We all want to help our children grow and flourish, and part of that means exposing them to educational experiences that’ll help boost their development. But did you know that the best ways toddlers learn is through play? Forget boring workbooks and flashcards—the best toddler learning games help little ones hone important skills all while having a blast. According to Sally Goldberg, PhD, a professor of early childhood education and author of Fun Baby Learning Games, “You can’t teach development; you foster it. That’s why interactive games and activities are so important. They are natural ways to be with young children that are fun and promote development at the same time.” Of course, coming up with awesome educational games for toddlers can feel a little daunting. Don’t worry—we’ve got you covered. Read on to learn what developmental skills toddlers and preschoolers are ready to master at various stages, as well as some fun toddler learning games to help them put those newfound abilities to use.
Learning Games for 1-Year-Olds
When baby’s first birthday rolls around, you’ll probably find yourself in disbelief. How did an entire year go by so quickly? But one look at baby and you can easily see they’re ready for more than just that colorful activity mat. “Age 1 is all about developing gross motor skills for crawling, walking, jumping, climbing and developing vocabulary to get their personal wants and needs met,” says Keriann Wilmot, a pediatric occupational therapist and toy expert, so experiment with activities that encourage coordination and language skills.
Here, we’ve rounded up three toddler learning games to help boost your one-year-old’s development. They may be simple, but they’ll provide tons of fun learning opportunities—over and over again. “While baby changed quickly before from month to month, progress now will take place over larger segments of time,” Goldberg says. “What you’ll probably like most about these activities is that you can play them repeatedly, and your toddler will learn and grow from each experience. You and your little one will be able to focus on new and different parts of the activity each time.”
One of the biggest achievements you may see in the months following baby’s first birthday is language. Little ones often say their first word around 12 months of age and will talk more clearly around 18 months. And they can understand way more words than they can say! “The ability to use a few words and understand many more open up wide avenues of participation for your child,” Goldberg says. “You’ll see them follow simple directions and begin to understand simple stories.”
Take advantage of this fun new skill by playing “go get” toddler learning games. There’s really no limit on how (or where!) you can play this fun learning game. To get started, place some familiar items around the room—like a cup, apple or toy—and then ask your toddler to bring them to you one by one: “Go get the cup!”. Be sure to show tons of excitement and say thank you (what better way to teach early manners?) when your child brings you the correct item.
Rolling a Ball
From baby holding their head up to cruising along your furniture, you’ve witnessed those gross motor skills blossom over the past year. “One-year-olds are learning how their bodies work and trying to make it do things,” says Barbara Harvey, executive director of Parents, Teachers and Advocates, Inc., which provides coaching for parents and early childhood educators. One of the best toddler learning games for one-year-olds is rolling a big ball back and forth, she says. “Using that same ball to do some kicking, moving and clapping are great for developing gross motor skills and eye-hand coordination.”
Peek a Boo
Peek a Boo is one of the most popular early learning games for babies and toddlers. You’ve probably been playing this with baby since nearly day one, but Peek a Boo is also a great game to play with your one-year-old. Usually by 8 months of age, babies start to understand the concept of object permanence—meaning just because they can’t see something doesn’t mean it ceases to exist. So when your face disappears behind your hands or a blanket and then suddenly reappears, it can initially be surprising, and then downright hysterical. By 12 months your child will fully grasp that you haven’t actually disappeared, but that doesn’t mean the game has to stop. Repetition will reinforce the concept. To keep your toddler on their toes, simply throw in a surprise element—like ducking behind a blanket and having a sibling or other parent reappear instead—or extend the game to objects. Hiding your little one’s pacifier under one of three identical cups to see if they can find it is a fun way to develop early critical thinking skills.
Learning Games for 2-Year-Olds
We’ve all heard of the dreaded terrible twos, but this age doesn’t have to be so terrible after all. Taking some time each day to play with your little one and engage in toddler learning games will help them feel more connected to you, which can help you both when those inevitable tantrums strike.
