Let’s play! Games for toddlers and parents

by | Jun 28, 2020

This content has been archived. It may no longer be relevant

Children learn by play – it’s a vital part of their development. Clinical psychologist Michelle Nortje looks at some games you can incorporate into your child’s life.

The central way in which children learn and communicate is through play. Play is the language that facilitates a toddler’s learning and boosts their physical, emotional, linguistic, social and cognitive development.

Play is therefore an integral part of a child’s growth and should not been seen as something frivolous or silly. A child at play is hard at work!

Below are a few simple games to introduce to your child to facilitate various important skills. Remember, however that there are a plethora of creative games for children and this is by no means an exhaustive list.


Hide-and-seek or peek-a-boo

Emotional and social

This well-known game plays an important role in developing a child’s growing understanding of separations, losses, reunions and repairs in relationships. A parent should take turns to be found and to do the searching.

The parent can describe what is happening during the game, and describe how the child may feel if they are not found (sad, lost, forgotten) or found (delight, enjoyment, love). This allows parents to start to talk about more difficult themes and emotions that emerge when children must first go to school and separate from their parents for longer periods of time as they get older.


Cognitive, fine motor and emotional

Age-appropriate puzzles are a fun way for parents to help build their child’s cognitive skills such as planning, emotional skills such as patience and perseverance, and fine motor skills as they learn to manipulate the pieces to fit in the correct spaces.

For toddlers you can begin with about three- to four-piece wooden puzzles and gradually increase the number of pieces as the child masters each stage of difficulty. Ensure the puzzles are about something the child likes in order to keep their interest!

It can be tempting as an adult to complete the puzzle for one’s child, but try to be patient and let them make mistakes and keep trying to find the right fit.

The five senses

Physical and linguistic

This game is used to help small children explore their immediate environments using their senses. It’s a helpful tool for facilitating a child’s physical development and it can later be used as a self-soothing skill for older children. It also encourages wonder, joy, curiosity and inquisitiveness in their environments.

A parent can gather up several different items with differing and interesting colours, shapes, sounds, textures, smells, sizes, and tastes. For example, you may include some of the following found and made items: a crunchy autumn leaf, a flower, a scented candle, a soft teddy or cloth, a piece of rough bark, some crunched coloured paper, rice in a small Tupperware, a piece of fruit and a shiny coin. (Remember that toddlers will require close supervision in this game as smaller items can be easily swallowed.)

While the child explores each item, the parent can help describe the item’s different qualities.

One for me and one for you


This game can be played with any items your child may be more interested in: cars, marbles, beads, Smarties, or even pebbles from the garden. In this game, items can be shared between yourself and your child, while saying, “One for you and one for me.”

For older children this same mechanism can be used to explain how we share out a deck of cards for a card game. This game explores the basic foundations of sharing, turn-taking and reciprocating in relationships. Some children may want to keep the items all to themselves or may want you to take them all. At this age, it is important not to respond in a frustrated way no matter what response your child gives, as this is a skill that takes time to develop.

Small children may still have a preference for ‘parallel play’ (playing next to a friend not with them) and only later begin to learn more interactive ways of playing with someone else.

Free play

Free play is perhaps the most important play activity for all children, not only toddlers. In free play a child can use their own imagination and internal world to create a game and rules of their choice. This means the game has a unique and individualised purpose for your child.

They may choose a particular game because they are trying to master a specific skill, need to have a sense of being in control, or are trying to make sense of something new they have encountered. Sometimes we may not be able to quite understand the reason why a child enjoys a particular game so much, but if you as a parent can follow a child’s lead instead of selecting the game for them, you can learn about what your child is finding most important or difficult at that time.

For example, a child who is drawn to a toy phone may be exploring their use of language to communicate, or may be saying they would like to be able to connect more with you!

These five suggestions of types of games are examples of how to facilitate play and learning in many spheres of a child’s development. Play allows for a child to strengthen many skills at once. However, the mere act of spending time with your child is often the most important part of the play. Having a parent engage with or merely observe their play can make them feel special, seen, included and valued. And we, as adults, need a reminder every now and then to play ourselves!.