Create a "Yes Zone" for Your Toddler

Girl toddler in striped shirt banging on pots and pans

My husband and I were new parents in need of rest. We filled our suitcases full of baby gear for our 19-month-old, Connor, and headed to my parents’ vacation condo — my parents’ very nice, very new condo. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But by the end of our first night, we were exhausted from chasing our curious, incredibly quick toddler around a house filled with our "no-no" responses.

“Don’t touch that." "Not that either.” “No, sweetie." "You can’t go in there." "Or there." After only a few days, I was desperate to get home.

As we left, Connor waved a chubby hand. “Bye-Bye, No-No.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

I know that my inquisitive little boy wasn’t intending to spoil our weekend. He was simply experiencing a significant learning phase, demonstrating a level of curiosity natural for his age. Research shows that neurological growth occurs most rapidly during the toddler years, with the brain doubling in size in the first year and reaching 80 percent of its adult volume by age 3. A toddler’s intense interest in her surroundings during this period helps build the foundation for processing information and future academic achievement.

Curiosity can, however, lead to trouble. For example, a 2-year-old has no intention of angering the family dog — he is simply interested in learning more about that long, funny thing swinging from its backside — but the word “no” must be introduced and often repeated.

So what’s a parent to do? We don’t want to thwart cognitive development, but we need our kids — and our stuff — to be safe. We want to honor our children’s God-given drive for understanding, but we are also commanded to teach the concept of obedience. The key is balance. Balance between yes and no. Balance between can and can’t. Balance between don’t touch and please touch. Try these simple ideas to get started:

Free to move:

Because a child’s gross-motor development (crawling, walking, balancing, climbing) is directly related to later learning ability, opportunity for physical movement is a must. Your little guy climbing on chairs isn’t out to scare you; he is learning to expand his gross-motor skills. Pay attention to the kinds of activities you find yourself saying no to. Does your child need a place to climb? Or an area to throw balls? Look for cues about your child’s needs, then find a space in your home or yard where you can create a “yes zone” for that activity — fill it with soft balls for throwing, moving boxes for stacking, couch cushions for jumping.

Get messy:

Generally speaking, clean is good. Clean teeth, clean laundry, clean house. In early childhood, however, getting messy is important. In a study of more than 70 toddlers, researchers at the University of Iowa found that children who touched and played with their food learned more than their less messy peers. It’s not always easy watching your little one fill his pockets with sand, rocks, sticks and dirt, or cover her face with pudding, but it is important. Say “yes” to messy as often as possible, and welcome your little one’s valuable exploration. At the same time, your toddler isn’t too young to begin understanding where messy belongs — and where it doesn't. Place a basket or bucket at the door where your child can deposit muddy shoes. Have a laundry basket on hand where your child can help put messy clothes before they end up spread across the floor.

The 'Yes' Tub:

Toddlers love to play wherever you are working. So designate a "yes" tub, bucket, cupboard, basket or bottom drawer in every room. There may be lots of "no-no" objects in a home, but toddlers quickly learn where the approved bin of plastic bowls, rubber spatulas and other safe "yes" items can be found.

Hearing “no” is part of life. When your child is headed for dangerous situations like a busy street, an electrical outlet or a mug of hot coffee, “no” is in their best interest. But pay attention to how often your “no” responses outnumber the times you say “yes.” Then be proactive about striking the right balance.

A portion of this article first appeared in the February/March 2015 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was titled "The 'Yes' Tub." If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Thriving Familya marriage and parenting magazine published by Focus on the Family. Get Thriving Family delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.

Copyright 2015. Kathryn O'Brien. Originally published on

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