Toddler play: why it’s important for emotional development
Toddlers are little people with big emotions that they don’t always have the words for. Play gives them a chance to explore and express their emotions and practise managing them. This is good for your toddler’s self-regulation, behaviour and relationships.
And you have a key role in your toddler’s play and development. Through actively engaging your toddler in play, you can help your toddler understand what they’re feeling and why. For example, if your toddler is sad because their toy is broken, you can say, ‘I can see you’re sad that your toy is broken. It’s OK – we can fix it’.
Toddlers watch how you express your emotions. You can set a good example when you manage your emotions in positive ways. For example, you could say, ‘I’m feeling upset, so I’m going to stop and take 3 big breaths’.
What to expect from toddler emotions
Your toddler will probably:
- become more aware of being an individual at 1-2 years
- start to feel fear, embarrassment, empathy and envy around 1-2 years
- begin to be more independent and want to do things without your help
- be able to wait their turn and control some emotions at 1-2 years
- start to say how they feel – for example, your toddler might say ‘ow’ for pain or ‘I did it!’ for pride at 1-2 years
- start to compare their behaviour with other children’s – for example, your toddler might tell you that they waited their turn but others didn’t.
Your toddler is also learning about a big new emotion – frustration. Your toddler is likely to:
- get frustrated and cry, yell or hit out when they don’t get their way
- not understand why they can’t have what they want when they want it
- be quite bossy about what they do want
- find it hard to stop playing or to change activities
- struggle to keep their frustration under control sometimes – you might see some tantrums.
By the age of 3 years, most toddlers start to feel emotions like guilt and shame. Listening to your toddler when they want to talk and giving them plenty of reassurance and support can help your toddler understand these new feelings.
If your child is struggling with big emotions like anger or frustration, they need your understanding and support. You can try time in to help your toddler calm down and cope with strong emotions.
Play ideas to encourage toddler emotions
Play is one of the best ways for young children to practise understanding, expressing and managing their feelings. Here are ideas:
- Play and share with children of all ages.
- Try imaginative play with puppets, toys or old clothes. For example, your toddler could pretend to care for a teddy bear or bravely rescue toys from a tree.
- Sing and dance. For example, you could try ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands’.
- Try messy play with sand, mud or paints. Your toddler can happily slap sand, stomp in mud or make big, angry paint strokes.
- Read stories that feature characters who are experiencing feelings that your toddler is also going through. For example, try the When I’m Feeling series by Trace Moroney.
- Play outdoors in a park or open space where your toddler can run, tumble or roll around to let out their emotions.
- Let your toddler take the lead with play. But even when your toddler wants to lead, you still have an important role in helping your toddler cope with strong emotions like frustration or disappointment.
It’s a good idea to talk with your child and family health nurse or GP if your toddler shows no sign of separation anxiety or has no preference for familiar faces by 18 months, or if your toddler doesn’t come to you for affection or comfort by 2 years old. Also see your GP or nurse if you’re concerned about any other aspect of your toddler’s development.