The power of redirection – how to say YES to your toddler!
Delicious baby giggles permeate the air. You do it again; you sprinkle more rice onto those tasty toes. Their tiny hand grasps their own handful of rice and you wait with baited breath for them to reveal their genius and copy you. Then, they hurl that handful of rice- with the accuracy and strength of a professional athlete- right into the eyes and mouth of the baby sitting next to them.
We have all been there.
But what do you do? This isn’t a one off. Throwing is fun. And baby, and toddler brains aren’t yet able to empathise with another child’s pain. Nor do they have the impulse control to stop themselves from doing something fun, even if they know it’s wrong. Did you know that your pre-frontal cortex- the area of your brain that controls impulse control- isn’t fully developed until your mid twenties? You also have the tiny problem that a toddler’s impulse control has zero effect when it comes to their emotional response. Once these big emotions take hold, they simply do not have the ability to stop or calm themselves like you or I.
So really. How do you stop young children from doing something they want to do?
First things first, try to move away from “no.”
“We don’t throw rice,” sounds remarkably like, “We throw rice,” In fact, if anything, you just confirmed what they did. Have you ever seen a mum tell a child not to do something and watched their sibling do exactly that? “Thanks for the great idea, mum!”
Repeating what a child is doing is a fantastic way to build a child’s vocabulary and build on their intrinsic motivation. It encourages the child to do the thing more. When children are learning language, they struggle to pick individual words out of a sentence. Have you ever listened to another language and tried to pick words out? We talk fast. Some of our little one’s first words are chunked phrases, like “thank you.” They don’t yet know that ‘Thank’ and ‘you’ are separate words.
Instead, tell them what they CAN do. You will have noticed that at Messy Monkey messy play sessions, it is a free play environment where the children can flit from one activity to the next, or stay in one place for the entire session. We love to show our children all the wonderful things they can do rather than what they can’t do. This is a type of redirection.
Using the throwing of rice as an example, you could continue with your previous activity,
“We can sprinkle the rice. Look. Sprinkle the rice. You sprinkle the rice. Sprinkle, sprinkle, sprinkle.” A big smiley face and a cheerful, sing song voice goes a long way. You want your future shot put Olympian to think that sprinkling the rice is a much more fun occupation than tossing it into another child’s eyes and watching them cry.
Repeating single words out of the sentence helps them to pick that word out and recognise its meaning. If they continue to throw the rice, show them every other thing under the sun that they can do with the rice, that doesn’t involve throwing. And if that fails? Get them something they CAN throw.
“I see you want to throw the rice. You can throw these soft balls. Throw the balls. Ball. You can throw the ball.”
I wish I could tell you that this is an easy fix and works every time. I can’t count the number of times my son has been doing something and for the life of me, I can’t think of anything to redirect his behaviour to. The wonderful news is, that during a messy monkey messy play session, there are a wide range of resources and activities to help you to redirect!
Another common problem we hear from parents is that they put everything in their mouths. What was your baby’s first food? Be honest. My son’s first food was a handful of grainy sand and old stinky seaweed when he was 4 months old. During a child’s oral phase, they have an intense need to explore the world with their mouth. Everything goes in there. Despite what they lead you to believe whilst floundering on their stomach like helpless little fish, babies are ninjas, capable of lighting fast reflexes, with an iron clad grip. This is the reason that all messy monkey’s ingredients during a messy play session are completely nontoxic and allergy safe. Despite this, eating a large quantity of anything can make us a bit poorly. It happens to the best of us. Every time I buy a ‘sharing’ size bar of chocolate, for instance.
Which is why, we recommend you redirect your ninja baby when they decide that consuming the entire tray of mashed potato is the order of the day. Redirecting a baby’s natural impulse to suckle is perhaps the hardest to redirect. It is, after all, instinctual.
For those who aren’t yet walking, getting them onto their feet and dancing in the mess is a great way to redirect them. Make up silly songs or sing our messy monkey songs. Our class leaders are always up for a sing song. Watching your mouth move can help with that need of oral fixation. Using our tools, you can help them recognise different parts of their body by sprinkling or smearing the mess onto them and naming the body part. The new sensation may catch their attention enough to redirect them away from their tasty new snack.
The last “no” I hear a lot of is “No running.” Our little ones hear it constantly. No running indoors. No running on the pavement. No running in the bath. Don’t run off the end of the bed…. They want to move. It’s a relatively new skill. Consider the running ability between an 8-year-old and a 3-year-old. 8-year-olds are fast. I now understand how the artful dodger evaded the police so well. Seriously. I don’t recommend playing tag with any child over the age of 4. (Should the subject of tag come up with any child faster than you, a quick redirection of “Hide and seek,” should do the trick. You go hide and I’ll seek the wine.) My point is, they want to practice this every chance they get.
Therefore, running, for the sake of running is another impulse our little ones struggle to control. So don’t fight it. Embrace their need to move their body in a fast and challenging way, and then change the challenge.
“The floor is really slippery. If you slide your feet, can you feel it?” We name the danger so they can infer the reason for the change, “I bet it would be really easy to slip and fall on this. Instead of running, can you slither on your belly like a snake? Or hop on all fours like a rabbit? Can you crawl like a bear?”
Make the new activity fun and engaging. See if they can come up with their own ways of getting from a to b that don’t involve running but are still fun. I’m not going to lie. Your child will probably be the one who decides the next best way to go from a to b is to get their superhero cape on and somersault across four tuff trays and a baby. This is why we also recommend you open up a conversation about some fun and safe ways to move. Have them tell you, or show you under your careful supervision, what they think. Showing you value their opinion and allowing them to have their own ideas is super important. It really builds our little one’s self-confidence!
Building the confidence of the next generation is something Messy Monkeys are passionate about. Imagine how empowering it would feel to always be told what marvellous things you can do. Let’s open their eyes to the endless possibilities…
Our guest blogger is the wonderful Cayley from who runs classes in Andover and Basingstoke – look out for more clever advice to come over the next few months! MMHQ x