Toddlers and literal thinking

If you ask Baby, “what’s up?”, does they give you a run-down of the things that are on their mind and agenda this fine day, or does they turn their eyes to the ceiling and start making a list? If they are a little more on the literal side, they're not alone. Toddlers are known for being sometimes-frustratingly literal-minded, and the fact that that’s how their minds work is reinforced by the fact that they’re still learning language, so when they hear unfamiliar expressions, sometimes literal understanding is the only kind of understanding they have.

Why are toddlers so literal?

Baby may be a lot bigger, and know a lot more, than when you first met them, but in the grand scheme of the things, they are just getting started. This means that they are still working on understanding the world around them: the things they can see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. It’s only natural that they might not be quite ready to start making connections between the physical experiences in their day to day life and more figurative language.

Language is another thing that might be getting in Baby’s way of being less literal – they may be a total chatterbox compared to themself this time last year, but they are still fine-tuning their vocabulary a little. Figures of speech are a little more next-level than the words they might be learning now, but it’s all a part of the process.

The first clue that this literal stage might not last forever comes when babies and toddlers start to experiment with imaginative play. Your little one starting to mime “feeding” their stuffed animals might not seem like a step away from their kangaroo-hop when you tell them to “jump in the tub,” but it’s a sign that they are starting to make connections between literal, physical things and bigger concepts. This doesn’t mean that imaginative play is the end of the literal stage, which can last through a significant amount of childhood, depending on the child’s personality, but it’s a start.

In the meantime, toddlers may be confused by common expressions or figurative language, and may follow the letter of your request when you ask for something from them, instead of the spirit of what you meant. Asking Baby to pick up their  toys might get their blocks up off the floor and into their hands, but you still might have to ask them to follow through on putting them back into the box they came from, at least the first few times. Luckily, it’s not all down to time and chance – you can help Baby develop the tools they will need to start understanding figurative language better.

Helping your toddler understand figurative language

Literal thinking can go hand in hand with rigidity, and toddlers love their routines, so switching things up now and then can help Baby get used to thinking more flexibly. Besides providing some variety to their routines, though, talking to them is probably the best way to help them get familiar with more figurative expressions.

Ways of talking like jokes, songs, and stories are great ideas for introducing wordplay and double meanings. Jokes, especially, are a great place to start with figurative language. Toddlers tend to think the unexpected is funny (when the unexpected isn’t scary), which is why so many of them enjoy slapstick or physical humor. Puns and jokes are fun ways to introduce the idea that words can mean more than one thing, and they’re simple enough that they’re probably in Baby’s language and understanding range.

Talking, reading, and singing to Baby can help lead the two of you out of the literal years, but that’s mostly just because all of these things help build their language skills in general. As they grow, their language skills will grow, too. For now, though, you might still be stuck explaining even some of the most casual pieces of figurative language – so hop to it.

  • Katie Hurley. “Flexible Thinking: How to Encourage Kids to Go With the Flow.” PBS. Public Broadcasting System, April 8 2016. Web.
  • Caria Poole. “Ages & Stages: How Children Use Magical Thinking.” Scholastic. Scholastic, Inc. 2017. Web.
  • “Age-by-age insights, Preschoolers: Ages 2-5.” PBS Parents. Public Broadcasting System, 2003-2017. Web.

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