Playing with your Toddler

Play is the modus operandi of little ones. It is how they learn about their world. By playing, kids grow confidence and engage in problem solving activities. They cultivate their imaginations and learn about dealing with other kids. In short, it is the bedrock of their development. It lays the foundation of who they will become.

Playing also helps to make a reader. As toddlers, their spoken communication skills are being fine tuned, and they can pay more attention to books and signs. Help them cultivate these skills in play! Name objects and actions to give meaning to words. Point out letters and words on walks and while driving in order to show your kid that they have meaning and importance. With this emphasis, as your tot turns into a preschooler he will become more interested in written words setting him up to be a reader.

Here are some reminders about toddler play. As with my Playing with Your Baby: On Raising a Reader edition, I have also included some toddler-approved play ideas.


play-toddler-1-croppedCreate a safe play environment. Make an area toddler friendly, a place where you don’t mind leaving your tot to explore. After child proofing the area, leave a variety of stuffed toys, puzzles, blocks, boxes, book, and more to entice play. Basically, if your toddler has a place that can be turned into a tornado alley, so to speak, then she will be secure to engage and discover new things. These environments can be a section of your backyard, a room, or a part of your living area or kitchen.

Toddlers are still sensory learners. The “put-everything-in-mouth” phase may have been kissed good-bye, but the need for sensory experiences has not disappeared. Toddlers still learn best from using all of their senses. With a safe play environment in place, you won’t have to worry too much about your child using his five senses in play. Sisters Rachel Sumner and Ruth Mitchener state in their book Recipes for Play:

There is no substitute for real-life sensory experiences…Sure, television can show you a super-high-definition, highly saturated colorful image of a flower, but it can’t tell a child what that flower smells like, and there isn’t an app on the market that can show what a flower really feels like when you squish the petals in your hand after ripping each one off.

Since young children learn best with others and in real-life experiences, we should give them time during the day to engage in the world around them. Make sure to let them feel different textures, play with different materials, and smell new things, all the while you explain the texture, material, and smell, supplying meaning behind the words.

Encourage pretend play. Children notice social roles and like to practice being familiar people in their lives. Let them pretend to be different people, animals, or things. It helps to broaden their imaginations and to make sense of their world.

Use guided play, but do not over do it. On the one hand, as Sumner and Mitchener speak about in their book, play should be for play’s sakes. There is no right or wrong way to explore the world around them. Children are learning when they are doing things we don’t think is learning–like smashing beans into the floor. On the other hand, toddlers should also engage in guided, structured play.

This structured play can occur while using digital media. Toddlers, specifically, require help when interacting with screens. So, try to avoid using digital media as babysitters or calmers. Use the time to engage with each other. Please read about digital media, its effects on children, and some recommendations and tips on using digital media with children here.

Guided play is also a great way to help teach your child about taking turns. By taking turns with other kids, children grow to notice that there are others around them (seems crazy, but toddlers are extremely self-sighted). A simple example of guided play with more than one child: filling cups. Get a cup, a bowl, and some different fillers, such as beans, flour, or water. Ask a toddler to fill a cup and empty it in the bowl. Let another one do the same.

A word of caution on teaching or even forcing sharing: Tots and preschoolers, yes even preschoolers, do not understand sharing in the way us adults do. In fact, the ability to comprehend sharing and why we should share, that is because we empathize, isn’t something children develop until much later on. Let your kids, as Tovah P. Klein author of How Toddlers Thrive states, “be selfish now to be generous later.” By cultivating a secure sense of self, a toddler will know she has everything she needs and will then be willing to give without being asked. She will truly be a generous person. But, it happens over time. Rest assured that as a child ages and wants friends, she will learn that to get a friend, she has to be a friend…that is to notice and take care of others who may want something she has.

Frustrations are okay. I know you remember your toddler when he was an infant. How he had to do tummy time. How much he hated it. Wait, you don’t? Oh, I do because my son HATED it! But, I had to endure his wails of discomfort and frustrations because I knew he needed to strengthen his core.

Likewise, if your toddler is having a difficult time fitting the cylinder block in the hole slot in a shape sorter, let him keep trying. Working through frustrations helps to build persistence in your child. As your infant ages, tasks become harder to complete. Instead of doing these frustrated things for your tot, you have to let go and let him try. Otherwise, he won’t learn to keep going. This of course is hard for us! I hate the whining, too.

