One of the hardest concepts for children to understand fully is that their actions have consequences. Even my fifth grader struggles with this idea on a regular basis. Although it’s difficult, it’s important to begin teaching this lesson at a very young age. I like to make the first lesson of this concept into a game with my toddlers. Sometimes we spend a little bit of time playing “What happens next.”
Playing with Blocks
The toddler version of this game is very simple; we just play with stacking blocks. But, while we are playing I talk to my toddlers and ask:
“What would happen if I used a triangle piece here?
What would happen if I used a circle?
What about a big block on top of a big block?”
With my toddlers, I don’t really expect an answer. I just show them. Then we laugh and giggle as the block tower tumbles to the ground. With repetition, the toddlers begin to expect what will happen and anticipate the tower tumbling.
Playing with Clay
Another way to teach cause and effect to toddlers is using clay. Sitting together and making the clay change shape in a great way for toddlers to conceptualize that their actions have direct and immediate consequences.
Plus, smashing, pulling, squishing, and rolling the clay is just a lot of fun to do with toddlers.
Again, while we are playing, I ask my toddler:
“What will happen if I smash this clay with my hand?
What will happen if we squish this block onto the clay?
What are your fingers doing to the clay as they poke it?”
Again, I’m not expecting many answers, but as we play with the clay, the toddlers start noticing that what their fingers are doing affects the way the clay looks.
Using Finger Paints
Although messy, finger paints are a great way to teach toddlers that actions have consequences, or cause and effect. I usually start the toddlers off with one primary color and let them play with that for a while. Then I’ll introduce another primary color and let them mix that into the painting. Finally, I’ll give then the third primary color and let them add that color to their masterpieces. The trick is to stop the painting before everything is a lovely brown.
While they are painting, I talk to them about what is happening on their papers. I’ll talk about how the colors are changing and what’s causing that change. After some time, the toddlers will start purposefully mixing colors to see what comes out.
These are some basic play ideas that will help toddlers gain a basic understanding of cause and effect, or that their actions have consequences. Toddlers learn by doing, not by hearing, and these activities allow the toddler to manipulate their environment so they see what effect they are having with their actions. Without laying this basic ground work, later discussion about “natural consequences” will be difficult for children to understand. But, by playing these games children develop the groundwork to understand the later conversations and make better choices on their own.