It's easy to underestimate two-year olds; their diminutive size will often disguise their abilities. Adventurers and explorers extraordinaire, they are also imitators and investigators who delight in active, imaginative play.
They are also wordsmiths in the making. Between the second and third birthdays, their working vocabulary includes 300-400 words. The number of words they actually understand, however, is closer to 1,000. Just what factors play into the developing mind of two-year-olds and what they understand?
While they may not be able to put all their thoughts into words, two-year-olds understand a great deal of what they see and hear in the world around them. For this reason, their facial expressions and attempts to verbalize what they feel are both important. It is during this stage they begin connecting two or three words to form a sentence such as "I go bye-bye."
There are other times, however, that pointing, jabbering, or squealing seem to be the easiest form of expressing oneself. If your two-year-old sees her favorite toy out of reach, she may pull you toward it, pointing and jabbering until you figure out what she wants.
Your little one also understands what you are saying about him (or others) when he hears you talking. For this reason, avoid discussing problems or frustrations (or birthday secrets!) in his presence. Your tone of voice, the names you mention and the topic of discussion are usually understood.
Imitation: mimicking others ~ Your two-year-old understands what goes on around her and will imitate others. When big brother is doing homework, she'll crawl up to the table and scribble, too. If you're at the kitchen sink, she may pull up a chair and try to assist you. After a trip to the grocery store, your daughter enjoys "shopping" in your kitchen pantry.
Young children also imitate the way we interact with others. Watch how your son leans forward to listen and looks you in the eye. He may copy-cat your own comforting methods by patting you on the back, and offering a band-aid for your boo-boos. He will also mimic your conversations by chattering to his stuffed animals.
At age two, children recognize people and places by connecting them with past experience. Drive by the golden arches, and they remember they like "appy" meals. Pass the mall and they'll visualize the carousel inside. When Grandpa drops by, they may dash off to find a book or toy connected with their last visit.
Little ones also recognize familiar things you've seen in their story books. They can point out the right object when you ask: "Where is the giraffe? Where is the monkey? Where is the elephant?" Reading books together encourages your son to pretend to "read" on his own later while looking back over the same book.
Your two-year-old understands certain actions and their meanings. Start gathering up your keys and briefcase and you'll hear "bye-bye!" before you're out the door. Plop down in your favorite chair after work, and you may be handed the TV remote. On cleaning days, pulling out the vacuum cleaner may provoke "I do it!" or "No noise!"
Two-year-olds gain understanding through experimentation. It's important to provide your child with wooden blocks, nesting cups, bouncy balls and stuffed animals. These items are considered "divergent" playthings, meaning they have more than one purpose. "Convergent" items, like puzzles, have only one purpose: find the right solution.
Playing with basic toys - like blocks and nesting cups - helps two-year-olds gain fundamental math concepts and problem-solving skills. Blocks teach lessons about weight, stability and balance. Tossing a ball not only requires visual tracking, it teaches spatial awareness: How far away it is when it lands? Logical thinking comes into play: How far must I throw it to reach Mommy?
Nesting cups help your child understand size relationship: Which cup fits inside the other one? Later, if those same cups end up in the bathtub or sandbox, your daughter learns about volume: How much sand or water will I need to fill the cup? Encourage your little one to experiment and give her a basis for understanding math and science concepts in grade school and beyond.
Two-year-olds understand the concept of time in broad terms. Past events, whether last week or last year, are all "yesterday." Anything scheduled next week or next month will happen "tomorrow." In another year or two, your son will understand that each day is divided into morning, afternoon and evening - and that days make up weeks, months and years.
Your child also understands the if-then concept. This is an important step toward learning what is acceptable and unacceptable: If you take a nap, then you'll feel better. If you pull the cat's tail, she'll scratch you. If you drink the rest of your milk, you can go play. If you dump your blocks again, you have to pick them up.
Another part of processing information occurs by trial and error. Two-year-olds will attempt to put square blocks in round holes many times without success. While it's tempting to correct them, let them work it out unless they become upset and frustrated. Only then should you demonstrate the proper way, then let them to try it on their own. They learn best by trial and error.
Never underestimate your two-year-old. What you see on the outside is growing quickly, yes. What you don't see - your child's mind - is developing at a much faster rate. Your child learns about life through communication, imitation, experimentation, recognition and cognition. As they explore and investigate, children learn. As they learn, they develop understanding. Be assured of one thing: when two-year-olds understand, they gain all they need to succeed in life!
(Adapted from one of 24 parenting articles I've written for Helium.com -- The photo above was taken on a visit to the Tennessee Aquarium and Butterfly Garden in Chattanooga, TN ).