ attention through imitation. Young toddlers are able to imitate behaviors that are different from their own. They are like little mimics. Fifteen-month-olds may “dance” to music, imitating their caregivers’ hand movements (e.g., clapping, waving). Max’s family enjoyed playing different types of music to see how Max would dance to different rhythms. Eighteen-month-olds may imitate the caregiver doing housework such as sweeping or vacuuming. If the broom closet was left open, Avery would grab the broom and begin to “sweep” the floor, dragging the broom along behind her or pushing it back and forth in front of her.

Between 18 and 24 months of age, children begin to imitate the behaviors of others long after they first observe them. This kind of imitation is called “deferred imitation” and demonstrates their increased attention span and memory. For example, twenty-month-old Max went to a children’s concert where a drummer played a drum that he held between his knees. Several days later, Max found his toy drum and began playing it in the same way. Because they are able to produce more sounds, young toddlers are also able to imitate more sounds than in the previous year. Avery liked to imitate singing and by 22 months, her “singing” sounded more like the singers on her favorite CDs.

Interacting Through Conversation

In the 12 to 24 month period, children become more skilled at communicating. Their increasing self-awareness and independence is an important factor in their developing communication skills. They are also developing a growing understanding of the rules of conversation. Young toddlers are now using speech to communicate a variety of messages. Their increased skills allow them to truly engage in conversations with caregivers.

Understanding Conversational Rules

In their second years, children show a growing understanding of the rules of conversation. They begin to respond more frequently, take turns speaking, and start new topics. Twelve- to twenty-four-month-olds also start to understand what information needs to be included in conversations. They are also learning how to respond when they are not getting their message across.

Responding to Speech

As babies, children learned that they should respond when their caregivers’ talked to them. Young toddlers are more likely to respond with action than speech. For example, Max would often give his mom a toy that she had been talking about. Gradually, toddlers respond more frequently to caregiver speech with speech of their own. Over time, Max started to repeat the names of the toys his mom was talking about.

During their second years, children respond more frequently to “what” and “where” questions than to other questions or comments. For example, when Max’s grandmother asked, “What is that Max?” 14-month-old Max held up his toy and vocalized. When getting ready to go out, Avery’s mom often asked, “Where is your hat?” and 17-month-old Avery would run to find it and bring it to her mom.

Because young toddlers respond, it is easy to think that they understand more than they do. Young toddlers may in fact just be responding to a single word that they recognize rather than everything their caregiver says. Caregiver gestures and the situation provide young toddlers with clues about what is being said. For example, Avery was used to putting on a hat before she left the house. When her mom said, “Where is your hat?” Avery’s response may have more to do with her understanding that she and her mom were about to leave the house than her understanding the actual question.

Taking Turns

By the time they are two years old, children appear to understand that people take turns in conversations. They also seem to understand that what they say should build on what their conversational partner said. At twenty-four months, Max was able to have the following short conversation with his grandmother about the toy he was playing with:
Max (holding up toy horse): “See Nan!”
Nan (looking at Max): “I see Max. A horse.”
Max (moving horse along the floor): “Go ‘orse.” (looks at Nan)
Nan: “Your horse is running.”
Max (jumping horse over toy fence): “Up ‘orse up!” (looks at Nan)
Nan: “Good jumping!”
Max (smiling): “Yay!”

It is important to note that young toddlers may not always understand everything that they hear. This incomplete understanding may lead them to respond in ways that may not be appropriate. They are still practicing turn-taking which is an important conversational skill!

Introducing a New Topic

The way that young toddlers introduce new topics changes as they develop. In their second years, children start to introduce new topics using words instead of just using actions. At first Avery let her mom know she wanted to go outside by bringing her shoes to her. By 18 months, Avery pointed to the door and said, “Go!” insistently.

As they get older, young toddlers become increasingly successful at introducing new topics. There are also changes in the type of topics they introduce. At first, they seem to want to only talk about themselves. For example, when 15-month-old Max got a bruise on his knee, he wanted to talk about it with each new person he met – pointing to it and saying “Ow.” Next, young toddlers introduce topics about objects around them. Seventeen-month-old Avery started a conversation with her mom about her dad’s clock radio by bringing it to her mom. By 18 months of age, children will begin introducing topics about things that are not present. During the day, Max often came to his mom, looked over at the front door, and said, “Daddy?” In this way, Max let his mom know that he wanted to talk about when his dad was coming home.

Knowing What Information to Include

Twelve- to twenty-four-month-old children exhibit understanding of presupposition - knowledge of what information needs to be included during conversation. Researchers have determined that young toddlers use the following rules to determine what information needs to be included during conversation:
1) An object that the child does not have must be labeled.
2) When the child’s object has been named, the child will talk about the action of the object.
3) If an object and its action have already been described, the child will describe any other features of the object (e.g., size or color).

The following conversation between Avery, age 17 months, and her babysitter, Amanda, shows how Avery applied these rules:
Amanda: (spinning Avery’s toy top)
Avery: (reaching for the top) “Top!” – Rule 1: First name the object.
Amanda: (handing Avery the top) “Yes, top.”
Avery: (spinning the top) “Go!” – Rule 2: Talk about the action.
Amanda: “Yes, go top. Spin.”
Avery: (pointing at the spinning top) “Pretty!” – Rule 3: Talk about another feature.
Amanda: “Yes, the colors are pretty.”

Repairing a Conversation

Over time, young toddlers become more aware when their messages have not been understood by caregivers. When caregivers do not understand their message, young toddlers may respond by saying it a different way (e.g., using a different word order; “Mom up” instead of “Up mom”) or adding a gesture (e.g., holding arms up). Alternately, they may change the words in their message (e.g., “Up Mom” to “Go up”). Finally, toddlers may just repeat their message. Researchers call these different responses conversational repair strategies. For example, at 16 months of age, Max vocalized when he wanted his cup. Sometimes his dad did not understand. Realizing his dad was not doing what he asked, Max pointed and vocalized again. With the pointing added to the message, his dad understood and gave Max the sippy cup.

At 12 months of age, children are typically successful at communicating their message 55% of the time. Their success rate increases to 72% by the time they are 18 months old.

Communicating for Different Functions

Using increasingly clear communication, twelve- to twenty-four-month-old children are able to introduce and maintain topics. They are also able to request information and predict and describe. These young toddlers now use language to socialize with others. Researchers have found that what young toddlers say during interactions may serve any of the following six functions:

1) Control – making demands, protesting, and giving directions (e.g., saying “Mommy up” to demand to be picked up)
2) Representation – naming, labeling, requesting information and discussing objects and events (e.g., saying “Nan go” when talking about grandma leaving for home)
3) Expression – expressing emotions and attitudes, including protests such as no and mine (e.g., saying “Oh wow” to express surprise)
4) Social – including calling and greeting (e.g., saying “Hi” to friends)
5) Tutoring – practicing using language and pronouncing words without expecting a response (e.g., talking to him or herself while playing with toys)
6) Procedure – calling, requesting information and directing attention (e.g., saying “Look Dad!” to get dad’s attention).

The frequency with which young toddlers communicate using these different functions changes over time. For 15-month-old toddlers, over 75% of all communications serve representational, expressive and procedural purposes. By 21 months, more of what young toddlers say serves control functions, while fewer of their communication serve expressive functions. During the 12 to 24 month period, few toddler utterances serve social or tutoring functions.

Contexts for Interaction

During their second years, routines continue to be an important context for children’s interactions with others. Young toddlers’ play becomes increasingly complex and varied in this period. Play now provides an additional context for interaction with caregivers as well as with peers.


Routines that were developed in the first year around daily activities such as bath time and meal time continue to help establish young toddlers’ sense of order and time. During routines, actions and talk are organized and predictable, providing them with clear and consistent information about the sound and meaning of what is said. Routines also provide information about turn-taking and rules for interactions. Once young toddlers take a more active role in routines, caregivers change to a more supportive role. For example, when getting baby Avery dressed, her mom would pick out Avery’s clothes and then would sit down beside her and show her the clothes. At 16 months though, Avery decided to take a more active role. She started by going to the closet and trying to pull some of the clothes down off the hangers. Realizing that Avery wanted to help, her mom started to offer her choices in the clothes she would wear.

By the end of their second years, children are able to predict routine behaviors. They continue to try and change the course of routines with their behavior. By 22 months, Max knew that it was bath time when his mom got a towel from the closet. Realizing that after bath time was bedtime, Max would run away and hide in the family room when he saw his mom getting a towel.


Toddler play also changes over the 12 to 24 month period. At 15 months of age, children may begin make-believe play. Avery liked to pretend that her toy bear was a baby, putting it in a toy crib to sleep. Fifteen-month-olds also typically enjoy being chased. Max loved it when his dad would chase him out to the kitchen in the morning. By 18 months of age, children are able to play by themselves. For example, Avery would play with measuring cups and wooden spoons while her mom made supper. Most eighteen-month-olds require the support of an adult to play cooperatively. Max could build block towers with an older cousin but only if his dad helped him to take his turn. Twenty-one-month-olds will independently play near but not with other children. When Avery went for a play date at a friend’s house, the two girls would play in the same room but with different toys while their moms talked.

Twenty-four-month-old toddlers engage in parallel play during which they play with the same toys or share the same activity but do not interact. Max and his friend, Tyler, would sit side-by-side in the sandbox and dig in the dirt but they wouldn’t talk to each other. During the 12 to 24 month period, children also begin to engage in symbolic play in which the toddler uses one object to represent another. For example, at 16 months, Avery borrowed a shoebox from her mom’s closet to use as a bed for her toy bear. Researchers have also found that young toddlers who develop symbolic play tend to make more progress in language than those who do not.

Play and language seem to develop together. Ten- to thirteen-month-old children who use single words and those that are not using words have different play routines. Young toddlers who are saying words tend to engage in conventional play with “animate” objects such as dolls or action figures. Young toddlers who are not using words are more likely to play with toys such as blocks. There are also differences in the play routines of children who produce word combinations and those that say single words. Young toddlers who are combining words often combine two or more play sequences (e.g., rocking a doll and putting it into a bed) and may repeat an action with a group of objects (e.g., putting each toy car into the garage one at a time). Single-word users do not combine sequences or repeat actions.

Sample Gosse, H., & Goztke, C. (2007). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Interacting 13 – 24 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 8. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development