Being a mom, especially a toddler mom, can be overwhelming. So many decisions to make everyday, all day. As a developmental pediatrician, I am here to tell you that there can be 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.  

The pathway to a bit of peace in your life is a simple one. Take a deep breath….here it is. Allow your child to PLAY. The importance of play and development cannot be overstated. Children need to explore and learn at a pace that fits their age, without adding more to your plate or costing you more money. 

Below you will find some key tips to help your little one develop through play, no matter what their age. Remember to keep playtime simple. Avoid these common myths about play. 

Establishing solid meal times, nap times and bedtimes helps to create predictability and a sense of safety for your child. Small chunks of playtime (10-25 minutes each) can be sprinkled anywhere throughout the day in between meal and sleep times. These small chunks of playtime allow your child to learn and explore at a pace that fits their development. 

Recommended Reading: 5 Tips for Stress Free Toddler Activities

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. 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.

This is also an age where stranger danger can kick in. 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, be flexible with it as nap times change. Play time should be creative and flexible too.

Below you’ll find some tips for games to play together as well as great toys for this age and items 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 to 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. Example “Mommy is taking this plate and putting it back in the cupboard.” or “Mommy is mixing your food with a spoon.”
  • Practice saying hello and goodbye to everyone you meet, and even loved objects such as blankets and stuffed animals. 

Great toys for this age

  • Large building blocks
  • Large dolls and puppets
  • Balls (but not small enough to fit in the mouth)
  • Push-pull todays
  • Empty boxes, egg cartons, paper tubes, old magazines

Items to avoid

  • Anything with small parts that could fit in a little mouth
  • Walkers that you sit in (too many serious child injuries)
  • Screen time other than videochat

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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 words, name body parts, name feelings! Epic changes are happening everyday and this is a perfect time for your toddler to develop their imagination. While you may feel tempted to go out and buy the latest, greatest toys, resist! Simple toys like basic play kitchens and shape sorters 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.
  • Read books together. This is a great age for pointing out characters and objects in books. Jingles, nursery rhymes and simple picture books are perfect for this age. 
  • Listen and respond to your child when they speak. Ask them questions to get them thinking about their world. 
  • Continue to describe and point things out when running errands, going for walks, doing chores around the house. 

Great toys for this age

  • Nesting toys, shape sorters, make believe sets such as kitchen sets
  • Large crayons and paper
  • Connecting toys
  • Child’s 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

Items to avoid

  • Anything with small parts that could fit in a mouth
  • Walkers that you sit in (too many serious child injuries)
  • Screen time other than video chat

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

Your child is getting more and more independent every day. By age 3, they are able to run, jump, climb and speak in 2-3 word sentences. This is a great age to organize play groups with other children. While your child may do more parallel play than engaging with other children directly, it is good to expose them to this social time. 

It is also important to spend some one-on-one time with your child each day. This could be reading books together or playing together on the floor. When you notice your toddler demonstrating a positive behavior, reinforce it with a compliment, “I like how you were responsible and put your shirt in the basket.”  If you are introducing screen time, be mindful that it is limited and that you can watch together if possible (more about screen recommendations in the next section). 

Activities to do together

  • Read together
  • Join a playgroup with other parents and children
  • Play at a park or go explore in a garden or natural site. 

Great toys for this age

  • Blocks, shape sorters and make believe sets 
  • Crayons, paper, coloring books
  • Dolls, trucks, trains, connecting toys
  • Child size tricycle
  • Balls for kicking/playing, no smaller than tennis ball
  • Simple jigsaw puzzle

Items to Avoid

  • Trampolines (wait until they are 6 or older)
  • Uninflated balloons
  • Toys that need to be plugged in
  • Screen time

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 pressure 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 content, especially cartoons to make sure they are not violent. Be careful to not use media as a way to calm your child as they need to be able to do this on their own. It is a good idea to turn off all media at least one hour before bedtime to help children slow down and 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 Best

When in doubt, remember that unstructured, unplugged play helps children to 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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