Learning Through Play for Toddlers

Have you been wondering how to implement learning through play at home for your toddler? Or at a loss for activity ideas, or what toys to buy? You’re in the right place.

Below you will find some key tips to help your little one learn through play during the toddler years. Remember to keep playtime simple. Allow your child to just PLAY.

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Children need to explore and learn at a pace that fits their age, without adding more to your plate or costing you more money. Avoid these common myths about play. 

Being a mom, especially a toddler mom, can be overwhelming. There are so many decisions to make everyday, all day.

As a developmental pediatrician, I’d like to help you get some peace from the chaos. It doesn’t involve spending tons of money on toys, or even creating complicated Pinterest-worthy activities for your child.  

Start by creating a routine. Many of the best learning activities happen as part of your daily routine. Establish solid meal times, nap times and bedtimes. While you don’t need to be too strict bout this, a routine helps to create predictability and a sense of safety for your child.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, unstructured play is the best way to boost your child’s development. Play is the most important thing you can do to help unlock your child’s genius!

Sprinkle small chunks of playtime anywhere throughout the day, in between other parts of your routine. These can be anywhere between 10-25 minutes, or longer depending on your child’s age. These small chunks of playtime allow your child to learn and explore at a pace that fits their development. 

In this article, you’ll get ideas for play and toys at different ages:

The Almost-Toddler: Learning Through Play for 8-12 Month Old Children

Before we talk about activities, let’s talk about what are the important skills to learn. These are some of the major milestones we expect at 12 months of age:

At this age, your baby is learning to regulate their emotions. This is one of the most important skills to learn at this age and through the toddler years. Stranger danger also kicks in at this age, if not earlier. This is a natural reaction. Allow your baby to express these feelings.

Your baby is going through a lot of changes at this time. While it is important to maintain a schedule, this does not have to be too rigid. Your child can undergo nap transitions at this time. Just as your routine shouldn’t be too rigid, play time should be creative and flexible too.

Below you’ll find some tips for games to play together, great toys for this age, and things to avoid. 

Games to play together

Peekaboo is a favorite game at this age and through the toddler years. Kids learn a lot from this game too!
  • You can play peekaboo anytime, anywhere. 
  • Talk with your baby. You can also do this anytime and anywhere. Verbally point out items you are using, and actions you are taking. This helps your child develop vocabulary and understanding. For example, you can say, “Mommy is taking this plate and putting it back in the cupboard.” or “Mommy is mixing your food with a spoon.”
  • To help your child through transitions,  try saying hello and goodbye to the people you meet. Signal the end of an activity by saying goodbye to your child’s toys.

Great toys for this age

  • Large building blocks
  • Large dolls and puppets
  • Balls (but not small enough to fit in the mouth)
  • Toys that your child can push or pull
  • Empty boxes, egg cartons, paper tubes, old magazines

What to avoid

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The Younger Toddler: Learning Through Play for 12-24 month old children

So many changes are happening with your child during this time. They are learning to walk, feed themselves, speak real words, name body parts, and name feelings! Epic changes are happening everyday, and this is a perfect time for your toddler to develop their imagination.

For example, here are the major milestones for an 18-month-old toddler:

While you may feel tempted to go out and buy the latest, most expensive toys, resist! Simple toys are better choices for developing your child’s imagination. 

Activities to do together

Reading picture books together is a great way to develop your toddler’s language skills.

Great toys for this age

  • Nesting toys
  • Shape sorters
  • Items for pretend play (such as toy utensils)
  • Large crayons and paper
  • Connecting toys
  • Child-size keyboard and other simple musical instruments
  • Dolls, trucks, trains, stuffed animals
  • Bath toys (boats, containers)
  • Wooden spoons, boxes, paper tubes
  • Outdoor toys such as slides, swings, sandbox

What to avoid

Just as for babies who are 8-12 months old, you should also avoid anything with small parts. Anything that fits in a cardboard toilet paper roll would be too small. Avoid walkers too.

The Almost-Preschooler: Learning Through Play for 24-36 Month Old Children

Your child is getting more and more independent every day. They will continue to explore – and this is how they learn.

