Yes, You Can Respond To Your Toddler’s Challenging Behaviors With Play (And See Huge Shifts)

Your toddler may stand defiantly at the sink and refuse to brush their teeth.

They may run from the table when you serve ANY food that isn’t starchy and white.

They may prefer to tip up an entire box of bricks when you ask them to tidy up instead of cleaning the 10 they had out.

There’s lots a toddler does not like to do.

But, do you know what toddlers always love to do? 


And knowing how to use that knowledge can feel like a parenting superpower.

After all, there are few things in life as delightful as the sound of a laughing toddler, that’s for sure. 

But did you know there are other huge benefits for the toddler who gets to laugh and laugh?  

Respond playfully to your toddler and see huge behavior shifts

Here’s what happened the first time I tried  to keep the laughter going, over and over again.

When I first started teaching preschool, I worked with young toddlers. I had a child in my class, Ellie, who was very timid.  She was hesitant to join the group in play, never wanted to get dirty, wet, or use messy materials, and was quieter than the rest of the children. 

She would wander off on her own when presented with a challenging situation, rather than stick around, stand up for herself, or dive in. While children’s temperaments can vary greatly, I could tell she was a bit stuck.

I could see she wanted to branch out, but just didn’t know how.  

One day, we were playing “Night Night, Wake Up” (a game where we pretend to be asleep, then pretend to wake up) which always brings squeals of delight from the children and lots of laughter. 

I was pretending to be asleep on a mat. While my eyes were closed, Ellie climbed on top of me, and I acted as though she had “woken” me up by sitting on my stomach. I sat up suddenly, opened my eyes, and said “Wake up! You woke me up!”

She laughed and to my surprise, pushed me back down. 

I let her push me, and pretended to be mad. “You can’t push me!” I said, and sat up again. 

She laughed again, and pushed me down again. I sat up again and gave a big silly sigh, and she pushed me down again, laughing a full belly laugh this time. We went on like this for a while. Every time she pushed me down, I gave a tiny bit more resistance but I always let her eventually win. 

After about 15 minutes, another teacher came over and said “Was that Ellie laughing? I never hear her laugh like that!” 

Play can clear stuck behavioral and emotional blocks

That afternoon, we took the kids outside where another class had left dirt in the sensory table. Much to everyone’s surprise, Ellie went right over and began digging in the dirt, laughing with joy. Another teacher rushed in to get a camera so that we could send some pictures to her parents.

 The next day, it was raining and there were puddles outside. Ellie would usually stay right by a teacher, but on this day she went and sat in a puddle! We laughed about how we, at long last, were going to get to use her extra clothes, since she was finally getting dirty!

I don’t know what made her so timid, but it was clear that for Ellie, getting to feel powerful loosened some the places she was stuck in her play. 

As I continued to encourage her to take the more powerful role in her play with me, she took my invitations and laughed heartily each time. She made solid gains in her confidence, taking more risks and engaging more and more with the other children.

After the experience with Ellie, I tried to Playlisten as often as I could with the toddlers in my care, letting the children playfully overpower me, trick me, and scare me. I would squeal and cower when they jumped out from behind bookshelves, playfully (and badly) run away as they chased me with the syringe from the toy doctor’s kit. I’d feign disgust as they pretended to try to get me to eat dirt and worms (don’t worry, no one actually fed me any worms or dirt).  

To some adults, playing with kids like this can seem over the top and too goofy. Worries pop up about raising our little ones to think they are in charge and they can make us bend to their will. 

Strangely, where Playlistening is concerned, the opposite is true. 

Stay with me here…

Play doesn’t reward bad behavior

Our children are both deeply curious about the world and deeply dependent on their connection to us. It’s a tenuous situation for anyone, but for these young ones who are learning how to be in the world, one that is not always so kind to them or their caregivers, it can be particularly confusing and hard on their little systems.  

Play is their language, and laughter is one of the greatest connectors there is. Combine the two, and it’s often just the tactic we need when a child is behaving in ways that aren’t working well. 

Wait, what’s that? 

Play, when kids are acting out?

Doesn’t that just reward their bad behavior?

