A Few Secrets about Playing with Toddlers

by Alissa Marquess on February 21, 2012

How do you play with a toddler?

I have to tell you a secret about playing with my toddler- a few actually.

First off, even though she’s my third child sometimes it still feels awkward to sit and play with her.  I have a hard time letting go of the million busy items I need to do and just sitting.  My brain starts firing away with “Well what will I DO?”

I get bored.   Honestly though,  I think that’s perfectly natural, in fact I was just reading another article about unstructured play and that was one of her tips- it’s ok to get bored.

But here are my other secrets.  Here’s what I do!How to play with a toddler

1st secret to play: I know what toddlers like.  So if I’m sitting with my toddler and start to feel bored or unsure I might try:

  • Stacking something
  • Lining up objects
  • Repeating- an action or phrase, making it into a joke
  • Wearing something (anything) as a hat

2nd secret of play: I get curious.  I’m with my toddler at the park and maybe feeling a bit aimless, so I look at her, just look and think, “I wonder what she’s up to? I wonder what she’s trying to do?”

I might start copying her movements and talking about it like, “Oh I see you’re stomping in that snow!” ::stomp::stomp:: “Oh, it looks like you’re making a big flat patch here.” ::stomp::stomp::

By joining what she’s doing I give approval to her exploration of the world.

It’s not complicated. I’m not trying to teach her about the properties of snow.  (She’s learning that all on her own.)  I’m just describing what we’re doing, getting curious about what her aim is and seeing if I can join in.  She’s a toddler- her drive to learn about the world will take her where she needs to go.

All I need to do is follow her lead.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Carla February 21, 2012 at 1:26 pm

I have a post in my drafts titled, “I’m bored.” I’m so happy to know I’m not the only one! Thanks for these simple and thoughtful suggestions.


Angelique Felix February 21, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Great post Alissa!


Missa February 21, 2012 at 3:46 pm

I got so bored at the playground today, so I encouraged my 17mo daughter to walk through the nature-y part of our NYC park instead. She (and I!) had much more fun exploring trees, plants and twigs which climbing up and down hills much more than climbing on the jungle gym.


Krissy @ B.Inspired Mama February 21, 2012 at 5:45 pm

Thanks so much for your honesty! I feel so guilty when these feelings creep up. But your tips are so great! My Priscilla is 3 now, ans she constantly wants me to interact with her and her dolls and Barbies. It drives me nuts sometimes. So when I’m out of ideas, I just ask her and her dolls to put on a “show” for me. That way I can be a passive observer in her imaginative play. And I just give her applause or ask questions here and there.


Katey (Having Fun at Home) February 21, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Great post! I really agree with #2. Some of my best interactions with toddlers have begun when I start a sentence, “I wonder…”


The Iowa Farmer's Wife February 21, 2012 at 9:21 pm

Great post Alissa! it does get boring every now and then, and these are some great tips!


Mom to 2 Posh Lil Divas February 22, 2012 at 6:40 am

ah, yes! Toddlers live in their own world and it is hard to “visit” sometimes. I remember those days, vividly. Thankfully, I too would catch myself and say – ok, let’s spice this up! Let’s see what we can do. Toddlers are so curious, if we allow them to explore – there really is ton to watch as they “work”.


ToDoListMom February 22, 2012 at 10:24 am

Thanks for the post. Glad to know I’m not the only one thinking that I should be using this play time to “teach” him something..instead just go with it and PLAY


Allie February 22, 2012 at 11:40 pm

I just went to a parent ed class for my daughter’s co-op last night and we were talking about play ! I love seeing parents who are new to these ideas light up – thank you for this post.


Larissa May 23, 2012 at 7:31 pm

I have a different approach. To say “I got bored” by watching or sitting along with a toddler, makes me think that the adult does not see the importance of independent playing or playing. To us might be boring to watch a toddler play but really there is a lot of brain development going on here. And by us sitting next to a toddler playing without necessarily engaging, we are saying, “I enjoy what you are doing” “you are important to me, so I sit and watch because I want to spend time with you” I am a nanny and I usually just sit next to the child and observe, and only engage IF the child invites me to his game or to whatever he is doing, but as this article states, I limit myself to narrate what I see not necessarily making any action, I also do not suggest toys or games the child takes the lead when it comes to play.
Children when playing do not need our approval, if we praise too much, they will grow up always seeking the applause or approval, the inner motivation to do it or to be curious will be lost. Also NO teaching on how to play. “When we teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering by himself” JPiaget


Julie - Ladybug's Spots February 9, 2014 at 1:18 pm

So simple, perfect!
I love playing with toddlers


Tiffany February 10, 2014 at 5:11 pm

Larissa, I completely agree. We mostly follow the RIE philosophy (check out The book “Baby Knows Best” ) Just sitting and watching my toddler is fascinating. Letting my toddler have extended play time and not getting in the way of his play is what I do. I pretty much only engage if he invites me. Sometimes it’s quite dizzying watching parents constantly stimulating their children – not letting them make their own choices in play — this is also exhausting for the caregiver/parent. I find if I’m getting bored, I need to get to a different space/environment with my toddler.


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