Expert Q&A: Playtime from 12 months to toddlerhood

Chalk is a great playtime supply for a nice day outdoors.
Chalk is a great playtime supply for a nice day outdoors. Photo: Getty Images

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Dr Katie Heathershaw is a Melbourne-based paediatrician and the Fisher-Price paediatric specialist who has been providing expert care to infants and children with different health needs for over 23 years. Here, she answers questions mums and dads have asked about playing with their children from 12 months through to toddlerhood. 

1.  Are there any tips for finding the balance between playing with my son who is two, versus expecting him or setting him up to play by himself? He's has a variety of toys, but struggles to spend much time independently playing.

The toddler years are an important stage for your little one to become confident and more independent, but he still needs you close by. He may want to explore, but he will also need you nearby to check back in with. For most children, separation anxiety peaks at around 18 months, but if it still seems to be a concern then perhaps check with your health nurse or doctor.

At two your son may also be developing his imagination and fine motor skills, so it's a great idea to have a craft box of things to encourage creative play, such as crayons, coloured paper and ribbons, plastic cups and ice cream sticks. Two year olds also love to imitate the adults around them in their daily tasks – set him up next to you while you're preparing food or folding washing and get him his own broom to help sweep up. Your housework may take a bit longer but the time you spend in useful play with your little one will be worth it!

Another great tip is to divide his favourite toys into separate groups and pack some away so you can keep the novelty factor high and rotate regularly. Swapping toys with your mothers' group is also a great idea.

2. My 17-month-old twin girls' play consists in most part of climbing, zooming on their bikes and chasing each other around while pushing chairs and other furniture. They will sit quietly and listen to stories but five minutes is about their limit for that sort of activity. Should I do more play with them, or just let them explore and go a little wild?

It sounds like your twins are developing beautifully, and of course are lucky enough to have ready-made play mates in each other. Your story is a perfect example of unstructured play at its finest! In other words, children engaging in free play, at their own pace (in your girls' case, full speed ahead!) and according to their own interests.

It sounds like you may be a little concerned at their preference for active play over quieter, more focused activities like books, drawing, and puzzles. Firstly, I would not be too concerned about this at 17 months. Although some kids at this age may sit and concentrate on books, many have a rather short attention span! When choosing books, those with an interactive element like 'lift the flap' or 'press the button' for a noise may hold their attention a little longer. Remember to really amp up the dramatics with the funny voices and acting out the story too!

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3. I would love some ideas for activities to do with an 18-month-old, as I feel like I've exhausted my resources. I'd also like to know how I can encourage and help develop language skills through play. I'd just like to encourage her to use her words more, and introduce her to numbers and the alphabet.

Definitely jump onto the Fisher-Price Play IQ website for a range of activities and games to try out with your little one. Otherwise, here are a few simple ideas:

  • try taking it outside with activities like drawing in chalk on the footpath, which can teach fine motor skills, language skills and colours.
  • try messy water play with different sized containers, to teach about big and little, or even set up a pretend café to get her imagination going.
  • a range of different-sized cardboard boxes can encourage creative play with stacking activities doubling as a place to hide, a crawl through tunnel or a pretend car
  • blowup balls or balloons are a safe and easy way to introduce throwing and catching and encourage eye-hand coordination.

Her language will continue to develop; just keep talking to her, reading to her and listening, building on and responding to what she says. For example, if she says "car", you can say "Yes, it's a blue car. The blue car's going fast, brmm brmm". The Fisher-Price™ Laugh & Learn™ Puppy's Smart Train is a great toy for encouraging her to use words with songs, tunes and phrases and the five shape buttons introduce colours, numbers and more.

There are lovely children's books that introduce alphabet and numbers, just ask at your local library. More importantly, introduce them in normal situations – for example, counting the potatoes into the shopping bag, the pegs into the clothes basket, or "One, two, threeee!" when she goes down the slide.

4. My son is 13 months and loves play time. But no matter how much I try, he doesn't point at things. He stares at the relevant object, but not point. Should I be worried? Should I try something specific at playtime to encourage him?

This is a great question because it reminds us that when it comes to developmental milestones every child is different and will develop at their own pace. Some children may point out things of interest at this age, others may do so a little later. The Fisher-Price Play IQ™ Quiz is one good way to help you understand where your baby is at in their developmental journey and determine what advice and activities would be beneficial to best support your child, no matter what stage they are at.

The important part of your comment is that your son loves play time, and if he loves playing and shares his enjoyment with you by looking at you, smiling and vocalising, the pointing will come. But if you have real concerns about your child's development you should see your health nurse or doctor.

5. I have a nearly three-year-old boy and a one-year-old. My eldest will not share with his brother – in fact, he doesn't like share his toys with anyone. Any tips on how to get him to share?

This is a very common concern, and in your case, may in part be due to sibling rivalry. Just think about it from your three-year-old's point of view: he was king of the world and didn't have to share with anyone for two years until little brother comes along and got old enough to take an interest in his toys. It's not hard to understand with such a big change in his little world how he may want to take control of the few things he can!

A positive approach is what is needed. Encourage and praise sharing behaviour – perhaps consider a short term sticker chart to kick things off. Tell him you're looking out for big boy sharing behavior, and if you see it he'll be awarded a sticker on his 'Big Boy Chart'. A row of stickers will earn a 'lucky dip' prize.

Do remember that he's allowed to have certain 'special' things that he doesn't share with little brother and other friends. Discuss this with him and let him choose which toys are off limits – these can be put away out of reach until little one is having a nap, or the visitors have gone home.

For more activity and game ideas, visit the Fisher-Price website. The fun Play IQ quiz also helps you to assess your baby's level of development in physical, cognitive, and social and emotional areas, and suggests activities that are best suited to their development.