Toddler play: why it’s important
Play is essential to your toddler’s development.
Play helps your child:
- learn in many different ways
- build relationships, especially with you
- develop self-esteem and confidence
- feel loved, happy and safe
- develop social skills, language and communication
- develop physical skills.
Toddlers love playing with you, so the key thing is to spend time playing with them.
What to expect from toddler play
At this age, you’ll probably see plenty of unstructured play. This is play that just happens, depending on what takes your toddler’s interest at the time. For example, sometimes your toddler might feel like doing loud or active things, like dancing. Other times they might enjoy a quiet activity, like drawing.
It’s important to encourage unstructured play, because this kind of play gives curious toddlers the chance to lead play, follow their own interests, explore, make decisions and use their imaginations. For example, you might see your child opening and closing drawers, turning containers upside down, and hiding things in all sorts of places. You can encourage your child by asking questions that prompt them to tell you about what they’re doing – for example, ‘What are you making in that pot?’
You can also expect that your toddler will want to play the same game or read the same book many times. Repeating activities is how toddlers master skills and understand what’s likely to happen in certain situations.
Toddlers are full of energy so physical activity is often a big part of their play. Although structured music or gym classes can be fun, your child just needs time to move around in their own way, especially in a safe home environment.
Your toddler’s play will probably vary in pace and focus. Sometimes they’ll look at something quickly and move on. Other times they’ll stop and explore an object. This means that simple activities with a toddler – like collecting the mail – might take a bit longer than you think.
By the time your toddler is 3, they might be enjoying ‘pretend’ games like dress-ups and playing house. This type of imaginative and creative play helps your toddler express and explore complex emotions like frustration, sadness and anger.
Most 2-year-olds are still learning how to share or take turns. By 3, your child might understand what sharing is but will probably still find it hard to do. Encouragement, practice and role-modelling will help your child start developing these skills.
Toddler play ideas and toddler games
Play isn’t only fun – it’s also how children learn. Different play activities help toddlers learn in many different ways. These activities can include games from different cultures, activities that stimulate different senses, physical activities and so on.
Here are tips for toddler play:
- Sing songs and nursery rhymes: your toddler will enjoy singing with you, especially songs and nursery rhymes that involve actions and touch.
- Read with your toddler every day: pop-up and lift-the-flap books are fun and full of surprises. Let your child choose favourite books to read. You can also point out some words as you say them, ask your toddler to repeat words with you, or ask questions like ‘What happens next?’
- Encourage drawing and scribbling: your toddler will enjoy scribbling with crayons, pencils, paints or chalk. You can expect your child to put any pens within reach into their mouth too, so it’s a good idea to choose safe, non-toxic pencils and paints.
- Try messy play: for example, playing with water, sand or mud lets your toddler explore new textures and sensations. Let your child empty and fill containers, pour and scoop. Remember that constant supervision is the only way to keep your child safe around water.
- Go outside with your child: outdoor play, like exploring the garden or park, offers endless play possibilities. It also gives your child the chance to be active by climbing, running, swinging, leaping or rolling.
- Create an exciting play space and add some simple props like old scarves, handbags or clothes. This can give your toddler ideas to make up stories or pretend games.
If your child has disability, autism or other additional needs, it’s good to think about the supports they might need to get the most out of play. For example, if your child has difficulty understanding verbal instructions, you might use pictures to show them the steps in a game or activity.
Toddler play and screen time
Current national and international guidelines recommend that children under 2 years don’t have screen time other than video-chatting with people they know, like grandparents.
For children older than 2, screen time can be a fun, learning experience. But it’s important for your child to have a healthy approach to screen time. This means balancing screen time with other activities that are good for development, like outdoor play, pretend play, reading and social play.
How do you choose the right toys for your child? Some of the best toys for children are ‘open-ended’ or recycled – for example, cardboard boxes, pieces of material and old clothes.