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What's Funny to a Toddler?

Developing a Sense of Humor

Dylan is busy in the bathtub, trying on a variety of "hats." First, it's the little bucket he uses as a bath toy. Then it's his washcloth, then his rubber duck. He finds all this very funny. But when his dad takes the rubber duck and balances it on his own head, the giggles really get going.

Sounds like a typical bath time routine, but Dylan isn't just getting clean — he's starting to develop a sense of humor. It's a good quality to have. Experts say a well-developed sense of humor can boost a person's immune system, contribute to a more optimistic outlook on life, and increase self-esteem.

What's more, research shows that a sense of humor is learned, not inherited. From a very young age we all have the capacity to laugh; kids as young as 9 months old may begin to understand physical or visual "jokes." Toddlers are willing recipients of all we have to teach them about the pleasures of humor.

Fun With the Unexpected

Early on, babies respond to things that look or feel funny — a silly face, raspberries on the belly. But in the toddler years, kids understand more language and also have a good grasp on how the world is supposed to work — the right way to wear a pair of pants, for instance.

So, if you put your child's pants on your head or diaper the teddy bear, you're likely to get an uproarious response. Anything that disrupts a pattern or expectation is funny to a toddler. Try removing something from its usual place — put a stuffed animal in the cabinet with the dishes, for instance. "How did this get here?," you might ask your child. Or wear a pair of their shoes on your hands as puppets and do a little song-and-dance routine.

You might already have books on your shelf that use this device — ones  that focus on something surprising or obviously out of place, like hippos wearing purple boots or frogs who go ice skating.

Visual humor is also very funny to toddlers. You can make faces, put on a funny hat, or knock yourself on the head with a pillow and pretend to fall over — any kind of broad slapstick will delight toddlers.

The Language of Humor

As kids begin to understand language, verbal humor is a great source of amusement. Rhymes and silly names, even nonsense words that just sound funny are favorites. You'll be surprised how many times your toddler can listen to you sing "my name is Yon Yonson, I come from Wisconsin" and still find it funny. Kids this age also can anticipate humor. If you repeat jokes regularly, you'll find your child giggling before the punch line.

Some people seem naturally gifted when it comes to a sense of humor. But what if you don't consider yourself a natural? Here are two easy ways all parents can develop a child's sense of humor:

  1. Be open and playful.
  2. Be willing to laugh yourself.

Toddlers are very physical about everything. There are few better ways to make a child laugh then to chase and catch him or her (funnier still: when you try to catch your toddler and "can't").

Perennial favorite peek-a-boo also continues to amuse toddlers. You can always refine the game — try encouraging your child to "hide" under a scarf or blanket while you "search," then react with surprise when he or she emerges ("Where's Will? I can't see him. Oh, there he is!").

Other fun games you can play include:

  • Ring Around the Rosy. Play this the traditional way with everyone falling down or with substitutions like "all run around" or "all jump up and down."
  • This Little Piggy. Pull off your child's socks for this nursery rhyme, and conclude with a rousing bout of tickling.
  • This Little Sheep Goes Moo. Once your child knows animal sounds, what could be funnier than pretending that the cat says "baa" or the dog says "meow"?
  • Silly Billy Loves His Gilly? Toddlers love rhyming sounds, especially funny rhyming names. Use your child's name to make up nonsensical chants — encourage your child to follow along and make up his or her own rhymes.
  • Row, Row, Row Your...Car! Try making up funny lyrics to familiar songs. Encourage your child by singing the song "incorrectly" once, then pausing for him or her to fill in a "wrong" word the next time around.

Your Budding Comedian

Here's the really fun part: One day soon, your toddler just might start playing jokes on you, hiding under the covers when you come in to get him or her up from a nap or running away laughing when you say it's time to go home from the park. Or, if you say "Show me your nose," your child might purposely point to an ear or knee.

Repetition is big with toddlers, so you'll probably hear these same jokes more than once. Be sure to give your child a big laugh — even if you've heard this one many, many times before!

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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