Ages & Stages

The Importance of Play in Child Development

What is play and how does it affect toddler development?

Play stretches across all 5 developmental domains and can successfully produce developmentally appropriate activities for toddlers. In the textbook, Early child development: From theory to practice, it talks about how at this age and stage of development, toddlers are gaining awareness of themselves and others around them; which also can provide a positive sense of self and encourage their social/emotional skills. It's my opinion that children learn best through play. It is through play that children are able to acquire skills without having to be restricted to a table. Play allows for creative ways to teach children without them even realizing they are being taught. Specifically, in most toddlers, their attention span is very limited and they are very curious about the environment around them and their independence. By this age, many toddlers are wanting to do everything themselves. Toddlers can also be fearless and willing to try anything; this can be very helpful when planning activities through play.

How to Setup a Developmentally Appropriate Toddler Environment

How do you design an environmental space to nurture a toddler's development?

At this particular age and stage, toddlers are still not quite into the sharing business yet. So it's important to have at least 2 of the same toys, if not more (typically it depends on the demand of the toy). Due to promoting a toddler's independence, all toys and materials need to be placed on low shelves that are accessible to them at anytime. I would also suggest that you set your environment up into specific areas pertaining to the 5 developmental domains. I would also suggest that you limit the amount of open spaces too; this will help limit running in the classroom. However, allow the areas to be able to complement each each. Let the areas mix to create play beyond the specific area. This will also promote children to explore and use pretend play (their imagination). Make sure all walk ways are clear of clutter to reduce falling and tripping.

Recommended toys for a toddler environment

Dramatic Play

With pretend food, make sure all cultures/ethnic backgrounds can be represented (through rotation of food); dress up clothes should represent all types of community helpers (non-stereotypical); baby dolls and clothes; recycled food boxes from home (no egg cartons) can be a great way to include a home like environment, along with promoting parent participation; cash registers and shopping baskets are great items to rotate within the center as well; which also promotes math skills when dealing with money.

Social and Emotional Play

You definitely need to have games. You can either purchase or make up your own games. A strong suggestion would be to make games with songs children are familiar with. Puppet shows are great social and language development activities. Floor puzzles or small 4 to 8 piece puzzles can be fun too, especially when utilizing teamwork to put it together. I would also encourage children to socialize during meal times (encourage children to ask each other to pass food) and encourage children to serve themselves (self-help skills). Interactive CDs are great too; especially for transitions.

Science and Math Play

Math is very simple, get things that children are already interested in. I would definitely use vehicle counters, I also like frogs on the log; which can also promote patterns. Science can have bugs, magnifying glasses, binoculars, any type of live insect habitats. Sink and float activities create opportunity for children to be able to make hypothesis about what they think is going to happen (experiment).

Language Play

Important: Please make sure that you are speaking correctly around children. They are learning through what they hear and see. Make sure to use proper English and complete sentences when talking or addressing children. Also make sure your actions match your words that you say. Remember that facial expressions are a form of language (nonverbal).

Materials I would have: pencils. markers, color pencils, crayons, white paper, construction paper, letter stamps, ink pads, letter chart posted on the wall, and name cards available for children curious about writing (specifically heir name). Games and story time are excellent language activities too.

Block Play

Block center is a great opportunity for children to development many skills. I would have tools, community help dress up clothes, a car rug (for small cars and race track. I also would have writing in this center too (using paper pencils and rulers). The foam blocks work well and soft against slamming/dropping on the floor. Big floor blocks for children to be able to create and use their imagination. Also you can use a train table or even the build a road blocks in the center.

Creative Expression (Art) Play

Toddlers love to do art. Even though it's not recognizable, they are learning key concepts: self-expression, positive sense of self, independence, gripping a marker or crayon correctly, and cutting paper. Also, children enjoy play dough and play dough tools; which is a great fine motor activity and promotes imagination/creativity.

In Home Ideas

In the article, 10 things every parent should know about play, it talks about the 5 developmental domains and how play can actually reduces stress. It also talks about the importance of physical outdoor play and the benefits. In the article, The 10 NAEYC program standards, it talks about the relationship between staff and parents. It's very critical to have that open two-way communication with your parents. Specifically, when it comes to a child's behavior. You never know what could be going on at home that may have contributing factors.

My suggestions for some activities:

I would recommend reading to your child at least once a day; many prefer before bed time. I would also suggest getting puzzles to encourage thinking and problem solving. It's always fun to have art supplies hanging around; especially for those rainy days. Baking is also a fun activity to do at home. Going to park is great for gross motor skills or if you have a backyard purchasing a climber and/or some balls to throw around is very beneficial (bikes are a great investment too).

Author: Takara Jones

A article written by a childcare professional


Bongiorno, L. (n.d). 10 things every parent should know about play. Retrieved from

Groark, C., McCarthy, S. & Kirk, A. (2014). Early child development: From theory to practice. Bridgepoint Education: San Diego, CA

NAEYC for Families. (n.d). The 10 NAEYC program standards. Retrieved from