Studies show that between 18 and 24 months, many toddlers start to recognize themselves in a mirror and in photos. It’s a big deal when they discover that they are looking at their own body, their own self—this is a critical step in developing self-awareness.
By age two, children are starting to recognize and identify more and more facial features, as well as the emotions they can express. More specific words, like eyebrow, cheek, wrist, and chin, may begin to enter their receptive vocabulary (words they understand but might not be able to say yet), and mirrors are a great opportunity to introduce a broader range of emotion words.
Here are 4 ways to build new vocabulary and social-emotional learning through mirror play:
1. Identify body parts
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, by age 2 many children can identify a wide range of common body parts (whether or not they can say them). Between 24 and 28 months, they’re starting to understand—and sometimes name—smaller or less commonly-named parts.
Ask your child to point to different body parts (“touch your nose” and “show me your chin”), and give them a moment to find it on their own before showing them. They may point to the mirror, in which case you can say “show it to me on your own body.”
Point to some parts of your body without speaking, and see if your child can name them or point to the same parts on their own body.
2. Try two-step directions
By age 2, children are increasingly able to handle two-part instructions, and a mirror is a great place to practice this—especially when you follow along with them. Try to keep the instructions simple at first by focusing only on one change at a time: “First touch your ear, then touch your head” or “first put your hand on your shoulder, then put your other hand on the same shoulder.”
Between 24 and 27 months, many children can understand compound sentences, which are sentences with two distinct clauses. Try making the directions more complex (but know that they might not understand, and that’s okay): “first touch your nose, then look up to the ceiling.” As you give directions, use sequential words like first, then, next, finally, and last.
3. Play “match that feeling”
Identifying emotions and feelings is a crucial part of empathy development. Your child is only just beginning to see that their own feelings are distinct from others’. Mirrors are a great way to practice what these feelings look and sound like in their own faces, bodies, and voices. This activity can also be an opportunity to practice emotional vocabulary.
You might start by saying “okay, everyone in the mirror look surprised.” Put an exaggerated expression on your face and invite your child to do the same. Then, describe the emotion in physical terms: “Oh! I look surprised! My eyebrows are up and my mouth is open!”
The “everyone in the mirror” framework works great for many emotions, feelings, and directions—say “everyone in the mirror…
- … look happy! Our eyes are crinkled and we have smiles on our faces!
- … look angry! Our hands are clenched into fists, the corners of our mouths are turned down, and we’re growling!
- … go to sleep! Our eyes are closed and we’re snoring” (make exaggerated snoring noises)
- … wake up and stretch!”
- … turn all the way around! Turn the other way”
4. Make funny faces
Not only is this really fun, you can also challenge your child to work on matching your reflection. For example, raise your eyebrows with your fingers while sticking out your tongue, and without describing it, ask your child to match your expression.
Have your child close their eyes and make a face, while you do the same. Then open your eyes to reveal the grimaces and smirks 😛
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