Watch a one-year-old engaged in play. See the look of concentration on his or her face. This child is actually hard at work. Play is the major way that babies and toddlers learn. Up until about two years of age, children are in the sensorimotor stage of development, meaning that they learn from using their senses and from manipulating objects. They don’t need a lot of toys, as ordinary items are fascinating to them. As parents, our job is to make sure their environments are safe, to provide them with stimulating items to play with and to nudge them toward new ways to explore their worlds. The following activities are suitable for children around one year of age. With modifications, they can be enjoyed by children earlier and later. Of course, children have different personalities and interests, even at young ages, so your child will have favorites among these ideas for play.
1. Finger Play and Whole Body Games
For centuries parents have entertained their children with games involving finger, toes and simple body movements. The best part about this type of game is that no accessories are required. If you’re stuck in a long checkout line, you can have fun with your baby without having to juggle toys. Probably the best known examples of this kind of play are “Where is Thumbkin?” for fingers and “This Little Piggie” for toes, but there are many others. If none come to mind, a quick search for “finger play” on the Internet will reveal many examples.
A simpler game involves teaching your child to identify body parts by asking questions such as “Where’s your ear? Can you touch your ear?” Stretch your child’s vocabulary by including eyebrows, chin, elbows, knees and the like. One-year-olds also enjoy games that involve the whole body. With a little help, toddlers can play “Ring Around the Rosy,” and children a tad older can have fun with Hokey Pokey. Babies also enjoy making noise with their bodies, by clapping their hands, smacking their lips and hitting things with hands and feet. Pattycake is another classic game.
Body awareness activities not only build babies’ skills but also increase their ability to respond to parental commands. This can make everyday tasks like getting dressed and getting in and out of strollers easier.
2. Open-Air Adventures
When the weather is nice, take your baby outdoors for a lunch of finger foods and some fresh air. A blanket in the backyard will do, but if you go to a nearby park or playground, your baby will enjoy watching the other children play. If you’re lucky, you’ll have company in the form of birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and other flying creatures. You may encounter other animals, too, such as squirrels, cats, and dogs. Watching them is good for visual development, and naming them will improve your baby’s budding vocabulary.
The outdoors is full of fun, free items for play. Small sticks, stones, petals, and leaves are fun to pick up and manipulate. Throwing stones into water to make a splash is endlessly fascinating for most youngsters, and you don’t need a big body of water. A puddle will do. Let baby go barefoot for a bit after you have checked out the area for hazards. It’s great for little ones to experience the feeling of grass beneath their feet. Walking in sand is a fine sensory experience, too.
The outdoors does have its hazards, but most of them are small and easily guarded against. Be sure to protect baby’s tender skin from the sun. Use sunglasses or a sun hat to protect your baby’s eyes if you are going to be in direct sun. Watch for ants. Most bees and wasps are not aggressive and will not sting without a reason. Do steer clear of patches of clover and other blooming plants that are likely to be full of bees.
3. Water Tables for Fun and Learning
Water is endlessly fascinating to children, and because it’s so different from solid objects, playing with water is quite the learning experience. Of course, bath time is fun, but you can extend the fun and learning with a water table. These are available in stores, but you can also make your own by putting a plastic container on a sturdy base. You can create the base with plastic crates, or stack paving stones on top of each other. Fill the container with an inch or two of water. You can use bath toys in the water table, but it’s also fun to raid the kitchen for plastic cups, pitchers, spoons, and sieves. When baby gets a little older, you can add funnels, ladles, squirt bottles and the like.
Playing with water provides twin benefits. First, it’s an elementary science lesson in the properties of liquids. Second, manipulating the containers and other play items improves motor skills. Of course, any time that children are around water, they must be watched closely. Always empty the container when your child is through playing. Also remember that water is very heavy. An overfilled container on a less-than-sturdy base could create a tripping hazard. In addition, don’t locate your water table on a surface that becomes slippery when wet.
