ParentingWhat Every Parent Needs to Know About Play for Toddlers

April 17, 2020

When young children play, they are actively engaged in looking, listening, touching and interacting with the objects and people in their environment.

Play for toddlers provides them with the experience of connecting what they see with what they hear or touch. It helps children to develop sensory connections that provide input to the developing brain, in turn, influencing their cognitive, physical, motor, social and emotional development.

This means how we design our toddlers’ learning environment is crucial to the quality of their development.

As toddlers develop and grow, they need to experience as many different activities and stimulations as possible. This does not mean spending hundreds of dollars on electronic toys, or the latest branded action figures. What it means is that we should provide as many opportunities as possible for imaginative play.

Soft toys and puppets, blocks and plastic shapes, paints and chalkboards, an activity table, a metal whiteboard with magnetic shapes and marker pens, a beanbag and an endless supply of picture books – just about anything you have can serve as a toy for the fertile imagination of your child.

Even pots and pans and plastic bowls from the kitchen, or cardboard packaging, foam boxes and plastic bottles can become toys or musical instruments, or a stimulus for the young imagination.

Toys That Are Perfect for Your Toddler to Play With and Explore

Around their first birthday, many babies are up on their feet and walking (or sometimes more like stumbling). Once this happens, they won’t want to stop, so now is the time to introduce toys that encourage experimentation with movement.

This is also the age when your child is beginning to develop the ability to plan and put simple concepts together – simple construction toys like building blocks are a sure winner for this.

Here are some suggestions for toys that you can introduce to your child during his/her toddler years.

Building Blocks and Plastic Playthings

At a time when your child is developing basic motor and foundational thinking skills, large connectible blocks like Duplo, coloured wooden blocks or any large, simple interlocking construction toys are very popular and extremely valuable.

Periods of unstructured play will also allow your toddler to develop his/her imagination and creativity, so plastic containers and cups, like Tupperware, are also extremely attractive as building materials.

Wheeled Wonders

It is generally accepted by historians that the wheel was one of the greatest human inventions of all – and your toddler would definitely agree.

Three-wheel ride-ons, baby walkers, push- and pull-along toys, large toy cars, and trucks are a big hit with toddlers. Not only can your toddler practise new motor skills, but he/she also gains mobility along the way. This gives your little one a chance to explore his/her environment more easily.

Music Makers

Music existed a long time before we invented musical instruments. Anything that can make a sound can make music – or at least that’s what a toddler thinks!

When it comes to play for toddlers, buy toy instruments if you’d like your child to get early exposure to them, but don’t forget to explore alternatives from regular items in your house (especially in the kitchen cupboards).

How to Turn Playtime for Toddlers into a Rich Learning Experience

Before we begin looking at activities that encourage play for toddlers, let’s first consider the science behind your little one’s development at this stage and how you can turn this into an enriching experience.

1. Your Child Is a Multi-Sensory Being

Whenever your child shows an interest in something, try to help him/her learn about it using as many of the five senses as possible.

Food, for example, is not just something to eat. Let your child feel the cookie dough between his/her fingers while helping you bake. Let him/her smell, taste – and identify – the individual ingredients of a salad, or each of the secret elements in your grandmother’s famous Italian dressing. Listen to the sound of a crisp carrot snapping, or feel the grains of rice as they are poured onto your child’s palm and fingers.

This type of multi-sensory learning is usually far more interesting for children, and far more effective too.

2. Same As, Different From – Your Child Needs to Learn to Categorise

Given the limited capacity of our short-term memory, we make sense of the world by forming concepts. A key skill in learning to form concepts is the ability to group or categorise.

One way to stimulate this ability in young children is to make a habit of grouping similar animals or objects together, and by drawing attention to things that are different.

Take familiar things like your child’s toys or clothes, and see how many different ways you can group them during play for toddlers.

For example, you could group them by:

  • Colour
  • Size
  • Shape
  • Material
  • Function

Hold up the items and say, “This is a shirt and that is also a shirt. This isn’t a shirt – it’s a sock”. Make sorting the clothing a multi-sensory activity. Talk about the colour, compare sizes, touch the different materials and describe the texture. Smell the clean clothes and maybe – if you’re brave – the dirty ones, too.

You can play matching games at any time, with any objects. Categorise toys in the toy-box (animals, cars, trucks, soft/hard, big/small), Lego bricks (colour, size), things in the garden (living/non-living, colours, flowering/non-flowering) – anything your child shows an interest in.

3. Spatial Reasoning is an Essential Toddler Skill

Infants who use a walker to move around develop their spatial awareness more quickly than those who don’t.

This is probably because they have to pay more careful attention to the objects around them (in order to avoid collisions) than children who are carried everywhere.

Of course, in an unsupervised environment, walkers can be dangerous. As long as you are there to watch over your child’s early “walking” activities, a walker can certainly help improve his/her spatial abilities.

As your toddler gets a little older, reading simple maps and playing with mazes can also improve your little one’s spatial reasoning abilities.

4. The Best Time to Expose Your Child to a Second Language – or Even a Number of Languages

Notice that this refers to “exposing” your child to other languages – not “teaching” your child, or “drilling” your child.

Research shows that the more experience a child has with the unique sounds of other languages, the better he/she will be at distinguishing those sounds when he/she is older. This will motivate your child to learn other languages as he/she grows up.

The point of this exercise is not to have your child learn the language, unless you live in a bilingual household. Rather, it is to create neural networks in the auditory cortex, which recognise the sounds that may not exist in your own tongue.

Research strongly indicates that children who are exposed to other languages from a young age master the nuances of those languages later in life far more proficiently than those who did not have early exposure. This is because, after about the age of eleven, the brain loses the capacity to easily recognise new sounds – or rather to create the neural connections which process them. In a sense, we simply become ‘deaf’ to them. And the most important period for establishing the ‘sound-recognition’ networks is during the first five years of your toddler’s life.

Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.

– Kay Redfield Jamison, Psychiatry Professor

As simple as it may seem to you, when your toddler engages in playtime, his/her mind is working hard to absorb the sights and sounds of the environment. For this reason, early childhood experts have always emphasised on the value of play for toddlers and young children as it provides learning opportunities that will benefit your child in the future.


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