All toddlers catapult items from time to time. Some little ones seem to outgrow this “throwing phase” very quickly, without much effort needed to put a stop to it. However, other children seem determined to set up camp and live in this flinging phase for as long as possible.
So what is considered “normal” throwing behavior? Why are some toddlers obsessed with putting more food on the floor than into their mouths? And what is a busy parent supposed to do about it when this phase just doesn’t seem to end?
The Psychology behind the launching
As with most toddler behaviors, it can be helpful to learn why these little chaos machines do what they do. There are a few common reasons children fixate on throwing things, and contrary to how it seems some days, it’s not just because they want to make your life miserable. Throwing things is developmentally normal for young toddlers as they learn to use their bodies and explore how things work. Here are a few ways your tiny scientist might be experimenting with their world by hurling toys, food, and anything else they can get their hands on.
Maximum Effort Play
Shortly after learning to walk, children become very interested in doing things that require them to use all their strength. In the Montessori approach to learning and parenting, this need is referred to as “Maximum Effort Play” and includes activities like jumping, throwing, carrying heavy things, and pushing furniture around the floor.
This use of all their effort to exert control over their bodies and environment can make a newly exploring toddler feel really good about themselves. And it’s not just toddlers! If you’ve ever watched someone set a new record for themselves at the gym or in sports, you’ve seen the grown-up version of Maximum Effort Play at work.
Another reason your child might be tossing things around has to do with developmental milestones called “schemas.” Schemas simply refer to patterns of behavior that have been observed to take place in most children as they grow. Young toddlers are exploring the world around them through the “trajectory schema.”
Simply put, this means that they are really, really interested in how their body and the things around them move. “What happens when I drop this? What about if I throw it on the floor? What if I throw it at Mom’s head? Whoa! That was a big, exciting noise!” (You get the idea.)
Sometimes, kids are exploring more than their physical world. They also might be exploring their relationship to the other people in it, and what kinds of behaviors are and are not accepted. Toddlers have an internal need to find their limits and understand what will and will not be tolerated by their caregivers. As much as that frustrates us sometimes, try to imagine how it feels for them. These tiny cuties are literally learning how to “person” in real time. That’s hard work!
Three Strategies to help Curtail the Chucking
Understanding why your toddler is constantly throwing things is a great place to start, but what do you do now? Even though it’s developmentally normal for toddlers to throw things, it’s also normal for you to not want toys flying through the air at your face or food being flung onto the floor at every meal.
1. Provide Safe Options. aka: Throwing Alternatives
Providing appropriate options for movement and experimentation can help your little one fill their need to explore without hurting anyone or breaking household items. Present the idea of pushing chairs across the floor, climbing on play structures, carrying rocks or sticks around the yard, or helping you carry grocery bags are all examples of Maximum Effort Play.
For little ones who are excited about the way things move, try setting up a safe throwing area with soft balls or toys with baskets to aim for. You can also encourage age-appropriate movement activities such as rolling, rocking, jumping, and sliding. Dropping things into containers made of different materials is another fun way for little ones to safely experiment with the trajectory schema.
2. Redirect, Redirect, Redirect
No matter how many outlets for movement and play a toddler has, there will be times they throw things they shouldn’t be or make frustrating messes. It’s important to be consistent in your reaction to behaviors that aren’t safe or allowed.
Calmly and promptly redirecting your toddler to an appropriate behavior is key to shifting their energy into more acceptable activities. “I can’t let you throw this toy car, but here is a soft ball. Can you throw it into this basket?” Over time, your little one will learn what kinds of activities they can and can’t do, especially if they have ample opportunities to explore their world in safe, appropriate ways.
3. Gently and Firmly Enforce Boundaries
Children who are learning about the world around them won’t always respond softly when they are met with a firm boundary. It feels extremely upsetting to them if they were engaged in a fun activity - like throwing a car at their brother’s head - and suddenly they are being told they can’t continue having fun in that way.
Gently and firmly enforcing boundaries with toddlers can be a challenge at times. A good rule of thumb when engaging with children of all ages is, “All feelings are okay, but not all behavior is.” You can show compassion for the fact that your child’s fun was interrupted while still enforcing the boundary that keeps everyone safe. “You’re so mad that I’m taking the car away. You were having fun! But I can’t let you hurt your brother, so I’ll put the car away for a while.”
Calmly Remember ... It’s Just a Phase ...
The throwing phase can be a tough one for parents and their little scientists. The constant redirection and coming up with new ideas to keep your child safely occupied can be exhausting. Attempt try to show your child - and yourself - a little patience as you learn together. And in the meantime - don’t be afraid to throw some plastic down under their highchair for easier cleanup.