Expert Opinion

Development and Play

What type of play should I be doing with my 2-year-old?

As we all know, play is super important for a child’s development, especially during the crucial years of early childhood. If you have a little two-year-old at home, they are rapidly growing and learning about the world around them. So playtime is actually ‘learning time’ for your child because it provides opportunities for them to explore and develop skills all while building emotional connections.

There are different types of play that are appropriate for your two-year-old:

Pretend play: Encourage your child to engage in imaginative play by pretending to be different characters or engaging in role-playing scenarios. This type of play promotes creativity, problem-solving, and social skills.

Sensorimotor play: Provide your child with toys and activities that involve their senses and motor skills. This can include building blocks, puzzles, clay, or even sensory play like playing in the sand pit or a water trough. This type of play stimulates your child’s coordination, fine motor skills, and cognitive abilities.

Physical play: Running, jumping, climbing, throwing balls, and playing with ride-on toys help your child improve their balance, strength, and gross motor skills.

Social play: Set up playdates or attend playgroups to encourage social connections. This type of play enhances your child’s social skills and teaches them about sharing, taking turns, and cooperating with others.

Remember, the most important aspect of play is to allow your child to lead and explore their own interests. Be present, provide a safe environment, and follow their cues. Through play, your child will develop important cognitive, emotional, and social skills while having fun and enjoying their time with you.

Now that my 3-year-old is communicating more, is there anything I should be doing differently when playing and engaging with them?

Now that your child is 3 you’ll notice that their increased communication skills allow for a range of new possibilities in play! Some ideas might include:

Expand conversations: Encourage your child’s communication by engaging in meaningful conversations. Ask open-ended questions that require more than a yes or no answer. Listen actively and respond with genuine interest, which will foster their language development and encourage their self-expression.

Encourage imaginative play: With their growing communication skills, your child may enjoy engaging in more elaborate pretend play scenarios. Encourage their imagination by providing props, costumes, and opportunities to create stories. Participate actively and support their narratives, which promotes creativity, problem-solving, and language development.

Introduce educational games: As your child’s language skills develop, you can incorporate educational games and activities that support their cognitive growth. Introduce puzzles, memory games, or matching activities that encourage problem-solving, memory retention, and critical thinking.

Foster social interactions: Encourage your child to engage in cooperative play with other children. Arrange playdates or involve them in group activities where they can practice sharing, taking turns, and cooperating. This will enhance their social skills, empathy, and emotional intelligence.

Explore books together: Reading becomes more interactive at this stage. Choose age-appropriate books that encourage participation, such as asking your child to predict what will happen next or asking them to point out objects in the illustrations. This helps develop their language, comprehension, and cognitive skills.

Remember, each child is unique, so it’s important to observe and adapt your approach based on your child’s interests and developmental needs. The key is to create a nurturing and supportive environment that encourages their communication skills to flourish while enjoying quality time together.

I don’t really like playing, is it really that important that I engage in play with my child?

While it can be boring at times, and so often it feels like there are more important things to do, engaging in play with your toddler is really important for their development and well-being. Not only does playing together provide a valuable opportunity for emotional connection, it also fosters a sense of security between you and your child. And this is super important because it lays the foundation for healthy relationships in the future (no pressure though parents!).

Playing together with your toddler also helps to promote their development. Language skills, cognitive development, motor skills, and of course social-emotional skills are all learned and practiced through play.

You’ll also find that your child’s confidence and self-esteem are boosted through playing with you because when parents actively engage with their children, providing praise and encouragement, it helps toddlers develop a positive self-image and a sense of accomplishment.

Try to let your child guide and lead the play, that way it will be based on their interests and they’ll learn so much more with their increased engagement. Play can be structured or unstructured – although ensure there are adequate unstructured play opportunities that allow your child to explore and discover the world around them!

How can I get my child to play alone?

While sitting down to play with your toddler can be fun and a beautiful way to connect, sometimes we just want them to play alone for half an hour while we send some emails or help the older child with their homework, right?!

Well, the good news is that independent play fosters your toddler’s cognitive, emotional, and social development. Over the years I’ve worked with many a parent to increase the amount of time their child is engaging in independent play and here are some of the strategies I’ve recommended:

Start with short periods: Begin by setting aside short periods of time for independent play. This sets your child up for success and is less overwhelming. Gradually increase the duration as your child becomes more comfortable and engaged. Start with just a few minutes and gradually extend it over time.

Try the ‘set and forget’ method (but don’t really forget them! That would be weird!): Set up an activity that you can play together for a few minutes, but your child can then play alone for a few minutes too. Something like a train set, painting, craft, or blocks works well. Start playing with your child and then after a few minutes if they seem like they are confident with the task without your help, let them know you’ll be back in a few minutes and that they can keep playing. You can even set them up with a task such as “Can you do a drawing for me now and I’ll look at it when I come back to the table?”

Create a safe and engaging environment: Set up a play area that is safe, stimulating, and filled with age-appropriate toys and activities. Ensure that the environment is childproofed, so you can feel confident allowing your toddler to explore and play independently.

Model-independent play: Show your child how to play independently by engaging in your own activities nearby. Your presence provides a sense of security while allowing them to explore and focus on their own play. Be available for support if needed, but encourage them to explore on their own.

Offer praise and positive reinforcement: Celebrate your child’s efforts and successes in playing independently. Offer specific praise such as “You’re doing such a great job of playing by yourself right now!” to reinforce their independence. This can help motivate your child to continue exploring solo play.

Remember, every child is unique, and some toddlers may require more time or support to develop independent play skills. Be patient, flexible, and supportive throughout the process, gradually encouraging your toddler to embrace and enjoy their very own “me time”.

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.
Photo by Alexander Grey