Toddlers at play

Toddlers at play

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What to expect from toddler play

Toddlers are full of energy - they run, reach for things and busily explore the world around them. Opening and closing drawers, turning containers upside down to check their contents, squishing toast inside a book, and hiding things in all sorts of places - this is all normal behaviour and shows that your toddler is keen to figure out how things work and what they do.

Unstructured play is important at this age. This is play that just happens, depending on what takes your child's interest. For example, sometimes your child might feel like doing something active, like jumping, running and dancing. Other times he might enjoy quiet activities like drawing, reading or sorting blocks.

Structured music or gym classes can be fun, but your child doesn't need them. Your child just needs time to play - and a safe home environment to explore and play in.

Sometimes your child will want to take charge with toddler games. This is great whenever it's safe and practical, because it teaches your child about making decisions and lets her use her imagination. When your child is leading the play, you can ask questions that encourage her to tell you about what she's doing - for example, 'What are you making in that pot?'

Your toddler's play will probably vary in pace and focus. Sometimes he'll look at something quickly and move on. Other times he'll stop and explore an object. This means that simple activities with a toddler - like collecting the mail - might take a bit longer than you think.

By the time your toddler is three, she might be enjoying 'pretend' games like dress ups and playing house. This type of imaginative and creative play helps your toddler express and explore complex emotions like frustration, sadness and anger.

You might notice that your toddler wants to play the same game or read the same book again and again. Repeating games and activities is how toddlers master skills and understand what to expect in certain situations.

Most two-year-olds don't understand how to share or take turns. By three, your child might understand what sharing is but will probably still find it hard to do. Your encouragement and plenty of practice will help your child start developing these skills.

Toddler play ideas and toddler games

Play is not only fun - it's also how children learn. You're still the best toy for your toddler to play with - and the best toddler games still have you playing a very important part.

Here are some tips for toddler play:

  • Sing songs and nursery rhymes: your toddler will enjoy singing with you, especially songs and nursery rhymes that involve actions and touch.
  • Read with your toddler every day: pop-up and lift-the-flap books are fun and full of surprises. Let your child choose favourite books to read. You can also point out some words as you say them, ask your toddler to repeat words with you, or ask questions like 'What happens next?'
  • Give your child things to draw with: your toddler will enjoy scribbling with crayons, pencils, paints or chalk. You can expect him to put any pens within reach into his mouth too, so it's a good idea to choose safe, non-toxic pencils and paints.
  • Try messy play: for example, playing with water, sand or mud lets your toddler explore new textures and sensations. Let your child empty and fill containers, pour and scoop. Remember that constant supervision is the only way to keep your child safe around water.
  • Go outside with your child: outdoor play, like pottering in the garden or park, offers endless play possibilities. It also gives your child the chance to be active in varying ways like climbing, running, swinging, leaping or rolling.
  • Give your child opportunities for pretend play: create an exciting play space like a bedsheet over chairs or a tower of boxes. Some simple props like old scarves, handbags or clothes can give your toddler ideas to make up stories or pretend games.

Screen time
Screen time can be a fun, learning experience for your child. But it's important to balance screen time with other activities that are good for your child's development, like lots of face-to-face creative play or physically active time with you and other carers.

The most recent screen time guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) say that:

  • children under 18 months should have no screen time other than video-chatting
  • children aged 18 months to 2 years can watch or use high-quality programs or apps if you watch or play with them to help them understand what they're seeing
  • children aged 2-5 years should have no more than one hour a day of screen time with adults watching or playing with them.
How do you choose the right toys for your child? Children don't need many toys to play, and toys don't need to be fancy or flashy. Some of the best toys for children are 'open-ended' or recycled - for example, cardboard boxes, pieces of material and old clothes.