4. Sand Tables and Sand Boxes
You can build a sand table the same way you would a water table. Of course, you won’t be dumping it out after each use, so you’ll need a plastic container with a lid. Put the lid on after each use to keep the sand clean and dry. At one year old, most children will be happy with containers to scoop and dump the sand. It’s also fun for them to find toys that you have buried in the sand. As they get older, you can add more sophisticated toys like dump trucks.
You can also go for a full-sized sandbox, but they are harder to keep clean and difficult to move. Also, you’re likely to have sand tracked into the house, and your child may need a bath or a spray-down after play. Sand in body crevices can be very itchy and irritating! Throwing sand and getting it in someone’s eyes also seems to be more of a problem with full-sized sandboxes.
5. Hiding and Finding
An important stage in child development occurs when babies grasp the concept of object permanence. That means they realize that objects may not be gone even when they can’t be seen. This occurs when a child is able to form a mental image of an item that is not in sight. Before children reach this milestone, they may be delighted by a game of peek-and-boo, fascinated by the disappearance and reappearance of their playmate’s face. After this stage occurs, children will perform actions such as reaching for the blanket covering their partner’s face, showing awareness that the person who is hiding isn’t really gone.
In addition to peek-a-boo, simple games involving hiding objects are fun and educational for children around the one-year mark. You can begin by hiding a favorite object under a blanket, asking, “Where is Teddy?” before moving the blanket to reveal the toy. Once your child catches on, her or she will participate in the hiding part of the game. A variation of this game involves giving your baby a cardboard box or a pot with a lid. Show your baby how to put a small toy or other objects in the box or pot, closing it up so that it is invisible before opening it up to reveal the object.
This is also the age when children enjoy pop-up toys. Jack-in-the-box toys fall into this genre but may be too startling for some one-year-olds. Once your child is walking, you can start playing hide-and-seek. At this age, many children can find an appropriate hiding place, but they will probably be unable to stay hidden more than a minute or two. That’s okay! Even in this rudimentary form, hide-and-seek can be hilarious fun for you and your baby.
6. Mirror, Mirror
After children learn to recognize their parents and other familiar figures, they still won’t recognize themselves in a mirror. With a little mirror play, however, they will soon put two and two together. Big mirrors are best for creating this epiphany. Hold your child up in front of a bathroom mirror, or stand in front of a full-length mirror. As the two of you interact, eventually your child will recognize himself or herself as the other player interacting with you. You can help this process along by choosing something distinctive that your child is wearing – a hat, perhaps, or a picture on a T-shirt. Point out this feature on your child’s clothing and then point to it in the mirror.
Mirror play is an excellent way of learning. If your child is experimenting with a new skill, doing it in front of a mirror can help. (If you’ve ever done yoga poses in front of a mirror, you know how this works.) Your child will enjoy practicing jumping, clapping, waving and making other motions in front of the mirror. Just for fun, join your child in the activity of making faces in the mirror or dancing in front of a mirror.
Many children’s toys incorporate mirrors of the shatterproof variety. Some children enjoy looking at their faces in these. But for the utmost impact, mirrors where your child can see his or her whole body are best.
7. Talk to the Animals
Babies love looking at animals. If you have a zoo nearby, a one-year-old is old enough to enjoy a short tour. If you have a device that allows you to carry your baby facing forward, that’s a great position for visiting the zoo. If you use a stroller, baby will be too low to see over some obstacles. Of course, if carrying baby in this position isn’t comfortable for both of you, the stroller will have to do. More and more zoos are using glass enclosures that allow a close-up unobstructed view of the animals, even for babies in strollers. Whichever carrying method you choose, avoid staying too long and getting you or your baby overtired. Some zoos sell memberships that allow you to make multiple trips for a reasonable price, so you don’t feel that you have to stay longer to get your money’s worth.
Following your zoo trip, reinforce your child’s learning by looking at pictures of zoo animals and teaching the sounds they make. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no media for children younger than 18 months, but after that time your child will enjoy watching short animal videos, too. You can also pop into a pet store for a brief look at the animals. You won’t have as many species as you will see at the zoo, but a pet store visit is an easy way to add some fun and learning to a shopping trip or errand-filled morning.