But, your kid can learn to work through frustrations and roadblocks in play. This skill will come in handy later on when he learns to read. Reading can be frustrating, but with an attitude to persevere, he will conquer it when the time comes.

Toddler Play Ideas

I believe in play that is fun, engaging, and nearly always free. Empty cereal boxes for blocks? Empty egg cartons and plastic cups for sorter containers? Parks? Yes, please! Keep reading to discover that you don’t always have to purchase toys to make playing enticing. Here are some toddler-approved play ideas to help raise a reader.

Walks. The great outdoors are brimming with possibilities! Go for walks. We used to walk to our local university campus on Sunday mornings before church. Theo would be in a stroller and we would just enjoy the fresh air and the foliage. We’d let him run around once we got to an open area and let him practice walking up stairs.

If you have a backyard, you can take small walks around it. Talk about the different things you see and the weather. You could supply rakes, shovels, magnifying glasses, and cups for your child while he is playing in the backyard.

But if you are like me and you don’t have a backyard to dig up, then just buy some potting mix, sand, or some other medium and use your balcony or porch area. Spread a blanket if you want and give your kid buckets and cups along with the chosen medium. Let her play with the fun textures explaining what all the objects are, what they are for, and how they feel.

Go on a hunt. Hunts are fun! Pick anywhere: at the grocery store, at the park, or at the doctor’s office. Ask your kid to try to find a dog or the color green.

Puzzles and sorters. Get one of those shape sorters and some puzzles. These really help your kid develop persistence. Wow, it was hard for Theo to get through with puzzles and shape sorters by himself. I always let him try his hardest before giving suggestions.

You will probably have to purchase these (unless you have a woodcarver in the fam or someone really good with an exacto knife), but it is worth the money. Remember to check out consignment shops as well as your local Good-will.

Dress up.  While you are at Good-will, buy some play clothes for your little tyke (especially around Halloween! Costumes don’t have to be just for October 31!). Or you can supply your own with old clothes, shoes, and hats. Keep them in a tub within reach so your budding pretender can act out you, a cat, Spiderman, a princess…

Puppets. If you see any puppets at Good-will, you should probably buy them. But, you could make your own or just use stuffed animals for puppets. Puppets are a terrific way to have your child practice using all those words he hears. Encourage your tot to act out situations with puppets. We used to pretend to throw birthday parties.

Chalk. Not only will your toddler get to practice her fine motor skills, but she will have a blast coloring on the cement around your house! You can discuss the colors and encourage making different lines or shapes.

Bathtime. Always give your child (age appropriate!) objects to use in his bath. Not only will it help make bathtime easier, it will also engage him in some serious, open-ended play. Use plastic cups, squirters, beach balls, buckets, and more plastic items.

Nesting, lining up, and stacking objects. You can buy blocks to allow your tyke to stack, but honestly anything within reach will become stackable. Books. Cups. Pots. Boxes. Toddlers love nesting as much as stacking–and watching them fall over. They love the sound it makes, the mess, and the fact every time they move that tower or dump the pots, they always fall down! You can call them budding scientists and engineers if that helps you endure the mess, I mean, play.

My son liked to make lines. He would use books, toys and even chairs. I guess the orderliness was comforting to him.

Matching sizes, shapes or colors. Here is another simple, guided play you can do with your toddler to reinforce basic concepts, like size, shape, and color. Gather a bunch of items and ask him to find all the small items. Show him that they match because they are all small. Then repeat with another aspect, like all the green ones.

Reading, rhyming, singing. As I hope I portrayed above, playing really helps in the development of language skills. By talking with your toddler through play activities, he learns more vocabulary. These words make her world understandable, and she is able to communicate her specific emotions and thoughts. Playing can also occur while reading, saying nursery rhymes, and singing.

Have her mimic the motions you do while you sing or chant action songs. Toddlers learn best while moving, so by play acting the songs, they are definitely learning about the subject of the words being sung. Read books with actions built into them like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury or Row, Row, Row Your Boat by Jane Cabrera.


Share with us some of your toddler’s favorite play games.

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