About toddler play and cognitive development

Toddlers are experimenting, thinking, solving problems and learning all the time.

Play is vital for your toddler’s cognitive development, because it’s one of the main ways that your child explores the world. Through exploration and experimentation, your child develops the ability to think, understand, communicate, make memories, imagine and work out what might happen next.

Your toddler’s relationships also support his cognitive development. His relationship with you is especially important. And play is a great relationship builder. Spending time playing with your child sends a simple message – you are important to me. This message helps your child learn about who he is and where he fits in the world.

What to expect: toddler cognitive development

Your toddler will probably:

  • think you know what she’s thinking – she won’t realise until she’s about three years that you actually don’t know what she’s thinking and feeling
  • be unable to separate what’s real and what’s pretend – for example, she 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 their meaning by three years
  • enjoy exploring all five of her 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 she can’t fit a puzzle piece in one spot, she might try it somewhere else
  • have favourite books, stories and songs – so be prepared for lots of requests to read or sing it ‘again’!

Your toddler is determined to try everything, even activities that might not be suitable for his age. He’s just trying to figure out how things work.

For example, at 12-16 months, your toddler will want to thoroughly explore all toys and objects within reach – banging, dropping, pushing and shaking them to see what happens. A safe home environment will give your child the freedom to explore without getting hurt.

Your child might now understand that there are groups of things in the world. By about 16 months, your toddler will sort objects into types – for example, by colour, shape or size – which helps with early maths concepts. Toys and household items like pegs and plastic cooking utensils are good for this kind of play.

Despite the huge amount they’re learning, toddlers don’t know how all the concepts fit together. For example, your child 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 to your toddler can help ease her fears.

Play ideas to support cognitive development in toddlers

Here are some everyday play ideas to support your child’s thinking and learning:

  • Help your toddler put together basic puzzles.
  • Provide lots of fun bath toys so your child can enjoy measuring, scooping and pouring. You can talk about why some things sink and others float.
  • Read books and recite nursery rhymes together. By two years, you can leave out words from your toddler’s favourite stories and ask your toddler to tell you what happens next.
  • Give your toddler things to sort, like different coloured blocks or balls, or different sized plastic cups and containers.
  • 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 child decide what to make.
  • Give your toddler building blocks to stack as high as he can.

It’s a good idea to let your child take the lead more and more with play. Letting her take the lead gives her practice in making decisions. It also helps to build her confidence.

If your child is having trouble with a play activity, you can ask him what he might do next to solve the problem, or you can gently offer ideas. For example, ‘Where else could that puzzle piece fit? Having you tried turning it the other way?’ And celebrating your child’s hard work will encourage him to tackle new problems. For example, ‘Well done – you’ve found the right spot for it!’

If you choose to let your child have some screen time, it’s best to focus on quality media choices for your child, and watching or playing screens with her. Screen time includes time spent watching television and playing games on computers, mobile phones and tablets.

If you’re concerned about any aspect of your toddler’s development, it’s a good idea to discuss it with your child health professional, or your toddler’s carer or educator if she goes to an early childhood education and care service.