Play is vital to children's learning and brain development. There are many ways to encourage open-ended play.

Up until the age of about 18 months, baby has been learning through their senses, exploring their world and repeating new skills. Toddlers are still busy learning about their world, however now they learn by doing and playing.

They are explorers, scientists, engineers and artists, all rolled into one. They test, challenge, examine, experiment and create.

Through play they develop and practise new skills. Play is the most important work children have to do.


  • promotes creativity
  • develops the imagination
  • helps build relationships
  • develops social skills
  • challenges the child to take risks
  • extends language
  • develops physical coordination
  • helps the understanding of patterns and matching
  • aids concentration
  • develops a child’s interest in how things work
  • develops enquiring minds
  • builds self-esteem
  • helps build empathy
  • helps develop abstract thinking and intelligence.

A parent is still the toddler’s most important play mate. Over time, other children will also become play mates. However, parents will remain very important as they model language and behaviour and participate in the vital role of being key attachment figures.

Children don’t need the latest toys

Many glamorous store bought toys are very limited in what they can offer the curious toddler. What they need are toys that can be used in a variety of ways.

Encourage whānau to use low-cost and no-cost household and found objects. Toddlers can make very good use of the peg basket, the pot cupboard, scarves, blankets, empty boxes, plastic cups and bowls, play dough, stones, shells, driftwood and other natural objects.

Good examples of appropriate bought toys are:

  • blocks
  • small plastic animals
  • buckets and spades for sand play
  • cups
  • sieves
  • funnels
  • hoses for water play.

Toddlers love to take things apart and put them back together. They fiddle around testing what else they can do with them. Page 22 of the 'Whakatipu booklet Te Kōhuri 1' suggests filling an old handbag with a variety of small toys and safe household items for pēpi to investigate. They enjoy things like nesting boxes, saucepans and lids, posting boxes and measuring cups. These things don’t necessarily look like regular toys and neither do they have just one purpose. That’s a pretty good recipe for toys. Just about anything can be a toy.

Ways whānau supporters can help

A balance of play materials helps to enhance the quality of children’s play, but remind whānau that the child does need a play mate, and loves it when the parent is the other player. Encourage the parent to feel important in their child’s play. Get down on the floor, enter into the play and talk with the child as they’re playing.

Parents and children can participate together in activities such as:

  • playing with objects
  • doing finger plays
  • singing songs
  • telling or reading stories
  • playing listening games
  • taking things apart and putting them together
  • sorting and matching
  • putting on gumboots and going for a walk in the rain.

Whatever they’re doing together builds their relationship and the toddler’s brain, which are both vital to the future health and happiness of the whānau.

Above all, encourage them to have fun.