Babies and Toddlers: Understanding The Learning That Occurs Through Play

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

In late infancy and early toddlerhood brain developmental occurs at exponential rates. During the period between 10-18 months the young child goes through huge developmental thresholds including first steps and first words. By the time the child is 24 months they are running, putting words together, using toys symbolically, feedings themselves, and more.

The toddler brain is primed to learn through play. Play motivates children to explore and experiment with their rapidly developing abilities leading to the further accumulation of new skills.

Understanding how play can support your toddler’s growth and developmental can support you in providing play opportunities that maximize learning possibilities. Below are six categories of play babies and toddlers engage in. This article describes the brain development that occurs in each category of play and gives examples of play opportunities parents can provide.

The six types of play for holistic development in babies and toddlers include:

  1. Reciprocal Social Play

  2. Language Play

  3. Cause and Effect Play

  4. Imaginative Play

  5. Motor Play

  6. Sensory Play

Reciprocal (back and forth) Social Play

Reciprocal play is the back-and-forth exchange of repetitive social interactions between babies and their caregivers (parents, siblings, and other familiar adults). Reciprocal play abilities begin in early infancy and increase in complexity as the child ages.

Examples of early reciprocal play includes games such as peek-a-boo, raspberry kisses, and waving “bye-bye.” Younger toddlers can engage in reciprocal games such as chase, games in which the child requests an adult to perform a silly action again and again, and games such as Simon says where the child is imitating physical movements of adults or vice versa.

Reciprocal social play develops social cognition. Social cognition is the child’s ability to understand and respond to the social cues of others.

Tips for increasing social cognition during reciprocal play include maintaining eye contact with the child, exaggerating facial expressions to emphasize emotional responses, and avoiding the presence of electronic distractions as adult cell phone use can confuse the child and become a barrier for their learning of social cues.

Language Play

Language play is playing that centers around spoken communication. Language play is closely related to reciprocal social play as language is often a key aspect of the back-and-forth social exchanges.

Examples of language play in late infancy include:

- back-and-forth nonsensical babbling with a caregiver

- making silly sounds with a caregiver

Examples of language play with toddlers include:


-rhyming songs with actions associated with them (such as Pat-A-Cake)

-interacting with books: listening to a short rhyming book, pointing to pictures in response to caregivers asking, “What is it?”

-making animal sounds

-repeating the same word over and over

-playing following direction games such as Simon Says

Language play develops both expressive and receptive language skills. Expressive language is the child’s ability to produce language while receptive language is the ability to understand language.

Tips Don’t explicitly ask your child to speak or repeat words. This can lead to frustration and result in resistance to speaking. Provide language models and allow time/space for your child’s natural tendency for speaking to emerge.

Cause and Effect Play

When children experiment with actions in order to produce a result(s) it is considered cause and effect play. Typically cause and effect play involves children manipulating objects or toys. Unlike social reciprocal play and language play, babies and toddlers can experience deep learning while engaging in cause and effect play independently.

Examples of cause and effect play in late infancy include:

-throwing food from their high chair to the floor

-pressing a button on a toy to make it light up

-knocking over a block tower

-using a spoon to bang on pots and pans

Examples of cause and effect play in young toddlers include

-stacking a block tower and knocking it over

-manipulating pop-up toys

-placing a toy car on a ramp and watching it’s decline

-dump and fill play (dumping toys from one container to another, dumping sand from a bucket to the ground and then refilling the bucket, ect.)

-completing simple peg board puzzles

Cause and effect play develops many skills such as problem solving, attention, memory, and spatial reasoning. Problem solving is the ability to persist in finding solutions during an unfamiliar situation. Attention is the ability to sustain engagement in an activity. Memory is the ability to apply acquired knowledge and previous learning to the current situation. Spatial reasoning is the ability to apply knowledge of physical realities (gravity, size relativity) in a given situation.

Tips Allow your child to experiment with new toys before you show them how they work. This gives them opportunities to engage with problem solving and creative thinking skills.

Imaginative Play

Imaginative play is when a child engages in imaginative thinking in order to create or expand upon a play schema. Imaginative play includes pretend play as well as creative expression.

Examples of imaginative play in late infancy

-dancing when they hear a familiar song

-wrapping a stuffed animal in a blanket and rocking it like a baby

-imitating the actions or sounds of household pet

Examples of imaginative play in young toddlers

-pretending to eat and drink with pretend food

-dressing up in a costume and engaging in play as that character

-pretending to be a familiar animal

-engaging in pretend play such as feeding, diapering, or dressing with a baby doll

-creating a play schema with toys such as animal figurines, vehicles, or action figures

-arranging furniture in a doll house

-painting, scribbling with crayons, using sidewalk chalk

Imaginative play is critical in developing symbolic thinking abilities. Symbolic thinking is the understanding that abstract symbols can be used to represent concrete meaning. For example, a toddler who uses a wooden block to represent a bottle when feeding their baby doll understands that the block is a symbol representing a bottle. Symbolic thinking is foundation for language learning as well as later literacy and mathematical success. In other words, a toddler pushing small cars around on a play mat of a town is priming their brain for the more complex symbolic thinking such as reading and geometry.

