Toddlers: Learning by Playing

Encourage Activity

 It might look like just child's play, but toddlers are hard at work learning important physical skills as they gain muscle control, balance, and coordination. Each new skill lets them progress to the next one, building on a foundation that leads to more complicated physical tasks, such as jumping rope, kicking a ball on the run, or turning a cartwheel.

Toddlers always want to do more, which can motivate them to keep trying until they acquire a new skill, no matter what it takes.

Take advantage of your toddler's natural desire to keep moving. Even at this early age, kids establish patterns of activity that carry through the rest of childhood. So an active toddler is likely to remain active later.

Developing Skills

Playing and learning are completely natural for toddlers, so mastering physical skills should be fun and games for them. Parents should give toddlers many opportunities to practice their developing skills while providing supervision so they stay safe while they learn.

In addition to these physical accomplishments, toddlers are developing in other ways. Provide opportunities for yours to explore, ask questions, use his or her imagination, and practice fine motor skills, such as stacking blocks or coloring.

Here's a guide to the physical skills toddlers are working, by age:

Early Toddler Skills (12-24 months)

  • walks independently
  • pulls/carries toys while walking
  • stoops and gets back up
  • begins to run
  • kicks a ball
  • holds railing going up/down stairs
  • walks backward

Older Toddler Skills (24-36 months)

  • balances 1 to 2 seconds on one foot
  • climbs well
  • bends over easily without falling
  • runs well
  • kicks ball forward
  • both feet on step going up/down stairs
  • starts to pedal tricycle
  • throws ball over head

How Much Activity Is Enough?

For children 12-36 months old, current National Association for Sports and Physical Education (NASPE) guidelines recommend this much daily activity:

  • at least 30 minutes of structured physical activity (adult-led)
  • at least 60 minutes unstructured physical activity (free play)

As a general rule, toddlers shouldn't be inactive for more than 1 hour at a time, except for sleeping. That's a lot of work for parents and caregivers, but a lot of much-needed activity for toddlers.

Encourage your toddler to be active, and remember how much he or she is learning along the way.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: July 2011

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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