How do you play with a toddler?
“I think of play as a toddler’s number one essential vitamin. He needs large doses of it every day. Play: Thrills the senses. Helps toddlers master movement. Stretches the mind. Stimulates language use. Boosts friend-making skills. Stimulates the immune system. Builds self-confidence. Improves nighttime sleeping.”
Dr. Harvey Karp, MD The Happiest Toddler on the Block
Toddlers love to play, and the fact is, they must play! Play is the basis of learning for a toddler. So yes, when a toddler squirts a banana out between his fingers, there is learning going on! Toddlers learn how to manipulate their world through play…and one of the biggest parenting responsibilities is to provide opportunities for your child to have free play. Developmentally many toddlers have separation anxiety, so they want to be near you when they play, but toddlers do not need you to lead their play. Play for a toddler is based on exploration. Too often parents want to “show” a toddler how to play…after all we know how that toy works, we read the directions! Toddlers enjoy play more and learn more when they figure out their own “right way” to play with a toy; and it often is different from the directions. The process of discovery through play is the tool to learning.
So how do you play with a toddler? Here are a few suggestions:
- Give your toddler physical help when needed. Often toddlers know what they want to do, but don’t have the gross or fine motor control to actually do it, remember a toddler is “long on will, short on skill!” This will often lead to frustration. A parent can help but not complete a task of play for the toddler. Example: A toddler may want you to show them how to fill a bucket to make a sand castle, but doesn’t want you to guide the entire process. I always had to remind my builder husband of this…he wanted to build the castle, his way! 🙂
- Be a partner. Many games need a partner. A toddler can’t play ball without someone rolling or tossing the ball to him. Let your toddler play the game until he or she is finished–not you. Repeating a game many times is how a toddler masters a skill. Don’t toss a ball a few times and quit when you are bored! Over and over again is how play works for a toddler!
- Demonstrate. A toddler will like to be given demonstrations on how things work or even suggestions. Let your child be free to use your suggestion or not. Do not interrupt his play to bring another idea or “show you how to do it”. Let your toddler lead the play.
- Help with concentration. A toddler’s attention span is only a few minutes especially if the play involves sitting still. If a parent sits with a toddler to talk, and encourage during a task, then the toddler will be able to concentrate longer and might be able to complete a difficult task like a puzzle. Encourage but don’t do it for your toddler.
- Help your toddler play with others. Toddlers will enjoy playing next to other children not really with other children. Parallel play is common at this age. Children will play next to each other without really cooperating. Toddlers are not developmentally mature enough to be left with another child to “fight it out”. They are not capable of sharing or playing fair without help. Give two toddlers similar materials or toys and let them play as each of them wants without interaction with each other. Eventually toddlers will begin to talk to each other, and a friendship will begin to develop. Often it is helpful for a toddler to play with older children too. Older children provide good examples of imaginative play, problem solving, sharing and it helps the older child develop leadership skills too. Guide your toddler in sharing…show them how to do it. Eventually they will develop the ability to share, but only after being shown many times.
- Be a good role model for your child when you play. Ask if you may take a toy and use the words please and thank you. When your toddler shares with you, praise your child for good sharing. Choose cooperative games like playing ball, and other activities that take turns. This helps teach a toddler good social skills which is necessary for cooperative play. Be patient, your child will be capable of sharing and playing with other children some time between the age or 2 and 3, if you have given your toddler the opportunity to develop the skill! One of the most important skills your child will need to develop before school is cooperative play and being a good friend!
- Beginning at 18 months encourage imitative and imaginative pretend play. This is a very important step for your toddler. Your child will start to imitate important people in his or her life, so that would be you!! Soon that play will change from simply imitating to imaginative play. Your toddler will take a block and pretend it is a cell phone, or will play “house” with your pots and pans. This starts symbolic thinking which is very important in developing math and reading skills later. Imaginative play also teaches empathy…it helps a child start to learn how others feel. It is fine for your little boy to play pretend with dolls and for your little girl to play pretend with trucks!! Imaginative play also improves language. Listen to your toddler, he will self talk as he pretends and will often tell you what to say when you are playing with him! Join in the conversations!
- Let your toddler play with safe every day items. We all know it…your child’s favorite toy may just be the plastic containers in the kitchen, the laundry basket, a silky scarf, or a box! Expensive toys really are not needed…your imaginative, creative toddler will play with every day things and enjoy it! These items increase creativity and imagination, so save some money and encourage this! Remember, a blanket over a card table works just as well as that expensive play house, and a muffin tin and different types of cereal to sort works as well as a fancy sorter!
- Get a little messy! Toddlers love sensory play. Get out the water, the finger paints, the pudding, the play dough, put on an apron and have fun! Toddlers need messy creative play. This will bring out the kid in you too! Sensory boxes filled with different items provide lots of creative messy play. Try filling the boxes with Easter grass, dried beans, rice, or anything else you can find at the Dollar Store. Think pouring and dumping, digging, sorting, searching, feeling, and fun.
So playing with your child is not rocket science. It is letting your child discover his or her world safely and creatively. So, sit on the floor, watch your toddler, participate in the play your toddler leads, keep the TV off, and get the plastic kitchen containers out and maybe a little pudding paint…it is going to be a fun day!
Take a breath, enjoy the joyful moments of each day, and remember you don’t have to be perfect to be the perfect parent.
- Posted in: Becoming a Dad ♦ Becoming a parent ♦ Enjoying parenting ♦ Fun activities for kids ♦ Growth and Development ♦ Parent/child communication ♦ Uncategorized
- Tagged: creativity, early education, enjoying parenting, growth and development milestones, imaginative play, infant, language development, play, preschooler, pretend play, self confidence, separation anxiety, toddler, toddler play, toddlers and sharing, toys