Active play for toddlers

Active play for toddlers

By the time your little one reaches their first birthday, they will have developed some hand-eye coordination skills and be better at moving around. Your toddler will also be able to communicate fairly well, and understand how one object relates to another. All these things open the door to the big, wide world of play.

When your toddler is engaging in some kind of physical activity it’s known as active play. Early on it might be as simple as moving towards a toy, but as they grow it can involve playing outdoors, skipping, chasing balls and games with other kids.

Active play during the first five years of life is incredibly important because it helps your little one develop physically, intellectually, emotionally, socially and also encourages creativity, imagination and problem solving skills. Active play can be in many forms including rough and tumble, imaginative (make believe), locomotive (moving in all directions) and decision making around risks and challenges.

Here are some simple ways you can support your toddler in active play:

Toys and puzzles – Provide your toddler with toys and puzzles that challenge them. The more they need to figure out how to make a toy work, the better. It’ll engage them for longer and stimulate their curiosity.

  • Adults can join in too – When it’s appropriate, jump in and join your toddler or think about initiating new games they might like. Fantasy worlds don’t always include grown-ups, so sometimes it’s a good to give your toddler room to play and avoid hovering or jumping in to correct them unless you’re asked to.
  • Be a cheerleader – Give your toddler plenty of opportunities to play. Encouraging them to practice new and existing skills, and cheering them on will build their self-confidence.
  • Accept invites – When your toddler invites you to be part of a game (they will sometimes) have fun with it.
  • Initiate – Try introducing a few fun games and stories of your own. You can encourage your toddler by asking what should happen next and letting them take the lead.
  • Bring along the props – Your toddler will need different things to play with. The best props are things like: dress up gear, cardboard boxes (for indoor playhouses), tool kits or doctor’s medical kits (toy versions of course!)
  • Use nature – Nature offers so many interesting environments for playing and learning. Try a range of different outdoor environments including grass, sand, water, snow, concrete, bark, or visit a local playground or park.
  • Playing safe – Make sure your toddler’s play environment is a safe one. Check for hazards, especially when your little one is outdoors. Always supervise water-play activities.

The New Zealand Active Play Guidelines for Under-Fives encourage children to sit less, move more and sleep well. These all go hand in hand to support healthy growth and development.  

Sit less means providing your toddler with regular activity breaks, limiting screen time and limiting time in equipment that restricts free movement.

Move more means providing your toddler with fun activities for at least 3 hours every day, spread throughout the day. This can include a variety of indoor and outdoor activities, especially activities involving nature, and activities with and without interactions with others.

Sleep well means ensuring your toddler gets plenty of sleep – 11-14 hours of good-quality sleep each day, including at least one daytime sleep, is recommended for toddlers one to two years of age.

You can find more information about physical activity and active play for under-fives here.



Ministry of Health. 2017.  Sit Less, Move More, Sleep Well: Active play guidelines for under-fives. Wellington: Ministry of Health.

The materials published on this website are of a general nature and have been provided for informational purposes only. Always consult your medical practitioner or a qualified health provider for any further advice in relation to the topics discussed.


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