Playing together

Learning how to play

During the toddler years, children gradually move from playing alongside other children to playing with other children.

This is quite a long process so don’t expect too much too soon.

It is quite ok, and good for your child, for them to have time amusing themselves. Try not to leave a child alone with the TV or a screen, but if they have some interesting things to do, just watching from a distance can help build concentration.

The first step is playing with you!

Your child also needs you to play with them so that they can learn how it is done. Here are some ideas for how:

  • Give your child your whole attention. Put down the phone, forget about the washing, just for a few minutes. Get down to their level.
  • Accept that your child will need to lead – if they want to do what you want, fine, but this is not always going to happen
  • Watch what they do, show signs of pleasure – smile and make happy noises. Your child will pick up that you are interested.
  • Use words to describe what your child is doing – just “say what you see”. If you are not sure about this, click here for some ideas.
  • Best not to ask too many questions – they can interrupt the flow
  • Get involved, following your child’s lead. Resist the temptation to take over
  • When you are both playing and talking together, try introducing a new idea, but never mind if your child does not take it up

The more you can talk with your child while playing, the more they will pick up the idea and learn to focus. You might find these Words Up messages useful.

What toys should I get

The best toy is you, and whatever is around that is safe to use. Outside is great, sticks, leaves, etc

Don’t feel you have to buy lots of stuff – expensive toys that claim to do this or that. Your child may get more from the box that they come in!

Here are some things it is great to have …

From 12-24 months

Children benefit most from toys that:

  • use my body and balance – sit on toys, push along toys, large balls
  • use my hands – stacking, sorting toys, construction to use both hands together
  • make me think – wind up toys, posting puzzles, anything with cause and effect
  • make me imagine – soft toys, puppets, dressing up
  • get me messy – playdough, chunky crayons, paint
  • I can use outdoors – or things we find there like leaves and sticks and puddles

From the start support tidy up time as part of the daily routine – but be prepared to do most of it yourself with your child “helping”

From 2-3 years

Look for toys that help me …

  • be active – balls, bean bags, playpark equipment, trikes, open spaces
  • sit quietly – at table or on sofa to look at a book, threading chunky beads or dry pasta, chalk board or dry wipe board, doodle pads, puzzles
  • pretend and imagine – workshop toys, tea sets, whatever I like

Have tidy up time as part of the daily routine – your child will gradually be able, and want, to help you with this

Growing imagination


Playing with other children

Your child will learn from playing with other children too, but don’t expect them to be very good at this. A toddler needs to have their own way often, and it will be some time before skills like taking turns or changing plans emerge.

Let older children know what to expect. Kids are usually really good at adapting to younger children, but they may need to know that your child is only small, still learning and might get tired or scared easily.

When toddlers are playing together, it can help to have an adult around who can help

  • Make sure is a toy for everyone
  • Show how to take turns with things
  • Help out when children get stuck
  • Notice when someone is getting tired and needs a break
Making a mess

Messy play is not only ok, it is very good for your child. It helps them explore the world, and different materials, and builds confidence

Nobody who knows anything about it will judge you for having a happy, muddy, child – make sure what they are doing is safe and that you are in hand to help, but puddles, mud, etc are all great toys.

Easy play indoors is great too – foam, playdough, whatever – use a plastic sheet and aprons if you are worried about flooring or clothes.

Mess cleans up, but the learning fun you and your child can get from messy play lasts a long time!