Toddlers are beginning to understand more about life and themselves. They’re also starting to think things through and understand lots of new concepts. Here are simple and fun play ideas for supporting your toddler’s cognitive development.

About toddler play and cognitive development

Toddlers are like little scientists – experimenting, thinking, solving problems and learning all the time.

Play is vital for your toddler’s cognitive development, because it’s one of the main ways that your child explores the world. Through exploration and experimentation, your child develops the ability to think, understand, make memories, imagine and work out what might happen next.

Your toddler’s relationships also support his cognitive development, especially his relationship with you. Play is a great relationship builder too. Spending time playing with your child sends a simple message – you are important to me. This message helps your child learn about who he is and where he fits in the world.

What to expect: cognitive development in toddlers

Your toddler will probably:

  • think you know what she’s thinking – not until she’s about three will your toddler realise that you actually don’t know what she’s thinking and feeling
  • be unable to separate what’s real and what’s pretend – for example, she might be easily frightened by monsters in cartoons
  • be curious and keen to experiment and explore unfamiliar things
  • be able to use words like ‘dark’, ‘loud’, ‘hard’ or ‘heavy’ in the right way, and understand their meaning by three years
  • enjoy exploring all five of her senses – sight, sound, taste, touch and smell
  • be able to follow simple instructions from 18 months
  • have favourite books, stories and songs – so be prepared for lots of requests to read or sing it ‘again’!

Your toddler is determined to try everything, even activities that might not be suitable for his age. He’s just trying to figure out how things work.

For example, at 8-16 months, your toddler will want to thoroughly explore all toys and objects within reach – banging, dropping, pushing and shaking them to see what happens. A safe home environment will give your child the freedom to explore without getting hurt.

Your child might now understand that there are groups of things in the world. By about 16 months, your toddler will sort objects into types – for example, by colour, shape or size – which helps with early maths concepts. Toys and household items like pegs and plastic cooking utensils are good for this kind of play.

Despite the huge amount they’re learning, toddlers don’t know how all the concepts fit together. For example, your child can see that things flush down the toilet. But toddlers don’t realise that they can’t accidentally be flushed down the toilet too. Or that if a leg rips off a favourite doll or teddy bear, the same doesn’t happen to a real person. These things could become real fears at this age.

Play ideas to support cognitive development in toddlers

Here are some everyday play ideas to support your child’s thinking and learning:

  • Help your toddler put together basic puzzles.
  • Provide lots of fun bath toys so your child can enjoy measuring, scooping and pouring.
  • Talk with your toddler, ask questions and respond to her questions. If your toddler asks ‘Why? Why? Why?’ all the time, she might be struggling to say what she really wants to know. Try asking your toddler what she thinks without always giving an answer.
  • Read books and recite nursery rhymes together. You can leave out words from your toddler’s favourite stories and ask your toddler to tell you what happens next.
  • Give your toddler things to sort, like different coloured blocks or balls, or different sized plastic cups and containers.
  • Give your toddler toys with buttons to push to make something happen.
  • Put together a box of materials for simple art and craft activities. This can include finger paint, crayons and paper, coloured chalk for drawing and writing on outdoor paths, scrap materials or playdough.

It’s a good idea to let your child take the lead more and more with play. Letting him take the lead lets him practise making decisions. It also helps to build confidence. 

A healthy family lifestyle includes limits on screen time. Screen time includes time spent watching television and playing games on computers, mobile phones and tablets.

If you’re concerned about any aspect of your toddler’s development, it’s a good idea to discuss it with your child health professional, or your toddler’s carer or educator if she goes to an early childhood education and care service.

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Last updated or reviewed
16-05-2016

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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