That might be true if our children were slot machines or computers. But their complex and growing brains need to feel connected to us to work wellthis signals safety to them, and they can think much better when things feel safe

When we offer play and laughter to a child who is not doing what we’d like, we send a powerful message that says: “Yes, it’s not always easy to be two, figuring out how this big world works. I care about you, and I want to know how it’s been going.  Show me! I’ll listen.” 

A child who can sense that availability from us will almost always take that opportunity to “play out” fearful feelings, whether that’s an experience of being overpowered, the challenge of being away from a beloved parent, or how hard it is to be a “big toddler” now instead of a “little baby”.  

Far from rewarding behavior we don’t like, this is a way to set our children free from the FEELINGS, which is exactly what gets them stuck and drives that challenging behavior. 

They show us how hard it is with the behavior. We invite a playful response, and they really show us how hard it is! When they get to overpower us, to take back some control, we connect through laughter, their confidence builds and they can once again access their best selves. (If you’re curious, here’s the science behind this.)

This is why, when we have challenging behavior with a little one,  play is often the way through!

What Else Can Happen When You Playlisten With Toddlers?

One of my favorite things about Playlistening with little ones is how quickly they are willing to go from being stubborn to being delighted. That delight can pave the way to gentler interactions, more connection, and flexibility— yes, even in toddlers. I love how fast this can work with toddlers in particular. They are so new to the world, and so keen to explore, that this novel experience of power, playfully bossing an adult, and having opportunities for unbridled laughter, can turn problems around surprisingly fast.

Using play to set limits

Back in that same class I taught, the children were on similar, but not perfectly aligned nap schedules. And if you know toddlers, you know that getting them to stay quiet once they are awake is a losing battle. So while their classmates slept, we would take those who were awake out into the common areas to play.  

One day, Adrian and Rose, who were both about 20 months, had both woken up very early from their naps, and I took them out of the classroom. We went to a small stairway, with about 6 steps that led to a landing.  Both children were working on climbing stairs, and this seemed like a good, safe place to practice.  

There were two bags of rock salt at the top of the stairs. Adrian and Rose ran up the stairs, immediately touched the bags and said “Open! Open!” 

I told them that the salt was for when it snows, so I couldn’t open it now. They responded by gleefully exclaiming “Snow! Open! Snow! Open!” 

Their enthusiasm touched me and made me laugh, so I responded by playfully pulling at the bags then, saying “I can’t!” while falling over and looking sad in an exaggerated way. 

Adrian thought this was hilarious and went to the landing next to the bag of salt, said “Open!” laughed and fell down himself. Rose followed and imitated Adrian, while I responded with another dramatic, playful “No, I can’t!” at the bottom of the stairs. They both collapsed in fits of laughter and we did this over and over.

Back then, doing this in front of other adults made me feel self conscious but at that moment, it was just me and the children so I felt able to experiment freely. Nowadays, I don’t really care who sees, but if you feel strange being so silly, improv skills can help. This organization teaches parents how.  

When they had recovered a bit from the giggles, they asked one more time. “Open?” 

I gently told them “Not now, but we can go find something else to do.” 

They both turned around, crawled backwards down the stairs, and hand in hand pulled me down the hallway to the art area. We sat together and colored happily until it was time to go back into the classroom and join everyone else.

By setting the limit playfully, then leaning hard into Playlistening and allowing lots of time for laughter, we connected so well that they were able to accept the limit happily and be flexible enough in their thinking to find another enjoyable activity. They dived into the coloring with focused attention.

So, how is Playlistening different with toddlers?

Perhaps you’ve tried Playlistening with your older child, but aren’t so sure it will translate to a younger child. You might wonder if your toddler can “pick up on the joke” at such a young age. 

There are a few things to keep in mind that will help you be successful when you want to play like this.  

First, try to see the world how your toddler might see it. 

Their world is filled with new and exciting things that can seem mundane to us grown-ups. We do so much of these on autopilot. But slowing down and finding the places where toddlers are growing and learning is the key to helping Playlistening go well.  

So, what exactly are toddlers experiencing and how can Playlistening help?


Toddlers are learning how their bodies work and move in space, and how they can get them to do what they want. This is frustrating sometimes, so here’s where your clowning skills come in. Channel your inner “Mr. Noodle” from Sesame Street, and bumble and fall as your toddler laughs. You can watch one of the original actors from this role talk more about this here.


