Toddler Readiness – The Beauty of Waiting

When my daughter was 2 ¾ she told me she wanted to ride a merry-go-round. I never figured out where she got the idea, but she loved books and must have seen a merry-go-round somewhere in one of them.

We picked a day to visit the classic carousel on the Santa Monica Pier and talked about it for days ahead of time. We imagined the experience – choosing a horse, the music, fastening seatbelts, riding up and down, round and round, holding onto the shiny brass pole.

When the day finally arrived and we parked in the beach lot near the pier, I unfastened her car seat and she stepped outside. We looked towards the carousel building a good hundred yards away she murmured wistfully, “I hear the music from here”.  Stunned, I heard nothing. It wasn’t until we entered the building a few minutes later that I finally heard the music too.

This began a magical day that only got better. The merry-go-round was everything my girl had hoped it would be. Since she had initiated this idea herself and had spent time imagining every detail, she embraced the experience completely.

The carousel confirmed lessons I’d learned through infant specialist Magda Gerber

Wait for readiness.

Sharing the activities we loved as children is one of the joys of parenting, and naturally, we can’t wait! We don’t always have the patience to hold off on the carousel or Disneyland, movies, the zoo, whatever… But when we are able to postpone an activity until our child has the opportunity to initiate interest, or at least say yes and be old enough to actively participate, i.e., walk Disneyland, choose rides, recognize characters, and fasten seatbelts rather than be carried or strolled, the rewards are great.

Generally, the longer we can hold off, the more our child will gain, because the more participatory and “on top of things” toddlers feel, the richer the experience. We are inclined to forget how easily our toddlers become over-stimulated and overwhelmed.

Prepare…perchance to dream.

Preparing our children for new experiences encourages them to participate as actively as possible. When children have the opportunity, for example, to read the book and/or hear the music before going to a show, they eagerly anticipate the event and are ready to savor every aspect. It’s literally a dream come true. Toddlers love to predict what will happen and then be “right.”  And the preparations for any activity are usually as enjoyable and educational as the event itself.

Balance outings with home time.

I envy the energy and organizational ability of parents who manage to schedule lots of special activities with their children. But I believe children gain more from experiences when they do them less often and have more time to assimilate them. Toddlers need plenty of time to “do nothing” at home so that they can absorb, reflect and learn from the events in their lives. They need time to invent play that helps them understand and process the things they’ve been exposed to that might confuse or disturb them. I’ll never forget my 3 1/2 year old scrubbing the floor for days — just pretending, unfortunately — after watching her first Disney movie: Cinderella.

Never underestimate the power of imagination. When we do less and wait for readiness, we encourage it.


I share more about this approach in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting 


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I love this post! Time and again our children invite us to to slow our pace and become more present so we can enjoy the slow movements of our souls too. Then life turns into dream come true.

  2. Another great post Janet. We have yet to take our kids to Disneyland and for some odd reason, we kind of feel like we are depriving them. But…they are 3 and 5..I don’t think it’s time yet.

    When others hear we haven’t taken them yet they seem surprised. We are waiting until we are all ready 🙂

    Readiness applies to so many aspects with our children. Thanks for pointing this out 🙂

    1. I’m so glad that I can be someone who assures you that you are not depriving your children at all, but only making the experience better and richer the longer you wait. I LOVE Disneyland, and really love taking someone for their first time…especially when they are old enough to really appreciate it!

  3. I call this moving through life at childspeed. I think we can all benefit from this even if we don’t have children!

  4. I completely agree, and love your way of thinking. We are travelling the world with our toddler at the moment, and having her with us has encouraged us to take it much slower than we ever have before, and we look for different things in our experiences today. It’s given us a new and refreshing perspective on travel, we get a much better feel of how the locals live, and it feels better suited to long term travel too. I sometimes worry that she’s missing out on all the activities that other toddlers are enrolled in, but your article was a nice reminder that all that doesn’t matter – thank you!

    1. Hi Suzi! No, she is certainly not missing out a thing when you are being sensitive to her pace…quite the contrary. Kudos to you!

  5. Bence Gerber says:

    time to grow, time to learn, time to anticipate and prepare for experiences – what a great gift to our children. perhaps they will remember the experience and live a less harried adult life.

  6. “They need time to invent play that helps them understand and process the things they’ve been exposed to that might confuse or disturb them.” I LOVE this, Janet. I’ve noticed my toddler ‘processing’ through play events or things that have impacted his world, things that he can’t discuss fully with me yet. It’s fascinating, and your article is a great reminder that all kids need time to create and ‘be’ in their own worlds – not just shuffled from one activity to the next 🙂

  7. When would you say is a good age for Disneyland? I’ve been debating this with my husband (and his mother). Our daughter is turning 2 and I’ve waited until she can appreciate it.

