With their newfound ability to walk and constantly improving language skills, your 1-year-old is developing at a staggering rate. “Between 12 months and 2 years, kids are starting to do things on their own, seeing cause and effect, and actively engaging with others in their environment,” says Robert Myers, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist, founder of the Child Development Institute, and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine.
And while toddlers will do plenty of exploring on their own, caregivers getting involved is essential to a 1-year-old’s development. In fact, “parents stimulating them, interacting with them, teaching them things, and exposing them to age-appropriate challenges and experiences” encourages exploration and interaction, explains Dr. Myers.
But there’s no need to pull out a mountain of toys with all the bells and whistles; simple activities work just as well. “I can sit down with a child with one block and come up with 100 different activities because it’s all about being playful and interacting with them,” explains Roni Cohen Leiderman, Ph.D., dean of the Mailman Segal Center for Human Development at Nova Southeastern University and co-author of Let’s Play and Learn Together.
Not sure where to start? We rounded up several fun learning activities for 1-year-olds at home.
1. Make Music
Make music using percussion instruments like rattles, spoons, pots and pans, bells, cymbals, and drums. “Find fun tunes to play that have a rousing beat,” suggests Dr. Myers. “Play along with them as well as encourage them to play by themselves.”
Skills learned: Coordination, listening skills, and musical exploration
2. Play House
Create a fort from a cardboard box, play tunnel, or playhouse. Include an entrance and an exit, and encourage your child to go in and out. (You might need to show them at first.) Boost the entertainment factor with some pretend play, like knocking on the door or ringing the doorbell, and asking if anyone is home, Dr. Myers suggests.
Skills learned: Social skills, gross motor skills, and exploring their environment
3. Phone a Friend
Hand a phone to your child, and keep one for yourself. Pretend to make calls, and hold conversations with each other or imaginary people. Use funny voices, and create silly characters on the other line. Some play telephones also allow you to record your and your child’s voices and play them back, which can enhance the fun.
Skills learned: Language and social development
4. Use Water and Sand
Once your child reaches 18 months, fill a large tub with water or sand, and give them free (supervised) rein to dig, pour, scoop, and more. “When you’re playing with them, talk and sing along,” says Dr. Myers. “Encourage them to copy what you’re doing, and then try to copy what they’re doing.” (Of course, never leave your child unattended around water.) This fun activity for 1-year-olds is especially helpful for the development of fine motor skills.
Skills learned: Creative play, fine motor skills, tactile stimulation, and social development
5. Talk Through a Tube
Talk through a cardboard tube, and see how your child responds to the change in your normal speaking voice. Let them take a turn to see what sounds they can make. “Kids this age love to play with language, and this activity gives them an opportunity to practice new and novel sounds,” Dr. Leiderman says. “Language is really about imitating sounds. Babbling turns into real words, which turns into a sense of humor.”
Skills learned: Auditory discrimination and turn taking
6. Fetch Objects
Send your child on different “errands” around the house, asking them to get their shoes, bring you the ball, or find their cup. Besides practicing receptive language skills by following directions, this learning activity for 1-year-olds creates a sense of independence and accomplishment.
Skills learned: Understanding directions and memory skills
7. Walk on Contact Paper
Looking for sensory activities for 1-year-olds? Cut a piece of clear contact paper at least two feet long. Remove the backing and tape the contact paper, sticky side up, to the floor or carpeting. Then, let your child have fun running, jumping, dancing, or just standing on the paper while wiggling their toes on the sticky surface.
“This is a fresh approach to learning about bodies,” Dr. Leiderman explains. “Very often, we as parents think we have to have rules for games and do things in order. Sticky paper is just a fun free-for-all.” Parents can also put small toys on the sticky surface and let toddlers try to pick them up.
Skills learned: Sensory awareness, muscle strength, and body awareness
8. Change Their Reflection
Put a dot of red lipstick on your toddler’s face, and distract them for a few minutes before putting them in front of a mirror. If your child reacts to their image by touching their nose or trying to wipe off the mark, it indicates they realize there’s something out of the ordinary in their reflection.
“Very young children don’t have a sense of self, but at this age, it’s clear to them who they are when they look in the mirror,” Dr. Leiderman says. But don’t worry if they don’t react yet—they will soon!
Skills learned: Self-awareness and identity
9. Count Fingers and Toes
Toddlers love to count their fingers and toes, so show your little one how to touch each digit only once as you count out loud. Don’t fret if your kid counts out of order, Dr. Leiderman says. “Kids counting in order is not important,” she says. “Just like you’re giving them new words, numbers are part of life. Use them in context to count toes or objects, so they can eventually learn the concepts of numbers.”
For different variations of this learning activity for 1-year-olds, count the stairs as you go up and down, count while you’re waiting for the light to turn green, and count the bubbles floating in the air.
Skills learned: Basic number skills and one-on-one correspondence skills
10. Write on Crumbs
Spread rice cereal or crumbled crackers on a cookie sheet, and show your 1-year-old how to “write” in the crumbs with their fingers.
“This gives children the opportunity to imitate the adults and older siblings in their lives, which is a major meaningful activity of early childhood,” says Rachel Coley, occupational therapist, author of Simple Play: Easy Fun For Babies and founder of CanDo Kiddo.
Skills learned: Early handwriting skills and understanding cause and effect
11. Crawl Through Tunnels
Divide puzzle pieces or parts of a toy set into two piles, placing a pile at either end of a play tunnel so your child has to “commute” back and forth through the tunnel to complete their task.
Skills learned: Sustained attention, sensory processing, and learning how to complete multi-step sequences