Wandering Woes – Encouraging Your Toddler to Stay With You

As soon as babies are mobile, they start to explore their environment. When they become walkers, they graduate to being a toddler – and it’s a whole new level of  wandering around. Wandering can occur on shopping trips, playgrounds, or on a walk through your neighborhood. In a blink of an eye, a toddler can dart off or find a good hiding spot. It’s no wonder that safety and careful supervision are concerns for parents at this stage of parenthood.

Some parents find it challenging to balance encouraging their toddler’s growing independence while also keeping them safe. In this article, we discuss why toddlers wander and what you can do when it happens.

Why Toddlers Wander

Toddlers are excited to learn about the world and explore everything around them. Toddlers learn by doing; they learn with their whole body. Being able to touch, play, or smell objects is an important part of that experience. If your toddler sees a colorful leaf on the ground or a squirrel running through the grass, they are going to want to see it up-close.

Another reason toddlers wander is to practice their newly found independence. Instead of being held, they may want to walk on their own, or even walk ahead of you. They are beginning to practice being separate from you, and to see themselves as a separate person. They may want to “see what happens” when they wander away.

When your toddler walks away, you will often notice them looking back at you. This is their way of maintaining the connection they have with you, and lets you know they are securely attached. This is important because their attachment to you lays the foundation for all the relationships they will ever have in their life. As a parent, you are their secure base. When your toddler wanders away, they are trusting you will be there for them. Our job as parents is a balance of having open arms, encouraging exploration, and being the safe, secure place for our children.

Many parents think that their toddler may be wandering to get a reaction from them. In a way this is true, but they are not trying to be disobedient;  the underlying developmental task is more complicated. Some children enjoy being chased after, and suddenly their wandering turns into a chasing game! They don’t yet understand that there are dangers in the world that they aren’t yet able to negotiate for themselves. They enjoy engaging you in this fun game. Your toddler may also be looking for your reaction when they wander off: “Will my Dad be surprised?” “Will mom make a funny face?”

What You Can Do

If your toddler’s wandering has revved up lately, don’t give into the temptation to just stay home and wait this stage out. Your toddler needs safe ways to practice the skill of staying close to you when you ask, as well as safe ways for them to play and explore independently.

You can start practicing this skill by planning a series of short trips in safe places such as small neighborhood parks or quiet streets. You could start with a short, 5-minute walk through Owen Rose Garden or Hendricks Park.

  • Try to plan these practice trips during a time of day when your child is content (avoid nap time, or just before a snack or meal).
  • Tell your toddler where you are going and what you would like your toddler to do: “We’re going for a walk in the rose garden. Remember, you must stay where you can still see me while we are walking.”
  • While on your walk, give your toddler lots of positive feedback when they walk with you or hold your hand.
  • As you walk together, point out things you see or hear, such as plants, birds, rocks, or bugs. Make a game out of it, such as “I Spy.” The idea is to keep them engaged and interested in interacting with you.
  • Find safe opportunities for your toddler to explore freely and walk (or run) at their own pace. A big open field where they can still see you from a distance often does the trick.

You can also help your toddler practice following simple directions like “stop” and “wait for me.” A game like “red light, green light” helps them learn to control their bodies with their mind, rather than their impulses. Or you can take turns saying “stop” and “go” and sometimes your child gets to give you directions to follow.

If your toddler is wandering away, you may want to try “having a rest” on a bench, and explaining to your child that the walk can continue when they are ready to walk with you. You may also want to insist that your toddler hold your hand until they are able to stay close on the walk. All skills take practice, and it’s OK to practice another day

As your toddler gets more experienced at staying close on short trips, you can try practicing longer trips, or in different settings, such as the library.  Over time, with patience and practice, you and your child will become experts at navigating new adventures together safely.

This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis, and Lynne Grilley. 

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