This is a great age to organize play groups with other children. Your child may do more parallel play rather than engaging with other children directly. Play will become more interactive as they near their third birthday.

If you can’t do play dates because of the pandemic, don’t worry about this! All your child really needs is you.

That’s why it’s important to spend some one-on-one time with your child each day. Read books together, or play together on the floor.

When you notice your toddler demonstrating a positive behavior, reinforce it with a compliment such as, “I like how you were responsible and put your shirt in the basket.” 

If you are introducing screen time, try to set limits on the amount of time, and it is best to watch together

Activities to do together

  • Read together.
  • Play simple games like hide and seek or “bring me”.
  • Play in your backyard, at a park, or anywhere your child can explore nature. 

For more activity ideas, get our FREE guide to 45 fun, no-prep toddler activities.

Great toys for this age

  • Blocks are a great staple for any age! You’ll notice that your child can do more with them. Try introducing blocks with different shapes. 
  • Rainbow arcs
  • Crayons, paper, and coloring books. Cardboard boxes work great too!
  • Play Doh
  • Dolls, animal figures, action figures, cars, trucks, or trains
  • Connecting toys, such as Lego Duplo or magnetic tiles
  • Child size tricycle
  • Balls for kicking and playing. These should be at least as big as a tennis ball.
  • Simple jigsaw puzzle
  • Toys for pretend play. Household items (choose those that are safe for your child to handle) are great for this!

Try not to stress over whether or not your child has all the “right toys”. Remember – it’s not about the toy, but about how it is used. Simple toys work best to build your child’s creativity!

Does your child get bored with toys easily? Here’s what you can do.

What to avoid

  • Trampolines. DON’T buy a trampoline for your home!
  • Balloons that have not been inflated
  • Toys that need to be plugged in
  • Choking hazards. Just as in younger age groups, avoid toys with small or loose parts, or toys that fit entirely in your child’s mouth.

The Screen Time Dilemma

While we are all tempted to plop a little one in front of a screen to get a break, we must be mindful of using screen time as a babysitter. Don’t feel pressured to introduce devices early on as a way to help your child learn technology. They will have plenty of exposure to this later in life.

If you would like to introduce media to your child (18 months or older), check out these guidelines. One thing to consider is to choose a high quality program and watch it with your child. Watching together allows you to engage with your child and help them understand what they are watching. 

The American Association of Pediatricians recommends no more than 1 hour a day of media for 2-5 year olds. Check the content. Even cartoons may have violent content!

Be careful to not use media as a way to calm your child, as this can prevent them from learning to do this on their own. Turn off all screen media at least one hour before bedtime to help children calm down. 

Are the screen free activities you see on the internet so complicated that you are tempted to give up? Get our FREE guide to toddler activities.

Play is How Toddlers Learn

When in doubt, remember that unstructured, unplugged play is best. This helps children develop problem solving, imagination, reasoning and critical thinking skills.

Unstructured, unplugged play can be done both cooperatively with an adult, or independently by a child. While you don’t have to play with your child at every moment, make sure to get some dedicated time together everyday. 

Also, it is completely ok to LET your child be BORED. Your job as a parent doesn’t mean you have to entertain them all the time. Do engage with them, but don’t feel like you have to have picture perfect activities set up all around the house. Allowing them to be bored will help them to problem solve and be creative.

Instead of buying a new toy for a bored child – try this! Rotate toys. Keep a selection of 10 toys out each week to explore, store the others away. Rotating toys each week can put a fresh take on an older toy. Showing your child how to combine unrelated toys can help them expand their imagination. 

Enjoy the benefits of Learning Through Play. Learn more here!

Mama, you are already doing a great job. Keep those established routines. Sprinkle in several chunks of play time. Keep the toys simple AND engage with that lovable child. Doing these things will allow your toddler to develop in a healthy and happy way.

About the author: Dr. Victoria Nolasco is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, clinical associate professor of pediatrics, and a certified positive discipline coach. She is also mom to a two-year-old. Her blog, effectivemommy.com, is dedicated to happy and confident parenting for toddler moms. Follow Effective Mommy on Facebook or Instagram.

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