Encouraging a Growth Mindset in Toddlers

This article outlines some techniques and materials, including storybooks, which can be used by parents, grandparents, and teachers to improve a child’s cognitive development and academic success.  

The activities incorporate learning strategies that have a basis in educational research in order to engage young children and strengthen their vocabulary, creativity, and prosocial and problem-solving skills. In addition, ideas within this article can be used by parents, grandparents, or teachers as a template to develop future teachable moments.


Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett

Russell’s Christmas Magic by Rob Scott

The above storybooks can be accessed online, at a library, or at a bookstore and can be read over-and-over again to young children in order to build their thinking and communication skills. In addition, these storybooks and others, can focus young children on some of the themed activities detailed below.  [Also, for more information regarding growth mindset, read Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.’s book titled Mindset, the New Psychology of Success.]

Consider a Growth Mindset:  People can adopt one of two mindsets about their abilities.  Those with a “fixed mindset” believe their basic intelligence cannot be improved.  They interpret a challenge — like, using scissors, riding a bike, fixing a broken object, or making a new friend — as a sign that they simply don’t have the ability to accomplish this task.  They may then opt for a less challenging, less taxing, path.

By contrast, people with a “growth mindset” think their abilities can be improved with effort/hard work (practice), strategy (experimentation), and mentoring (input from others).  Drawn to or willing to accept a challenge, they persist even in the light of setbacks.

Are girls and women more likely to have a fixed mindset?  Maybe. Some research has shown this to be the case. Mindset can be traced to the types of praise we receive from parents and teachers.  Celebrating a child’s intelligence [example: “You are so smart!”] can actually instill a fixed mindset: the child becomes determined to prove how smart she/he is rather than learn from a task that might initially involve failure.  Whereas children praised for their effort or strategies — what’s called “process praise” — [examples: “Wow, you made that!” “You figured that out!”  “I like that you tried your best, but what would you do differently next time?”] develop a growth mindset and become more motivated to tinker with a problem when they are not able to solve it right away.

Watch for and encourage opportunities for a child to problem-solve; ask him/her what he/she would do next in order to get the results he/she wants.  Repeated practices, constructing models, explorations, investigations, persistence, and understanding that there is not always one correct pathway to solving a problem can nurture a growth mindset.  

Gingerbread Baby storybook:  Below are some (1) key themes, (2) reasons why this storybook was selected for this article, and (3) reading strategies for adults. This story:  

  • Is tied to a holiday/seasonal theme. For example, this story is great to read during the winter holiday season.
  • Exhibits a series of approaches to catching the gingerbread baby (similar in thought to a ‘growth mindset’ pathway, if each approach was performed by the same person).  The reader can ask the listener, “How would you try to catch the gingerbread baby?”
  • Uses multiple, but parallel storylines within the artwork. The story of the boy’s creation of the gingerbread house can be seen in the pictures that are along the sides of the pages.  Ask your child what he/she thinks is happening in each of the side-story pictures.
  • Is based on a familiar tale and character (the story of a gingerbread cookie who comes to life) dating back to at least the mid-1800’s, but is also seen in recent animations, such as ‘Shrek,’ however in this tale, the gingerbread baby does not wind up as someone’s meal, but as someone’s friend.
  • Initiates the idea of baking and decorating gingerbread cookies as a family activity.

Russell’s Christmas Magic:  Below are some (1) key themes, (2) reasons why this storybook was selected for this article, and (3) reading strategies for adults. This story:  

  • Is tied to a holiday/seasonal theme. For example, this story is great to read during the Christmas season.
  • Showcases (a) two mindsets (fixed and growth) and (b) the process of ‘problem-solving;’ When a problem occurs, how do you respond?  Do you think, “Everything is ruined!” (a fixed mindset) or do you think, “How can I fix this problem?” (a growth mindset).
  • Encourages the use of the reader’s voice to elaborate on the emotions of the characters. Readers have the opportunity to enhance their own storytelling skills.
  • Initiates the idea of snow-play and working with ice.

Themed Activities at Home to Strengthen STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Education and School-readiness Skills: Practice the following activities at home with your children/grandchildren.

Teamwork: Baking Gingerbread Cookies

Ingredients for making gingerbread cookies:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 2/3 cup molasses
  • Cookie cutters in a variety of shapes, including a gingerbread boy shape

Use this cookie-making activity as an opportunity to work as a team with your child.  Utilize and emphasize these phrases: “We are a team; Let’s work together, Can you help me?”  As you gather and portion out the various ingredients, encourage your child to smell and discuss the smell of each spice.  Allow your child to help as much as possible, such as transferring each measured ingredient to the child for him/her to place into the mixing bowl and having the child stir some of the ingredients together.  (Yes, it may be messy.)

Directions: In a large bowl, sift or whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, and spices.  Set these dry ingredients aside.  In another bowl, cream together the room temperature butter and sugar until it is light and fluffy (an electric mixer works best).  Add the egg and molasses and beat until well combined.  Gradually add the dry ingredients, beating until they are incorporated into the egg and molasses mixture.  Then divide the dough in half, wrap each half in plastic wrap, and refrigerate the dough for at least two hours or overnight. 

