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.
What to expect from toddler play
Toddlers are full of energy. Opening and closing drawers, turning containers upside down, and hiding things in all sorts of places – these are all ways that toddlers play, explore their world and learn.
Unstructured play is important at this age. This is play that just happens, depending on what takes your child’s interest. For example, sometimes your child might feel like doing something active, like dancing. Other times he might enjoy a quiet activity like drawing.
Structured music or gym classes can be fun, but your child doesn’t need them. Your child just needs time to play – and a safe home environment to explore and play in.
It’s good to let your child lead play when she wants to and when it’s safe and practical. This teaches your child about making decisions and lets her use her imagination. When your child is leading play, you can ask questions that encourage her to tell you about what she’s doing – for example, ‘What are you making in that pot?’
Your toddler’s play will probably vary in pace and focus. Sometimes he’ll look at something quickly and move on. Other times he’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 three, she 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.
You might notice that your toddler wants to play the same game or read the same book again and again. Repeating activities is how toddlers master skills and understand what to expect in certain situations.
Most two-year-olds don’t understand how to share or take turns. By three, your child might understand what sharing is but will probably still find it hard to do. Encouragement and practice will help your child start developing these skills.
Toddler play ideas and toddler games
Play is not only fun – it’s also how children learn. You’re still the best toy for your toddler to play with – and the key thing is still spending time playing with your child.
Here are some 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 him to put any pens within reach into his 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 pottering in 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.
Current national and international guidelines recommend that children under two years don’t have screen time other than video-chatting with people they know, like grandparents.
For children older than two, 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.