Toddler play: why it’s important for movement and motor skills development
Play is one of the main ways that children learn, develop and grow. Play is good for all areas of your toddler’s development, including their motor skills development.
Playing with your toddler each day helps them move and strengthen their muscles and bones. It’s also good for your toddler’s confidence, as they test their abilities and discover that they can climb higher, run faster and jump further all the time.
And when your toddler gets plenty of physical activity into their day through play, it’s good for their overall health and wellbeing.
Australian guidelines say that toddlers should be active for at least 3 hours every day. This can include walking, running, jumping and climbing on play equipment. It can also include quiet play – for example, building with blocks on the floor.
What to expect: toddlers and movement
At this age, your toddler will probably be able to:
- pick up small pieces of food between their pointer finger and thumb
- use both hands well but might prefer to use their left or right hand (choosing the left or right hand for writing and drawing won’t happen for another few years)
- hold a pencil in a basic writing position at 2-3 years
- turn doorknobs at 2-3 years
- walk up and down stairs using alternate feet at 2-3 years – but they’ll probably still need to hold a handrail or an adult’s hand
- throw a ball without falling over
- screw and unscrew jars and lids at 2½-3 years.
As your toddler heads towards 3 years, you might see that they can’t keep still – they’re always running, jumping or kicking! Your toddler might even try to climb up and over you or other familiar grown-ups. Many toddlers also like rough-and-tumble play.
With practice, walking gradually becomes the heel-to-toes grown-up style, rather than the legs-apart, flat-feet style of a new walker.
Your toddler is becoming more coordinated and is better at doing simple things for themselves. For example, toddlers can start dressing independently, eating independently with a spoon and fork, and drinking from a cup. By 3 years they can manage toilet training.
Your child will probably want to test physical limits, climbing as high and running as far as possible – small bumps and falls are common. This is a natural part of how children learn and develop.
If your child isn’t running smoothly by 3 years or shows little interest in exploring actively, it’s a good idea to talk with your child and family health nurse or GP. Your GP might recommend you see a paediatric physiotherapist.
Movement and play ideas for toddlers
It’s good to try plenty of different play activities with your toddler. This strengthens your toddler’s muscles and helps them learn how to control their body. It’s good for your toddler’s motor skills development.
Here are play ideas to get your toddler moving in different ways:
- Listen to music that gets your toddler moving to the beat. Add simple props – like ribbons or homemade shakers – to encourage your toddler to shake, sway or twirl. You can even sing simple songs and rhymes with actions for your toddler to copy.
- Try ride-on toys from 12 months.
- Try scooters, balance bikes and tricycles from 2-3 years. You can try this even earlier if your toddler shows they’re interested.
- Give your toddler different-sized containers so they can put the small ones into larger ones. This helps your toddler practise fine motor skills.
- Do puzzles and Duplo together.
- Go for outdoor play in parks or backyards, at the beach, or anywhere your toddler can safely walk, run and explore. This gives your toddler the chance to practise gross motor skills on hilly, sandy, rocky and other surfaces.
- Let your toddler use playground equipment. It’s a good idea to supervise your child to help them avoid injury.
Screen time and physical 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. 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.
Sitting in prams, strollers and car seats for too long can make it difficult for toddlers to move and be active. When you can, let your child walk or safely use a bike, scooter or push-along toy. It might make your trip a bit slower, so give yourself plenty of time to get where you’re going.