Play Ideas to Boost Cognitive Development in Toddlers

When it comes to the cognitive development of your toddler—meaning their ability to understand, communicate, think, imagine, create memories, and predict what might happen next—play is absolutely essential. One of the principal ways that a child explores the world around them is through play, which allows them to simultaneously experiment, think, problem-solve, and learn.

With that in mind, setting aside time to play with your toddler can boost their cognitive development. This will help to build your relationship with them while also sending them a clear message about how important they are to you. This will help your child learn who they are, discover where they fit in the world and give them the confidence to continue with their exploration of the world around them.

Toddler playing in the grass
Toddler playing in the grass

Supporting Cognitive Development in Toddlers Through Play: Some Ideas

Here are some toddler-friendly play ideas you can use to help your child develop their thinking and learning skills:

  • Read books and recite nursery rhymes together. By the time they’re two years old, you can begin to leave out words from their favorite stories. Ask them to tell you what happens next.
  • Get sorting! Give your toddler blocks, shapes, pegs, cups, or containers in different sizes or colors and have them sort them.
  • Give them a toy with buttons that do things when pushed (but try to avoid overly noisy toys or those with vivid flashing lights – less is more in toys too). This will help them to learn about the relation of cause and effect.
  • Fill a box with art and craft materials. These simple activities can include crayons, paper, finger paint, scrap materials and playdough for indoor use, and colored chalk, for drawing and writing outdoors.
  • Get your toddler swing! We cannot ephasize enough the benefits of swinging. We wrote a whole article about this topic, click here to read it. For most toddlers, swinging is a favoured activity and it is a great way to support the development of their nervous systems. Although it’s not a play that particularly focuses on cognitive skills, but anything that’s good for the brain will eventually result in better cognitive skills.
Girl swinging happily
  • Let your toddler crawl on the ground. Criss-cross crawling requires limbs from opposite sides to coordinate with each other. This act is absolutely vital in the development of an important pathway in the brain, facilitating the hemispheres of the brain to communicate. This helps support cognitive function, problem solving, and ease of learning. If your child skipped the stage of crawling on all fours, we especially recommend you to practice crawling with them in their toddlerhood.
  • Let your child climb on things – carefully superwised. Similar to crawling, climbing also plays a key role in early childhood motor skills and cognitive development. Using both hands and feet, and dealing with varying inclines, levels, and distances between platforms, has been shown to enhance children’s ability to sense one’s own body’s position and movement in space, stimulating the vestibular system and supporting brain development greatly.
  • Have fun with water. Place a water-filled dishpan on a towel on the floor—or outside, weather permitting—and give your toddler some plastic cups, spoons, bowls, and funnels. Watch as they begin to pour, splash, and more. If you want to add a new twist to this water playtime, add some food coloring to the water or talk about why some things sink while others float. As always, carefully supervise your child during water activities and pour out all water when finished.
Toddler playing with water
  • Play outside using some wet sponges. Stamp wet sponge shapes on the sidewalk. Show them how to squeeze the sponge to make all the water come out, which will help build hand and finger skills. Let your toddler wash their tricycle, the mailbox, their dolls, etc. These “important” washing jobs help toddlers gain confidence and make them feel like helpful members of the family. Always make sure that you carefully supervise your child as they do these water activities.
  • Practice pouring. While your toddler is watching, drop a couple of pieces of cereal into an empty, clean spice container. Give it to your child and watch them experiment as they try to get the cereal out, building their problem-solving skills. After shaking or dropping the container and discovering that this doesn’t work, they’ll eventually pour the cereal out onto their tray, plate, or hand.
  • Scoop, dig, pour, and sift sand. This is a great way to increase their self-confidence, physical development, and coordination. Sand play helps teach your toddler how things work, offering a rich sensory input and the foundations of scientific learning. It is also wonderful sensory play. When done along with someone else, sand play also teaches social skills, such as sharing and teamwork.
  • Go for a walk around your neighborhood, local park, or school. Take a small basket along and ask your toddler if they want to pick up leaves to put in their basket. As they walk, squat, and pick up their treasures, your toddler will be building large and small muscles (gross and fine motor skills).
Toddler playing with water and rocks at the beach
  • Play with music. Turn on some music and encourage your toddler to dance or move however they’d like. Then tell them that when the music stops, they have to stop moving, too. This game encourages self-regulation as well as listening skills, which can be very useful when your child begins to go to school and has to follow the teacher’s instructions. Also, playing music in the background during children’s free play impacts brain development in very important ways.
  • Take your toddler outside to play in your yard, at your local park, or at the beach. Exlpore nature around you: collect shells, rocks, leaves, observe birds and plants, draw in the sand and talk, talk, talk to your child. Even if they cannot yet reply, they understand a lot and behind the scnenes, they’re working hard on their communication skills.
  • If weather allows, let your child run around barefoot on the sand, rocks or in the grass. Appr. 70% of the brain’s information for movement is gleaned from nerves in the soles of the feet. Habitually working these sensory receptors not only promotes increased strength and agility in a child’s growing feet, ankles, knees, and hips but also supports brain development greatly.
Get those little feet dirty
  • Let your toddler take the lead. Children learn best when they’re interested in what they’re doing. If you follow your child’s lead, their interests will allow you to help your child learn something while playing.

Screen Time, Play, and Toddler Cognitive Development

The current international guidelines recommend no screen time for children under the age of two—except for video chats with people that they know. Young children learn best in the real world, including physical, outdoors, and creative play as well as social time with friends and family.