“At this stage your child is beginning to understand a lot more. They should also exhibit a major increase in attention span, and that will open up many more learning opportunities, lots of play possibilities and more time for reading,” Goldberg says. “You are your child’s first and most important teacher, so try to use this stage to begin the lifelong teaching process with your child.”
Need some ideas? Check out some of our favorite educational games for toddlers around 2 years old.
Toddler learning games can be a great opportunity to work on matching skills, which is key for school readiness. “Matching games are great fun now, and this version takes the game up a notch,” Goldberg says, as it encourages your child to use logical reasoning. To play this pairing game, simply gather a bunch of household items that go together, like socks and shoes, shirt and pants, a bottle of water and cup or plastic play knife and fork. Mix them up and challenge your little one to match the items with their partners.
By the time your toddler hits their second birthday, one of their favorite activities will likely be sorting. You’ll often see them do this unprompted, whether they’re pushing Cheerios into different piles or lining up dolls from biggest to smallest. Sorting is an excellent way for your toddler to flex their critical thinking skills. It means they’re able to recognize similarities and differences among items, and then classify and categorize based on characteristics, whether it’s size, shape, color, etc.—all of which are building blocks for learning math concepts.
There are a ton of different fun toddler learning games and activities you can play to encourage this practice. Your child can help you sort laundry and match socks, organize their stuffed animals by color or size (or any other criteria they think up) or have a blast playing with a shape sorter. We love this one from Melissa & Doug; it’s a dump truck that doubles as a shape sorter, allowing your toddler to dump the blocks once they’ve sorted them. And we all know how much 2-year-olds love to dump things out!
A lot of 2-year-olds develop a particular attachment to a favorite plaything (like a stuffed hippo) or type of toy (like trains). Whatever it is, cultivate their interest by reading children’s stories about that beloved item—and then talk to your child about what you’ve read. From there, you can teach them more fun facts about that topic, or even encourage pretend play (among the most powerful toddler learning games) based on the stories. Reading offers loads of benefits for toddlers: It’s critical for developing language and literacy skills, helps broaden your child’s general knowledge, boosts their concentration and cultivates their imagination.
Learning Games for 3-Year-Olds
Once your toddler turns 3, they’ll naturally turn their attention more and more to the world around them. You’ll see your child become more interested in interacting with peers. “At 3, many kids are off to their first preschool experience, where they learn about colors, how to follow classroom routines, sing songs with actions and begin to color,” Wilmot says. “Games at age 3 involve turn-taking games with matching, which might also include color recognition, pretend play and more gross motor activities. Sensory play at this age is also great.”
Below are some fun toddler learning games for 3-year-olds to encourage imaginary exploration, following game rules and color recognition.
“As children reach age 3 they’re learning about social interactions with others. They begin to fully recognize that other people exist and become curious about them,” Harvey says. “Pretend play is great at this age, whether that involves having a play tea party or dressing up like a knight or superhero. Toddlers also learn to cooperate in their play, so encourage games where kids work together.”
Toddler learning games that incorporate pretend play help boost creative thinking, problem-solving, language skills and even social and emotional intelligence. What’s more, the beautiful thing about pretend play is that it can happen anywhere, at any time, and doesn’t require props (although they can make the game all the more fun). Put together a dress-up box full of fun clothes, costumes and accessories, and let your little one come up with outrageous outfits and silly backstories. Sit down with your child and play together with their dolls or action figurines, weaving imaginary narratives. Have a play kitchen set up with plastic pots and pans and felt foods, and make believe you’re at a restaurant—toddlers love whipping up and serving home cooked meals. The possibilities here are endless!
What could be better than toddler learning games that teach them to follow directions? That’s just what you’ll get when you introduce your kiddo to Simon Says. This call-and-response game is a great way for your 3-year-old to work on their gross motor and listening skills and attention span, remembering rules and exercising self-control. In fact, a study found that preschoolers who play Simon Says-type games designed to boost self-regulation go on to have higher math and early literacy skills. It’s also the perfect opportunity for you and your little one to get silly and let loose!