Everything is new, and everything is interesting. That box of tissues? Interesting! Your new computer speakers?  Interesting! But lots of it is off-limits, so finding a way to play with this is sure to delight toddlers. My daughter would routinely grab my headphones (strings and toddlers, not a good mix), and we had a lot of good laughs as I tried and tried, unsuccessfully, to throw them onto a high shelf. I would make a big show of saying, “These are for grownups, I need to put them away! I am big and strong, I can do it!” and then I’d toss them, they would land on my head, and I’d act confused and annoyed, but determined to try again. My daughter laughed and laughed at my incompetence and it greatly diffused the tension about the headphones being off limits—she even began to hand them to me and say “Put it up!” when she saw them laying around within reach.   


How do things feel? Many toddlers want to touch everything in sight, sticking their hands in water, jelly, sand, mulch, and much more. Finding ways to be pleased as they explore, and even letting them get YOU messy, is a wonderful way to help them really make the most of their experience, and also let go of some of the difficulty of being so small in a big world.  Let them dab a bit of yogurt onto your arm and act disgusted. Then they’ll do it again, and you can struggle to wipe it off, pretending the napkin doesn’t work. They’ll catch on! 

Autonomy and Power:

Toddlers are in a unique developmental place. They are learning what it means to do things for themselves, and often their desires are not quite matched with their abilities and the expectations of their caregivers. Try games that will allow them to “break the rules” and foil your efforts.

Daily activities (food, sleep, bathing, potty)

A toddler’s life revolves around activities in daily life, divided by the things that we do for them and what they can or will soon do for themselves. The push-pull of being cared for and learning to care for yourself can be a lot for little ones, but does give ample opportunity for play. 

  • At dinner, can you take a bite of food and miss your mouth? 
  • Perhaps you can put a clean diaper on your head when changing theirs?
  • Or, be very determined to put their socks on your ears while getting them dressed? 

See what gets them giggling, and you get to help them laugh away the tensions of toddlerhood.

Noises and startles:

The toddler world is full of new sounds and experiences, but often these things don’t happen on the toddler’s terms.  Being in daycare, for instance, often comes with the sound of other children and babies crying, sometimes many at once.  Going to visit the doctor presents buzzing, fluorescent lights, and sometimes, sounds of scary machines. Sirens on fire trucks and ambulances can be thrilling but, as they screech along without warning, can also leave children feeling jumpy and powerless. 

Try giving them opportunities to put you in their place. 

When I taught three-year-olds, they delighted in jumping out from behind bookshelves and cubbies to startle me. They would laugh and laugh as they scared me over and over again—they even conspired in groups to get the biggest jump out of me that they could. Allowing small children to team up against you is another great way to counter their feelings of powerlessness. 


For many toddlers, separating from their beloved caregiver can set off a storm of feelings. They are wired to seek closeness with the ones they love, because it is protective. But toddlers can do just fine with separations with a little play (and some Staylistening too).

Are you getting ready to leave your little one at daycare for the first time?

Or maybe just with a sitter for the afternoon?

You can reverse the roles at a time when they are feeling independent, and be dejected and desperate as they run away.  You can reach for them, say “Don’t go! Don’t leave me!” as they gleefully run away, and you just miss the hem on their shirt. 

They’ll come back around, and you can try again and again, always JUST missing them or catching them for a mere second, as they run away again, victorious. 

This game lets your toddler be in charge of the separation, and can pave the way for confidence as they move out into the orbit of other loving grown-ups. You can find many more ways to play around separations here.

How to get started responding playfully to your toddler

Are you unsure about how to begin this wonderful kind of play with your toddler? To help you find some good places to start, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is your toddler trying to learn or master right now?
  • What times of day are hardest for your toddler?
  • What ways can you take the less powerful role?
  • How can you use play to bring laughter and connection to moments of caregiving?
  • When are you likely to have the most patience to Playlisten like this?
  • What are some big transitions coming up in your toddler’s life? How can you use play to help smooth the way?

One of the best things about Playlistening is how it builds more fun and flexibility into your toddler’s experience and yours too. It’s deeply satisfying to be the person a toddler laughs and laughs with, and you’ll be surprised at how it can dissolve your tension as well.  

What do you think of these ideas? How might you squeeze a little more play into your parenting?



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