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My son who will shortly become 3 years old seems to be unable to search for lost things, and I'd like to know if this is something to worry about.

He often takes some item/toy, runs around with it in our home, suddenly leaves it where he currently is, the goes somewhere else. Since I hate stuff lying around, I always tell him to put it back where it belongs if he does not play with it any more. If I know where the item is, this is not a problem - I just tell him where it is and he puts it back without arguing.

But if I don't know where he left it, he seems to have no idea what to do. I tell him: "Search for it! Think, where did you see it last? What did you do with it last? Check the places where you went most recently." (Note that the time between losing the item and my request for him searching is usually less than a minute.) And he does nothing. If I insist he should search, he just looks around where he currently stands, seemingly not knowing what to do. If I say, "You need to walk around! You are not going to find it by just standing there!", he walks around randomly, clearly not following any trail of thought. He often checks the same places several times, probably because he knows I expect him to do something. I then try to help by asking e.g. "Did you leave it in the kitchen?" He then often answers yes on my first question, which most of the time turns out to be false (I find the item somewhere else later).

I know that I radiate quickly growing impatience and expectation in these situations, which most probably inhibits his ability to think. I know I shouldn't do that. But is it really so hard?

It's not like I just complain; I usually engage in the search and comment: "I saw you walking around the edge in the corridor and you still had the item with you, so it's probably not there. But I don't know where you went next - was it room X or room Y? Which room did you go? Let's check there..." But I can at no point see any "click" in his mind. His answers seem random. I usually end up searching everywhere (or at least the places I know he visits often) systematically on my own, as if I hadn't asked anything. He is just no help at all.

It's not that he has no episodic memory. He can tell me what he played with or ate for lunch in kindergarten when I ask him in the evening (he does not know every day, but sometimes). He sometimes tells about past events he liked, and at least for the ones where I was present it is quite accurate. He is usually totally wrong about when they happened (often he says "yesterday" even it was a month ago, but I assume this is just because he does not understand the granularity of time vocabulary yet), but he knows what happend.

Should I be worried?

2 Answers 2

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Your're asking your son to do something that he cannot do, independently plan a search for a toy and then carry out that plan.

You can teach your son to walk a pattern through your house to look for toys. In this way he doesn't have to plan anything, he just has to follow the route through the house that you've taught him when he's searching for a toy.

Your son is showing that he has some elements of thought that make up the ability to plan, so he's on target and his skills will grow, so you don't need to worry.

For now, he needs a very concrete system of searching that you've taught him in order to find his toys.

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In addition to Cecilia's answer, I would suggest making a game of finding things. Put three or four small treats (e.g. sweets) around a room and tell your son to go find them. Don't hide them, just put them in plain sight on e.g. a low table, chair and windowsill (maybe give it a wipe first). Give them hints at first (e.g. "getting warmer") if they start getting frustrated or bored. This will help your child practise the skill of looking for things.

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  • Great suggestion!!! I hope a lot more people see it.
    – anongoodnurse
    Jun 12 at 13:51
  • You stole this from Mary Poppins right? Kidding. But I think principle applies right like making a game out of something?
    – BCLC
    Jun 18 at 2:13

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