8. Blankets, Cushions and More
Toss a blanket or sheet over a table for an instant tent that baby will enjoy going in and out of. Depending upon the construction of the table, you can secure the tent with chip clips, clothespins or similar household clamping devices. Don’t try to hold the blanket or sheet in place by putting something heavy on top, as these can be pulled off on top of baby. Throw pillows and couch cushions can add comfort and interest to the tent.
Couch cushions and big pillows are great for sitting and standing on. Because they are not as firm as the floor, they offer a balance challenge. Be sure that there is nothing nearby that baby could fall against. Crawling over cushions and pillows is also good exercise. You can also use throw pillows and couch cushions to create roads, tunnels and obstacle courses. If you’re not willing to subject your couch cushions to this kind of use, you can buy foam cushions especially designed for children to play with and climb on.
9. A Book (or More) a Day
It’s never too early to read to your child. It’s so important that your pediatrician may talk to you about reading along with discussing how to feed your baby. By the time your child is a year old, you should be well on the way to establishing a reading habit. At first, of course, your child won’t understand the words, but he or she will enjoy the pictures, the sound of your voice and the experience of being cuddled. If you have a very active baby, you may not get through a whole book. You can also abridge the text as you go, or just look at the pictures and talk about them.
Babies are individuals in spite of their young age, and one of the keys to enjoying reading with them is discovering which books appeal to them. Some babies like books with a gimmick, such as textures to feel or flaps to open. Some babies like photographs rather than artwork. Almost all babies enjoy looking at photographs of other babies. Other children are auditory learners and are more interested in the sounds you make. Don’t be afraid to ham it up with different voices and lots of expressions!
10. Blow Some Bubbles
Bubble play is wonderful for all ages! Stressed-out parents may feel better if they take a break and blow some bubbles. But when it comes to babies, bubble play is not only fun but incredibly educational. When babies are just a few months old, they can track bubbles with their eyes, an important exercise for visual development. A little later, they will realize that bubbles pop upon contact with most other items – a good lesson in cause and effect. Then they will reach the stage of popping the bubbles themselves, which builds eye-hand coordination. Chasing after bubbles and smacking them builds whole-body coordination. Eventually, your baby will be able to create bubbles by waving the wand through the air and by blowing into it, although blowing bubbles successfully will take some time and practice.
There are lots of different bubble wands and even bubble-blowing machines, but the simplest set-up is usually the best. Spill-resistant containers will keep you from losing all of your bubble solution in case of a tip-over. Some bubble solutions are non-stinging in case a bubble pops in baby’s face. You can also make your own bubble solutions and improvise various types of bubble blowers. Most of the time, the outdoors is best for bubble play, as popped bubbles and spilled solution can make floors and other household surfaces slick. You can try blowing bubbles while baby is in the bath, as those that land on the surface of the water usually don’t break.
11. Sprinkle, Spray and Splash
Water hoses and sprinklers are also great for water play on a warm day. Let your baby help you water the plants or the lawn, or set up a sprinkler for running or crawling through. Most children need to ease into getting wet, so let them be in control. For example, if you set up a sprinkler, they may hang around just outside of the reach of the spray for a while before venturing in. If you have a plastic container or old baby tub, you can fill it with water and let baby get in and out or splash in the water. Be sure to empty any containers completely when you are through, as children can drown in a few inches of water.
12. The Magic of Song
Every child should be sung to. Children are very attuned to music, which paradoxically both calms them down and stimulates them. Combine their natural affinity for music with the sound of a loved one’s voice, and you have a sure winner. Parents instinctively sing to their children to soothe them, but songs have many other purposes, too. You can use music to ease transitions at bedtime and at waking-up time. If you have grace before meals, try singing it. Clean-up songs even make picking up toys more fun! Action songs like “The Wheels on the Bus” are very good for brain development. Children have to listen for auditory clues and then match them with the appropriate actions.
You don’t have to have a good voice and perfect pitch to sing to your child. Choose songs that don’t have a challenging range. You’ll soon learn which songs fit your voice and which ones you enjoy singing. Try simple tunes like “You Are My Sunshine” or “Frere Jacque.” Remember that you’re not restricted to children’s songs. The payoff comes when baby starts to sing along. And, no, playing music on an electronic device doesn’t tick the same boxes.
