Infants and toddlers are natural born movers and shakers. After they learn to confidently walk, it doesn’t take long before they are darting off in every direction to explore their environment.
Your child, who once happily sat in a baby carrier or rode along in a stroller, now wants to get in on the action, walking (or more likely running) through the store or at the park. Keeping your toddler in arm’s reach becomes more challenging as they seem to grow faster by the day.
If you’d like to teach your toddler to stay close to you while you are out in public, there are some strategies you can try to keep them from wandering away.
The world is still very new and exciting (and distracting!) to a toddler. During this stage, toddlers are also exercising their independent streak, walking where they want to go, not where you want them to go. Other times, it’s simply the thrill of the chase! They think: “Chase me! Chase me! What a fun game!”
It can be tempting to wait out this period in your child’s development and limit outings until your toddler learns greater self-control, but it’s better to step out from time to time. Without opportunities to practice staying close, wandering is likely to continue even through the later toddler years.
Teaching Toddlers to Stay Close
Decide on some short outings that you feel comfortable taking with your toddler. A short walk around your neighborhood or through a park is a good start.
- Start with short, 5-minute trips.
- Avoid taking the walk when you or your child are tired or hungry.
- Explain where you are going and what you want your child to do: “We are walking to the mailbox, you need stay close with me as we walk there.”
- Praise your toddler for staying close.
- Keep the walk interesting by pointing out things you see, such as birds or flowers. Your conversation has the added benefit of keeping their attention on you.
Teaching Through Play
A great game to help toddlers practice listening skills and taking directions is to play a “freeze” game” like “Red Light, Green Light.” It’s easy to play at a park or in your backyard. You could cutout two circles, color one red for “stop” and the other green for “go” (even do yellow for “slow down”). The goal of the game is to teach what the words “go,” “freeze” or “stop,” and “slow down” mean and what you expect your child to do when you say those words. For more instructions on how to set up the game, click here.
What to do About Wandering
If the temptation to wander is just too strong, have a plan in place for handling the behavior:
- “Jillian, freeze. You are too far away. Come back to me, please.” If they go where you can’t see them, you can tell them, “Stay where you can see me.”
- If they return, offer praise for good listening.
- If they wander, move quick to get them: “You are not staying with me. You need to hold my hand for the next 20 steps.” Hold their hand firmly for 10 steps, then lessen your grip for the next 10.
- Have an “always” rule that they must always be holding an adult’s hand when they cross the street, so they don’t bolt out in front.
- For safety in a parking lot, have your toddler help you by holding onto the car, so it won’t “roll away.”
Some older toddlers might respond to “quiet time” as a consequence if they are unable to stay with you while walking. For quiet time, have your child sit on a nearby bench or in the grass for a short amount of time. Generally, when using quiet time, parents remove their attention and sit close by. For safety reasons, when outside, stay close to your toddler to make sure they don’t bolt out of quiet time.
After quiet time is over, try continuing your walk for a little longer. When you get back to your home, talk about how the walk went, offering lots of praise for staying close.
If your toddler needs a little more motivation to stay with you while walking, bring along some small stickers or a stamp. In the beginning, give them a sticker or stamp every 30 seconds, then gradually increase the time between receiving the reward.
You may have heard about child harnesses, which a child wears like a backpack and has an extended leash on it. If other methods of helping with wandering aren’t successful and you are worried about your child’s safety while out in public, the harness is something to consider.
This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com). Parenting Now! is passionate about happy, healthy families. For more information about Parenting Now! please visit their website (https://parentingnow.org/) or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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