    1. Hi Emma! My personal opinion is that children who can’t “walk” Disneyland aren’t yet ready. (I know others will disagree.) So, I’d say 3 at the earliest. I couldn’t wait any longer than 3 with my first and it was wonderful, but she was very afraid of the characters in costume and (understandably) didn’t want to go on any “dark” rides. My youngest didn’t go until he was 5 and he went on every single ride and was completely engaged with every aspect.

  8. Thank you! My daughter is 4.5 years old and is this is exactly why this will be the first year she will trick-or-treat, because she has just started asking to do it. I did not encourage the holiday until she asked about it, and now she’s already anticipating, so I know it will be a meaningful Halloween for her. When she was only 9 months old people asked me what she would “be” and I explained, I wasn’t celebrating Halloween in costume until she could tell me what she wanted to dress up as, and this is the year!

    1. Oh, Angela, this will be such a rich Halloween for you. I love that you waited for her to understand it and get excited about it! Kudos!

  9. Elanne Kresseer says:

    I love the description of your daughter’s awe and wonder with the merry-go-round. While I’m not really a go-getter mom and so not at risk of taking my daughter too many places before she’s ready I certainly have things that I”m so excited for her to experience. I need to remember though that maybe Little House on the Prairie books aren’t going to be her thing (Oh heartache of heartaches!)

    Waiting happens in small ways too. My daughter has been enjoying playing with a large cardboard box. Mostly she hides in it and has fun crawling in and out. I cut some slits in the side of it thinking it would be fun for her to drop things through. Well for months she never even noticed those slits! And then the other day she finally did and spent about 10 minutes dropping something through and retrieving it. She had a great time and of course I was smiling. But she hasn’t done it again! Ha!

    Wondering though on what your thoughts are on critical windows of development especially for music. After much thought I decided to take my daughter to a Music Together class. She’s not talking yet so she couldn’t ask for it. But the decision was based on her love of music and dance and my understanding of critical windows for the brain to understand and integrate music in a fundamental way. As well I liked the way the class was offered such that it is the parents who sing and play instruments and the children are free to roam, sit with their parents and participate in whatever way they are moved to participate. In our class the teacher is sensitive and if a child is overstimulated she let the parent know to move to the edge of the room with them or to only stay for part of the class. Many other cultures, some that I have spent time in, are steeped in music and so have no need for an artificial situation in which people are making music together. But that is often absent from our culture. My own experience is that I was a very musically oriented child and my parents waited until I begged to play the piano, but at that point I was past the age in which the brain integrates music in this fundamental way. So while I became a skilled musician, I never felt the kind of fluency that people who were exposed at a young age seem to feel and embody. All that is to say that even though I value the idea of waiting until a child can ask for something I decided to go against that with this music class because to wait would be to let this window of musical language development pass. Curious to hear your thoughts on this.

    1. Elanne, it sounds like you are approaching this with care and sensitivity (which is not surprising knowing you!). I definitely believe that infant and toddler (and even preschool) music classes are totally unnecessary for children to develop a love or talent for music. I actually wrote about this when I first began blogging:

      If you haven’t noticed, I’m quite a purist about natural development. 🙂 I see infants and toddlers in my class spontaneously chirping and singing and creating “music” by tapping toys together or against the floor. I believe children hear music in the natural sounds around them…birds singing, breezes blowing through the trees, etc. They absorb every detail of their environment and are easily overstimulated.

      I think it’s also great for parents to play music that they enjoy, rather than to try to stimulate the infant or toddler. It’s wonderful to share a love of music with our children…play instruments, sing, dance… I love dancing! But I would not enroll a toddler in dance class, because I think lessons at that age actually discourage creativity and can even thwart the enjoyment of these activities.

      But if this is a class you and your little one like, direction is minimal, exploration and free play is allowed (instruments aren’t handed to children and then removed from their hands for the next song), it sounds good to me.

      Are you saying that you wish your parents had hired a music teacher for you when you were small? Or just had a piano available for you to tinker with?

      1. Elanne Kresseer says:

        Hi Janet,

        Thanks for your reply. I really appreciate your commitment and devotion to supporting children to develop at their own pace. I think your purity, as you put it, provides a bedrock of support in a culture so driven in the other direction.

        It is hard to say what I wish my parents had done with me regarding music. It’s possible that had they done something else I would have another complaint! I certainly understand, more than ever, that as parents we make the best choices we can! I think though that I would have benefited from having a piano in the environment earlier for sure! Whether I would have benefited from earlier instruction is debatable. Maybe yes as I was terribly eager to learn and I don’t think my parents picked up on it. But maybe no as I do know many people who were turned off of music because of forced and misguided instruction, of which there is an abundance.

