Toddler play – A new understanding

By Kathryn Tonges, Effectiveness Training Institute of Australia

Frustrated by your toddler and their seemingly aimless and destructive play – pulling, pushing, banging, dropping?

Pre-schooler play makes so much more sense to an adult eye. Dramatic play, art work and playing with blocks seem much more constructive. Observing toddler play requires a different set of lenses. With their new found independence toddler play is all about problem solving and lots of it! Toddlers are making sense of their world through exploration with their senses.

It is best not to try to control toddler play but work with your toddler allowing them to safely explore and discover. This learning is called heuristic play with objects.

So here’s how you can help your child to discover and find things out for him or herself:

  • Allow them to freely choose their play materials. You don't have to spend a lot of money on toys when nature and your home offer so many opportunities for a varied choice: sand, water, cardboard boxes, milk bottle tops, old handbags and simple dress-ups, balls, paper, home-made musical instruments, things from the garden or grocers to taste and smell.
  • Do not suggest a right or wrong way to use materials – let them explore. They are working out what happens when they pour, push, pull, empty, poke, smell, taste.
  • Your role can be that of support and guidance: “How else might that work?”, “That tree you’re touching feels rough doesn’t it? I wonder if there is different bark somewhere else.” “That made a squeaky noise when you rubbed it.”
  • If you want them to keep sand in the sandbox or draw only on certain surfaces show them where and what they can do or use. They may be looking for new stimulation and perhaps they can help you dig in the garden or draw with chalk on the concrete or paint water on the house or concrete and watch magically as it dries.
  • Allow for plenty of physical activity. For large developing muscles – walking, climbing, running, throwing, pushing, pulling, rolling. Toddlers love the outdoors but on a rainy day set up some little obstacle courses indoors with boxes to crawl through, a ladder on the floor to step in and out of, some cushions to roll or jump over. For small muscles – feeding themselves, putting on their own clothes with support, simple puzzles, threading with large beads or milk bottle tops with holes, drawing, and pasting. Set up treasure boxes to explore.
  • Toddlers need a lot of practice and they take their time. Allow enough time in your schedule so you are not always in a rush and you accommodate your toddlers low skill level and slow tempo.
  • Talk with your toddler about their choices, discoveries and what they are doing. Listen intently to their attempts to speak and then respond respectfully.
  • Toddlers love to be a part of daily home life helping preparing food, cleaning, hanging out washing. Consider how they can safely do these things beside you. Chopping up beans or vegetable scraps with a plastic knife, washing dolls clothes, pegging on a low clothes line, and gardening.

Toddlers have unlimited curiosity and a tremendous urge to become competent. Through manipulating their environment toddlers feel a sense of control and personal empowerment. Toddler-hood is truly a joyous age especially when you look at their world through their lens.

Kathryn Tonges is the State Executive Officer for ETIA QLD (Effectiveness Training Institute of Australia)
Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) and Personal Empowerment Instructor and Coach

Goldschmied, E. and Jackson, S. (1994). People Under Three: Young Children in Day Care. New York: Routledge.

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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