THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO 1-YEAR OLD PLAY
Let the fun begin!
Life with a 1-year-old is full of adventure.
1-year-olds often seem insatiably curious and physically adventurous—you may even have a walker on your hands!
Now that your little one is mobile (did you check those safety gates?!), her play horizons are opening up in exciting ways. She’s already come a long way since the body-centered play of her infancy, and this year you are likely to catch your first glimpse of your baby engaging in pretend play and early social play.
For 1-year-olds, play isn’t all fun and games (even though it may seem that way!). It’s the way that she learns about the world around her.
Play is so important to development that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that pediatricians issue a prescription to play at well-child checkups during the first two years of life.
“More than just a chance to have fun, play is serious business when it comes to a child’s health and development,” the AAP reported. “From peek-a-boo to pat-a-cake and hide-and-seek to hopscotch, the many forms of play enrich a child’s brain, body, and life in important ways.”
These benefits have been traced to a variety of developmental areas. As the AAP explained in a 2018 report, “the benefits of play are extensive and well documented and include improvements in executive functioning, language, early math skills (numerosity and spatial concepts), social development, peer relations, physical development and health, and enhanced sense of agency.”
Not bad, eh?
As you’re thinking about your 1-year-old and play, we’ve got a few ideas to get you started.
Not-so-expert tip: Keep it simple.
You don’t need a gazillion toys.
There’s a lot you can do for free, using the objects you already have at home. Think pots and pans. Cardboard boxes. Spoons. A laundry hamper. To your little one, they can be an invitation to exploration (keeping any necessary safety precautions in mind, of course!).
Not-so-expert tip: Choose toys that facilitate different types of play.
When you are going to buy something for your little one, consider toys that give your child the chance to experiment with different types of play.
For your 1-year-old, the main play categories include object play [ANCHOR LINK], physical play [ANCHOR LINK], social play [ANCHOR LINK], and pretend play [ANCHOR LINK]. (For more info., you can also check out 1-Year-Olds & Books [LINK] and 1-Year-Olds & Media [LINK].)
Variety is the way to go. Helping your 1-year-old engage in different types of play “gives your child the chance to learn and practice skills,” according to Zero to Three, a non-profit dedicated to the well-being of babies and toddlers. “Different activities grow different parts of the brain.”
There’s often overlap between these categories. A pull toy, for example, may be both an object to explore and facilitate physical play. In our opinion, some of the best toys engage your child on more than one developmental front.
Not-so-expert tip: Follow your child’s lead.
The age guidelines manufacturers put on toys are helpful, especially when it comes to safety. But every kiddo develops differently. Even if a toy says it is for kids 12-18 months, your kiddo may be interested in playing with it outside that age range.
To some extent, you can follow your kiddo’s lead. Your 1-year-old often also knows best (within limits!) in terms of what types of play are right for her age and development. As the AAP explains, “provide her with a range of activities, and she’ll select the ones that are challenging but not completely beyond her abilities.”
If you have a toy that isn’t quite engaging your 1-year-old’s attention, try putting it away for a month or two. When you bring it back out, she may see it in a whole new—and intriguing—light.
It’s also possible that your 1-year-old will play with the same toy differently at different ages. While she may initially see her shape sorter as a chew toy, over time she will be more interested in it as a container to fill and dump out, and eventually become intrigued by the actual contours of the shapes.
Convinced but don’t need all the details right now? Click here for the Red Jellies cheat sheet: The Best Toys for 1-Year-Olds [ADD INTERNAL LINK]. We selected the most engaging, highest quality toys for 1-year-olds.
Need a killer gift ASAP? Check out The Best Birthday Gifts for 1-Year-Olds [ADD INTERNAL LINK]. We’ve tracked down the top toys for 1-year-olds between $10 and $30.
We’ve also put together a guide on Books & 1-Year-Olds [internal link]. Questions about media, electronics, and you’re little one? We’ve got your covered. Check out our write-up on Media / Electronics & Your 1-Year-Old [ADD LINK].
Otherwise, keep reading for more on the wonderful world of one-year-old play.
Types of 1-year-old play:
Object Play (anchor link)
Physical Play (anchor link)
Social Play (anchor link)
Pretend Play (anchor link)
Books & 1-Year-Olds [Separate page link]
Media / Electronics & Your 1-Year-Old [Separate page link]
The Wonderful World of 1-Year-Olds
Object play (also sometimes called exploratory or manipulative play) is a term used for “the active, playful manipulation of objects.” Your little one engages in object play, the American Academy of Pediatrics explains, when he “explores an object and learns about its properties.”
For 1-year-olds, this is where the action is. One is the , as Barbara P. Garner and Doris Bergen put it. As they explain, “toddlers act like scientists experimenting with what objects can do and learning what they can do with the objects.”
In other words, your little one wants to know how things work.
That turns out to be a beautiful thing. Object play is like the tasty vegetable of the play world—kids love it and it’s good for them.
Researchers have proposed that the cognitive benefits of object play include problem solving and creativity (for an excellent overview of object play cognitive benefits, check out this article from psychologist Rachel E. White). This type of play is also closely tied to motor skill development (more on that here [PHYSICAL PLAY ANCHOR LINK]).
Object play toys come in lots of varieties, including cause-and-effect toys, such as pop-up toys, books that have buttons to push, and musical instruments.
Building toys are also a great pick for object play. In a 2007 study of 1- and 2-year-olds, children from families who were sent sets of plastic interlocking blocks scored higher on a measure of language acquisition than children who were not provided the blocks.
Other likely favorites for 1-year-old object play include fill-and-dump toys, shape sorters (though it may be hard to believe, by the time your little one is two, he’ll be beginning to sort objects by shape and color!), nesting blocks or cups, ring stackers, buckets, peg puzzles, trains and cars, and toys for sand and water play.