Simon Says is best played with at least three people. Designate one person to be Simon, the leader. Standing in front of the others, Simon tells players what to do, like touch your nose or jump. But players should only obey the commands when Simon begins with “Simon says.” So for example, if the kids hear, “Simon says touch your nose,” they have to touch their nose. But if Simon simply says, “Touch your nose,” the players should stay still. If they do follow the directions without hearing “Simon says” first, they’re out of the game. Players are trying to stay in the game for as long as possible. Simon is trying to trick players into following commands when they shouldn’t.
Follow the Leader
As much as you want your 3-year-old to be able to follow directions, it’s also important to give your preschooler the chance to take control sometimes. Learning games for toddlers that let them take the reins helps foster autonomy and decision-making. “Your child spends an exorbitant amount of time doing what others tell them to do. This opportunity to be a leader is on the opposite end of the spectrum and will bring great pride and joy,” Goldberg says. “It’s great for your toddler to be the follower too, because it promotes both listening and following directions.”
To play, take turns being the leader, with the others lining up behind that person. The leader then leads the line around, and everyone else has to mimic their actions. Traditionally, the leader sings, “Follow the leader, the leader, the leader. Follow the leader, just like me.” To add an extra layer of fun, incorporate a color matching challenge, with the leader heading to a room and announcing, “I’m looking for something red.” Everyone takes turns finding red items. Then tap someone else to be the leader and begin the song again, heading to another room in search for a different color.
Learning Games for 4-Year-Olds
“During the preschool years, your child has an increased awareness of people and more interest in interacting with them. Whereas before their play was toy-oriented, it has now become game-centered and includes many different kinds of activities that involve other people,” Goldberg says. Consider setting up playdates for your little one or head to the local children’s museum that offers classes for young kids.
At this stage, learning games for preschoolers are also often designed to boost Kindergarten readiness, “helping kids learn the alphabet, how to write their name, count, use their words to communicate in sentences, explore playgrounds and continue to play along with peers,” Wilmot says.
Just don’t forget to build in some downtime. “As you plan your child’s daily schedule, keep in mind that a balance of both active and quiet forms of play will work best,” Goldberg says. Looking for some fun preschool learning games? Try some of these:
Learning games for toddlers and preschoolers that incorporate the ABCs are a great way to introduce a lifelong love of reading. Your 4-year-old may not be quite ready to write letters with a pencil, so why not fill a bin with sand and let them scribble away? You could use kinetic sand (which sticks to itself) or even Play-Doh to mold the letters. This game, which combines sensory play with early letter recognition, is one of our favorite preschool learning games.
Introductory board games are a great activity for preschoolers. By playing with peers, they practice taking turns, cooperating, winning or losing gracefully and even how to strategize. One of our favorite preschool learning games is Hi-Ho Cherry O, which teaches counting skills in a way your 4-year-old will love.
Here, players take turns putting fruit from their tree into their basket. There’s a spinner that tells you how much fruit to put in or take away, which prompts early addition and subtraction skills. What’s more, there’s a clear winner in this game—which means there are also losers. It may take a little while for your preschooler to accept that, but remember, you’re helping them develop important school-readiness and life skills.
“I Can” Games
With all the learning your 4-year-old is doing, it can be easy to let character development fall by the wayside. But don’t forget, emotional intelligence can be just as critical as academic smarts. “Ability and personality are two more factors that enter the picture at this age,” Goldberg says. “While numbers, words and drawing can be the focus of many activities, best is to be able to personalize how you play.” One of her recommended preschool learning games aims to foster your child’s budding sense of self—and with that self-esteem. “If a child is aware of what they can do, they’ll have a positive feeling about themselves,” Goldberg says. “If they feel positive about themselves, they’ll treat themselves kindly. If they treat themselves kindly, they’re likely in turn to treat others kindly.”
To play the “I Can” game, take turns saying—and showing—something you can do. For example, “I can jump five times” (and then jump five times), or “I can spell my name,” or “I can count to 10.” It not only lets your kiddo practice their newly learned skills, but it also reinforces their ability and gives them a sense of pride. After all, who doesn’t love being able to say, “Yep, I just nailed that!”
Published January 2018
Plus, more from The Bump: