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Communication in Context: SECOND YEAR OF LIFE 12-24 MONTHS


1-2 toddler










Communication in Context: SECOND YEAR OF LIFE  12-24 MONTHS

The second year of life is an exciting time in development where the important capacities formed in the first year can now be built upon. The foundational work from the first year, including attention, regulation, intentional communication with gestures and first words must be set for the next series of steps in communication development that occurs within the second year – solving problems, playing symbolically and combining ideas and words.


12 -18 months – Problem Solving and Early Symbolic Play

Between 12 and 18 months of age, toddlers are building on their previously mastered gestures and early language skills. Now they have progressed to problem solving, a much anticipated new ability which is highly important in relationships and communication. Toddlers at this stage are learning to communicate with their bodies in longer sequences of gestures sounds and movement and with great persistence. For example, if the child wants to try on the parent’s glasses, and is not yet able to say the words “glasses” he may grab his parent’s hand and pull them downwards to get them to lean over. If he still can’t reach the glasses, he may point upwards to indicate what he wants. If the parent doesn’t understand or refuses the request, the toddler may gesture to be picked up and try to reach the glasses himself while grunting. If the parent again refuses, the toddler may come up with yet another way to solve this problem by dragging a chair over to the parent and climbing up to reach their face.  This ability to sequence, think and problem solve is crucial in language and social development.


Problem Solving

In this clip, a 17-month-old is able to solve a problem when his ball disappears under a bench. He looks to his adult for assistance, communicating with facial expressions. But then he is able to think through and pair the correct motor movements in the correct sequence to get the ball himself. He is also able to follow simple directions from his mother when he needs a bit of help. The look of pride on his face and exclamation of “Got it!” after solving the problem on his own shows that this step into independence is delightful for both him and his parent.



All of this communication is precipitated by social interaction. It requires the toddler to take in information and adjust oneself to the situation. Social situations are constantly changing. Therefore – children are constantly problem solving and figuring out what to say and do based on what’s happening.


First Symbolic Play

In the following clip a 15 month old is exhibiting his first foray into the world of symbolic play with a toy airplane. Note his simple use of gestures to make the plane fly, the noises he makes to imitate airplane sounds, and the one-word approximation he uses for “plane.”



This ability to be symbolic in playing with an item is another major stepping stone to good comprehension and strong use of language. Words are symbolic – they symbolize our thoughts and the thoughts of others. Children continually learn and practice symbolism in their play and this important ability must continually build throughout toddlerhood for functional language to progress.

The development of gestural language, symbolism and problem solving emerges in tandem with further development of spoken language. At this age, children are saying, on average, 15 different words, many times labeling favorite items or people in their environment. They are also making requests, such as “more,” verbally protesting not just with sounds but with words and use language to talk about when things are “all gone”. They are starting to pick up and use words easily and may begin asking simple questions such as, “What’s that?”.  The social use of language expands and toddlers begin to use words to show and request items, call attention to themselves as well as greet and close.

 In terms of comprehension abilities, toddlers are showing even more understanding of spoken language and can often complete two simple requests at a time. They begin to show that they understand categories, action words and some familiar prepositions. This is also an age where toddlers typically enjoy interacting with books, and often learn new words through interacting with their  parents while enjoying pointing to items of high interest. This intersection of social development and language development continues to build and becomes more evident.

 At this age, toddlers typically begin to develop a sense of self and their own agency. You can see this in the type of play they engage in. Children begin to change what they are doing to then judge how their actions affect others and the environment. They are constantly exploring how their bodies move through frequent gross motor experiences such as climbing, jumping, sliding and running. Children begin to show symbolic use of objects and they begin to explore toys in novel ways. Their imaginative play at this stage often involves using realistic or real items to perform a pretend action on themselves (i.e.. lying down on a blanket and pretending to go to sleep.). High-interest toys such as cars, trains or dolls may also become common at this early stage of pretend play.


18-24 months – Pretend Play, Combining Ideas and Words:


Between 18 and 24 months, the toddler’s understanding and use of symbols has developed. This exciting cognitive milestone leads to an even greater ability to think, communicate, problem solve, and play.  A 2-year old child has a growing number of ideas, evident in her play scenarios. Sometimes the play involves two toys used together, an innovation common at this age.  She may also have a wide variety of interests and a curiosity about how others are playing. Children are now able to pretend to do actions with which they are familiar and to use toys within those interactions.


Pretending with Toys

In this clip a 20 month old shows simple familiar pretend play when he pretends to go to sleep and he pretends his stuffed monkey is going to sleep, too. The importance of being able to act out plans and ideas in play is implicit in further steps in the play, including jumping like a monkey and moving the monkey in tandem with making monkey sounds.



Again at this stage, learning continues to take place within the parent-child interaction. Throughout the play, the child is making eye contact with the parent to see if she is watching and to see her reactions. The child’s play shows his basic understanding of what monkeys are and what they can do – jump and say “ee-ee”. When the parent adds to the child’s current ideas, he easily takes in and integrates that information.


This growing ability to use symbols in play leads to a greater ability to use language. Two year olds are also beginning to use their verbal language more socially. They interact with others through early, simple conversations with adults. Their ability to reflect on things they’ve experienced or seen also emerges now. Now the child can more easily name what he wants and state his desire to his parent verbally: “My toy!” or “Want glasses.”. Additional language milestones in development include using early pronouns, following novel and two-step-related commands, and putting at least two words together to create phrases and early sentences. Combining words is highly important language milestone that occurs when the child is linking ideas and can symbolically express them. Toddlers frequently combine words with creativity to express their burgeoning ideas and desires. Common language combinations include various connections of agents, actions, objects, locations, possessives and attributes.


Joining Toddlers’ Pretend Ideas

In this clip, a 23 month old is pretending to be a mouse with his father. Note how the back and forth interaction includes words, gestures and a sharing of ideas. Also note that the toddler uses “dada wear hat” as a creative way to request that the father wear the mouse ears and join in with his idea to pretend to be a mouse.

At this stage in development, toddlers are also noticing peers more and often are beginning to make overtures to other children through smiles, trying to hug or giving items to them whether they want them or not. When conflict occurs with another child – usually over toys they both want – the toddler often acts out impulsively and physically but can usually calm down when an adult intervenes. This ability to accept and benefit from mutual regulation from a trusted adult is another crucial foundational step in learning to communicate and interact with others.


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