About toddler play and cognitive development
Play is vital for your toddler’s cognitive development – that is, your toddler’s ability to think, understand, communicate, make memories, imagine and work out what might happen next.
This is because play is one of the main ways that your toddler explores the world. Toddlers at play are experimenting, thinking, solving problems and learning all the time.
Spending time playing with your toddler is especially good for your toddler’s cognitive development. That’s because playing together builds your relationship and sends a simple but powerful message – you are important to me. This message is key to helping your toddler learn about who they are and where they fit in the world. It also gives your toddler confidence to keep exploring and learning about the world.
A warm and loving relationship with your toddler lays the foundation for all areas of your child’s learning and development.
What to expect: toddler cognitive development and play
Toddlers will probably:
- think you know what’s going on inside their minds
- have difficulty separating what’s real and what’s pretend – for example, they might be easily frightened by monsters in cartoons
- be curious and keen to experiment and explore unfamiliar things
- be able to use words like ‘dark’, ‘loud’, ‘hard’ or ‘heavy’ in the right way, and understand the meaning of these words by 3 years
- enjoy exploring all their senses – sight, sound, taste, touch and smell
- be able to follow simple instructions from 18 months
- use trial and error to start problem-solving – for example, if they can’t fit a puzzle piece in one spot, they might try it somewhere else
- have favourite books, stories and songs – so be prepared for a lot of requests to read or sing it ‘again’!
Toddlers are determined to try everything, even activities that might not be suitable for their age. They’re just trying to figure out how things work.
For example, at 12-16 months, your toddler will want to explore all toys and objects within reach – banging, dropping, pushing and shaking them to see what happens. A safe home environment will give your toddler the freedom to explore without getting hurt.
Your toddler might now understand that there are groups of things in the world. By about 16 months, your toddler might be able to sort objects into types – for example, by colour, shape or size. This helps with early maths thinking. Toys and household items like pegs and plastic cooking utensils are good for this kind of play.
Toddlers don’t know how all the concepts fit together. For example, your toddler can see that things flush down the toilet. But toddlers don’t realise that they themselves can’t be flushed down the toilet too. Or that if a leg rips off a favourite doll or teddy bear, the same doesn’t happen to a real person. Taking the time to explain these concepts can ease your toddler’s fears.
If you’re concerned about your toddler’s development, it’s a good idea to get help early. Talk with your GP, your child and family health nurse or your toddler’s early childhood educator.
Play ideas to support cognitive development in toddlers
It’s good to try plenty of different play activities with your toddler. This promotes cognitive development by giving your toddler many ways to learn about their world.
Here are everyday play ideas to support your toddler’s thinking and learning:
- Help your toddler put together basic puzzles.
- Give your toddler fun bath toys for measuring, scooping and pouring. You can talk about why some things sink and others float.
- Read books and recite nursery rhymes together. By 2 years, you can leave out words from your toddler’s favourite stories and ask your toddler to tell you what happens next.
- Sing simple songs that involve actions or animal sounds. For example, ‘Heads and shoulders’ or ‘Old MacDonald’.
- Give your toddler things to sort, like coloured blocks, shapes or pegs, or plastic cups and containers of different sizes.
- Give your toddler toys with buttons to push to make something happen.
- Put together a box of materials for simple art and craft activities. This can include finger paint, crayons and paper, coloured chalk for drawing and writing on outdoor paths, scrap materials or playdough. Let your toddler decide what to make.
- Play outside in the backyard, at your local park or at the beach.
It’s a good idea to let your child take the lead with play, because toddlers learn best when they’re interested in an activity. When you follow your toddler’s lead, you can use your toddler’s interests to help them learn something new.
If your toddler is having difficulty with a play activity, you can ask what they might do next to solve the problem, or you can gently offer ideas. For example, ‘Where else could that puzzle piece fit? Have you tried turning it the other way?’ And celebrating effort will encourage your toddler to tackle new problems. For example, ‘Well done – you’ve found the right spot for it!’
Screen time, digital technology use and toddler cognitive development
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 best through everyday experiences like physical play, outside play, creative play and social time with family and friends.
If you choose to let your older toddler have some digital play, it’s best to focus on making quality media choices for your toddler and sharing screen time and digital technology with them.