Creative play: why it’s important for toddler learning and development

Drama, music, dance and visual art foster creativity and imagination in toddlers. These activities also help young children develop their senses through exploration and discovery. They let toddlers express how they see the world and their place in it.

Toddlers can use creative play to communicate their feelings. They might not always be able to say why they’re feeling angry, depressed, happy or frightened. But in an encouraging environment, they might be able to use arts activities and experiences to express these feelings using paint, colour, movement, mime, dramatic gestures, singing or dancing.

In fact, toddlers need to explore and express themselves through creative play. Free creative play lets them try out different ideas and ways of doing things. The activity is the most important thing, not the final result.

Our ideas for toddler creative learning and development can you get you started on fun and creative activities with your child.

Learning and development through drama

Many toddlers enjoy taking an object and pretending that it’s something else. A block of wood could be a boat that sails to faraway places. A stone could be a frog, hopping from leaf to leaf in a lily pond. This kind of dramatic play develops imagination.

Your child probably loves to ask ‘Why?’ Dramatic play and mime help your toddler work out answers for herself. It can help her come up with creative and imaginative responses to questions and problems.

For example, when dressing a doll, your toddler might figure out the best order for the items of clothing. This problem-solving ability is important as he grows and develops.

Learning and development through visual arts

Toddlers love activities like finger-painting, pasting, colouring pictures, and folding or ripping paper. These activities might be a bit messy, but they’re good at helping your child:

  • get used to new textures, such as the feeling of finger paint
  • learn how paint and paper move, and what she can do with them
  • develop all kinds of fine motor skills, as she uses her fingers, feet and so on
  • express her thoughts, experiences or ideas.

At this age, your toddler is still learning about shapes and lines, and ways of drawing and playing with them. A painting might look like spaghetti to you, but if it’s a tree to your toddler, it’s a tree!

Whether your child ends up with a finished product isn’t important. The most important thing is for him to explore his creative impulses and self-expression.

Musical learning and development

Toddlers like to listen. They also love to get involved in music play. They’ll often start singing to themselves while they’re involved in other play activities. Toddlers also enjoy banging on drums, and making sounds using real or home-made instruments.

Songs and music play are good forms of self-expression.

Singing encourages your toddler to use words and helps develop her memory. Because her memory isn’t fully developed, she’ll be able to remember only a few words at a time. She can put actions to the words as you sing them, though, and add in the words she remembers.

You can encourage music play by ensuring that your toddler has lots of opportunities. You could try doing the Hokey Pokey together, for example.

You don’t need fancy instruments for fun music play either. You can make a drum out of a plastic container and a wooden spoon, or put rice into a well-sealed plastic bottle to make a shaker.

Learning and development through dance

As with music, toddlers will often start moving and dancing without you prompting them. Sometimes, it might even seem like they’re in a trance while they’re dancing – they can be very self-absorbed.

In fact, lots of things are going through your toddler’s mind while he’s dancing. He’s exploring fantasies, thoughts and feelings about music and his environment.

Dance helps your child develop gross motor skills, as well as hand-eye coordination.

You can encourage this by getting your child to walk, balance, jump, gallop and hop in response to music or chanted words. It doesn’t matter whether she keeps in time to the music, or follows any set movements – the activity is the most important thing.