Toddler play: why it’s important for imaginative and creative development
Play fosters creativity and imagination in toddlers. And this is important, because toddlers use their growing imaginations and creativity to:
- explore the world and their place in it
- better understand themselves and other people
- explore and express feelings
- test out new ideas and ways of solving problems.
What to expect as toddler imagination develops
Dressing up and pretend play start at around 15-18 months. Your toddler might enjoy pretending to be a grown-up, using props like old clothes and hats. For example, your toddler might imagine they’re driving a bus or serving in a shop.
Your toddler learns by copying what others do – especially you or older children. For example, by the time your toddler is 2 years old, they might pretend to cook dinner using leaves and grass they’ve found in the backyard. Or your toddler might say things like ‘You be baby, I’m mum’ or ‘I go to work, bye bye’.
At the same time, your toddler will also start creating their own pretend play stories and games. These might be from books you’ve read together or experiences they’ve had, like seeing a monkey at the zoo.
Music of all sorts can have your toddler imagining fantastic things like flying or floating in space. And your toddler will express themselves by singing, dancing and moving to their favourite songs and rhymes.
At this age, your toddler will probably also enjoy messy play. Digging sand, building with mud or squeezing paint between fingers and toes will all be popular activities.
Your toddler might enjoy playing and splashing in the bath too. Your toddler might test what their toys can do by pouring water from one to another, dunking the toys underwater – or using them to empty the bath! Remember to always supervise your toddler around water. Toddlers are naturally curious and often fearless, so they’re at particular risk of drowning.
You’ll see your child expressing their imagination and ideas in all kinds of creative ways. Get some ideas for creative activities to do with your toddler.
Play ideas and creative activities to encourage toddler imagination
It’s good to let your child lead play, especially open-ended play. This gives your toddler a great opportunity to use their imagination.
It’s also good to give your toddler plenty of different play experiences. This will help your toddler’s imagination grow.
You can try the following inside play ideas to encourage your toddler to put their imagination into action:
- Read books and tell stories together about wonderful places and creatures. Talk about the stories and pictures with your toddler or ask them what they think might happen next.
- Sing nursery rhymes using our Baby Karaoke and encourage your toddler to make up their own actions to songs.
- Make some sounds and rhythms with homemade or bought musical instruments. You can also borrow CDs from your local library or search online for different styles of music.
- Draw and scribble with crayons and paper and let your toddler draw from their imagination.
- Visit and explore favourite or new places in your home, like the saucepan drawer or container cupboard.
- Set up a special play space in your home. This can be as simple as draping a cloth over 2 chairs or cutting an opening into the side of a large cardboard box. Add some dress-up clothes or a pile of blocks to encourage your toddler to come up with stories and games.
Here are fun outdoor play ideas to stimulate your toddler’s imagination:
- Go for a nature walk in the park, at the playground, at the beach – anywhere with new sights and sounds to inspire your toddler.
- Look up! Describe the different things you see in the sky – the moon, stars and clouds are fascinating to your toddler.
- Make a treasure box for your toddler, full of safe, soft natural objects for your toddler to touch, feel and use. You could include objects like seed pods or coral washed up on the beach.
- Try messy play using sand, mud, clay, playdough or paints. Just make sure these materials are non-toxic, because your toddler’s fingers are likely to end up in their mouth at some stage.
- Set up water play. A bucket of water with bubbles and a few plastic cups are all your toddler needs. Add some food colouring to stimulate their imagination. Always supervise your toddler for safe fun with water.
Screen time, digital technology use and imaginative play
Current national and international guidelines recommend that children under 2 years shouldn’t have screen time other than video-chatting with people they know, like grandparents. This is because very young children learn and grow best through everyday experiences like physical play, playing outside, creative play and social time with family and friends.
For children over 2 years, a balanced approach to screen time and digital technology use can be part of a healthy lifestyle.
In general, the key events in development happen in a similar order, but the age they happen might vary for each child. If you’re concerned about any aspect of your toddler’s play development, it’s a good idea to talk with your child and family health nurse or GP.