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What babies started to do and learn in their first 12 months really takes off during the next 12. Through their play experiences and interactions with you (remember, you are still their favorite toy!), they continue to figure out how the world around them works. Read on to see what young toddlers are up to during this time—and what you can do to support your toddler’s development.

What Can They Do?

Toddlers are learning how objects are used together. This is why they enjoy filling-and-dumping water, sand, and blocks. Toddlers are also making connections between objects—the reason they like placing little people on a toy bus. Toddlers are learning about sizes as they stack rings. They’re noticing similarities when they line up two toy cars that look the same.

Toys to Explore:
  • Pop-beads or chunky interlocking plastic blocks
  • Plastic spoon and cup
  • Blocks and bucket
  • Nesting cups/rings or shape-sorters
  • Busy box with button to push, switch, and dial to turn
  • Chunky wooden puzzles
Helping Your Toddler Play and Learn:
  • Offer toys like these to your toddler and just watch to see what she does. Let her try to figure out how they work and discover what she can do with them.
  • Then show your toddler how to use these toys in new ways. For example, you might put the spoon in the cup and stir. Then hand it to him and see what he does. Or pretend to give his stuffed bear a sip.

First Friends and Early Social Skills

Beginning at about 12 months, most young toddlers enjoy playing near peers. They may play games like “Ring Around the Rosie” or “chase” with another child, or join a peer in filling a bucket with mulch on the playground. These moments may not last long, but they give toddlers a sense of what it means to be a friend and have a friend.

Toys to Explore:
  • Musical instruments
  • Sand/water play
  • Art activities, such as painting or chalk
  • Toy cars or trains, with one available for each child
Helping Your Toddler Play and Learn:
  • Create a toddler band by giving each child an instrument or scarf to shake along to the music. Or give each toddler a paint brush and unroll a long roll of paper so everyone has a place to paint. This helps little ones experience the joy of peers without the pressure of sharing!
  • Model the words children should use when playing with others, including “Hi! I’m Logan,” “Can I play?”, “My turn?”, and “Thank you.” Toddlers will need to hear these words many, many times before they learn to use them. (This is one area where repetition is really important!)

Can You Hear Me Now? Building Communication Skills

Your 1-year-old is communicating with you using a combination of sounds, gestures, and facial expressions. She’ll likely begin using spoken language with one word, but her vocabulary will grow steadily as you continue to label, comment, and ask questions. She may not say much at first, but she understands almost everything you say!

Toys to Explore:
  • Toy telephone
  • Child-safe mirror
  • Dolls, stuffed animals, and puppets
Helping Your Toddler Play and Learn:
  • Use a toy telephone to help your child “talk” to you or other family members. Use dolls or puppets to “talk” with your child. Sit with your child in front of a mirror and say, “hello!” to each other.
  • Ask your child to do a “one-step” request—this means asking him to do one thing, such as “please get your shoes” or “pick up the ball, please.” As your child approaches age 2, try adding a second step: “Please pick up the ball and give it to me.”

They’re Moving Now

Toddlers are learning to walk, run, climb, use stairs, and throw a ball. This means they need lots of active playtime to build strength, balance, and coordination. Because toddlers don’t understand rules yet, they benefit from free play when they can explore their own way.

Toys to Explore:
  • Balls of different sizes to roll, throw, and chase
  • Push toys
  • Toys that can be pulled while walking (a toy dog on a string; a wagon)
  • Tunnel (purchased or homemade from a moving box)
  • Child-size stool to climb onto and jump off of (with supervision)
Helping Your Toddler Play and Learn:
  • Create a toddler obstacle course where your child has a chance to crawl (through a moving box), climb (over a cushion), bounce (on a pile of blankets), and roll toward you for a kiss.
  • Throw a soft playground ball and see if your child will run or crawl to get it. Or just roll the ball back-and-forth to one another—a game that builds social skills like turn-taking.


Whether you’re looking for games to build your toddler’s language skills, or games to keep the young ones busy, here are some great play ideas for your infant or toddler.

Action-Oriented Activities

Squishy Sponges

Give your child some soaking wet sponges to play with outside. Let him wash his trike, the mailbox, or even stamp wet sponge-shapes onto the sidewalk. Show him how he can squeeze the sponge to make the water come out—this builds physical skills in his hands and fingers. “Important” jobs like washing a tricycle or baby doll help toddlers feel like confident and helpful members of the family. As with all water activities, it is critical to supervise children carefully as they play.

Leaf Collector

Give your child a small basket and take her on a walk around your neighborhood or a local park or school. See if she wants to pick up leaves and other “treasures” and put them in her basket. You might be surprised by how long your toddler will be happy to walk, snapping up leaf after leaf for her collection. This activity builds gross motor (large muscle) and fine motor (small muscle) skills as children walk, squat, and pick up their discoveries.

Freeze! Toddlers love freeze dancing

Play music and encourage your child to dance or move in whatever way he likes. Then instruct him to stop when the music ends. This kind of activity encourages listening skills and self-regulation as he practices stopping and starting. (This is a very useful skill for when he goes to school and has to follow a lot of directions!)

Pop Some Popcorn

Take a receiving blanket and have your child hold one side while you hold the other. Place some foam balls (“popcorn”) on the blanket and then shake the blanket so the balls bounce (or pop!) off. Your little one might like singing “POPCORN! POPCORN! POP, POP, POP!” while you shake. Once all the balls have “popped,” have your child race to grab them and put them on the blanket to do it again.

Quiet Play Activities

Shadow Play

In a darkened room, shine a flashlight at your hand so that the shadow is reflected on the wall. Wave to your child and make silly shadow shapes with your hand. Does your child want to try to wave with his shadow hand too? He may also enjoy shining the flashlight on the wall all by himself.

Fill and Dump

Make 5-10 homemade balls (wad up waxed paper or newspaper and cover with masking tape). Put the balls in a shoebox or basket. Give your child another box and show her how she can move each ball from one box to the other. If your child is walking, place the baskets a few steps apart so that your child can toddle from one to the other. Games like this encourage toddlers to move their hands across their bodies as they transfer the balls, which helps them later on with many skills from athletics to handwriting. ##Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear Starting at about 18 months, children are just beginning to play pretend. A good way to build these skills is by playing with a doll or stuffed animal. You might say, “Oh, Teddy fell down and got a boo-boo. He needs a hug.” Then give it a cuddle. See if your child also wants to give Teddy a hug. Next, you might use a “prop”—like a cup or a blanket—and suggest that your child “give Teddy a drink” or “put Teddy to sleep.”

Make a Homemade “Wagon”

Attach a 12–18 inch length of string or ribbon to a shoebox using sturdy tape. Show your child how she can pull the string to make the box move. If she is walking, give her a job to do using her “wagon,” such as pulling some clean dishtowels into the kitchen or delivering mail to grandpa in another room. This kind of activity builds physical and problem-solving skills as your child learns how to use an object as a “tool” (pulling the string to move the box.) Be sure to supervise closely and put this toy away when you are done playing.

Activities That Build Thinking Skills

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Plant some seeds that grow in summer, such as grass or flower seeds, in a patch of dirt outside or in a pot to keep inside. This is a fun project for toddlers who love to shovel, pour water, and get messy! At the same time they’re building fine motor skills (as they use their fingers and hands) and learning important science concepts as they watch their plants grow.

Try the Classic Shell Game

You’ll need a plastic cup and a small toy. Show your child the toy, then set it down and cover it slowly with the cup. See if he picks up the cup to find the toy. Once your child has mastered this game with one cup, try it with two cups and later, with three cups. This is a very challenging concept for toddlers to master so it’s important to be patient. Soon enough, your child will have no trouble at all locating the toy. This kind of activity builds thinking skills and hand-eye coordination.

Take Out Some Tubes

Put those empty wrapping paper tubes to work. String a scarf through the tube and let your toddler pull it out. Or, show your toddler how to drop a ball or foam block down the tube and watch it fall on the floor. Roll the tube and race across the room to get it. Make music by banging the tube on the floor. Games like this build your child’s thinking and imaginative play skills.

Practice Pouring

Wash out an empty plastic spice container and show your child how you can drop a few pieces of cereal inside. Offer it to your child and watch as she tries to figure out how to get the cereal out. She may shake it or drop it, but eventually, she will pour them out onto the high chair tray, a plate, or her hand. This type of activity builds problem-solving skills.

Activities That Build the Senses

Take a Peek!

Remove the label from several small water bottles. Fill each bottle with interesting objects—one might contain small shells, another can be filled with sparkly glitter, water, and mineral oil, and another with a few pennies. Securely glue the lid on each bottle. Give them to your child to look at, shake, and explore.

Water, Water Everywhere

Fill a dishpan with water and place it on a towel on the floor (or better, outside). Give your child plastic cups, spoons, bowls, and a funnel. Watch her pour, splash, and more. Add some food coloring to the water for a new twist on water play. As with any water activity, supervise carefully and pour all water out when you are done.

Band Together

Gather several objects that make different noises—rattles, bells, tambourines, etc. Start singing a song and pick up an instrument—offer one to your child too—and make some music together. Games like this nurture your child’s language, physical, and thinking skills.

Make a Bubble “Mound”

Fill a small bowl with some bubble liquid and then use a straw to blow a mound of bubbles. Let your child explore the bubbles with his hands—but watch to make sure he doesn’t eat any. He may also enjoy watching you blow bubbles for him to catch.

Activities That Build Language Skills

Name It!

During diaper changes, take a moment to play “what’s this?” Lift up her foot and say, “What’s this? It’s a foot. And what are these? They are toes.” You can name belly, belly button, knee, leg, parts of the face, and more. Through repetition, young toddlers learn new words.

Picture This

Snap photos of your child during an activity with you, such as making cookies. Take a picture of the beginning of the activity (getting the ingredients), the middle (adding ingredients, stirring), and the end (eating cookies). Glue each photo to an index card. Show the photos to your child and talk about the steps you took for each activity. Activities like this help develop your child’s thinking and language skills.

Point It Out

As you read books with your child, ask him to “point to the cat” or “show me the moon” in his favorite stories. He may not be able to follow through yet (so you should go ahead and do the pointing), but as your child approaches 2 years, you may be surprised by how many words he seems to know. Reading activities like this help children understand the connection between words and pictures and build their vocabulary.

Hello, Good-Bye

Make a tunnel from a large cardboard box by opening both ends. Your child can be at one end of the tunnel. You sit at the opposite end. Peek your face in the tunnel and say, “Hi!” Then lean away from the tunnel (so your child can’t see you) and say, “Bye!” Does your child try to communicate with you by crawling to find you, or by making sounds to copy your “hi” and “bye?” This activity encourages language, problem-solving, and physical skills as your child figures out how to locate you.

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