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Learning through play 1-2 years

Children are learning all the time, and there are lots of things you can do as a parent or carer to help them develop problem solving abilities, imaginative play, social skills, co-ordination and control.

Toddlers instinctively find lots of different ways to explore objects around them. This includes banging objects together, squeezing, pulling, filling and emptying.

Happy toddler playing with toys

Encourage them by:

  • Providing simple inset puzzles – the ones that have little pegs on each piece so it’s easy to pick them up and slot them in the right place. Try to find ones that follow the child’s particular interests such as vehicles or animals. Remember, give them time to keep trying if the piece doesn’t fit straight away before showing them where it goes. You’ll build their problem solving skills and help them to be more resilient
  • Giving them an opportunity at bathtime to explore what ‘full’ and ‘empty’ look like – provide plastic bottles and containers for them to play with
  • Singing simple songs and action rhymes. If you choose a song your child loves and knows really well, and then pause at the end of a line (for example Humpty Dumpty had a great ……’) they’ll start to think about what’s coming next and may try to make sounds which are like that (in this case ‘fall’)

By the age of two, children will be starting to co-ordinate the movement of their hands, for example balancing blocks on top of each other to build a small tower, using a spoon to feed themselves (even if the food sometimes falls off!) or holding a pen or crayon in their fist to make marks.

Encourage them by:

  • Giving them a little bag to put things in and carry about, both when they’re playing at home and when you’re out and about
  • Letting them mix water and mud together to make mud pies, and giving them a bucket to put interesting things in when they’re digging in the mud
  • Showing them how to use rolling pins and cutters to play and have fun with playdough or biscuit dough
  • Giving them space to start doing things independently, such as washing their hands and face or putting on wellies
  • Putting a small amount of drink in an open cup to practise. They will spill it at first, but will gradually develop more control over it
  • Providing foods with different textures, and talking to them about what they’re eating. Letting them feed themselves may be messy, but it develops independence
  • Finding a big piece of paper and some child friendly paints or crayons for them to make marks and drawings. Invite them to talk about what they’re doing. On a warm day, use paintbrushes and water to ‘paint’ on walls, paving and paths. Chalks are also good for making marks outside

When it comes to using their whole body, your toddler will be starting to walk by themselves, climbing and pulling themselves up on furniture and play equipment. They will progress to climbing stairs holding an adult’s hand and crawling downstairs backwards.

Encourage them by:

  • Letting them splash in puddles in their wellies
  • Showing them how to climb up a hill and run down it again
  • Giving them ribbons or scarves to hold while they dance to music
  • Playing with them outside in the garden or the park so they can explore more adventurous movements safely. This will help them build muscle strength and learn about their body.
  • Visit ‘soft play’ centres which will help them to improve their balance and co-ordination
  • Showing them that they can take off their own socks, shoes and trousers, and can start trying to pull on t-shirts and jumpers over their head. Dressing up games are fun, and help them develop independence
  • Keeping a potty in the bathroom so they can start to get used to sitting on it for a few minutes before or after bath time

Children like to explore what they see around them in their own imaginative play. Play alongside them, and talk about what you’re doing using simple sentences.

Encourage them by:

  • Showing them how to pretend to look after a baby using dolls or teddies, giving it a pretend drink, giving it a bath in a bowl of soapy water or putting it to bed
  • Playing with toy cars together, pretending to go on a trip to the shops or to school, making the car go fast and slow, into and under things
  • Playing tea parties with favourite toys and play food

Teddy bears

Children love to hold books and look at pictures with you, as well as singing songs and rhymes together. All the time you’re doing this, their understanding of simple words and phrases will be growing.

Encourage them by:

  • Varying the way you read together. Sometimes they’ll enjoy books with lots of repetition (‘We’re going on a bear hunt…’) and other times will enjoy just looking at pictures and naming things
  • Reading a bedtime story every night as part of your bedtime routine – it’s a special quiet time together
  • Visiting the library and letting them explore a range of different books – board books, big books, pop up books, noisy books. Many libraries have special sessions for toddlers with fun activities – a great way to start building up listening and social skills
  • Taking photos of them doing different activities at home and out and about, which you can talk together about later
  • Singing together when you’re dressing or bathing them (for example ‘This is the way we wash your hair, wash your hair, wash your hair…’)
  • Playing which involve simple instructions such as finding objects or posting items into a box

Social skills are important to develop. As well as taking your toddler to stay and play groups, for example at your local Family Hub, there are things you can do at home too to support learning.

Encourage them by:

  • Playing turn taking games like rolling a ball back and forth
  • Enjoying games like peekaboo and copying games
  • Sharing everyday tasks like making sandwiches, setting the table or hanging out the washing.

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Page last reviewed: 14-05-2024

Next review due: 14-05-2027