When you are ready to bake the cookies:  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and place the oven rack in the center of the oven.  Line two baking trays with parchment paper and set aside while you roll out the dough.  On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. Use a cookie cutter to cut out the cookies.  With a spatula, lift the cookies onto the baking sheet, placing the cookies about 1 inch apart. Children can also use their hands to mold different shapes or objects, such as they might have made from modeling compounds, such as Play Doh, so they can use their imagination and creativity.  (Have your child flatten any cookies that become too thick.)

Bake the cookies for about 8 – 12 minutes depending on the size of the cookies.  The cookies are done when they are firm and the edges are just beginning to brown. Transfer the cookies to a cool cookie tray for decoration once cool.  Colorful cookie icing in squeeze tubes can be purchased or you can use the recipe below to make your own frosting.

Ingredients for frosting:

  • 2 cups confectioners sugar (powdered sugar), sifted
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 ½ tablespoons milk or light cream
  • Assorted food colors (if desired)

Mix together the ingredients and decorate the cookies, working as a team with your child.  Frosting can be spooned onto the cookies or piped on using piping bags or a series of small Ziploc bags with a tiny hole cut in one of the corners to pipe through.  Throughout this process, encourage and praise your child on the process of creating and decorating the cookies.

Close Observation: Bubbles in the Snow

Purchase some bubble solution and have the children practice blowing bubbles onto snowy surfaces, such as the hood of a car or the snowy ground.  Blow bubbles for the children and have them catch the bubbles on their snowy mittened hand after they have captured some snow on their mittened hand.  While in their hands, have them notice and discuss whether the bubbles are clear or colorful. What happens when they touch their frozen bubbles: do the bubbles pop in the same way as they do during the summertime?  Have a contest to see how long their bubbles last in the snowy cold; do the bubbles last long enough to sing the ABC song? If you have a bucket, are the children able to capture a bucketful of bubbles? Think of and try out other types of bubble play in the snow.

Problem-solving & Exploration: Ice Balloons, Excavations, Structures, & Color


  • Water balloons
  • Various sizes of small plastic containers, including ice cube tray
  • Water
  • Small toys, but not too small to be a choking hazard (could use plastic animals, toy bead necklaces, etc)
  • Salt
  • Food coloring
  • Washable tempera paint and paint brush
  • Jumbo eyedroppers
  • Clear plastic cups

These activities allow for children to be creative, solve problems, make observations, use their imagination, understand color-mixing (primary and secondary colors), and design their own activities.  These activities can be introduced as a series of explorations throughout a number of days and will encourage free-play and building on one’s previous knowledge and experience.

Fill a number of water balloons with water, then knot and freeze them either in the freezer or in the snowy outdoors.  Once frozen, the balloon material can be peeled away from the ice and your child can investigate the ice globes outdoors.  Investigations include:

  • Touching, tasting, stacking, close observation
  • Painting on the ice globes with washable tempera paint or food coloring
  • Pouring salt on them to see which ice globe melts fastest (with or without salt)
  • Stacking the ice globes and/or using the eye droppers to melt parts of the globes
  • Other ideas (Ask your child: What do you want to do next or do differently?)

Fill a collection of small plastic containers with water and place some small toys or necklaces (etc.) into the container, then freeze them either in the freezer or the snowy outdoors.  Once frozen, the ice blocks can be pushed out of the containers and your child can investigate the ice blocks outdoors. Investigations include:

  • Excavation of the object inside the ice block, using salt, water from the eye droppers, or some other means
  • Building structures from the ice blocks either before or after excavations occur

Other ideas (Ask your child: What do you want to do next or do differently?)

Fill an ice cube tray with water, then place one or two drops of food coloring in the water (one color of dye per ice cube section).  Once the colored water is frozen into ice cubes, your child can take the ice cubes outdoors and:

  • Place the ice cubes into a clear plastic cup with water to watch them melt.  He/she can make observations of how the colored cube mixes, undisturbed, into the water.  Ask: does the ice cube float or sink? As the ice cube melts, does the colored water float or sink or just mix into the clear water evenly?  Which is heavier, cold water or room temperature water?
  • Place two primary colors of ice cubes into a clear plastic cup to watch for the melting and mixing of the primary colors to form secondary colors (add blue to yellow … red to yellow … blue to red).  Extra colored cubes can be added to the cups of water to increase the hue of secondary colors (for example, if the blue water is too dark, then add extra yellow ice cubes to create the color green).
  • If possible, place the colored ice cubes near each other in the snow outdoors, then use the jumbo eye droppers and/or salt in order to have the ice cubes melt into the snow to observe what happens.
  • Other ideas (Ask your child: What do you want to do next or do differently?)

Throughout these activities, encourage and praise your child on his/her progress during his/her creation, construction, discussion, observation, and experimentation (etc.) times.  

Check out this recent Mom Advice Line article from a regular contributor titled Intuitive Parenting: I Found a Way to Reach My Child