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Playing with your toddler

5-minute read

Why is play so important for toddlers?

Play is an activity where children show their ability for exploration, imagination and decision making. It’s not simply about fun and making things up on the spot — play involves a complex range of skills and abilities. Toddlers need play to support their emotional, physical, cognitive and literacy development.

Toddlers are drawn to play, and for most small children play seems effortless. Even from birth, babies are naturally attracted to playing and the skills they’ve learnt in the first year continue to be built on throughout their childhood.

Toddlers are naturally inquisitive, curious and impulsive. All these behaviours are clear when they’re playing and interacting with others. Toddlers also have a short attention span, which is why they constantly move from one activity to the next.

When toddlers aren’t playing, they don’t have the opportunity to use their body and brain as they need to.

Other benefits of play for a toddler:

  • playing outside reduces the risk of being short sighted and supports their eye development
  • allows them to test risky behaviours in a safe and supervised way
  • supports a toddler to build confidence and relate with other children of the same age
  • helps them to learn about communication, talking and language
  • promotes fine and gross motor development
  • physical activity helps toddlers and children to maintain a healthy weight

What are the best ways to play with my toddler?

Aim for a balance between organising your child’s play (structured) with child led play. Sometimes toddlers need a little help to get motivated with appropriate play activities.

Try not to expect too much of your toddler, such as sharing and being thoughtful. Parallel play is common for toddlers who tend to play alongside other children, instead of directly with them. As they progress to the preschool years, toddlers mature from by themselves to more cooperative play which involves other children.

Indoor and outdoor play ideas

  • Swings, a slide and sandpit.
  • A dress up area where they can practice their imaginative and creative play.
  • Allow for messy play with buckets, mud, water and sand.
  • Encourage your toddler to draw and scribble. Crayons, coloured pencils and paints help to support fine motor and early writing skills.
  • Provide a range of colourful, safe toys which are entertaining and fun. Choose toys with bright colours, different shapes and which need some sort of input to work are great for the toddler years.
  • Set up a reading corner with soft cushions and a range of books. Remember to read with your toddler every day. Join a library and give books as presents and importantly, let your toddler see you reading.

When is the best time to play with my toddler?

Most toddlers are keen to play at any time they’re not sleeping or eating. In fact, toddlers are so driven to play that it can be hard to distract them from playing. Toddlers thrive on routine and predictability. And although as adults doing the same thing every day can become tedious, toddlers feel secure when there is little variability, helping them to feel secure.

Try to involve your toddler in what you’re doing and adapt it as needed. Toddlers love to feel they’re ‘helping’ with house and yard work and being included in jobs.

Play can happen at specific times, such as during playgroup, or just throughout the day and evening. Toddlers can create their own fun with very little props. Having age appropriate toys, bikes, balls and outside equipment helps to encourage them.

How do I play safely with my toddler?

Your toddler will be developing new skills every day and will surprise you with what they understand. However, toddlers, no matter how clever they are, do not have the ability to know what is unsafe. Your toddler will rely on you to always check their environment for safety.

  • Remove any hazards where they play. Use childproof gates and latches to restrict their access to unsafe areas of your home and yard.
  • Lock up poisons, chemicals and medications.
  • Use plug-in covers on electrical switches.
  • Make sure your pool is fenced and that your toddler can’t get near water which can pose a risk of drowning.
  • Arrange areas of your home where your toddler can play safely. This will help you to relax a little knowing you’ve checked and removed any risks.
  • Do regular checks in and around your home for potential hazards. A home safety checklist is a good reminder.

Should my toddler watch tv?

For children under 2 years of age, any kind of screen time, whether it’s a television, smartphone, tablet or a computer, can be bad for their development. Children aged 2 to 5 years should have less than 1 hour of screen time per day. This includes games on your phone and watching TV. This ensures that children get the right balance of physical activity and other activities that promote learning and social skills.

Read more about screen time for kids.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2022

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