Toddlers and imaginative play

By Heather Welford. Play is essential for your toddler, and a crucial part of their learning

child blowing bubbles


Toddlers need plenty of opportunity for active, imaginative play.

Your toddler won't play with other children until after the age of about two and a half (or even three) - although they may enjoy playing alongside other children ('parallel play').

Organised games are not very interesting to a young child. Instead, unstructured, self-directed play is the primary way your toddler learns, and you can take something of a back seat while it happens. Just be close by to socialise, and to react when needed.

You can gently extend the play by (for example) offering more bricks to build a tower, giving them something new to arouse their interest or by making comments from time to time to encourage your child's use of language.

Use your TV, computer, story books and toys as helpful starting points to give you ideas - you can watch for the ways your toddler may pretend to be a character, or act out something they have seen in a story or TV show.

How CBeebies can help

Browse the CBeebies website for some simple, short, toddler-friendly stories. Click through to the Story Time section or have a look at some programme clips in the Watch & Listen section. Watching them will stimulate their imagination and encourage pretend play.

Stories read on CBeebies can encourage pretend play. Telly Tales, for example, features children acting out some well-known and lesser-known fairy tales, legends and myths from around the world. You could have a go at acting out one of the clips together.

Alternatively, you could just go to the web pages of your child's favourite programme (e.g. Charlie and Lola) and watch some stories or clips. Afterwards follow it up with some role play, with each of you being one of the characters from the show.

How to make a magic moment

When toddlers enjoy unstructured play, you can play your part by observing and following your child's lead.

So, when your toddler pretends to drink from a cup (or whatever she is pretending is a cup) and then hands you one, pretend to drink out of it and say 'thank you' and 'how delicious' and 'ooh, it's a bit hot!'

Your toddler may pretend to talk on the phone, holding it to her ear and jabbering away ... you can ask her 'is daddy/grandma on the phone? Say hello for me!'

When your toddler puts teddy to bed on the sofa, say 'Shh! Let's be quiet 'cos teddy's asleep' - she may then make teddy jump up, and you can say 'ooh, teddy's awake again now!'

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Top tips

  • Don't expect a long attention span from your toddler. Specific play may only last seconds, rather than minutes. On the other hand, something that absorbs and stimulates them may hold their interest for a long time.Sometimes, you really can leave your toddler to play by themselves (as long as you are close by). There will be moments when they have the richest experiences without your involvement. Wait to be 'invited' to play at these times.Older toddlers love acting out scenes from stories or TV shows they have seen. Support this sort of play by collecting dressing-up props and clothing - save old hats, bags, fabric and cheap jewellery.

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