13. Stack Them Up, Knock Them Down
Stacking is an activity that teaches a variety of skills. Start your baby off with a standard stacking toy, like the ones that use a series of rings placed on a center pole. This simple activity requires a complex series of movements. It requires baby to adopt a stable sitting position and maintain it while reaching for and manipulating the stacking rings. This often means reaching out and crossing the midline while still maintaining balance. Once baby has grabbed a ring, he or she must match up the center of the ring with the center pole. At first, most children will put the rings on in a random order. Later they can learn to place the largest rings first. This activity provides parents with lots of opportunities to talk about color and size.
While mastering stacking toys, babies can also be working on free stacking of items such as blocks. This is both a simpler and a harder task. The blocks don’t have to be threaded on a center pole, but they must be stacked one on another fairly evenly, or the stack will fall over. Your baby may get frustrated and cry at some point during this activity, but that just means that he or she is being challenged. One of the best things about stacking up blocks, from a toddler’s point of view, is getting to knock them down!
14. Drawing and Painting
Sometime around one year old is a perfect time to introduce your baby to drawing, also known as scribbling. This builds fine motor skills and may be your baby’s first experience in creating something. Use big sheets of paper to keep baby’s scribbles off the furniture and floor, but use washable crayons or markers just the same. You can also use cardboard as a drawing surface. It’s less likely to tear or wrinkle than paper is.
Your baby will grab the crayon or marker with the whole hand. The skill of holding it between thumb and fingers comes later. Soon you can introduce your baby to watercolors, finger paint, sidewalk chalk and other ways of expressing creativity.
After your child has created a drawing, it’s best not to ask questions such as, “What is this?” When children are just beginning to draw, the process is more kinetic than artistic. If they are asked to explain their drawing, they may feel that they have failed in some way. Sometimes they will volunteer a name for their drawing. If they don’t, don’t ask. Instead, praise their work and display it proudly.
15. Making Music (Or Noise!)
Simple musical instruments are great fun for baby. These can include drums, rattles, shaking sticks, bells and the like. Babies are usually more enthusiastic about using rhythm instruments if music is playing. Dancing or bobbing up and down is a natural part of this activity. Musical instruments reinforce the idea of cause and effect and also encourage babies to move their bodies. They empower babies to take pleasure in sounds and in rhythmic movement. Natural noisemakers like pots and pans are fun, too.
16. Play Ball!
Balls are among the most valuable and versatile toys that you can give to your baby. They come in the standard round, smooth type and in many other designs and textures. Some are designed to be easy for a baby to grip. Usually, a child has to be around 18 months old to be able to throw a ball, and it takes a bit longer to learn to catch. But by one year of age, babies can grab balls that are rolled toward them. They may even be able to pick up a ball, wave it around and release it in a way that looks much like throwing.
You can also create fun activities with balls. One involves improvising a ramp for rolling a ball down. This can be as simple as a piece of sturdy cardboard leaned against a chair. If you have a large cardboard tube, the type that holds gift wrap, you can show your toddler how to put the ball in one end and watch as it comes out the other.
A word about size. To be safe for babies, balls should be at least 1.75 inches in diameter. Any smaller, and a ball is a choking hazard. One easy guideline is if the ball will go through a toilet paper roll, it is too small for babies and toddlers. Small balls can easily lodge in the throat if they are put in the mouth, and they can be very difficult to dislodge. That’s why the game using a cardboard tube should only be used with a large tube. A ball that will go through a smaller tube is too small for child safety.
Many of the best ideas for playing with babies and toddlers aren’t found in any books or online resources. They are developed by parents, who see their children doing something and find a way to creatively extend that activity. Children can have a houseful of toys and be bored. Parents who are willing to playfully engage with their children are worth more than any number of store-bought toys.
Children grow up and learn to entertain themselves. They also reach a point where they would rather play with peers than with their parents. But for a small, golden time, you are your child’s best playmate. Enjoy it.