Toddler play: why it’s important for talking development
Play is the main way that young children develop, learn and explore the world.
Playing with your child gives you many opportunities to talk. And the more you play and talk together, the more words your child hears. This also gives your child the chance to learn how sounds, words and conversations work. This improves your child’s talking skills and helps their brain develop.
When you spend time talking and playing together, it strengthens your relationship with your child. And a strong relationship with you is essential to development, because it gives your child the confidence to keep exploring and learning.
What to expect: toddler talking
In the toddler years, your child’s language starts to ‘explode’, although your child has been learning about words, sounds and back-and-forth conversations since birth.
At 12-18 months, your toddler will probably:
- say their first words, but you and other close family members might be the only people who know what these words mean
- enjoy babbling when you talk
- point out familiar objects when you name them.
By two years, your toddler will probably:
- enjoy naming everyday things, like ‘doggie’ and ‘drink’
- understand and follow a simple request, like ‘Bring me your book’ or ‘Wave bye-bye’
- have trouble with some sounds – for example, they might say ‘wed’ when they mean to say ‘red’.
By three years, your child will probably:
- move on to simple sentences, like ‘Where doggie gone?’
- say words and sentences that strangers can mostly understand
- understand most of what adults say
- start to use pronouns (I, you, me, we, they) and some plurals.
Talking can be frustrating for toddlers – they can have so much to tell you but can’t quite get the words out. Your toddler will get there eventually. Trying and making mistakes are important parts of learning.
Toddlers respond best to encouragement and interest. So when you’re helping your child express themselves, focus on having fun together. Try to avoid teasing or correcting your toddler’s mistakes too often.
Play ideas to encourage toddler talking
The more words you expose your child to, the more words they’ll learn. Here are some play ideas to encourage toddler talking:
- Read with your child.
- Talk about the ordinary things you do each day – for example, ‘I’m hanging these clothes to dry outside because it’s a nice day’.
- Respond to and talk about your child’s interests. For example, if your child is pretending to drive a car, ask your child where they’re going.
- Recite nursery rhymes and sing songs. Play rhymes, stories and songs in the car.
- Copy your child’s attempts at words to encourage two-way conversation. Also build on your child’s words – for example, when your toddler says ‘train’, you can say, ‘Yes, it’s a big red train’.
- When your child is ‘talking’, show that you’re listening by smiling and looking at your child. Also praise your child’s efforts to talk.
- Leave time after you talk to give your child a chance to reply. Your child might not always have the right words, but they’ll still try to respond. This helps children learn about conversation.
- Point to and name body parts, or make it into a game – for example, ‘Where is your mouth?’
Screen time and toddler talking
Screen time isn’t recommended for children under two years, other than video-chatting. After two years, your child can have some screen time, but it’s important to use age-appropriate, quality content.
It’s also important to balance screen time with other activities like physical play, reading, creative play and social time with family and friends.
Long periods of screen time have been associated with a range of health issues in toddlers and preschoolers. Screen time is also linked to slower development of language skills, short-term memory and poorer social skills.
Concerns about toddler talking
- isn’t babbling often
- has trouble copying sounds
- has trouble understanding simple requests – for example, ‘Give me your cup’
- doesn’t seem to hear you or listen when others are talking.
At three years, you might also want to see a child health professional or talk to your child’s carer or early childhood educator if you can’t understand your child’s speech, or if they still aren’t speaking much.