How to Encourage Toddlers to Identify Their Body Parts

Knowing the names of body parts is a toddler milestone

Toddlers reach a major milestone when they learn to name and recognize their body parts. This skill is significant because parents and other caregivers spend a good part of the day handling toddlers. They tie toddlers' shoes, wipe their noses, hold their hands and kissed skinned knees.

Because parents spend so much time caring for toddlers and their bodies, it's no wonder that by the time typical toddlers reach 1 or 2 years old, they can identify a few body parts. And by the time they reach 2 or 3 years of age, small children should be able to identify many body parts.

How Toddlers Identify Body Parts

What does it mean for toddlers, especially nonverbal ones, to identify body parts? For small toddlers who may not use many words, identifying means simply pointing to the right body part when asked, for example, "Where is your hand?" Gesturing to a hand is all a parent needs to see to realize that a child has developed this skill.

Once toddlers begin to use more words, they will begin to identify body parts by naming them when asked, "What is this part of the body called?"

As toddlers become more verbal, some of them may even ask questions about the names of specific body parts, such as what distinguishes a pinky finger from an index finger. 

How Parents Can Encourage Development of This Skill

Parents and caretakers of toddlers can take a number of steps to help small children recognize their body parts. They can name body parts as they go through the day. When parents wipe a toddler's nose, they can mention the name of the body part that sits in the center of the face. When parents ask for a child's hand before crossing a street, they can hesitate for a moment and wait for the child to extend her arm and give it to you.

Parents may also use bath time to name each body part as it's being washed or read age-appropriate board books about body parts. Recommended titles include "My First Body Board Book" by DK Publishing and "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" by Annie Kubler.

Parents may also play games that involve body parts. They can invent new games or adapt existing games such as "The Hokey Pokey" or peek-a-boo. Instead of directing children to put their left or right foot in, they can say, "Put your feet in." While playing peek-a-boo with children, parents can ask, "Where's your foot hiding?"

Make sure toddlers have access to a mirror, preferably one that is full length so that he can look at and explore his body. Parents can also make a collage of body parts by cutting pictures out of magazines and letting children glue them onto paper. Talk about each piece as the child works.

By Stephanie Brown
Stephanie Brown is a parenting writer with experience in the Head Start program and in NAEYC accredited child care centers.