        I think what I would have wanted is an absolute impossibility given who my family was. And that is to have been exposed to and a part of people making music. In the end I wound up singing and playing piano for most of my life, but that was in spite of the fact that there was little of this at home. For whatever reason I came into the world with a pretty good understanding of music and, to some degree, retained it. I know many adults though who love singing but feel they can’t sing or who do have trouble holding a tune or a rhythm or hearing a harmony and it is a source of sorrow and pain for them. For me one of the greatest joys in the world is singing harmonies with other people. It transports me like nothing else. I understand other people’s longing and pain around music as I think it something that our minds, hearts and bodies are wired to engage with as evidenced by babies and toddlers responses to music and sound. It seems like something we are meant to do as much as we are meant to be able to carry on a conversation.

        When I was in various African countries I was deeply moved by the amount of music throughout the culture. I never met a person who couldn’t sing. And most everyone I met could easily break into singing with multiple harmonies. It was everywhere — on bus rides, in markets, at home, around fires, in bars — everywhere! Children grew up with music as integral to their lives as talking and breathing.

        So I think what I’m getting at with early exposure to music is a little different than other things including dance. It’s more like exposure to language. We know now that children who hear more language as babies and toddlers have more developed language and reading skills later in life. The same is known to be true for music. Children who are around people making music and allowed to participate in it have an understanding of music and it’s structure later in life that can’t be replaced by what they will understand if we wait until they are old enough to articulate a desire to be a part of something more organized. I wish that I lived in a world steeped in music. When I used to live more rurally beautiful music making was a part of everyday. But that is missing in my current life circumstances so opting for an organized setting where people are singing in harmony and playing instruments together seemed like a second best.

        Thanks so much for your thoughts and the dialogue.

        1. Elanne, I like the way you explain this…makes a lot of sense. And the exposure sounds wonderful, especially since you are both enjoying it… Good times together!

  10. Thanks so much for this one. This is such a great reminder, as my little guy tends to get rather overwhelmed. He is two, and my husband and I were just talking about when we think we might take him to Disneyland, but just after seeing how overwhelmed my little guy was at all the sights and sounds of Christmas chaos at the mall today has convinced me we will wait until he asks for it!

    1. Great idea, Julie. You won’t regret waiting (as hard as that can be!)

  11. I have mixed feelings on this one. We live in San Diego and have Zoo passes and have taken kids from the time they were very small. I think how it is introduced to them is the key. We also o trips to Disneyland 1-2 times a year and of course Sea World. The difference is that I’ve always adjusted for the kids. For instance, at the Zoo staying an hour or 2 is fine, because the children tire easily. We also don’t try to rush through. We spend lengthy amounts of time in areas. When someone is tired or done, we simply go home. (Benefit of being a member.) However, as they get older and can walk they cruise the areas they want, and eventually when they talk they ask for certain areas, or to go to the Zoo.

    At Disneyland, we don’t try standing in long lines. There are other things to do there. Knowing your child helps let you know if it is all too much and a quiet space is needed. If they are interested in a ride, we go on. If someone’s ready for a nap, I let them and stroll around the park. I understand if this is the big vacation someone has been saving for it is different, and the situation for the caregiver is different as well because it has to take too many personalities into consideration.

    I feel if you take kids out, do so on a time frame and pace appropriate for the age, with no real agenda. Then no one is upset.

  12. Niamh Ryan says:

    I love your article but am so sad seaworld is considered an acceptable place to visit, have you seen the documentary Blackfish? It is very enlightening best wishes

    1. Yes, Niamh, I have seen it… It is very depressing and I agree, I can’t bear to go there

  13. Hello Janet,
    When do you know when it is an appropriate time to “push” your child? Our 3.5 year old is incredibly intelligent and also incredibly sensitive, resulting in easy over stimulation and is very aprehensive around strangers (we do not use the word “shy” and discourage others from labeling her that way, but she gets so terrified meeting new people she will cover her eyes for an entire conversation or hide herself in my hair as I am her safety zone.) She asked for weeks about taking dance and after reading books, watching videos, and observing the class she will join (a very calm class with 5 other girls) we brought her in- she was terrified. I sat with her the entire class and she hid behind me, occassionally mimicking the moves but mostly watching. I was ok with that. The past two weeks she has cried about having to attend and subsequently cried for the entire class. Other parents have relayed that their children were the same and eventually loved the class. I have arranged play dates so she knows another girl who attends, let her choose her dance attire, and stayed by the door the entire class. Do I push her to attend? This is a segway into preschool ( I figured one hour a week is good practice foe when she will be away from me for 3 half days next fall) I have your book and absolutely love it! Thank you for your insight!

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