The Benefits of Toddler Play 

One of the biggest myths about childhood is that play is just frivolous entertainment . . . a “waste of time.” Actually, play is much more important than academics during the toddler years. Play is a top toddler nutrient. Happy, healthy toddlers have their days filled with chasing, pretending, rolling, and tinkering. 

When you give your child a big daily dose of “Vitamin P,” you:

  • thrill their senses

  • help them master movement

  • sharpen their thinking

  • encourage their language use

  • boost their people skills

  • teach them about the world

  • stimulate their immune system

  • build their self-confidence

  • improve their sleep

  • feed their meter to encourage good behavior 

There are three types of play that you should try to give your child every day: outside play, creative activity, and reading. 

Outside Toddler Play: Kids “Go Ape” When They’re Cooped Up

Some of my happiest childhood memories are of playing outside: rolling down grassy hills, kicking heaps of fallen leaves, making snowmen. (Many of us still revel in these activities.) But while adults enjoy the fresh air, toddlers don’t merely like it—they need it. A 2-year-old cooped up in an apartment all day may feel as trapped as Tarzan stuffed into a tight tuxedo.

And don’t be afraid to go out in “bad weather.” Rain, wind, and snow add to the fun. Just get the proper clothes and shoes for yourself and your toddler and run out and have a ball! 

Creative Toddler Play: Your Child’s Favorite Toy—His Brain 

Imagination is the key to mankind’s greatest advances, from the arts to the sciences. Science and math are important, but, as the complete quote from Einstein reads, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines what we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.” (I know this quote well because it’s printed on my computer mouse pad!) 

Feed your toddler’s creativity with:

  • Art materials: Go for variety: crayons, Play-Doh, collage materials, watercolors, finger paint.

  • Real—or replica—household items: Toddlers love “monkey see, monkey do.” As the months pass, they want to imitate you more and more. Use household goodies like pots/pans/wooden spoons, a toy phone, or a small broom and dustpan.

  • Props for pretend play: Dolls and dollhouses, action figures, toy dinosaurs, and lots of costumes and dress-up clothes. By age 3, a child’s interest expands from imitating their parents to trying on new identities—such as princess, ballerina, firefighter, and cowboy.

  • Sensory materials: Molding clay, a sandbox or sand table, a splash pool, a watering can, pouring toys for the bathtub, swatches of different materials (satin, velvet, corduroy, sandpaper)

Book Play for Toddlers: Reading Is Feeding

Want your child to have a healthy brain? Feed it… by reading! The key to reading with toddlers is to do it with them. Reading makes kids smarter, and it’s a sweet opportunity to snuggle close and join your hearts.

Here’s how to adjust your reading routine for your child’s age:

  • Early toddlers (12 to 24 months): These tots are active! So pick a reading time when your child is tired. Use books with cloth or cardboard pages. Talk a lot about what you see: “Look, a doggie! What does a doggie say? What do doggies eat?” Turn the book into a game: “Hey, you be the doggie. Can you bark? Wow! What other animals can we find?”

  • Middle toddlers (24 to 36 months): Two-year-olds like things “just so.” Your child may howl if you skip part of a story he’s learned by heart. “Do it right!” he’ll protest. As you turn each page, offer your child a chance to be smart by asking, “What’s going on now?”

  • Older toddlers (36 to 48 months): Older toddlers love stories about animals and people (and trucks!). And they love to compare what’s happening in the story to situations they’ve experienced. “Oh, honey, Bigelow the rabbit dropped his ice cream…That’s like when you spilled your beans at lunch.” Older toddlers repeat lines from books to their stuffed animals and even make up their own stories. Now they’re at the stage when they love it if you “accidentally” make a silly mix-up of the words. They giggle with joy when they catch you making a “mistake.”

[Related: 11 Interactive Books More Engaging Than an iPad]

Do you see why play is so brilliant? So, for as much time as you spend teaching your tot her A-B-C’s and 1-2-3’s, don’t forget about the equally important P-L-A-Y!

About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.