Motor Play

Motor play is physical play in which a child experiments with the ways in which their body can move. Motor play can include play in which the child is using large muscles (gross motor play) such as arms, legs, and torso and smaller muscles (fine motor play) such as fingers, wrists, tongue, and lips.

Examples of Gross Motor Play in late infancy:

-tummy time

-crawling, walking

-throwing a ball


-sliding down a slide


-pushing a toy stroller or grocery cart

Examples of Gross Motor Play in Toddlers

-climbing up a ladder on a playground

-running, jumping, twirling


-playing catch with an older child or adult

-digging in sand


-kicking a ball

Examples of Fine Motor Play in late infancy

-tearing paper

-giving high fives

-stacking blocks

-smacking lips to intentionally make a funny sound

Examples of Fine Motor Play with young toddlers

-blowing bubbles using a bubble want

-blowing bubbles through a straw

-stringing large beads

-manipulating a pop-up game

-putting shapes in a shape sorter

-using crayons to scribble

-turning the pages when looking at a book

Motor play almost always occurs in combination with other kinds of play. For example, giving high fives is not only motor play but also social reciprocal play. When babies/toddlers engage in large muscle movements during play they are developing gross motor skills and when they engage in small muscle movements in play, they are developing fine motor skills.

Sensory Play

Sensory play is play that engages the senses. This includes play focused on touch or tactile exploration (most common), bodily awareness, or visual, audio, olfactory stimuli (less common).

Examples of sensory play in late infancy-

-playing in the grass, leaf, dirt, or sand pile

-playing with bubbles in the bath

-playing with food

Examples of sensory play in young toddlers

-playing with shaving cream

-exploring a book that includes textures

-playing in the bath or at a water table

-playing in a sandbox

-finger painting

-holding an adult’s hand as they walk on a balance beam or curbside

-jumping in puddles

-dancing while holding hands with another child or adult

-riding a tricycle

Sensory play is important because it leads to the development of sensory skills. Sensory skills are the ability to receive and use information gained by the senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, vestibular and proprioception). Sensory play can also a regulating (calming) effect on the baby/toddler body. In a regulated state, the brain can focus on attention, memory, language learning, and other skill building. This means that while engaged in sensory play, your child may be better able to learn and retain information such as colors, shapes, and counting than if these skills were taught in isolation.

Some of the other benefits of play for babies and toddlers include:

Social connection

Play fosters social connection and belonging. Through play, toddlers begin to understand their role as a participant in their families and communities.

Confidence and self-esteem

Play provides opportunities for children to master skills. Toddlers experience a sense of accomplishment through many play activities such as when they stack tall block towers, climb the playground ladder for the first time, complete a finger-painting project and more. This sense of accomplishment builds self-esteem and confidence.

Emotional Regulation

In order to engage in play, children must be in a regulatory state. Toddlers, motivated by play, learn to verbalize what they need/want and learn to regulate through adverse emotional experiences in order to get back to playing.

Risk analysis

Play helps children understand the nature of physical reality as well as the capabilities and limitations of their bodies. Through play, toddlers learn to analyze risks to their physical safety and how to respond to those risks appropriately.

Holistic Play and 3 Play Ideas to Engage in with Your Baby/Toddler

Play activities that fall into more than one play category at a time can be considered holistic play. When parents are conscious in providing holistic play opportunities, they can embed opportunities to learn many different skills at once. Below are three examples of holistic play opportunities.

  1. Making Mud Pies

Let your toddler explore the texture of wet mud (sensory development)

Invite your toddler to scoop mud in a pan (spatial reasoning)

Let your toddler add small objects such as rocks and flower buds to their mud pie (fine motor skills)

  1. Song Circles

Find a time when you can focus your full attention on music play with your toddler. You may want to invite other toddler/parent friends to join you (reciprocal social play)

Sing familiar songs (language learning) and incorporate body movements (motor skills)

Gather props for your toddler to explore related to the songs. For example, a toy bumblebee when singing the song I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee. (Imaginative Play)

Let your child explore sound by providing props (example: pots and spoons) that can be combined to make noises or toy instruments (problem solving, sensory skills)

Invite your child to dance along with the music (physical play)

  1. Water Play

Fill water in a sensory table or large container for your child to play with (sensory skills)

Provide containers of various sizes for your child to experiment pouring with (fine motor skill, spatial reasoning, problem solving)

Include small toy figurines such as animals or boats for your child to explore (symbolic thinking)

Label the names of the toy objects you provided for your child (language learning)

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